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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist - 10 April 2016

Sunday 10th April 2016
Cathedral Eucharist
Acts 9: 1-6
John 21: 1-19
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Alleluia. Christ is risen.

+ In nomine Patris…

Threefold challenges, questions and answers come up in the gospels more than once.

Three times in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus challenges the disciples to stay awake, to watch and pray. Later on Maundy Thursday, in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, Peter was asked three times by the servant girl if he knew Jesus (Matthew 26.69-75; Mark 14.66-72; Luke 22.54-62; John 18.25-27). In answering her Peter emphatically said ‘no’ and denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. In today’s gospel we heard Peter asked three times if he loves Jesus, to which he emphatically said ‘yes’.

Some have suggested that this represents a chance for the rehabilitation for Peter; in which his threefold confession cancels out his threefold denial. That is certainly an attractive way of interpreting Jesus’ insistent questioning. It also echoes true, given that it was whilst warming himself by a charcoal fire that Peter so coldly denied Jesus. Now by the Sea of Galilee, warm through the physical labours of fishing, Peter stands by another charcoal fire where Jesus is ready to feed him and puts those three questions of love to him preparing him to pastor the Church.

And here’s another ‘three’: St John notes that ‘this was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead’ (John 21.14). In this resurrection appearance Jesus will feed his disciples and will commission them all to the task of attractive mission, gathering people to Christ, as fish drawn in by the fisherman; and to Peter, in particular, a call to pastoral leadership in the community that gathers around the Crucified and Risen Lord, the Church; a leadership exercised through feeding and nurturing the flock for whom Christ himself is the Good and True Shepherd.

This is a gospel of feeding and leading, and therefore one in which we might reflect on how Christ feeds and nourishes us, and how we find our place within the Body of Christ, the Church, and pray for those who lead us. This gospel invites us, like the Beloved Disciple, to recognise the presence of Christ in our midst, and out in the places where we spend our time – at work, at school, amongst friends, with family – and to declare, on seeing his risen presence, ‘It is the Lord’ (John 21.7). This is recognition through Easter eyes.

The disciples saw and eventually recognised him; but he had seen them first. It was at daybreak, the dawning of a new day, that Jesus comes to those seven of his disciples - seven being the significant number of completion and creation, a ‘shalom’ number of God’s wholeness and peace. We are told the names of five of them. That itself is significant because two disciples are unnamed. We know nothing about them. That gives us permission to insert our own name, and that of someone else: another companion in the faith, a godchild or godparent.

So there we are in that scene. He comes to feed and commission. But first there is a dramatic intervention.  Peter, James and John may have been career fishermen – they literally know the ropes - but even their expertise had not yielded a single fish on that fishing trip. ‘Try the other side’ Jesus says, as he says to us, in St Paul’s words, ‘And I will show you a still more excellent way’ (cf 1 Corinthians 13.31). It was his word and redirection that blessed their endeavours and made them fruitful.

In our daily lives Jesus Christ can guide and redirect us into the ways of life. We need to learn new ways and places of life in Christ, not just hang on to the same tired old assumptions: ‘cast your nets on the other side’.

This is relevant for the church and individuals today. Strategies for growth from the church have to be preceded by the equipping and directing of disciples for that task. Otherwise we, the church, will just be another group trying to haul in recruits and not quite knowing why, and then wondering why we are not getting them. Likewise the gospel tells us that first we must each listen attentively to Christ, discerning his way, and seeing that mission is first by attraction and never compulsion. Hence the threefold, insistent questioning: Peter, do you love me? Are you willing to do this for me? Rehabilitated or not by these questions, Peter’s humanity shines through all the same, even having the nerve to feel hurt when Jesus asks him the third time, ‘do you love me?’ It’s rather as if the bitter tears Peter shed after his three denials have been forgotten; how quickly any of us can seek out offence, when we ourselves are guilty. Who’s this really about? Is this only about yourself? Or, is it about you relationship with Christ?

So Jesus fed those seven disciples by the seashore, as he had fed the twelve in the upper room, and five thousand on the hillside. Faith tells us these are not remote, past acts. He fed them, and he now feeds us in bread and wine and in his word.

It was another set of threefold questions, in the wilderness, that help us to understand how Christ feeds. In one of those three temptations Jesus is asked to turn stones into bread to show that he is Son of God. Jesus responds by quoting from scripture, saying that, ‘one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4.4; Luke 4.4).

That is consistent with his teaching to us in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘give us this day our daily bread’, where we ask the Father to feed us. That petition faces two ways: it directs us to bread, to the source of our material needs for bodily sustenance, but also to God, the One who sustains and nourishes in ways beyond bread alone.

So what does the Crucified and Risen Lord ask of you and me today? First, loving him insistently and doggedly, he will feed, lead and bless his church, its priests, pastors and people: ‘do you love me, do you love me, do you love me: then feed my sheep and I will lead you to places you cannot begin to imagine now’ (cf John 21.15-19). Second, he asks us not to assume our own expertise, but trust that Christ guides and directs all our skills and instincts for the good: ‘cast your nets on the other side’ (John 21.6). Finally, he asks us to recognise him in places and people where we don’t expect to see him: ‘it is the Lord’ (John 21.7).