“Do You Love Me?” (a sermon on John 21:1-19)

I once heard Keith Miller talk about the failure of his marriage and the devastating effect it had upon his ministry as a Christian speaker, writer, and conference leader. You’ve probably never heard of Keith, but in the early 1970’s he wrote a superb book called The Taste of New Wine, in which he told the story of his encounter with Christ and his experience of the grace of God. This was followed by other books, and he began to travel and speak at Christian conferences and retreats. He was involved in the ‘Faith Alive’ movement which was a mission movement amongst lay people in the Episcopal Church in the USA. As an intelligent and committed Christian layman, Keith was a huge gift to the church and God used him to bring many people closer to Christ – including me.

But there was a price to pay, and ironically, the man who had often encouraged people to slow down and take time to love their families found that he was unable to do that himself. He had his first extra-marital affair in 1974, and eventually in 1976, after a time of struggle and counselling, Keith and his wife were divorced. He faced the future with only a sense of failure and uncertainty. Many years later, I heard him say, “I knew that if I was ever going to have any sort of Christian ministry in the future, it would only be through the grace of God and not through any expertise or strength of my own, because I had none. I felt I had nothing left to offer to God”.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? I wonder if you’ve experienced some spectacular failure in your Christian life that has left you thinking, “Well, that’s the last God’s ever going to want to see of me!” Or perhaps it hasn’t been anything really spectacular at all – just a sense that God couldn’t really use you, because you don’t measure up to your idea of what a really good Christian ought to be.

If you’ve ever felt like that, then you can understand how Simon Peter felt after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of all the disciples, Simon Peter was the one who had promised most strongly to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Mark tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus had warned his disciples, “You will all become deserters”, but Peter had protested, “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (Mark 14:27, 29). John tells us that Peter said, ‘“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times”’ (John 13:37-38).

I think some of us instinctively warm to Peter here, because there are times we’ve felt like there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for Jesus. Maybe we’ve had a time in our lives when the love of God has seemed so real to us, when the Holy Spirit has seemed so close, when the joy of Jesus has come flooding in. Maybe at that moment we found ourselves thinking, “This is it! It’s me and God together, and nothing can stop us now!”

I don’t know whether Peter honestly felt that, deep in his heart. Maybe he did, or maybe he just liked to sound confident in order to impress the others. But whether he really felt it or not, later on that night harsh reality broke in for him, and he discovered that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself.

Oh, he was brave at first! When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him as the guards led him to the high priest’s house. He even went into the courtyard and stood there for a while with the servants and the others; John’s Gospel tells us that they were warming themselves around a charcoal fire. But there, Peter’s courage ran out. When he was confronted and accused of being a follower of Jesus, he denied it three times to save his own skin. And then he ran away.

So I find it easy to imagine the conflicting emotions in Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday, as the reports of meetings with the risen Jesus start to come in. The gospels actually hint that on the Sunday afternoon Jesus appeared privately to Peter, although no one has ever recorded the details of that meeting. But I would guess that Peter probably felt the same way that Keith Miller did, after his marriage fell apart because of his own sinful choices and compulsive busyness: “If I’m ever going to have any sort of ministry after this, it can only be because of grace, not through any expertise or strength of my own”. In fact, I would be surprised if the idea of grace even entered Peter’s head at all. I expect he thought he was finished, plain and simple.

And so we come to the story recorded for us in today’s gospel. We don’t know exactly when it happened; it would have been some time in the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, but the exact chronology wasn’t important to John.

In the story, some of the disciples have gone fishing on the lake, but they’ve caught nothing all night. In the morning as they come in to shore someone is standing on the beach, and he calls and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They do, and they catch a huge amount of fish – a hundred and fifty-three, says John, but the net wasn’t torn. Peter swims to shore, convinced that it’s Jesus, and so it turns out. Jesus is standing on the beach beside a charcoal fire. This is the only time in the New Testament that the specific word for a charcoal fire is used other than that earlier story of how the servants stood around the charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard, and don’t you think that the smell of it immediately takes Peter back to that night – that painful, awful night – when he had denied Jesus three times? And then Jesus asks him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” ‘Simon’, not ‘Peter’. ‘Simon’ is his original name; ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’, but the rock has turned out to be not quite so rocky after all.

This is a very strange conversation! Jesus is about to give Simon Peter a commission to be a shepherd of his people; he’s about to tell him to feed his lambs and look after his sheep. And what question does he ask him? It’s not, ‘Show me your resume, Simon’; it’s not, ‘How many wild animals have you run away from?’ It’s not ‘How many churches have you led into growth?’ It’s not ‘What’s your record of resisting temptation?’ No – he doesn’t ask Simon about his strengths or his skills or his successes or failures; he asks him about his heart’s devotion to him. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16, 17)

Peter doesn’t even feel like he can give an unqualified answer. When Jesus asks the question, the word John uses for love in the Greek language is ‘agapé’; this is not a feeling love, but an action love, the sacrificial love Jesus showed by giving himself on the cross. But when Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, the Greek word John uses for love is ‘phileo’ – a lesser word, more about friendship than committed and sacrificial love. Of course, Jesus and Peter would have been speaking in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don’t know what the exact nuances were, but we can guess that Peter is feeling a lot less self-confident now. “Lord, you know everything”, he says to Jesus – and we can guess what he means. Lord, you know what I did; you know how weak I am. I can’t pretend to be anything other than the failure that I am.

But Jesus is not finished with Peter. Peter was always an enthusiastic follower, the sort of guy who volunteered for all the jobs without looking in his calendar, the sort of guy who would always speak up, even if his brain wasn’t quite in gear yet. And Jesus warmed to that, I’m sure. Jesus loved the enthusiasm and wholeheartedness of Peter’s discipleship.

But now Peter has another priceless qualification – an awareness of both the true cost of discipleship, and of his own weakness. He now knows that following Jesus can cost you your life, and he now knows that he should be careful about promising what he can’t deliver. And Jesus is quite up front with him about where this path is going to lead; he tells him quite plainly that the day is going to come when he, Peter, will also be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. And then Jesus says to him again, “Follow me” (v.19).

So what’s it like for us ordinary, fallible human beings – who have let the Lord down, not once but many times – what’s it like for us to have an encounter with the risen Lord? Nowadays our encounters with Jesus tend not to be as dramatic as in those early days after his resurrection. We don’t live in that forty-day period when Jesus was still walking the earth in a physical resurrected body, inviting people to touch his wounds and to watch him as he ate and drank in their presence.

And yet, the New Testament does tell us that a meeting with the risen Lord is still possible for us, in a spiritual or mystical sense. Paul talks in dynamic language about it: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ (Philippians 3:10). He even talks of us being ‘in’ Christ, and Christ being ‘in’ us, and he prays for the Christians in Ephesus ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3:17). This will happen, he says, as we are ‘strengthened in (our) inner being with power through (God’s) Spirit’ (Ephesians 3:16).

So what’s this like? Well, of course, it goes without saying that it’s a joyful thing. We read in today’s gospel of these poor tired disciples who’ve been fishing all night long, and then, completely unexpectedly, on the advice of a stranger, they suddenly have a bumper catch of fish. Maybe something like that has happened to us, too. Maybe we were starting to get interested in Jesus, and we started reading his story in the gospels. Maybe some command of his spoke vividly to us, and we thought, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before! I’m going to try that out”. So we did – we ‘cast our nets to the right side of the boat’, so to speak – and to our surprise it worked out well; perhaps a relationship was healed, or we found strength to do something we’d never been able to do before. We were amazed and excited, joyful and fearful. We thought, “Wow – I’m playing poker, not solitaire! There really is someone else out there getting involved in my life!” And this realization wasn’t just scary; it was a joyful thing too.

We see that joy and excitement quite clearly in this gospel reading. When Peter realizes that it’s the Lord standing there on the lakeshore beside the fire, he can’t help himself – he leaves his companions in the boat to look after the fish, while he jumps in the water and swims ashore as fast as he can! How like Peter! But we shouldn’t imagine the others didn’t feel the same way; they may not have been a demonstrative as Peter, but they must have felt their hearts leap for joy too, when they saw the Lord they loved.

But it’s not just about joy; it’s also about honesty, because an encounter with the risen Lord is also an encounter with our own true selves. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we will be unable to have a genuine encounter with the risen Lord unless we are willing to reveal our true selves to him – or rather, that the genuineness and depth of the encounter will depend on how genuine we are prepared to be with him. “Lord, you know the whole story; you know I’m your friend, but you know I’ve failed you too. I can’t hide anything from you”.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? God wants to have a relationship with me – with the real ‘me’, not the fake persona I create in order to impress the people around me. This is not rocket science! The Old Testament people knew it well; they wrote psalms asking God to curse their enemies, or complaining about how God had abandoned them, or lamenting their own wickedness. They were not putting on masks and pretending to be holier than they really were. No – their prayers are the prayers of people who know that God sees the secrets of our hearts: ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden’.

That’s what we need. No alcoholic can make any progress through the Alcoholics Anonymous program until they’re willing to start with Step One: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable’. You never get past that awareness; week by week you go to the meeting and start by saying, “My name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Imagine if our liturgy asked us to do that each time we gathered together; “My name is Tim and I’m a sinner”.

Oh, right – it does! “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves”. Trouble is, it’s too easy for those words to roll off our tongue. Truly meeting with the risen Jesus – truly following him each day – will confront us as never before with the reality of our own weaknesses and failures. The good news, of course, is that those weaknesses and failures are not news to him. He already knew Peter would deny him three times, and he loved him anyway.

So the risen Jesus meets with Peter on the shores of the lake, reminds him of that threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and then asks him again three times, “Do you love me?” Despite his failures, Jesus gives Peter a new job description: “Feed my lambs” (v.15), “Tend my sheep” (v.16), “Feed my sheep” (v.17). Jesus has already described himself in John’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd; now he invites Peter, the failure, to share with him in that shepherding ministry. And at the end of the paragraph, after warning him about the price he will pay, he says to him again, as he did when he first called him, “Follow me” (v.19).

That’s the third thing about an encounter with the risen Lord: if it’s real, it will lead to a deeper life of discipleship, of following Jesus. In other words, we will be asking Jesus each day to teach us to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it. And we will do this, knowing that there will be a price to pay: not everyone in our life will be jumping for joy because we are following Jesus, and some of them will let us know about it, in no uncertain terms. We may not have Peter’s experience of paying with our lives for our allegiance to Jesus, but there will be a cross for us to carry too, make no mistake about that. And we will accept that cross joyfully, because we know it’s worth it; as Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

So yes, it is possible for us – even today, even though we have failed the Lord many times – it is possible for us to know the risen Lord as he lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. He knows very well that we have failed him and let him down, but this need not disqualify us. Failure was not the end for Simon Peter, and failure is not the end for us either. After all, the Gospel tells us that Jesus takes his failures and makes them his fellow-workers!

So don’t count yourself out. Don’t say, “Because I’ve done this or that, I’ve disqualified myself and Jesus could never want to have anything to do with me or use me to serve others”. Don’t say, “I don’t have any qualifications he could use”. Jesus knows all about your failures and he isn’t asking you about your qualifications. He has one simple question he wants to ask you: “Do you love me?” If the answer to that is “yes”, then we’re in business.

Do you love him? Are you his friend? Will you follow him? Those are the most important questions any of us can face. And if we understand them properly, the most eloquent prayer we could possibly pray this morning may Peter’s prayer of total honesty: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I am your friend”. It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s an honest answer, and with that honesty, we’re back on the road to a genuine relationship with the risen Lord.

Announcing the Good News in a Tight Corner (a sermon on Acts 5:27-32)

I notice that when baby announcements are made in families, no one has to be reminded to spread the news! The parents make the initial announcement, and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls, and then just as they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Aunt Susan – you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always called her ‘Aunt’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Aunt Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard – your mother called me an hour ago!”

That’s what seems to happen with good news in the world, isn’t it? No one needs to tell us to spread it. We have some wonderful experience that really enriched our lives, far beyond anything we were expecting, and no one has to tell us to share the story with others. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony were fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be – I know you’d really enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? Well, we would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. Something wonderful and memorable happens to us, or we get word of some really great event that’s going to take place, and we can’t help ourselves – we just have to share it with others.

We get that same sense of excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They had thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered that it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.

And so it’s appropriate that every year during the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them had not actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as God’s own personal presence in them and among them, and that same Spirit helped them when they went out to share the joy they’d received with other people.

Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. The time frame is probably several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem; sick people are being healed, and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the religious establishment – in other words, the collaborators who are in bed with the Romans – are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ.

Morning comes and there is consternation in the ruling council – where are the incarcerated apostles? Word comes that they are back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them the tongue-lashing we read at the beginning of today’s portion: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28).

This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage, he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Gospel, the good news he has been announcing. He does this by making three affirmations about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The first affirmation is that God is victorious.

In 1944 C.S. Lewis’ close friend Charles Williams died suddenly. Writing to another friend a few days afterwards, Lewis tried to describe the extraordinary experience of not really being able to feel as if he had lost Williams, even though he was dead. He said something like this: ‘What the idea of death has done to him is nothing compared to what he has done to the idea of death. Knocked it for six! And it used to be a fast bowler!’ If he had been speaking to us North Americans Lewis might have used a baseball illustration instead of one from cricket; he might have said ‘He’s hit death for a home run – and it used to be a fast pitcher’!

Death is the last and greatest enemy. If a criminal wants to intimidate you he pulls a gun on you, knowing that the fear of death is often the strongest persuader of them all. We work hard to avoid the thought of death. We fill our days with business successes, with the accumulation of wealth, with happy family activities. Some of us work hard to keep fit, and use medication to smooth out our wrinkles or paint out our grey hair. And we may be successful for a while – but it’s going to beat us in the end, and we all know it. We sometimes say ‘Love is stronger than death’ – but how can that be, since death seems to end all human relationships?

The answer for us Christians, of course, is that we know love is stronger than death because of Jesus’ resurrection. In verse 30 Peter says “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree”. The Pharisees and Sadducees had used this old enemy, death, to silence Jesus – trusting that the ‘God of their ancestors’ was on their side! But it turned out otherwise. Against all the odds, God did something unheard of: he raised Jesus from the dead. If Jesus was victorious over death – the last, the greatest enemy of all humanity – then nothing in all creation could be beyond his power.

But God’s victory over evil goes even further than that. Did you notice the word Peter uses for the Cross? He says “…whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. Why did Peter call the Cross a ‘tree’? There is a text in the Old Testament that says ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. The apostles of course were well aware of this text, but instead of downplaying it, they proclaimed it boldly. Over and over again, in Acts and in his letters, Peter calls the Cross a ‘tree’. Why? Because he believed that on the Cross Jesus took the curse of our sins, the barrier which had come between us and God, and in winning the victory over evil he removed that barrier forever. Not only is death defeated on Easter weekend – so is sin. The plan of the evil one to separate us from God forever is defeated at the Cross, and instead the way of salvation is opened for all people.

So Peter’s first Gospel affirmation is ‘God is victorious over evil, sin and death!’ And this is great news when we stand at the death beds of our loved ones, or when we face our own death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945, turned to his friends as he was being taken away and said “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life!” And in another place he had written “For the Christian, death is the greatest milestone on the road to victory!”.

So Peter’s first Gospel affirmation is that ‘God is victorious’. His second is this: ‘Jesus Reigns’.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth there’s a delightful scene after the birth of Jesus when people are lining up in Bethlehem to be registered in the census. King Herod has sent word that the names of all the newborn are to be noted. Someone asks “Why do they want the names of the newborn?” and another voice replies “It’s no use arguing with them – you just do what you’re told!”

We all know that feeling! It’s the feeling of workers who are the victims of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know that feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name.

In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful, and as his cult spread around the Mediterranean world more and more people were worshipping him as a god. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’; after all, he was the Lord of the known world, and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees, the ‘realists’, the rich Jewish families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. They were widely seen by ordinary Jews as collaborators and traitors.

Now, in this context, the apostles bring this great Gospel announcement: “Are you tired of this crowd of self-serving oppressors? Well, the good news is that there’s another King in waiting, Jesus the Messiah, the one who in the end will bring justice and peace for all. We thought his death had disproved any idea that he was the Messiah from God, but God changed all that by raising him from the dead. Now he’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true that his rule is hidden at the moment; it isn’t yet made obvious to everyone. But don’t be deceived by appearances; he will have the last word! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”

So the good news is that the true ruler of the universe is not a Roman tyrant or a greedy multinational corporation; it’s Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, and so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. And we believe that no sacrifice we can make in his cause is in vain, because one day he will reign forever, and, as the New Testament says in its poetical language, ‘we will reign with him’.

So Peter has given us two Gospel affirmations: first, ‘God is victorious’, and second, ‘Jesus reigns’. His third Gospel affirmation is this: ‘The Holy Spirit has been given’.

When you wear a clerical collar as I occasionally do, from time to time someone will come up to you with the request “Say one for me, Padre!”. I’m quite happy to ‘say one’ for anyone who asks, but it always amuses me that people somehow think my prayers are more effective than theirs. I know my own heart, and I often feel like responding in the words of Paul Hogan’s character in the movie Almost An Angel: “I’ll pray for you if you want, but I don’t know if it’ll do any good; the last time God and I spoke, he called me a scumbag!”

Most religions in history have had this idea of an elite, who are somehow seen as being closer to God – priests, who go between God and the people, representing God to the people and the people to God. In the Old Testament the Israelites saw all the thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, and they came to Moses in fear. “You talk to God on our behalf – we’ll do whatever he tells you – but don’t make us go up there for ourselves!” Negotiating a relationship with God is often seen as so demanding that only a select few are equal to the task.

In contrast, New Testament Christianity announces the astonishing news that God desires an intimate relationship with all who believe and are ready to commit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus – that is the meaning of the word ‘obey’ in verse 32: “…the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him”. The God who made the galaxies wants to live in you, giving you the power to tackle life as a faithful follower of this new King, Jesus. You are not alone! God the Holy Spirit is in you!

You see why this is good news? The common picture of ‘religion’ is of we poor humans gritting our teeth and doing our best to be ‘good’, while all the time God stands over us with a big stick waiting to beat on us for our failures. But the Christian picture is very different: God forgives our sins and comes to live in us by his Holy Spirit, helping us to get free from our besetting sins and to learn his new way of life.

Look at the difference this makes for Peter. Here he is, standing before the Sanhedrin. There really is no equivalent body today; we might envision it as a combination of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada. Imagine a journeyman welder being grilled by such a body of people on his theology and politics! That’s the kind of situation Peter is in. And yet he’s not intimidated; rather, he boldly gives his words of witness about the Good News of Jesus, in the face of possible execution. This is the same man who, on the night before Good Friday, denied three times that he even knew Jesus. See the difference the Holy Spirit’s help is making to Peter now. And the same Spirit is given to you and me today. Each day we can ask him to fill us, to guide us and strengthen us to follow Jesus and spread his love by our words and our actions.

So this is the good news that Peter announced in those few minutes of tension when he was standing before the Jewish ruling council. This is the difference that the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit was making in his life. This morning, let’s hear again his joyful proclamation: God is victorious over evil and sin, so you don’t need to be afraid of death or judgement. Jesus, the loving Lord who washed his disciples’ feet, is the true ruler of the universe, the one to whom all other rulers will one day have to give account. And you can have a genuine relationship with the God who made you, because he promises to give his Holy Spirit to all who will acknowledge Jesus as their King.

Let that good news sink into your heart this morning. Let it transform your life in all its power and wonder. And then this week, if you get a chance to do what Peter did – a chance to share the Christian message in one minute or less – don’t be afraid. The Holy Spirit who was in Peter is in you too. Send up a quick prayer for his help, and then open your mouth and tell others what it means to you that Jesus is alive. You might be surprised at what God does through your words!

The Easter Story – Then and Now (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

Can you imagine for a moment what it felt like to be in the shoes of the followers of Jesus – Peter and John and James and Mary Magdalene and the rest – on the evening of Good Friday?

They had all come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah – the King like David – the one God was going to send to Israel, the one who would drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The old prophecies had said that the Messiah would defeat his enemies through the power of God, and so they had followed Jesus confidently, knowing that when they got to Jerusalem there would be a showdown, and that he would be victorious.

But something had gone horribly wrong with the plan. Jesus had not defeated his enemies; he had been crucified by them. This was not something they had been expecting. In fact, in their minds, this could only mean one thing: they had been wrong about him. He was not the true Messiah after all! They had wasted the last three years of their lives on an imposter. The best thing for them to do was to keep their heads down in the city until the dust settled, and then slip off quietly back to Galilee, resume their lives, and chalk this one up to experience. And so they hid behind locked doors in the upper room, biding their time.

But then the stories began to come in.

Some of the women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to finish the job of anointing the body of Jesus (which the arrival of the Sabbath had interrupted). Tombs in those days were not like graves today – they were family affairs, usually caves in which the bodies were kept until they had decayed and all that was left were bones. Then the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, and that particular place in the tomb would be available for another family member when it was needed. That’s why John’s gospel specifies that this was a ‘new tomb in which no one had ever been laid’ (19:41), made available to Jesus by a rich man who had been one of his secret followers.

But as we read in our gospel this morning, when the women reached the tomb they got a shock; the huge stone across the entrance had been rolled away, and when they looked in, they saw that the body was gone. So they ran to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them about it. In John’s gospel we read that Peter and John decided to investigate; they ran back to the garden, and one of the women, Mary Magdalene, followed them. Peter and John found everything as Mary had said – the body gone, the linen cloths lying where it had been, with the turban for the head lying a little way away, neatly folded. Puzzled, not knowing what was going on, but beginning to hope, Peter and John slipped away.

But John’s gospel tells us that Mary stayed at the tomb, and so she became the first person to actually see Jesus alive after his resurrection. I want to point out to you that if a fiction writer in first century Jerusalem had been making this story up, there are two details he would definitely have left out. First, in the culture of that day women were considered to be unreliable witnesses; their evidence was inadmissible in a court of law. So if you were making this story up and wanting to convince people that it was true, you definitely wouldn’t have a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Secondly, you definitely wouldn’t include a story about how sometimes people didn’t recognize Jesus at first; you would want to get across the idea that there was absolutely no doubt about his identity.

The gospel writers, however, were not quite so creative with the truth as some modern skeptical scholars would have us believe. They tell us that a woman was the first witness of the resurrection because they knew that that is, in fact, what happened. And they also tell us that when she first saw the risen Jesus, she didn’t recognize him right away. She wasn’t alone in that. There was something very mysterious about the appearance of the risen Lord, and people didn’t always grasp right at the beginning that it was him. This was the story that the witnesses remembered, and because they were honest, they told the truth.

So Jesus appeared first of all to Mary by the tomb early on Easter morning. Later in the afternoon two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away; they were talking sadly about what had happened, but then a stranger came and joined them as they walked along the road. He asked them what they were talking about, and out came the whole story. “How dull you are!” the stranger said: “Don’t you know the scriptures predicted this?” And he proceeded to give them a guided tour through all the prophecies and explained how they had been fulfilled in Jesus.

Eventually they reached their destination and invited him in for a meal. There he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they realized it had been Jesus all the time. He vanished from their sight, but they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, went to the upper room and told the disciples “We’ve seen him!” The others said, “Yes, we know – he’s appeared to Peter as well!” – a meeting we know nothing about beyond the fact that it happened some time during the day. But as they were talking together, to their amazement Jesus appeared among them. They were afraid, and some found it hard to believe, but when he invited them to touch him and asked them for something to eat, they realized it was true.

And so it continued for the next six weeks. Sometimes Jesus appeared to individuals, sometimes to groups; at one time, to a group of more than five hundred of his followers. Sometimes the appearances were in Jerusalem, sometimes back in Galilee. Sometimes people recognized him right away, at other times it took longer. It was wild and unpredictable and scary and exciting; the disciples knew that God’s power had broken into their world as never before. The story of Jesus wasn’t over after all: in fact, it had only just begun!

If it’s true, what difference does it make for you and me?

Well, the early Christians believed it meant that God had made Jesus the true Lord of all. We read about that in our first reading this morning. When Peter was sharing the Gospel with the household of Cornelius the Roman soldier, he began by saying,

“You know the message (God) sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

‘Lord of all’ in the time of Jesus was a title that already had an owner – Caesar, the Roman emperor. It was one of his official titles. But the early Christians were impudent enough to steal it from Caesar and give it to their carpenter rabbi from Nazareth. And they liked to quote a verse from the book of Psalms and apply it to Jesus. It says:

The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).

Peter quotes that verse in a sermon he preaches in the second chapter of Acts:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”’.

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).

Now it might seem strange to us, at the end of a week in which we’ve seen fresh examples of the evil power of human beings to inflict murder and terror on one another – it might seem strange to us at a time like this to assert that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And of course the early Christians weren’t blind to this reality. By the time the Book of Acts was written many of the early apostles had given their lives for the cause of Christ. Most of them had not been supernaturally delivered, either. They were well aware that the powers and authorities continued to rebel against the rule of God. But in the face of this fact they continued to assert two things.

First, they continued to assert the Lordship of Jesus. But they remembered that when he had walked the earth he had refused to exercise that Lordship by force. He had told his disciples to love their enemies, pray for those who hated them, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil. And then, on the Cross, he put his own teaching into practice. As they nailed the spikes into his wrists and feet, he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing’.

So the early Christians expected that if they followed Jesus as Lord, they would suffer for their loyalty to him. This wasn’t a strange thing to them. This is what happens when the love of God invades a world dominated by the forces of greed and power. Jesus himself had foretold it. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). When Jesus spoke those words, ‘taking up your cross’ meant being executed by the Romans as a threat to the state. Jesus warned his followers that this would happen to them, and so they weren’t surprised.

But the second thing the early Christians continued to assert was that in the long run, everyone would be answerable to Jesus, God’s anointed king. Less than forty years after the death of Jesus, Paul said,

‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).

In other words, the one who will have the last word is not Caesar, it’s not the dark and shadowy leaders of terrorist organizations or the kings of multinational corporations. All of the powers and authorities of this world will on day have to give account to the one God has appointed both Lord and Messiah. As we say over and over again in the Nicene Creed – so often, perhaps, that we don’t notice it – ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

So the resurrection means that God has made Jesus Lord of all, and in the end, everyone will be answerable to him – which is good news, because he is a just and merciful lord, not a cruel tyrant. But there’s one more thing we need to say about what the resurrection means to us: it means that Jesus is on the loose.

They tried to nail Jesus down, but they couldn’t do it. Love is stronger than death. The power of God is stronger than all the hatred of human beings. And the risen Jesus has not abandoned us; he is still at work in the lives of people who follow him.

But you can’t summon him up like a genie in a bottle. He’s not under our control, so that we can produce him like a conjuror’s trick. When we read the stories of the risen Jesus in the gospels and the Book of Acts, it’s quite clear that no one really knew when he was going to show up. People could call on his name, but they could not make him answer. He was the one who was going to take the initiative. He was the one who would decide what he was going to do.

And the same is true today. Some people tell stories of dramatic experiences of the risen Lord, but most of us come to know him in quieter ways. He promised his followers that after his resurrection he would be present to them in a new way – by giving them the Holy Spirit of God to come into their hearts as the living presence of God in their lives. That experience – the inner presence of the Holy Spirit – is the way that most of us Christians today come to know the risen Jesus. That’s what Peter was talking about in the sermon I quoted from earlier on, when he said,

“Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

Please don’t think that because it is quiet and less tangible than a bodily resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit is somehow less real. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the testimony of Christians that the presence of the Spirit is one of the most real things we experience in our lives. We hear his voice speaking to us in the Scriptures and in our hearts. We sense his guidance in those gentle ‘nudges’ that we follow sometimes, and find that he’s got things for us to do. We sense his presence when we gather with sisters and brothers to worship God. When we do the work of sharing the good news of Jesus with others, we usually discover that he’s been there before us, working in their hearts and arousing an interest in the person of Jesus. And when he asks us to do things we expected to find impossible, we find instead that there’s a strength greater than our own, helping us to do more than we thought we could.

Jesus is alive. He gives us his Holy Spirit. We can’t control him or pin him down. He goes ahead of us, surprising us and delighting us, challenging us, and leading us to do the will of the Father. In other words, the story that began on that first Easter morning is not over. It continues to this day. God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus who we crucified, and one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

This Joyful Eastertide

This is my favourite Easter hymn. A joyful Easter, everyone! Christ is Risen!


This joyful Eastertide,
away with care and sorrow!
My Love, the Crucified,
hath sprung to life this morrow.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Death’s flood hath lost its chill,
since Jesus crossed the river:
Lover of souls, from ill
my passing soul deliver.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

My flesh in hope shall rest,
and for a season slumber,
till trump from east to west
shall wake the dead in number.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Words: George R. Woodward (1848-1934), 1894

Music: Vruechten (This Joyful Eastertide) (Dutch melody from David’s Psalmen, Amsterdam, 1685, arranged Charles Wood, 1866-1926)


Remember the Gospel

Surely one of the most frightening and disorienting experiences we can have as human beings is to begin to be aware that we are losing our memory. How do I know who I am, if I’m not sure where I’ve come from? How do I know who I can trust, or who loves me, or who my family members are? Truly, memory is one of God’s most important and most precious gifts to us.

In our first scripture reading this morning, the apostle Paul has some words to say to a group of Christians who were in danger of losing their memory. This reading comes from a letter Paul wrote to the Christians living in the Greek city of Corinth, probably around 58 A.D. In those days, of course, they weren’t meeting in public buildings as we do today; they were probably meeting in small groups in private houses. Those little house churches in Corinth had all sorts of problems, and Paul spends the first fourteen chapters of this letter dealing with them. But in chapter fifteen he comes back to the central issue, and he begins in verse 1 with these words: ‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand’.

If I feel that it’s necessary to remind someone of something, it would usually be because I think they are in danger of forgetting it. For instance, when my youngest son was still living at home I didn’t feel the need to remind him to go out and spend time with his friends, because he never seemed to be in danger of forgetting them! However, I did think it was important to remind him to take his house key with him when he went out, because from time to time he did forget that rather important item, and then he would ring my doorbell at two in the morning so that he could get back into the house! So if Paul feels it necessary to remind the Christians in Corinth about the good news, or gospel, that he proclaimed to them, it must be because he thinks they are in danger of forgetting it.

How could that be? How could a Christian church forget the good news of Jesus Christ, the ‘gospel’ as we call it, which is the central Christian message? Sadly, it happens all the time; churches easily get distracted. They get caught up in the maintenance of old traditions, or they become obsessed with divisive issues like homosexuality, or they get caught up in buildings and liturgies and theological controversies. Individual Christians can forget the gospel as well; in fact, maybe they’ve never even really heard it. I’ve explained the good news of Jesus to hundreds of people down through the years of my ministry, and I’ve stopped being surprised at the number of church people who tell me they’re hearing it for the first time.

So, what is this good news that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians? Let’s look a little more closely at this; you might like to turn to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, on page 176 in the New Testament in our church bibles.

Read the rest here.

The Resurrection and the Gospel

Those of us who insist on the centrality of the Resurrection of Jesus have recently been caricatured by a commenter over at Thinking Anglicans as believing that nothing else really matters ‘unless you, personally, get to live forever’.

I think this is a gross misunderstanding of how the early Christians understood the centrality of the Resurrection. Listen to Paul:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-6).

The Resurrection is obviously central in Paul’s thought here, but it’s not primarily about my personal survival of death. It means that Jesus has been declared to be the Son of God ‘with power’; it is God’s declaration that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. And this is good news, because it means that the Lord of the universe is not the vicious tyrant in Rome, but the one who loved us and gave himself for us. The last word in history will not go to dictators or terrorists or drug lords, or presidents or prime ministers or CEOs of multinational corporations, but to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Listen to Peter on the Day of Pentecost:

‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power… This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand, 
until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ” 
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ (Acts 2:22-24, 32-36).

There it is again: the Resurrection is the evidence that God has made him – ‘this Jesus whom you crucified’ – both Lord and Messiah. It’s not primarily about my personal survival of death. Its primary meaning concerns the victory of love over hate, of good over evil, of Jesus over the principalities and powers. The Resurrection tells us that in the end, love wins.

And this is important, because there’s not really a lot of evidence for that sentiment. ‘Love never dies’, says the popular song, but in fact all love does eventually die, because the lovers die; you don’t see skeletons loving each other. Strong and resilient souls may be able to stand against injustice and oppression with nothing to support them but their own stubbornness, but most of us lesser mortals need a stronger hope than that. The Resurrection gives us that hope: not primarily that we will live forever (although that’s included, and I’m glad for it), but that Jesus is Lord, and that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess his Lordship, to the glory of God the Father. In the end, justice will prevail; in the end, love will win. That’s what the Resurrection tells me, that’s why it’s good news, and that’s why, if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain.