If I was to summarise our readings, it would be to say that there’s hope for us all. No matter how rubbish we feel, how disappointed or angry or frightened we feel, there’s hope. But there’s a challenge for us too. An expectation of us.
Let’s look at our Gospel first. In the story from John, we’re a week or so after the crucifixion and Jesus had appeared to some of the disciples. He’d said things and promised things – but then he was gone again. And they were waiting. And waiting.
How do you get through yet another night when you’re waiting for the one you love, and you don’t know when they’re going to show up? Let’s imagine the scene. None of them can sleep, so Peter goes back to doing what he knows best. He gets in a boat, with 6 of the others and they try to fish.
Hard to know how often they’d been fishing in those 3 years since they’d dropped everything immediately to follow Jesus. And maybe they were all a bit rusty or maybe their heart wasn’t in it, and they were just looking to do something, anything. But they caught nothing.
Then they see a man and a barbecue – even 2 thousand years ago it was always a man with a barbecue. But it’s a hundred yards away and they can’t see him properly, but the sea is calm like a mill pond and sound travels. He asks if they’d had any luck and then he tells them to try the other side. And you wonder if there were some rolling eyes and raised eyebrows in the boat at the suggestion, a bit of muttered swearing perhaps, but they did it anyway.
And John tells us they caught 153 fish. That man needs to get out more and get a social life! Counting fish isn’t a great hobby… But it was enough to almost burst the nets. And that’s when they recognise Jesus. Not because they were any nearer and not because they could see his face any better but because of what had just happened. Only Jesus could do something like that. Do we recognise Jesus when something fantastic happens?
Let’s stop imagining the scene now because we’re told that all this time Peter has been naked! Peter gets some clothes on and jumps into the water. Which raises so many questions that I don’t want to go there. But he does it to get to Jesus as quickly as he can. Is that the behaviour of someone ashamed and embarrassed at that triple denial? You’d think he’d be the last one off the boat not the first. It makes me wonder about the conversation with Jesus later.
And Jesus is cooking them breakfast. No-one asks who he is or where he got the fish from that he’s been cooking. Before any talk of feeding sheep and lambs, Jesus feeds the disciples, feeds us. It’s what happens here, every Sunday. We’re fed first before we go out to love and serve the Lord. In the bread and the wine at the Lord’s table, in the faces and in the companionship of those sat around us, we’re fed first. But then we’re expected to go out, to love and serve.
Jesus went out and found the disciples, going about the business of catching fish. They hadn’t recognised him, but he’d cooked them breakfast. And I hope and pray that when we’re out and about during the week, doing whatever it is that we do, that every now and then we realise that Jesus is feeding us too, even if we’re not quite sure and we don’t quite recognise him. Because Christ could be in anyone that we encounter, anyone that we meet.
The scene is set
And then we have that apparently awkward moment between Peter and Jesus. The scene is set. The props are all there. There is a burning charcoal fire just like in Jerusalem on the night of the betrayal. And three times Jesus makes Peter say he loves him. And each time Jesus answers Peter in almost the same way. Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, how well would we do faced with the same repeated questions. Even when we’re not quite sure what to believe or not quite sure who he is, it’s hard not to love him, even if it’s just a little. Even when we’ve not been very good at following him, you can’t help but love him in some half-embarrassed way.
Often, we see this passage as a reconciliation. As a rehabilitation for Peter. But I do wonder if that had already happened. There’s an intriguing aside made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 which says that Jesus met privately with Peter in Jerusalem after the resurrection. No details are given but you can’t imagine that they didn’t talk about the denial. So, perhaps what we’re seeing here is something which is more of an encouragement – a challenge for Peter and a challenge for us. You say you love me – well this is how you can show it, these are the implications, these are the consequences.
Tend and feed
I’m not going into the Greek words used for ‘love’ here or the differences between tending and feeding lambs and sheep. Or that Jesus called him by his old name Simon and not Peter. Another time maybe. For now, let’s just ask what it means to tend and feed each other. Some are literally starving for lack of food. Others may be starving for whatever we can give them in small acts of kindness and understanding. Literally or figuratively, we’re called, we’re challenged, we’re commanded, to feed each other and tend to each other’s needs. One way or another to take care of each other. In the words of today’s psalm, to turn each other’s mourning into dancing.
Then in our passage from Acts, Saul’s world is in pieces. He’d been so sure about his call from God – and that he had to put an end to these followers of Christ. But now he’s been left for three days, confused and blind. Three days to pray perhaps. Three days in darkness to reflect on what’s happened.
Other things happened in three days. Three days Jesus lay in a dark tomb. Three days Jonah was in the belly of a fish. And at the end of three days Jonah emerges to his prophetic task and Jesus emerges to a resurrection life. At the end of his three days Saul emerges to – well what? What did he emerge to?
I think two conversions took place in our reading. Not on the road to Damascus. But inDamascus. Not just Saul but Ananias too.
Ananias was challenged by God to help the very person who had come there to arrest him and lead him to almost certain death. At the start, Saul is said to be breathing threats and murder. It was in the air around him. Ananias had to put all that to one side to help the person he feared most. Sometimes we also get asked to do things for people we don’t particularly like or get on with or even fear. But God says to Ananias, and to us, I’m going to flip all those things that you don’t like about that person and use them for good.
So, I think Saul’s conversion is partly wrought through the actions of Ananias. If this Christ could so inspire Ananias, to have his fear converted to love, to lay hands on Saul, to help and mentor Saul, to call Saul his brother…Saul who had come to destroy him, then what did that say about Christ? What a powerful witness Ananias must have been to Saul.
Ananias probably felt like doing a Jonah and running in the opposite direction. Instead, he stays. And in a sermon even shorter than Jonah’s, Ananias brings about another act of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. He says one word: “brother”. And that’s enough for the scales to fall off.
And then they ate. Because, just as in the Gospel reading, eating often seems to accompany reconciliation.
God intended using Saul. Someone who had hurt others and who was initially written off by Ananias. He was a forceful, arrogant, intellectual – and God says: “I can use that. You work for me now”. All the passion and brilliance and rhetoric that he used to persecute the early church were now to be used in the name of Jesus.
A second chance. Just like Peter. Because there are no lost causes in God’s kingdom.
I wonder if we know people that we’ve equally written off. Maybe we’ve written off ourselves… Again and again the Bible brings us stories of restoration and reconciliation. Of God salvaging for salvation.
And maybe we feel it’s impossible for us to turn our attitudes around and forgive others. Jesus says: “I’ll go first” and forgives those who put him on the cross even while he’s hanging there. He restored those who denied and abandoned him – and even cooked their breakfast. This is what allowed Stephen to forgive those who were stoning him moments before his death – and allowed Ananias to put his hands on Saul in blessing and to call him brother.
Change of agenda
What will Christ’s example allow you to do, allow me to do?
Following this service, you have your Annual Church Meeting, just as I have back at my home church. I wonder what would happen if, instead of the normal agenda, we had:
- Item 1: What act of restoration and reconciliation do we each need to take responsibility for?
- Item 2: How will we feed and tend each other?
- and item 3: When we go out of here today to love and to serve the Lord, how will we do that exactly? How will we love? How will we serve?
- Buechner, F. (2006). Secrets in the Dark. Harper One.