We are invited into the joyous, loving dance of creation….
A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s Iffley on Sunday 5 May 2019.
Easter. And everything looks different. Blossom, the trees clothed in the most wonderful green. And under that a deeper truth: a new and transforming reality is at large in the world. Two of the readings give us a snapshot of Paul and Peter as they are caught up into the tidal wave of new life, new possibilities. Revelations tells us that even the worship of heaven changes. And by the way, that passage is not a prophesy. It’s what is going on in real time, now, if only we could see it.
That Gospel I just read has long been a puzzle. Because John clearly intended to finish his gospel at the end of the chapter before, chapter 20 – the one you heard last week. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. And then you turn the page – and there is this. Apparently continuing the same story, but…. it’s different. The text has an almost dream like quality, full of freshness and wonder. It’s full of echoes of what’s gone before, and from bits of Mark and Luke too. And when you look closely things are not quite as they seem. I like the suggestion that this is a kind of symbolic presentation of life in the church as people experienced it after the resurrection – the power of God’s new life driving through.
Time here is not specific. It could be any time after the resurrection. At first it seems that the disciples have gone back to their old job, fishing, and its not going very well for them. But look again. John carefully lists who is in the boat. Peter, and the sons of Zebedee – and Thomas who was the last person to see the risen Jesus. And a rather special character called Nathanael, who we met right at the beginning of this Gospel. But he wasn’t ever a fisherman. And also the Beloved disciple, who wasn’t a fisherman either.
The ground shifts a bit when you see that. Is this really fishing? By the time this gospel was written the image of fishing was the image for the pastoral mission of the church. In Luke 5 Jesus tells Peter he will be a fisher of men. So perhaps what we have here is a picture of the church trying to do that: adrift in a tough, dark world, trying to draw people in. And indeed it was dark and difficult for the early church and John’s church in particular. This fairly diverse bunch of disciples are trying their best and are certainly keeping together. But the drawing in of the nations, which is supposed to be their job – our job – is simply not happening.
But as dawn breaks – notice that – someone stands on the sea shore. He calls to them, calling them children, and asking about the fishing. The question is unnecessary. He knows the answer. He has been there all night too. “Cast the net to the other side,” he says. They do. And it fills with fish, so many they they can’t pull it in. They are overwhelmed by the abundant, disruptive generosity of God.
And then notice something here that goes on between Peter and the Beloved disciple. This chapter is written round a kind of interplay between Peter and the Beloved disciple. (We only have part of the chapter here). The Beloved disciple in this gospel (and perhaps it’s Lazarus, but we can only guess) has a close relationship with Jesus. The image suggests someone of prayer and reflection, who has eyes open to the deeper things. Peter is the man of action, always impulsive. But he turns to the other man. The Beloved disciple knows: “It is the Lord.” And Peter, who is naked, puts on clothes and dives into the water. You might have expected the reverse here – taking off some clothes in order to swim. But perhaps this is the nakedness, the rawness that comes with leadership in tough times. When you know you must account for your failure, you dress yourself up as best you can. And then there is the water. Water in the NT is always associated with baptism. Here the baptism of loneliness and strain that leadership always involves.
So Peter, alone, swims to the shore, and they all follow in the boat, dragging the net as best they can. Jesus says“Come and have breakfast.” A fire burns brightly. And what is laid out for them is this, this that we share this morning: this Eucharistic feast. “Jesus takes the bread and gives it to them……”.
We can do nothing in a dark and troubled world without Jesus. We have our plans of course. Our faithfulness is not in question. We have laboured all night, never giving up.. But they forgot – we forget – the living, ever present Christ, watching on the shoreline. We can do nothing without recognising him. Nothing without the unexpected, counterintuitive inspiration that he alone gives. And nothing without the empowerment that comes from this that we do this morning: sharing the broken bread and the wine outpoured, the meal we share with Him. And there is such a human touch here in the way John tells us that the disciples know it is the Lord, yet dare not ask him if it is true. It’s exactly the experience of faith. Our endlessly questioning minds challenge the deeper, better, instinctive perception of reality. This passage is saying that the resurrection life is about learning to trust the insight of faith.
And then the encounter with Peter. Three times, because three betrayals. But the transformative thing here is that repeated “Feed my sheep.” You remember that in this Gospel Jesus washed the disciples feet in the upper room. It’s an acting out of the love that is to be poured out on the cross the next day. And Peter at first refuses. Jesus has to insist. Because each of us has to accept that we are loved – that much loved by God. We can only love because we are first loved. Generously, prodigally loved by God who never counts the cost. Accepting our need for love is the first step in our transformation.
But now there is another lesson in love. We must understand: the nature of God’s love is precisely what we saw on the cross: it gives itself. It ceaselessly flows outwards to the world. We can never keep it to ourselves. Feed my sheep, care for others, is the essence of this love we are given.
300 years after this was written, a group of theologians in eastern Turkey, in Cappadocia, worked out our doctrine of the Trinity. They were some of the best minds the church has ever had. And they gave us our definition of God as Father, Son and Spirit, but one God. Sure, its a bit complicated, and its not helped by that fact that the word we translate as “person” does not, in Greek, quite mean that at all. But what really matters here is that they saw the Trinity as an out-pouring of love. God the Father pours God’s self in self-emptying love into the Son, who pours himself into the Spirit, who pours herself back to the Father. And they called this a perichoresis, a round dance of joyous self emptying love.
That’s what Peter, Paul and we are invited into. We love because we are loved by the joyous generative, disruptive love of the Trinity. And our task is to call the world into that same dance of love. The Christian faith is the key to happiness, happiness shared – feed my sheep. An invitation into the joyous dance of creation. No wonder the leaves of the trees are so wondrously green.