Easter 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st May

Acts 9.1-20, John 21.1-19

We are celebrating the season of Easter, of Christ’s resurrection. But what we celebrate is not just Christ’s resurrection, but that of the disciples too, and of ourselves. The resurrection of Christ is what brings a new community into being, a community of those turned around from their previous experience of grief, guilt or even violence. In Eastertide we always read, Sunday by Sunday, through the book of Acts, alongside hearing the resurrection appearances of Christ from the Gospels. We do that because the story of the early church set out in Acts is the other side of the coin to those resurrection appearances that are at the heart of our Easter proclamation: the resurrection of Christ brings into life this new community that witnesses to the new life made possible in Christ.

Our readings this morning are two of the most poignant and profound witnesses to the shape of that new life. It would be possible to spend a lot longer than the next 10 minutes pondering these two stories, but let me draw out two perhaps neglected details from them, that I think illuminate what the resurrection, what that new life, might mean for us.

Let’s start with John’s Gospel and that wonderful intimate encounter between Jesus and Peter. Peter has returned to fishing, to what he knew before he started to follow Jesus. We have returned to the start of our Gospels: here is Peter fishing, and Jesus by a lakeside. The story will once again finish with Jesus saying to Peter, ‘Follow me.’ But it’s not simply a repeat – a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that initial encounter by the lakeside. Peter has already enthusiastically followed, and failed. He has followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, and then deserted him at that most desperate time of arrest, and trial and crucifixion. And not just deserted Jesus, but, when threatened by association, he has denied him three times. And so this encounter on the lakeside is heavy with that history, that memory. Peter has gone back fishing, to his old life, but the old innocence is not available.

And then, at the lakeside, this stranger persuades them to fish on the other side of the boat, and they are suddenly overwhelmed by the catch. And Peter finds the echoes of the last few years rising within him. The other disciple says to him, ‘It is the Lord!’ And then John’s Gospel includes a very odd detail: ‘When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.’ I’m sorry – he put on some clothes and then jumped into the lake? Does that not strike you as odd? I can only make sense of that little phrase by imagining that Peter is not only literally naked, but feels naked in the presence of this returning man – a man who the last he knew had died an agonizing death a few hours after he had betrayed his friendship and everything that he thought mattered, by denying that he ever knew him. That is the memory which haunts him, which defines the first thing he does on hearing that it is Jesus – he clothes himself to cover the nakedness and vulnerability he feels. And yet it is that memory that Jesus will probe; he will metaphorically strip Peter naked, as he asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter’s reply becomes ever more affronted and defensive, until he realizes, under that loving gaze, that Jesus is not evoking the memory to accuse, but to heal; not in judgement, but to free Peter of the burden. The crucified and risen one, comes not with a pointing finger but with the forgiveness that restores Peter, that brings new life in place of simply the return of the old; that re-clothes Peter. And it is in that new life, that Peter is asked once again, to – ‘follow me’, by feeding the lambs, tending the sheep; being that compassionate presence that Peter is encountering for himself in the Risen Jesus.

Now I’m delighted that you’ve all come fully clothed to our encounter today with the Risen Christ. Many of you in your Sunday best; some of us get to put on very fancy clothes indeed. But that shouldn’t hide the fact that we might be called into a similar encounter in the vulnerable places of our souls; we bring to our encounter with the Risen Christ today our own memories of desertion and denial, our own sense of failure and inadequacy; and we may find ourselves stripped bare. But there, in that honesty and nakedness, we hear words of forgiveness and healing, and new life.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.

The story of Saul on the road to Damascus involves a very different encounter. The man of violence is thrown off his horse, as the voice of those he persecutes echoes around him. This moment is often described as the conversion of Saul, the moment that sees a dramatic turnaround in this man who has been ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus.’  But actually the encounter on the Damascus Road simply blinds Saul, so that he has to be led by the hand into Damascus. And he is in that state of darkness, unable to eat or drink, for 3 days – surely no accidental detail, but an echo of Good Friday to Easter. And what brings him into new life, what completes the encounter begun on the Damascus Road, is the courage of a disciple, of Ananias.  Ananias is asked in a dream to go to a street named Straight, and make what has been crooked straight; to reach out and touch and heal the man of Tarsus. Ananias is understandably wary; but he does go, overcomes his fear and loathing, and reaches out, and touches Saul; and it is at that moment that ‘the scales drop from Saul’s eyes’. The moment of conversion, of new life, might have begun on the Damascus Road, but it is here, in this moment of connection, that Saul recognises that beyond his newly found vulnerability, there is a different calling mapped out for him – one in which Christ and the community represented by Ananias, are central.

Come my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife:
such a life as conquers death.

Ivy, today, in her baptism, is invited to begin the journey of new life in the Risen Christ. Parents, godparents, you today make promises that will allow that new life to take shape. Each of us, in our baptism, was invited into that journey into new life that is Christ’s gift. Sometimes that will take the shape of Peter – we will journey quietly and intimately with Christ to the vulnerable places within to hear there words of forgiveness and healing; sometimes that new life will be like that given to Paul, overthrowing us, turning us around, revealing our dependency and need of those we previously looked down on. And sometimes, that new life will be like that given to Ananias, to reach out and welcome, offer words of healing. In our baptism service today, we, the congregation gathered here, will all perform that task as we welcome Ivy into the new life of Christ, promise to share our faith with her; so that together we walk in the new life of Christ.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such a strength as makes a guest.