02 May Sermon: Easter 3 (Year C)
As Benedictines, we take three vows at our profession: obedience, stability and conversion of life. Each of them echoes something of our baptism: obedience, a choice to follow God, listening to God’s voice as it comes to us through scripture, through liturgy, through our sisters and brothers. Stability: a recognition that we are part of the one body of Christ, made concrete in our commitment to this place and these people. Conversion of life: a commitment to openness and to change, to beginning each day afresh.
Many of us here will have taken vows of some sort or another, perhaps of marriage, or ordination, or partnership, and we may also have had an opportunity at Easter to renew our baptismal vows. Whatever vows we have taken, they are all designed to shape our particular response to the Gospel, and to guide us ever more fully into a life that reflects the saving love demonstrated in God the Son, in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection: indeed, one description of the Christian life that I particularly like is that we are “learning to live loved”.
I’ve been reflecting lately on the process of ‘learning’, for various reasons: as a community, we were blessed earlier this week to have a study day looking at Gregory of Nazianzus, and his ideas about salvation. It might sound a bit dry on the face of it, but I think for many of us it was a real eye-opener into some different ways of looking at part of what God was up to in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. The idea of learning, particularly in relation to Easter also reminded me of a sermon preached by Br. Ian several years ago, in which he talked about Easter taking time to unfold, and to understand. This was true of the disciples – they didn’t get it straight away: learning takes time, and we see this reflected in our readings today.
In Acts, we heard the famous account of Saul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus. Saul is I think a great example of something we’ve been hearing about in our meal time reading this week, the isolated conscience. He’s become trapped by his certainty: he knows the law, he’s studied it extensively, he loves it – these are all good things, but they have trapped him in his certainty that this new movement, The Way, is an utter disgrace and an outrage, and needs to be stopped, as soon as possible. As Pope Francis has been saying, in these intractable situations, what is needed is an overflow of the Holy Spirit, and what Saul gets is quite a dramatic experience of that overflow, as God shows up, big time, and blows his world apart.
We may not have experienced anything quite as violent as what Saul went through, but I’m sure we’ve all had those moments when God just shows up and rudely interrupts our certainties, or our plans, or our fixed ideas of who God is and what God is all about. These moments can be really disturbing, and I think it’s perfectly ok to acknowledge that. After all, this moment left Saul temporarily blinded, and he then has to disappear off for several years to try and process and integrate what’s just happened to him.
So there is the learning that comes to us like thunder, crashing through our intransigence. There is, fortunately, also a more gentle kind of learning, although its consequences can be equally far-reaching, as we see in the section we heard from John this morning.
Here, the disciples are not locked in a fixed set of ideas like Saul was. I get the impression that they’re more bewildered than anything else. All this stuff has happened: Jesus has died, and yet he’s been seen alive again, but he’s different. He’s shown up and then disappeared. What are we supposed to do now?
In moments like this, often the easiest thing is to return to something comfortable, in the hope that we might find there if not new direction at least something of a rest. And sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t: for the disciples it seems it was was the latter. They went out fishing, but they’ve clearly lost the knack. 7 of them out in the boat, and zero fish to show for it. It kind of adds insult to injury.
And then Jesus shows up, not in a thunderclap and a flash of light, but with a gentle suggestion: how about the other side? When that works out, and they cotton on to who that stranger on the shore really is, Peter, bless him, is so excited he’s straight in the water and heading for the shore. And what does Jesus do? Something that is familiar, and yes altogether new. He invites his friends once again to a meal, and once again he breaks bread, and hands round some fish. These simple actions, recalling as they do so many events from their time spent with him, speak more than any words could. He shows them his love, gives them his body again, and once they are fed, then it’s time to talk.
I once played the part of Peter, acting out this story for a family worship service in my old parish. For all that it’s a familiar and simple scene, it was an extraordinary experience: looking someone full in the face and declaring love, receiving love, was deeply healing, somehow, even if it was “only” playacting. This must have been a turning point for Peter of no less significance than Saul’s, for all it was quieter on the surface. And perhaps too for the others present, a reminder to them that no matter how badly ‘wrong’ things went in their lives or in the lives of others, Jesus was always there with love, poured out and overflowing.
And of course, for neither man was the event we’ve heard about today the end of the story. The learning continued, the revelation of God’s extraordinary love continued to be unfolded in their lives and in their understanding. Learning to live loved is not a once-and-done experience: God’s love is far, far too big to be contained in one experience, or even in one lifetime. Perhaps that’s part of why we need one another on our journeys: the love given to one truly is the gift of all, and so in both our individual and our collective ‘overflow’ we can bless and love the world around us, until we come at long last to the glory we glimpsed in that short extract from Revelation.
The appearance in this scene of the ‘lamb that was slaughtered’ reminds us of the astonishing fact that when we see Jesus the lamb, Jesus the human being, we are also seeing and encountering God: God the Son, God our shepherd, who is uncreated, who loves us from before the foundation of the world. In Jesus, God consents to become: he crosses the divide between the shepherd and the sheep and submits to being created in one womb, willing to assume all the joy and the pain of being human, in order that we might receive a physical, tangible demonstration of God’s great love for us all. Is it any wonder that at the lamb’s appearing in heaven, all of creation, all the angels, the living creatures, the elders, everyone and everything falls down and worships? On that great day, nothing more will be needed, and nothing less will satisfy.
For now, though: the road. As Jesus said to Peter, “follow me”. The journey – our living – continues, as does our learning. Whatever roads we have promised ourselves to, I pray that may we find upon them the love of God, poured out to overflowing, poured into our lives that we in turn may pour it out both to God and to all those with whom we journey. Amen.