18 April 2010

Feeding the Sheep:

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter C

In this Easter season, we celebrate an incredible transition from sorrow to joy, from death to life. As the Psalmist writes, 'weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning'. In this morning's gospel we read two episodes from the epilogue to John's Gospel about an encounter with the risen Christ at the sea of Galilee. They testify to this transition from death to life in more ways than one, because they focus on the transformation of the disciples' lives as much (or more) as on the fact of the resurrection.

Let's look at the gospel reading. A group of disciples are by the Sea of Galilee (remember that in Matthew, the risen Jesus sends word to the apostles to meet him there). Peter, James and John are there, the core leadership of the Twelve (now Eleven), joined by Thomas, Nathanael, and two others -- possibly Andrew and Philip, who are often paired with Peter and Nathanael in John. At Peter's suggestion they go out in the boat for some night fishing. The fishing was supposed to be good at night on the Sea of Galilee and of course a night catch could be sold at a local market fresh in the morning. Peter and the sons of Zebedee at least, if not others of the group, had been fishermen before their call on that very lake; they knew its ways, the good and bad times to fish, and doubtless they knew the local markets all along the coastline.

I'm sure they felt at loose ends, waiting for something but not knowing what it was. Perhaps the initial sense of energy and empowerment that came from their earlier encounters with the risen Lord in Jerusalem was starting to fade a bit in the face of worries about their future. The authorities were undoubtedly no less hostile now than they had been before Jesus's arrest and it was not going to help the situation to proclaim his resurrection. Making some money from a few night's fishing must have seemed like a good way to pass the time while they waited and provide for the future.

Unfortunately they didn't catch anything. Greek has a way of asking a question that assumes the answer is going to be 'no' and that is how Jesus phrases the question he asks from the shore -- could he tell from their demeanour that they had had a discouraging night? They don't recognise him or his voice at this point, although the conditions seem more than enough to explain that -- it was just after day break, so the light was still dim, and they were about 100 meters off shore. But at his suggestion they put down their nets again on the right-hand (or lucky) side of the boat. But when the net comes up so full they cannot haul it in to the boat, the beloved disciple recognises Jesus -- 'It's the Lord', he cries.

When they are all ashore (as usual, Peter's enthusiasm send him swimming ahead instead of coming in with the boat like the others), they found that Jesus had begun to prepare a meal for them of bread and fish grilled over a charcoal fire. This natural, kindly gesture of friendship and consideration speaks volumes about Jesus and the nature of his Lordship, more even than the acted-out parable of the footwashing. Yes, it is the Lord waiting on the shore, but it is a Lord who builds a fire, cooks fish and warms bread, and calls on Peter to bring more fish to ensure there is enough for a boat full of men who have been working hard all night. This is a Lord who serves and expects others to do the same.

But was this what they were waiting for, what they came to Galilee for? Likely not, although this action of service and communion would surely have strengthened them in every way. They are there, however, for more than this -- all of them, including Jesus, are to be part of Peter's transformation, a transition from a man who feels deeply, acts impetuously, but is ultimately unreliable, to one who truly is a rock that can act as the foundation for the new Messianic community. Every community needs to have a leader but Peter seems to have disqualified himself for the job, despite having the courage to return to the others and own up to what he had done all alone in the high priest's compound that night.

I suspect that Peter was not eager for the one-on-one conversation with Jesus that followed this meal. The last time he had seen Jesus before his death was the night of the arrest, the night of his three-fold denial, and the memory of those events can't have been easy even in light of the resurrection. But now Jesus's attention turns to Peter, and he addresses him formally, by his full name, Simon, son of John, and not by the nickname he had once given him as he asks, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' Before that terrible night Peter would have been all over that question -- 'oh, yes indeed, Lord', we can hear the impetuous Peter cry, 'I love you more than all the others put together!'

But the post-arrest, post-Resurrection Peter is a bit more subdued. Instead of the near-bluster we expect, Peter's answer has the simplicity of absolute sincerity - 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.' The formal address and the question come again, and Peter gives the same answer. When they come the third time, the evangelist tells us that Peter felt hurt. That seems very natural -- it does hurt to be in Peter's situation, to know that our assurances aren't immediately accepted by someone we love, because we've acted in some way that undermined their trust in us. When you love someone it hurts worst of all to know that you're the one to hurt them. Peter repudiated Jesus and he ran away, like most of the others, and it was the more painful both because he did it after protesting his faithfulness and because Jesus knew it was going to happen.

So naturally Peter was hurt when that formal address and that question came the third time -- but again he did not react like the old Peter. He does not fly off the handle in reaction to his hurt -- instead he continues in the same utter sincerity as before: 'Lord you know everything: you know that I love you.' To each affirmation of Peter's love (three affirmations, one for each earlier word of betrayal), Jesus replies with the same commission -- Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Now Peter, and by implication the others whom he leads, are to become shepherds, caring for the sheep that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, entrusts to him. Now Peter is called to the same life of service and leadership that Jesus had modelled to him and to all his disciples, the same life of service that was just enacted at the Last Supper and at the breakfast on the shore. No explicit words of forgiveness are spoken, but what could have been more indicative of reconciliation than this trust, this commission of service and of love? And Peter is transformed -- we who know the rest of the story see his transformation in the book of Acts and it is implicit here in Jesus's prophecy of Peter's death, which will glorify God, the same words Jesus had used to describe his own death.

A similar transformation meets us in Paul, whose encounter with the risen Christ comes in the story from Acts that we heard this morning in place of an Old Testament lesson. We know a lot about Paul's conversion -- it's described for us both in his own words in one of his letters and in the Acts account. In keeping with the Easter focus, today's reading breaks off before describing Paul's reaction to the encounter and his beginning to proclaim Jesus. But we see the transforming power of the risen Jesus in his words to Paul and Paul's replies. We are in no doubt that Paul will indeed rise and enter the city and that he will do what he should do. The question that he asks, 'Who are you, Lord?' shows a transformation already begun.

The story from the gospel about the disciples' encounter with Jesus on the shore ends, as we have seen, with a prophecy about Peter's death, or rather execution. But that enigmatic description of a man being led where he does not wish to go is not the end of the story. Instead the passage ends with another commission -- Jesus says to Peter, 'Follow me', as he had said to Paul, 'Get up and enter the city.' In each case the command is to continue, to go forward on a path of mission and service whose end neither man can see. We know, on the basis of Scripture and church history, how it will turn out, that both men will follow that commission to the end.

That breakfast on the shore sums up the Easter call. Jesus has risen, overcoming the worst that this world can do to him or to us, injustice, suffering, and death. And he lives, lives in such a way that we can still be in a living relationship with him, not a static relationship of memory. So if we, like Peter and Paul, open our lives to the transforming power of our own encounters with the risen Jesus here in word and sacrament, we too will be empowered to follow him in lives of service and love. Amen