Sermon delivered on Easter 3C, Sunday, May 5, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-15; John 21.1-19.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Did you catch the sense of transformation, hope, and power in our readings today? It’s all there. But what is the basis for the transformative hope and power of Christ’s resurrection? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
We start with our gospel lesson. Despite the fact that Jesus had previously appeared twice to his frightened and hiding disciples and commissioned them proclaim the Good News, they are now in Galilee and have returned to fishing. We aren’t told why they chose to do this, only that they did. It’s easy for us to understand this, especially since we have not witnessed the risen Lord in the manner they did. We look around and see evil running rampant despite the NT’s proclamation that the powers behind it have been defeated on the cross of Christ. The old corrupted order seems to be thriving despite the fact that Christ’s resurrection proclaimed the beginning of God’s new world with its ultimate defeat of death. Like St. Thomas, we sometimes become skeptical about the reality of our crucified and risen Lord and get discouraged. Whatever the reason, the disciples returned to their old order of business just as we often do.
But then they encounter a stranger on the shore after a futile night of fishing. He tells them to throw out their net and they suddenly have a huge catch of fish. The beloved disciple recognizes the stranger on the beach as the risen Lord and soon they are eating the breakfast he has prepared for them. More about that in a moment. St. John then says something quite peculiar. He tells us that none of the disciples dared to ask Jesus who he was because they knew he was Jesus. We want to say to St. John that if they knew who Jesus was, why would they have to ask him? Here we get a glimpse into the nature of Christ’s risen body. Whatever it was composed of, it was different from Jesus’ mortal body. One commentator wryly notes that none of the disciples came up to Jesus, slapped him on the back, and very casually said to him, “Welcome back, Jesus!” New creation doesn’t work that way. There is continuity (they recognized the Lord and he had a body), but there was also discontinuity (he appeared different to them so that there was an element of newness).
And why wouldn’t we expect this? If Christ’s resurrection really did launch God’s new heavens and earth, and if in his resurrection Christ has gone through the dark valley of death and emerged on the other side, we would expect things to be different, even if we can’t imagine a world without suffering and death, without sickness and sorrow, without alienation and conflict, without brokenness and deformity. But that’s exactly the world Christ’s resurrection announced! As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, when the dead are raised, death will be vanquished forever! And because God’s new world is almost impossible for us to imagine because it transcends human power and imagination, we are tempted to discount it like the disciples apparently did because we are so regularly pummeled by the chaos and evil in God’s current world. But we dare not let our resurrection hope fade away because if we do, we give up our inheritance and will lose hope—defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come. We have been given a glimpse of our future in Christ’s resurrection in the testimony of his first followers so let us embrace God’s gracious gift! Not only do we see Christ transformed in St. John’s story, our perception of God is also changed in light of Easter. In the vivid imagery of our epistle lesson, the countless multitude of heaven proclaim the crucified and risen Christ as deserving of the honor and praise and glory of God. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and only God can take away sin. Listen if you have ears…
Here we see the power of God defined. In Christ’s death, the dark powers are defeated and our slavery to the power of Sin is destroyed, not perfectly in this mortal life, but destroyed nevertheless. God’s power, we are told, is made known in suffering love for his wayward and rebellious creatures, you and me, and none of us deserve a lick of it. But by his wounds we are healed and find the only kind of freedom that really counts: freedom from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death. We know this is true because we know that God raised Jesus from the dead; and because we are baptized, we too share in his death and life. Our mortal bodies will one day moulder in the grave but that is not our destiny, new creation is: Endless and perfect life without a trace of evil, corruption, sin, or brokenness of any kind. If this does not give you hope in the midst of darkness and joy in the midst of sorrow, nothing can, my beloved. Only the power of God can accomplish this.
And in their encounter with their risen Master on the seashore, St. John is inviting us to see another transition. No longer is the focus on Christ’s death and resurrection. It is on commissioning his followers to take up his love and work and proclaim it to the world. In the poignant story of breakfast for his disciples who may have doubted and wanted to cling to the old order of things, an order than can never end up right, and in the restoration of Peter, St. John is reminding us of two things we all desperately want to hear. First, he reminds us that in Christ we find God’s forgiveness that changes our status with God so that we have the awesome privilege to do his work, and second we are given God’s power to do the work he calls us to do.
Notice that despite a huge catch of fish, our Lord didn’t need the disciples’ fish to cook them breakfast. He already had what he needed. There were fish already cooking. Yes, Jesus invited them to bring some of their fish, but he didn’t need them. Sometimes we Christians think that Christ calls us to be his disciples because he is totally dependent on us and our efforts. We think we have to organize or proclaim the gospel, that we have to be his hands, eyes, mouth, and heart, because without us Jesus can’t get anything done. What a bunch of caca. Christ has the power and he gives us a share of his power by giving us his Holy Spirit. That was the whole point of last week’s gospel lesson. Receive the Holy Spirit, he told the disciples. Only then did Christ send them into the world to do his work. When we free ourselves from the delusion that Christ needs us instead of us needing him, it frees us to work tirelessly and joyfully for our risen Lord because we are relying on his power and his strength, not our own. We see the logic of this in St. Paul’s conclusion of his massive treatise on the Resurrection found in 1 Corinthians 15. After proclaiming the abolition of death and all evil when the dead are raised at our Lord’s return, St. Paul doesn’t tell us to have a big party (although we should have one in anticipation of our eternal party in God’s new world). No, St. Paul says this: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (v.58). Too often we focus on the results of our work on the Lord’s behalf and too often we don’t get the results we hoped for or wanted. We might try to persuade a friend or loved one to believe the Good News and we get rebuffed or reviled. Or we try to do the right thing by someone only to receive evil in return. Because we don’t keep our resurrection hope at the forefront of our lives, we tend to get discouraged because it appears we are not making a difference. Not so, St. Paul admonishes us! Christ is risen and you live and move and have your being in his power even when it is not self-evident to you. Don’t fall for the lie. Don’t believe the enemy or a hostile world. Because the Lamb lives, you operate in his power and he will finish what he started. Yes, we are given the wondrous privilege of doing Kingdom work. But we are not called to bring in the Kingdom. We don’t have it in our power. Only God does and in Christ’s resurrection we have a clear demonstration of that power.
Which brings us to the second basis for our call to follow Christ—forgiveness. In all our lessons, we see the power of God’s forgiveness at work. As we saw in our epistle lesson, the heavenly host proclaim the Lamb’s saving work and worship him as a result. Jesus truly is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death for us on the cross and because in that death the power of Evil and Sin have been defeated, we are called to have a new and restored relationship with God, a relationship that can only end in life. God has dealt with our sins on the cross and we are forgiven if we have the good sense to accept God’s forgiveness. Our call to be his healed and restored kingdom workers along with the promise that we will one day reign with Christ in God’s new world—something we currently can’t see and do not experience—is intended to give us hope as we labor in darkness and are confronted by the powers of Evil. St. John intends for us to worship the Lamb who was slaughtered for us so that we are strengthened and find encouragement in our struggles in this mortal life. Forgiveness is the basis for this.
But—and this is massively important to anyone who struggles to be forgiven—it isn’t just one size fits all forgiveness. In our gospel lesson, we see Christ deal with a deep hurt and painful memory to restore his beloved disciple, St. Peter, and Christ tailors his forgiveness accordingly. Recall that in a moment of false bravado with which so many of us are afflicted, Peter arrogantly proclaimed that he would never deny or leave Jesus, no matter what happened. Then reality set in and Peter betrayed his Master three times. Notice carefully that Jesus didn’t come to Peter and name his sin. He didn’t say, e.g., “Simon, you were a cowardly little weasel when I needed you most and you denied me. You boasted you never would do that but you did. What a loser. But I forgive you, dude. Love you, man.” Why didn’t Jesus do that? Because he didn’t have to. We are told elsewhere that St. Peter went out and wept bitterly because of his betrayal and we all know that feeling only too well. Like Peter, we sometimes wonder if Jesus can ever forgive us because we know our transgressions and our sins are ever before us. Stating the obvious to St. Peter would have only rubbed his nose in it and Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, he asked the only question that could lead to St. Peter’s healing and restoration: Do you love me, Simon? Do you love me despite your failures and your fears and your cowardice? The Greek for this interchange is interesting as Jesus uses agapao in asking and Peter uses phileo in response, a lesser form of love than agape love, until finally Christ used phileo in asking Peter if he loved him. Was our Lord meeting his beloved follower where St. Peter was, as do all good pastors? We aren’t told. What the story tells us is that Christ gently got to the heart of Peter’s sin and then forgave it; and in that forgiveness St. Peter found the power of Christ to shepherd his early Church, God be praised!
Likewise with St. Paul. Here we see Christ forgive in a completely different manner because St. Paul’s sin was much different than St. Peter’s. St. Paul was a murderer and vigorously persecuted the early Church. Strong action was needed and strong action was taken. There was blindness followed by fasting and prayer. But there was forgiveness and a great commission that could only be undertaken in the healing power of Christ’s forgiving love. None of us are St. Peter or St. Paul, but all of us desperately need Christ’s healing forgiveness to be his as they did. These stories and images proclaim exactly that. Will we be too stubborn or proud to accept the forgiveness that we need and in the way we need it, whatever that might look like? God forbid that we be so stupid!
When we accept our Lord’s forgiveness and power, we are made ready to do his work and proclaim his story to others, and it all starts with this parish family because charity starts at home and we are called to do this work together. When we accept Christ’s forgiveness, it humbles us because we realize we don’t deserve any of it (and if we think we do deserve Christ’s forgiveness, we’re outside of the Kingdom entirely). This realization creates humility in the power of the Spirit and that humility helps make us patient and allows us to endure all kinds of things, especially from our brothers and sisters, just like healthy families endure all kinds of baloney for the sake of each other. We realize we are in the same boat, but we also realize we share a common destiny—reigning with Christ in God’s new world. None of us are equipped for that call! But we do not answer the call in our own power. We answer in the power of Christ and with the faith-driven knowledge that we are loved and forgiven; and because we are, we are called to the privilege of being part of God’s family. Like the power of the Christ’s cross, this power is not the kind the world recognizes, but it is the power of God nevertheless and it is a sign of God’s new world breaking in on us. Hear the minister of one of the bombed churches in Sri Lanka testify to this power:
We are hurt. We are angry also, stated Zion’s senior pastor, Roshan Mahesen. But still—as the senior pastor…, the whole congregation, and every family affected—we say to the suicide bomber, and also to the group that sent the suicide bomber, We love you and we forgive you. No matter what you have done to us, we love you, because we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ [emphasis added].
Jesus Christ on the cross, [sic] said, Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing, said Mahesen. We also, who follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we say, for the Lord, forgive these people.
This is the power of God’s suffering love made known in a hate-filled world. It is new creation power based on Christ’s death and resurrection that announce our forgiveness and freedom from the corrupting powers of Sin, Evil, and Death. The world may scoff, but we dare not because this is our call, my beloved. God willing, we will never be bombed or shot up. But if we ever were, this must be our proclamation as well. Regardless of circumstance, we show the world Christ’s power by our generous love and care of each other, by patiently bearing each other’s foibles that irritate us and with which we disagree. We are gracious and humble with each other because we know we’ve been given the gift of eternal life and are greatly beloved by God despite our unloveliness.
This is the Easter Faith we are called to proclaim and live. This is the God we worship, the God who creates new things out of nothing and who raises the dead, the God who forgives us and heals us and equips us to love others and to embody his love, goodness, and justice to others, even when they don’t want any of it. This God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has sent his Son to restore us fully to himself and makes himself known to us in and through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments of baptism and holy Eucharist. Our worship of this God and his Lamb calls for us to celebrate and feast during this joyous season of Eastertide (are you partying like it’s the eschaton?), even as we love each other and forgive each other as well as a world that is hostile to us and to our crucified Lord. Come what may, let us resist our urge to fall back into our old ways. Instead, let us worship and serve Christ with joy and faithfulness all our mortal days because our present and future are secure in his great and healing love. 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.