18th April 2016
Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion, Easter 3, 10th April 2016
Lessons: Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
‘Now, after Jesus invited them to breakfast, none of the disciples dared ask him: “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord (Jn 21:12)
Many factors go to make up ‘who we are’ – genetics, personality, family, colour, nationality, culture, beliefs, religion. ‘Who we are’ often puzzles other people until they discover more about us.
It was natural, therefore, that people wanted to know who Jesus was. They were perplexed because he was unlike anybody they had met. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Peter declares him to be ‘the Christ,’ but so badly misunderstands what this means that Jesus says to him, ‘Get behind me Satan!’
After the crucifixion things are no clearer. They still cannot fathom who he is. When he appears in the flesh they are bewildered. In one sense they knew it was him. In another they can’t figure him out. ‘Who are you?’ they ask of the familiar figure whose strange presence defies commonsense. ‘Who are you’ to break the spell that sin, evil and death have cast over the earth?
The answer is that the crucified Son of God, Jesus Christ, has been raised from the dead by God the Father as the sign of the renewal of our flawed and broken humanity (v11). It is important to see that, while Jesus’ true identity is shown in a personal encounter with a few disciples, what happened is significant for the world.
This is made clear in two ways. The Risen Lord shows them ‘who he is’ in the midst of their secular work. The action takes place away from the Holy City by the ‘Sea of Tiberias’ (Galilee) (v1). And the catch represents the entire human race – 153 being the total number of fish species known at the time.
The story is the equivalent of Jesus' post-Easter missionary charge to the young church in Matthew's gospel ‘to make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:16f). Through it we begin to see ‘who’ Jesus is – and 'who’ we are called to be. We can truly ‘follow’ him, says John, only when we see-and-believe that the earthly Jesus is the crucified-and-risen Lord who ‘has redeemed men and women from every nation.’ (Rev 5:10)
It is a great pity that many church folk dismiss the unique glory of Jesus’ resurrection and treat him simply as a teacher of the Golden Rule. Apart from the fact that the Sermon on the Mount and parables are radically different from all other religious and moral teachings, it is not only ‘what’ he teaches that is important, but ‘who’ he is - the One whose ministry led to the Cross and the empty tomb.
Who he is and what he said must be held together! Jesus’ teaching would not have been a source of hope if he had not been raised from the dead! What good is it to ‘do one’s best’ in our short time on earth if we believe that evil and death are ‘normal’ and that there is no hope for the renewal of the creation and the redemption of humanity?
It is vital that we act justly. But we cannot ignore our part in the brokenness of the world, our inability to put things right, or the fact that we must die. To follow Jesus’ teaching without believing in his crucified-and-risen power is a recipe for false pride in what we can do or despair about the futility of it all.
The resurrection of the crucified Jesus is the event of hope for humanity. This incredible event is the sole purpose for the church's preaching, teaching ministry and mission. We are the Church of the Resurrection or we are not the Church of Christ at all! ‘Who we are as a Christian community is determined by ‘who God is’ for us and all people in the crucified-and-risen Jesus.
It is impossible to adequately put into words or what this incredible event means for the church. John tells us that the crucified Jesus continues to ‘feed’ disciples, body and soul, by giving them what they need for mission even in the face of stiff opposition (v18&19).
Here we learn that the Christ who fed people body and soul during his earthly ministry still feeds them body and soul in the sacrament (v12&13). Bread and fish were sometimes used in early Christian art to depict the Lord’s Supper. Thus John invites us to see that, astonishingly, communion between Jesus and his disciples doesn’t remain in the past but continues in the life of the church.
We also learn that, as in his earthly ministry, the Risen Christ forgives the timidity of disciples and calls them to costly service (vv15-19). The exchange between Jesus and Peter is one of the most moving in Scripture and literature.
Before the crucifixion Peter was found wanting when interrogated by a maid around ‘a charcoal fire’ (18:15ff). On that occasion he had denied being a disciple of Jesus. Now, once more, he is interrogated around ‘a charcoal fire’ (21:9). But this time it is by the Risen Lord after they have shared the bread and fish of communion, the sacrament of grace.
This is Peter’s moment of redemption! The once impetuous, outspoken disciple, whose misreading of Jesus' mission had been called 'satanic' (Mk 8:33) is now a broken man. Before becoming a disciple he was simply ‘Simon the son of John.’ Jesus then gave him the name Simon Peter – Simon the rock.’ (1:42) Now Jesus addresses him three times as ‘Simon, son of John’ (vv15-17), the man who had not known who Christ really was. He is his old-self again – a broken man with no illusions about his bravado.
Three times Jesus asks Peter ‘Do you love me’ and three times the chastened Peter says ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you’ (vv15-17). The meaning of the exchange is easily missed in the English translation of ‘love.’ In Greek, unlike English, there are a few words that denote different forms of love.
Jesus twice uses the Greek word ‘agape’ which means ‘complete selfless commitment to another.’ Three times Peter uses ‘philia,’ which means ‘deep caring for another.’ In contrast to his earlier bluster, Peter is humbled before the Risen Jesus. He doesn't claim to be capable of selflessly loving Christ. He is no longer a know-all. He simply acknowledges that ‘You Lord know everything; you know that I love you’ (v17).1
Only now does Peter really know ‘who Jesus is’ – and ‘who he is’ is called to be. Stripped of his delusions of grandeur, Peter is now fit to follow Jesus. Knowing that he is forgiven, he is ready to exercise strong pastoral leadership in the fledgling Church – to ‘feed the sheep’ by preaching the Gospel of the Resurrection and building-up the community in the love of Christ. Now he is ready for ‘costly discipleship,’ to ‘follow Jesus’ even to crucifixion (vv18-19).
This is also the moment of redemption for all Christians. Like Peter, we are prone to forget the magnitude of God’s suffering love and to rely on ourselves for success. Today we often boast about our involvement in social issues but show less enthusiasm about declaring the earth-shaking reality of Jesus’ resurrection in a multi-faith society. In many quarters, it is an embarrassment.
We all need to be shaken by the Risen Christ's encounter with Peter and the others. Our foolish ideas about how important ‘we are’ to God's mission must be shattered if we are to be of any use in telling the world ‘who Jesus is’ and to shape our life-together in response to God’s forgiveness embodied in him.
'When we have been stripped of our illusions, when we recognise that we are unworthy witnesses, when we admit that we hardly know whether we even love the Lord, when we have heard, despite our bluster and timidity, that we are to be responsible for tending the flock, and that the purpose of our life and death is to glorify not ourselves but God, only then can we truly hear the call to discipleship.'2
Only then will we, like Peter, know that being a disciple of Jesus is much more than following the Golden Rule or agitating for just causes - important as it is to treat people with dignity and resist injustices. Only then will we know that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s triumphant costly love for humanity has been embodied in the midst of suffering, evil and death. Then we will be delighted to preach the resurrection of the crucified Jesus as the event of hope for the whole of humanity and to live out the resurrection hope in a society, and often a church, that is increasingly hostile to the love of God embodied in him.
At a time when many people think that each person has a right to decide for themselves 'who they are,' who they can love, and which gods or causes they follow, it is vital that we continue to tell the world say ‘who Jesus Christ is.’
Who is Jesus Christ? He is the crucified-and-risen presence of God's forgiving love; the one in whom the world may find hope amidst evil and death.
1 The third time Jesus addresses Peter he uses 'philia;' perhaps suggesting that Jesus recognises and accepts the limits of our love?!
2 Slight paraphrase of W. Clarnette, Take and Read The Year of Luke, Vol 1 Forum Booklets No 11 (1998) page 45
Rev Dr Max Champion is the Convenor of the ACC's Theology and Ecumenical Relationships Commission