Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 10 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 9:1-20; Ps 30; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21:1-19
You have worked for a long time, in the dark, fruitlessly, hopelessly after a while. It is that hour, just before dawn, when the cold is the worst, and the sun has not yet risen. And then a voice, familiar and yet strange, calls to you; and your work is rewarded, and there is a fire burning on the shore, and bread and fish cooked for you, good basic food, hot from the coals. And the lost beloved one is there, inviting you to come and have breakfast, as the light and warmth return to the morning.
It is that coming home, to a place which has always been ours and yet is now wholly renewed, which perhaps we all dream of in some way, all long for. The restoration of the world as it was meant to be, work and rest, food in the hands of those who produce it—for Galilean fishermen, scholars think, were rarely able to eat the fish they caught, but had to sell it on to industrial processors to make the highly fermented fish sauce favoured by the occupying Roman elite. This fish, cooked on this charcoal fire on the shore, shared in a small and sustainable community, is given to us as the image of resurrection, of a good and sufficient redeemed human life, rescued from the grip of economic injustice and exploitation, of military occupation and the distortions of violence. The breakfast at the edge of a new morning, a new world.
And it is only after this moment of restoration, of reassurance and safety, only after he is in the secure presence of enduring love, that Peter faces his own, more personal and more difficult, process of coming back. A question asked three times, like the question he was asked three times on that terrible Friday, when he failed each time. Will he fail again? He doesn’t know what to say. Every time he is asked, “Do you love me?” he must remember all too vividly that he failed in that love, that he did not prove it, that the answer from the evidence might seem to be, “No, not really, not if the cost is too great.”
We have these ideas about judgement which are—like so much of our thinking—all too often based on how we think we would behave if we were God. But I think when we say, as we do each week in the Creed, that Christ will come again “to be our judge,” I think it is something much more like this. We are judged by one who loves us infinitely, and we face love only; but that is itself a terrifying thing, for it means realizing how entirely we have failed to love. It means realizing that, when Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”, the evidence of our lives answers, “No, not really. Not if it costs too much. No.” We give in to power. We protect our own small consolations at the cost of the suffering of others. We betray our deepest beliefs for safety, even for convenience. We cannot admit our own neediness or honour the needs of those around us. We lack the courage to speak, and we lack the courage to be silent and listen. We are not strong enough, we do not love enough. And he does not condemn us for that, even; that would be easier, probably, some model of failure and punishment we could fit into our expected framework. It might even make us feel better. But he just keeps asking, “So. Do you love me?” And we keep hitting that no.
And yet, like Peter, we do still love. We do, or we would not be here. And that is the most terrifying moment of all—to face that love we have betrayed so many times, and somehow say yes. Yes, despite it all. We do still love. We do, or at least we want to, we want to respond to love with love, we are trying, broken creatures that we are, to find a way. To live out that love, to act without fear, to create a new world. And we must say so, knowing that this means taking on that whole possible cost of living it. But the fear, the difficulty, the pain are not of God’s making; they are only the struggles of our crooked hearts in the face of gentle, persistent, infinite love.
There is something of this in the reading from Acts, as well, if in a more conflicted form, a story less suffused with the dawn light of resurrection and more with the confusions of the daily world. Saul has been persecuting the church; he has been complicit in the murder of a good number of Christians at this point, from St Stephen onwards. But when Christ confronts him on the Damascus Road, what he has to say is, basically, “Saul, why do you think you have to do this?” According to the account which Paul himself delivers later in Acts, he also says something like, “This is terribly hard for you, Saul. You don’t need to hurt yourself like this.” Saul, undoubtedly torn in his own mind, might have expected congratulations from God; or he might have expected this Lord of the Christians to come at him with vengeance. He gets neither. Like Peter, he gets a simple, gentle, unanswerable question—why would you do this? And why not stop? And in the face of this, he is helpless.
In fact, according to this story, he becomes at that moment physically helpless, falls to the ground, and when he rises, he cannot see. Radically vulnerable for perhaps the first time in his memory, he must be taken into the care of others, become utterly dependent on others for safety and survival—he must be cared for. He must be weak and needy; he must receive, if not love exactly, at least nurturance. He must know this, before he can rise.
Arguably, Saul who became Paul never got very good either at acknowledging his own vulnerability or at modelling the quiet and persistent love of God for others—although it’s also true that most of us wouldn’t come off especially well if we were known almost entirely through a random selection of letters, written under pressure, in times of institutional stress and conflict. But what Saul who became Paul very clearly did have was a vivid, burning, driving realization that he himself had been seized by love and transformed, made new, and that this transformation was available for everyone, for the world, for all of creation. Paul chides and scolds and talks about sin and judgement, but for all that, and despite the way his letters are often used, he really does not imagine God punishing us—rather, the judgement, as he understands it, is that we may cause ourselves to miss out on the amazing, transformative experience of God’s love, and that this loss is, in effect, our death, our failure to enter the life, the world, made new.
Love asks, do you love me? Can you love me? And though we may fear, may believe, that the true answer is no, still we must say yes, we must let ourselves to called to that yes, and to the life which it implies, the need to care and to be cared for in unpromising circumstances, to feed the confused sheep and to be fed by possibly hostile strangers. The judgement is simply this, that we are called to that impossible yes.
It is the great reversal of the vision in Revelation—which is a text even more contradictory and problematic and troubled than Paul’s letters, but has in it some extraordinary moments when our expectations are wholly overturned, when after the drama of angels and elders and gold and precious metals and all the high drama of the throne room of heaven, the writer turns and sees on the throne not a king, not an angel, not a figure of power at all; but a lamb, a lamb which has been slain, a vision of that infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing, around which all of reality turns. Much of the imagery of Revelation is still in thrall to power, but this moment of reversal, at least, reminds us again that we are finally answerable only to suffering love, only to the self- offering of the God who becomes weakness for our healing.
We must feed the sheep because the shepherd has become one of them, one of us, and we are all in need of each other. We must all step back from the systems which enslave us, and share fish and bread, and try to stop causing pain to each other and ourselves, and try to allow ourselves to see, to see truly. To see those around us for the awkward unavoidable people that they are, to see ourselves both failing and always called, to see the lamb whose weakness replaces all kingship. And to try again and again to say yes to the terrible, beautiful questions of love.