Sermon: Sunday 10 April 2016
Third Sunday of Easter
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Canon Pastor and Sub-Dean
Between times. We all have them – after university, between jobs, beginning of retirement, after a major illness or loss, breakup, when the kids leave home, when life is waiting to be reordered… There’s a sense of knowing that you need to be doing something and a future will happen – but what future? The world’s not the same: you may well cling to routines or retreat to the familiar. Clean the house. Have an orgy of baking. Run your legs off. Go fishing.
Which is exactly what these disciples did. Not just on impulse: they upped sticks, left Jerusalem to go right back to their home territory. A real retreat back into the comfort zone. I wonder what was in their minds as they left Jerusalem – so what? He’s re-appeared but there’s no plan, no action… It’s all rather nebulous. Already the group has split up – there’s only seven disciples in today’s story, including cautious Thomas and sceptical Nathaniel. They’re probably still in shock – minds every which way – but deep down, subconsciously even, they’re processing things. Today’s is a very evocative story: easy to picture, smell even – the fish, the fire, the wind, the birds, the half-light, the sounds of the boat and waves… The last thing these disciples expect or possibly even want is for Jesus to pop up. But he does. So what’s the story here?
Well, clearly a huge part of the Gospel writer’s intention is the Peter narrative. While I want to return to that later, I’d like to lay it aside for the moment, to discover other resonances in the story. We should realise that all the collected stories of Jesus, particularly the resurrection appearances, are pregnant with theological meaning, written as they were during the emergence of recognisable Christian communities and therefore crucial to these communities’ understanding of their faith. The stories are never just narratives. Rather, they enable us to probe the shape of Christian thinking, and also to use them as mirrors against which to examine our own experience.
These disciples were fishing but catching nothing. As with another Gospel story about fishing, they were looking in the wrong place. Missing the signs. Until directed to look elsewhere and then wow – what a catch! Fish in abundance – more than they expected or needed. The turning point in the story is that discovery of the fish. ‘It is the Lord.’ Fish they were expecting: Jesus they were not expecting. In looking for fish they found Christ, having hitherto not recognised him. Some consider this story to be a later postlude of John’s Gospel (although it does recall and tie up a number of key themes) – whatever, it is the last Resurrection appearance for the Gospel writer. There is no need of more. The waiting time has now shifted: to use the story’s metaphor – it is no longer night or even still dawn. A future awaits them, which they have to grasp and which will only come into being if Jesus withdraws (or goes on ahead). ’Follow me.’ I’d love to know what they did after breakfast!
We might think the juxtaposition of this resurrection experience with Saul’s encounter on the Damascus Road to be out of sequence or just a neat liturgical construct; but it certainly reminds us of a continuum of encounter emphasised by Paul himself in his writing to the people of Corinth, and one which we should take seriously in our own lives. The disciples strained their eyes to recognise Jesus: Paul was blinded. Two sides of the same coin. If the risen Christ stood or stands among us today shall we recognise him? For Paul it was a eureka moment, and the imperative was clear. But even he had his waiting time and, like Peter, came to recognise that faith in Christ is a lifelong journey.
It must have been uneasy around that fire, eying one another and not really knowing what to say. It’s Jesus who breaks the silence, initiating the all-important conversation. More than the neat threefold conceit paralleling affirmation with denial (also around a fire). More than confirming Peter in a leadership role, the exchange of words also demonstrates strength in weakness and the inclusivity of the kingdom. And, while this is clearly empowering, it is not a story just for Christian leaders. Jesus is quite explicit with Peter but by implication all of them. And ‘Feed my lambs’ is not a spectacular request: sheep tending (literal and metaphorical) comprises an attentiveness to those around us, valuing them, loving them and supporting their needs. Something continually to be worked at.
Let’s now fast forward to today. To our familiar lives somewhere along the same trajectory. Are you in waiting time, chugging routinely along but wondering what the future may hold? Perhaps in limbo waiting for your heart and mind to catch up with one another? Maybe carrying guilt and self-doubt, can’t face yourself, let alone God? Is nothing happening, things aren’t working out, you feel like a square peg in a round hole, you’re fishing in the wrong place? Perhaps reluctantly tracing a path you really don’t want to travel? Have you travelled with Christ but can’t see where that’s taking you? Perhaps… perhaps…
The anonymity of the night fire in the courtyard, or the stark reality of daylight on the beach and, in the waiting time between the two, a loss of control, a recognition there is no getting away from things, that the future is unknowable… It’s a long night, embracing what you don’t want to face, stepping out of your comfort zone, recognising your vulnerability…but the promise of daybreak on the beach, new beginnings, the fire of resurrection!
And then what about us as community? We are linked, even those who feel fringe, by gathering here to break bread with Christ. And all are welcome around his fire. How does our group experience connect with the story? A phrase often used hereabouts is ‘the new normal’. As a community we’ve, in the last three years or so, been through a transforming experience. Inconspicuous, modest, close, routine, warm, cosy even… choose your own adjectives to describe the Cathedral pre-Richard – a roller coaster has now catapulted us into a different world sometimes right out of our comfort zone from which there is no going back. We could be forgiven for quietly attending to our fishing; but we know that is not what Christ is asking. In the haze of dawn do we recognise him in our midst? Are we hearing him telling us where to fish? When he tells us to feed his sheep what does he mean? If it feels like we’ve caught nothing, are we prepared to get back into the boat and try again? And, crucially, are we, like Peter, being taken where we might not wish to go, yet bidden to follow him along that path? I wonder what we could do, might do, shall do after we have fed on the bread he has broken for us?
© The Revd Canon Alison Adams