A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Third Sunday of Easter
Picture The Cathedral’s Easter garden
‘The message of the polls is clear…’ and so began another party spokesperson telling the story of the local elections: ‘Good news’ (Green, independent, LibDem), ‘A wake-up call for us…’ (Labour and Conservative) ‘…and for them’ (ditto). Bright people in party HQs have been working hard since Thursday night crafting narratives, some of them quite different from each other – especially on Brexit – but all based on the same inarticulate data of marks on ballot papers. We live by stories and stories can stick, so good to establish yours fast.
With the story of Easter, first up is St Paul, whose conversion we see in the first reading. Paul’s letters are our earliest Easter documents. They offer not inarticulate data but convictions, first taught to him and now handed on, based on what he implies are checkable events: Jesus died, was raised from the dead and then appeared to people, some of whom are still around (1 Corinthians 15.1-6). Later come the written narratives, the four gospels, with resurrection scenes like this morning’s. What to make of them?
I have a book of essays about the resurrection. One scholar says the story about the tomb of Jesus being empty was made up long after the first Easter, and people like me should tell that straight to people like you. Another says that the empty tomb was indeed what the women found on the first Easter morning, because if anyone had made the story up they’d have made a better job of it. One says the appearances of the risen Jesus were visions, another that they were more than that. These Easter stories are haunting. If you haven’t read them, do it today – they take up less than five pages in all. And they are hard to pin down. Say you want to believe that it all happened just like it says – well, what did happen? How do you evaluate events in which someone who died is seen, can pass through locked doors but can also eat fish? Or say you prefer to see all these stories are literary creations – what kind of experience would make people write like that, with stories unlike anything else written at that time?
For sceptics and believers, and for people who are both, these stories disturb and fascinate. Take today’s, which comes at the very end of John’s gospel – even later than that, because the book seemed to end last Sunday with the writer saying that Jesus did many other things that are not written in this book – and then this is added on, set some time after the first Easter day. Peter says he’s going fishing.
Now fishing is what Peter used to do BC, before he became a disciple, and Peter the disciple was not a success story. Now he goes back to his old job, but doesn’t have any more success there, fishing all night but catching no fish. It is a story of failure and frustration, not what you might expect on a bright Sunday in Eastertide. But then comes the extraordinary moment in which we see Peter sitting by a charcoal fire with Jesus, the recently executed criminal, who asks him three times ‘Do you love me?’ And we have been here before.
On Good Friday we heard another reading from John’s gospel, with Peter by another charcoal fire (outside the high priest’s house) and another question asked three times. If you want one moment which sums up Peter’s failure, that’s it: the question by the fire on that dangerous night: You’re one of Jesus’ people, aren’t you? Caught off guard, perhaps, he panics – No, I’m not. Then he gets a second chance – and then a third – and he fails each time.
And now the question by the fire in the morning: Do you love me? Caught off guard again, perhaps, he blurts out a Yes. Now come on, think about it, think back: Do you, really? Yes. And then again, a third chance, in case he’s just deluding himself: Do you love me? Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.
What’s the narrative here? This scene acts out St Paul’s conviction that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4.25). It is a story about forgiveness. And forgiveness itself is a matter of stories. Forgiving means changing the story you tell about someone, as the story of Paul’s conversion describes; and being forgiven means that you accept that this new story is true, as Peter will discover. If a friend trusts you, they do it because they remember times when they counted on you and you came good. Their mental slideshow makes up a story of dependability. And you have a similar story that you tell about yourself, as a dependable person. But if you let them down, and you admit it to yourself, then that story looks suspect, perhaps even discredited. They may begin to tell a different story about you, and you about yourself.
What then will it mean to be forgiven? ‘Forgive and forget’ is not a grown-up option, you can’t pretend the letting-down never happened. No, there needs to be a third story, deeper than either of the other two, that can be told about you. A story that acknowledges what happened but sets you free from guilt: not amnesia but amnesty. Peter’s story has become the one about the fire in the darkness, the champion follower of Jesus who threw in the towel before a punch was landed. That’s what has made him go back to his nets. Now, by the fire in the morning, Jesus takes him back to that night, takes him through the story step by step by hurtful step, so Peter can say, and say and say again: No, I don’t want this to be the story that sticks, the defining narrative about me. And each time Jesus introduces the third story: Peter the failed follower is not to revert to being the fisherman; he is going to be a leader (a better leader now, perhaps, because of his failures?); he’s going to be the shepherd of Jesus’ flock.
Finding that third story can be hard. We are so good at conning ourselves, pretending we are better – or worse – than we are. Organisations try to create new stories for themselves but deep down it can’t be something we tell ourselves, it has to be something we hear. We need to hear it from someone who knows us, knows it all, and who won’t give up on us. Such a person won’t just speak for themselves but for God. In fact, if I open my heart to prayer and the scriptures and the sacrament I may begin to hear that third story direct, from the one to whom I can say, as Peter does, ‘You know everything’.
It can also be hard to believe that God knows you and me through and through and doesn’t give up on us. We need to be reminded of it in the head and in the guts. That is why God does not just declare this to us but comes among us in our own flesh and blood in Jesus. And that is why we have this service each week, because here, Sunday be Sunday, as on the beach in Galilee, as on the night he was betrayed and denied, Jesus breaks bread with the people who let him down and says, You are free. Free to start again, to try again, probably to fail again, perhaps to fail better, but you are free. Follow me.