Sermon - 6th May 2018
Could we start again, please?
Next Sunday, we mark Jesus’ ascension: that amazing moment, when for the first time, a human being entered heaven. Last week, we looked at the very personal encounter one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, had with the Risen Christ and overcoming his doubt that Jesus was indeed risen!
Today, as we heard in our reading, all the disciples met with the Risen Christ, but it is Peter who is at the centre of the narrative. Like the meeting between Jesus and Thomas, this encounter between Jesus and Peter is powerful emotionally and has much to say to us today.
The meeting between Jesus and Thomas (John 20) takes place in Jerusalem one week after the Easter events. The Gospel is silent as to when the events in today’s reading took place, but it seems likely the disciples have returned to their home towns and villages around the Sea of Galilee.
Why did they return to Galilee? Had they given up and returned to their former way of life as fishermen?
We can divide today’s reading into three parts: firstly, the human, every-day story of fishermen going fishing and catching nothing; secondly, the Divine breaking into their lives resulting in the miraculously large catch of fish; and thirdly, the conversation with Jesus which changes Peter forever.
When we look back through the four Gospels, from the out-set, Peter is always the one at the forefront, the most eager; he is the one who declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour, the Son of God. Before Easter, when we read of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, Peter is the one who is first to say that he is prepared to die for Jesus; however, when asked by a lowly servant girl if he is a follower of Jesus, he denies it vehemently, three times. When Jesus’ prophetic words of Peter’s denial come true, Peter breaks down.
It is part of our human experience that relationships break down: in our families, in our friendships, in our workplace and in our romantic relationships.
Sometimes, those relationship breakdowns are brief and easily mended. Maybe we can see Thomas’ encounter with Jesus like this. All that was needed was simple visual confirmation and all was good again.
Sometimes, those relationship breakdowns are beyond repair. The Gospels tell us of such a permanent relationship breakdown. Judas betrayed Jesus. Even the blood money Judas received could not ease his conscience, and Judas took his own life. Jesus’ recorded words are harsh ones (Matthew 26:24): “It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
The situation in Peter and Jesus’ relationship falls somewhere in between. But Jesus had 12 disciples! The Gospels tell us the only one who was faithful and stayed close to Jesus was John; we know what happened to Judas and Peter, but what of the other nine? The Gospels tell us that they ran away at Jesus’ arrest, but some of them must have stayed around, because they are here in today’s reading.
It mentions 7 disciples, two of whom were Peter and John, so the other five, how were they feeling having run away? And if you do the sums, there are still 4 of the 12 unaccounted for. Where were they?
As we know from our own experience and reflecting on the relationships the disciples had with Jesus, we can see that sometimes it is straightforward to fix a relationship when it goes wrong; other times, it is obvious and proper that the break is a complete and permanent one; but often, it requires time and effort, but most importantly the ability to listen and listen properly.
Today’s reading begins with the everyday and the commonplace. Peter is doing what he has done thousands of times before: he goes fishing; and most likely, it has been his frequent experience to have caught nothing.
It has also probably been Peter’s experience as a fisherman that other fishermen may have offered the benefit of their success, just as he may have offered similar advice to other fishermen. They hear such advice being shouted from the shore: “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish].”
They act on the advice and suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, something amazing happens: their nets are full to bursting! And it is at this moment that the Divine breaks into the everyday. The disciples’ eyes are opened and they recognise the Fishing Expert on the shore to be none other than Jesus Himself!
We have all had the experience at some point in our lives of seeing again someone we have not seen in a long time… it is exciting, the heart races, looking through the crowds, trying to spot them, trying not to miss them. Peter’s eagerness which the Gospels document many times is there once again, as he jumps into the take and swims to shore. He simply cannot wait to reach Jesus.
At this moment, the broken relationship which Peter is carrying in his heart, the three-fold denial which caused him to weep bitter tears, is momentarily swept aside; his love for Jesus, his teacher, Lord and Master, fills his heart and soul, as he dives into the lake and swims to shore.
The disciples and Jesus share breakfast on the shore. Other than Jesus’ invitation to eat - he offers them bread, then fish – there is no recorded dialogue. Apart from John, the other 6 (of the 7 present) had abandoned Jesus. Maybe they did not speak out of shame of their desertion.
Then comes the dialogue. Jesus’ questions seem straightforward, basically asking “Do you love me?” In previous sermons, you may have heard me mention that Greek has several words for love. And this is crucial in our understanding of this passage.
In Jesus’ first question, Jesus uses “agapas”, the word for sacrificial, unconditional love.
Peter’s reply, however, uses “filo”, the word for friendship love.
Jesus’ reply to Peter is to “feed my lambs”, seen as Jesus’ commission of Peter to be the teacher of church. It is a responsibility of a shepherd to lead the sheep to pasture where there is good food. Lambs require particular care!
Jesus’ second question repeats the use of “agapas”, the sacrificial, unconditional love.
Peter’s reply, again, uses “filo”, the word for friendship love.
Jesus reply to Peter is to “tend my sheep”, seen as Jesus’ commission of Peter to the protector of the church. Another key role for a shepherd is to protect the sheep.
Jesus’ third question uses a different word for love, echoing Peter’s two replies – He uses “phileis”, friendship love.
Peter is consistent, and his third reply also uses “filo”; and Jesus’ reply is for Peter to “feed my sheep”.
There is a language game of sorts going on here. Peter seems reluctant to use the word that speaks of the unconditional, sacrificial love.
Many Bible commentators reflect that as Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus is offering Peter a three-fold opportunity to confirm his love, a chance to take back each of the denials with an affirmation of love.
After all that is said, Jesus’ final words to Peter are the same that he used when he first met Peter: “Follow me.”
So, what does this passage have to say to us?
If we look at our relationships with others, maybe the passage challenges us to take action to resolve those points of pain, conflict or tension. We can never go back in time to the way things were, but we can go forward. Just like with Jesus and Peter, they went forward.
If we look at our relationship with God, maybe the passage challenges us. We continue in our daily lives, but we refuse to let the Divine break in. The disciples in today’s reading stopped and listened. They made space to listen. What they heard was simple, to cast their net on the other side of the boat, but that allowed the Divine to break into their lives, and that led to a conversation with Jesus Himself which changed them forever.
To finish the sermon, we are going to use a piece of music from Lloyd Webber musical “Jesus Christ, Superstar”, entitled “Could we start again, please?” This is from the filmed 2000 theatre production. Following the video, we will have a time of silence to allow the conversation with God that may begin to change our lives forever, as it did for Peter.
If God were to say, “Follow me!”, do we dare to respond?