Sermon delivered on Easter 3C, Sunday, May 1, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-15; St. John 21.1-19.
Today is my last regular Sunday to preach to you, my beloved (ignoring the fact that many of you consider that my preaching is enough to make any Sunday irregular). Fourteen years ago today I was ordained to the priesthood. Eleven years ago to the day, we started a home Bible study/eucharist that would eventually become St. Augustine’s. I don’t quite know where the last fourteen years have gone, or more precisely, how they have passed so quickly. But here I am on the verge of retirement, feeling very much like a washed-up old man and hot mess, and so I am resolved to pack fourteen years worth of sermons into one today. I’m guessing that will only take a few hours given my superb skill of summarization. I’m sure you are thrilled at the prospect. I see Father Bowser twitching already in giddy anticipation.
What are we to make of St. John’s strange story of Christ’s appearing to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee? What is St. John trying to tell us? How is this story relevant to us today, both as individuals and the Church? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
Hearing St. John recount Christ’s third resurrection appearance to his disciples, we get the distinct impression that something new has been accomplished, that things have really changed, and for the better. Jesus is the same, yet he is somehow different. Despite appearing to his disciples twice before (Jn 20.19-29), they still don’t recognize him at first. They knew it was him but yet there was something different about him, so no one dared ask him who he was. As one theologian has wryly observed about the nature of these appearances, after the resurrection you don’t find anyone casually slapping Jesus on the back and saying with a grin, “We’re so glad you’re back, Jesus!” No, Christ was alive and had carried his wounds into God’s new world, remaining the same. But he was different and because he was alive and transformed, everything else was new. But were things really new? St. John doesn’t tell us the disciples were busy proclaiming that Christ had risen from the dead and working enthusiastically to build his Church. No, they had apparently returned to their original vocation of fishing, and the story gives us the impression they had done so because they were either depressed and/or bored. Nothing new there. Where was the excitement from the Octave of Easter we read about last week? In our NT lesson, St. Paul was still breathing threats and violence against the fledgling church. Nothing new there. The world still scoffed at the disciples’ proclamation that Christ was risen from the dead. Nothing new there. So what was really new?
Before we answer that question, it is critical to our resurrection faith that we again pay careful attention to the bodily nature of Christ’s appearance in this story (cf. Luke 24.33-42). He stands on the shore and has cooked breakfast for his weary and discouraged disciples. He eats with them and talks with them. They can see him, hear him, touch him. Despite his transformed appearance they know it is Jesus because they recognize him primarily in his bodily form, not to mention his gentle kindness, thoughtfulness, and love. And here is the answer to our “what’s new” question. St. John, masterful and brilliant storyteller he is, is telling us in story form what the early Church proclaimed and what Jesus himself had told his disciples at the Last Supper—that in his Death our sins are forgiven, our wounds are healed, and we are made whole again. We are reconciled to God our Father and freed from our slavery to the power of Sin and with it, from Death’s tyranny. Yes, death will come to us all barring Christ’s return in the interim because all have sinned, but we will live and conquer Death because Christ lives and has conquered Death through his own Death and Resurrection, thanks be to God! Easter anyone?
How do you get all that from this story, you ask, and with a bit of snark? I’m glad you ask, despite the fact that I just told you. But it wouldn’t be right if you stopped arguing with me during my sermons after all these years. That would mean you have stopped being the quirky people that make up this nuthouse of a parish, the people I love so much. So to repeat, while St. John does not tell us these things in exposition, he tells us in personal stories. In other words, we see Christ’s victory over Sin and Death in the transformative power it has on those who belong to him. Take his encounter with St. Peter, for example. There is much to love about St. Peter because he is us. He had shot his mouth off on the night before Christ died, boasting of his undying loyalty to his Lord, only to deny him three times in a spectacular act of cowardice of which we are all capable, especially in the context Peter’s denials occurred. And afterwards he had rightly wept bitterly over his profound failure. Imagine now for a minute that Christ was not risen from the dead, that there was no possibility for reinstatement, for forgiveness, for personal reaffirmation after catastrophic failure. How would St. Peter have felt? Utterly devastated and remorseful, no doubt, with no chance of his failure being put to rights. We all know this because we’ve all lapsed in our resurrection faith on occasion. There’s no worse feeling in the world than knowing a massive wrong/injustice cannot be made right because of our sins and/or failures. But this is exactly the situation we would find ourselves in if Christ really is dead. We may love God and others, but we’ve all let God and others down. We’ve betrayed and denied God and others and failed to live as the holy people God created us and calls us to be, and if Christ is not alive we are still dead in our sins with no hope of resolution or forgiveness.
But Christ is not dead. He is alive and now confronting St. Peter about his past sin. “Simon, son of John, do you agapao me more than these?” Agapao is the verb form of agape, the Greek word that means the highest form of love, the kind of love that is self-giving and seeks the absolute best for the beloved, the kind of love with which Christ loved his disciples and loves us. “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you,” St. Peter replied. Phileo is another Greek word for love, but it can refer to a lesser kind of love, a brotherly, affectionate love that is not always self-giving. Back came the response: Feed my lambs (take care of my followers, the Church, Simon). A second time Christ asked his wounded and hurting disciple: Do you agapao me?, receiving the same answer. Yes Lord, you know I phileo you. Back came the response: Tend my sheep. A third time, matching the number of times St. Peter had denied his Lord on Holy Thursday, Christ asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me?” St. Peter was hurt by this third question, or perhaps the subtle change in it. We aren’t told why. “Lord, you know all things. You know I phileo you.” Back came the response: Feed my sheep. Now while there is much scholarly debate over the significance of Christ using St. Peter’s word, phileo, to ask a third time if St. Peter loved him, count me among those who believe St. John was too good a storyteller to have this be simply about semantics. Here we see our crucified and risen Lord meet St. Peter where St. Peter was emotionally with Christ at that moment. Surely St. Peter had learned from his unfounded bravado that he wasn’t the stud he fancied himself to be, nor did he love his Lord as he thought. He had failed catastrophically the man he loved more than anyone else, the man who had turned his whole life upside down. In telling us this tender and compelling story, St. John is surely telling us that this is how Christ and his resurrection are making all things new. Without forgiveness of sins on the cross, without a newfound freedom to resist Sin’s power, there could have been no real forgiveness. St. Peter, like us, would have remained dead in his sins and alienated from God the Father, doomed to utter destruction. But here was Christ, meeting his wayward and sorrowful disciple where he was, forgiving him and inviting him to take up the victory Christ had accomplished for him in his Death and Resurrection, and Christ does the same for us. St. Peter would accept Christ’s invitation by giving his life for the Son of God and so can we.
In telling us this story, St. John is surely telling us that the power of Jesus is typically not made known in stunning ways, in ways the world recognizes as spectacular, although there are notable and numerous exceptions to this rule. Christ making all things new is not about razzle-dazzle or eye-popping special effects that we love to see at the movies. Instead, it is about the quiet way of Christ with his people, with St. Peter, with you and me, agapaoing us in all our unloveliness, forgiving all our failures and betrayals and denials, recognizing our limitations, but also seeing our potential and putting us to work for him, despite who we can be, out of his sheer grace and love for us. There is nothing we have said or not said, thought or not thought, done or not done that is beyond the healing love and forgiveness of our crucified and risen Savior, nothing that will not eventually be put to rights, even if we must wait for it to be put to rights in God’s new heavens and earth. If you cannot find real hope, real comfort, real healing in this reality and promise, my beloved, surely you are to be pitied most of all. St. Paul found it on the road to Damascus, St. Peter found it in our gospel story today as have countless other Christians across time and cultures. Let us join this happy and forgiven throng so that like the psalmist in today’s lesson, we too can make the bold proclamation of conquering death through Christ our own!
And how does this apply to Christ’s body, the Church, to us together? It is quite appropriate that today’s gospel lesson was the appointed text because it is the promise and power of Christ making all things new, even with all its ambiguity and perplexities, that allows me to leave the people I love so much. Make no mistake. Human leadership, good leadership, is massively important for any family. But human leaders come and go and I am no different than anyone else in that regard. We are a healthy, thriving parish with a bright future, and while I have played some small part in that, the fact remains that we are this way because we make Christ our true Head and Leader. We believe in his promise to meet us where we are in all our changes and chances of life, in all our fears and hopes and dreams and failures, and he promises to lead us through even the valley of the shadow of death. This is what allows me to retire with confident hope for you our beloved family, because I know Christ lives and is present here among us, making all things new, transforming the old.
My dearly beloved, don’t ever lose sight of this reality and promise. Christ seeks you out, no matter who or where you are, and promises to bring you home one day to a world where there will be no more sorrow or sighing or sickness or alienation or madness or folly or separation or death. We can stake our individual and collective lives on this promise if we continue to respond faithfully to the means of grace that make Christ available to us in real and living ways: Bible reading and study, prayer, confession, sweet fellowship of all kinds (don’t forget to party and enjoy the blessings Christ showers on you), and regular partaking of holy communion. All these things open us to Christ’s risen reality and Presence in and through the Holy Spirit. We have all died and been raised to new life in Christ in our baptism, and we are yoked to him forever, thank God. In Christ is our hope, our present, and our future. In him we find comfort in our sorrows, God’s tenderness, forgiveness, new life in our failures, and a deep abiding joy in all things because we belong to Christ. Imitate this great love as he commands us. Beloved, make this old man happy and proud by responding to Christ’s love with boldness and courage and hope. Remain faithful to him who delivers you from Sin and Death, and never abandon the faith once delivered to the saints, the true apostolic faith. Don’t be worried about your future as God’s family here at St. Augustine’s without the Maneys because you have Christ and he will never abandon or desert you. He is busy making all things new, yourselves included, both now and in God’s new world to come, a world that Christ’s resurrection announced and inaugurated. God bless you, my beloved. I thank God for blessing me with the massive privilege of being your rector for all these years. Toots and I are thankful to have been part of this holy and very quirky family and I am thankful to be yoked to you in Christ forever. We love you more than you’ll ever know. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.