14 April 2013
Third Sunday in Easter
10.00 Communion Hadlow
Readings Acts 9:1-6 John 21:1-19
Heavenly Father, as we come to look at your written word this morning may the indwelling Holy Spirit open the eyes of our hearts to meet with your living Word, who is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen
Normally, at this time of year, straight after Easter, the family and I go away to something called Spring Harvest. We haven’t done it this year because we have been moving house and we thought that trying to go away at the same time as moving house may have been a little too much. For those of you who don’t know Spring Harvest is an annual gathering of Christians from all over the country that takes place at two Butlins sites in Minehead and Skegness. We went to Skegness once. Just once. Enough Said.
About 7000 people go to each week at each site and it runs for three weeks – for those who are good at maths you have probably already worked out that this means that about 42000 people attend this event each year.
They go there to experience loud and lively worship in the Big Top, it is literally a huge circus tent that can hold about 4000 people, they go there to learn more about their faith as there are a huge range of seminars catering for all tastes, they go there to have a lot of fun, believe me there was a lot of laughter, but most importantly many go there to experience being in a huge community of Christians. For me, simply to walk around the site and to know that virtually everyone else there would describe themselves as Christian makes a big change from the experience of everyday life and it gives one a huge boost to be reminded that we as a local church are not doing this on our own but we are still part of something much bigger than ourselves. Whatever the media says, and whatever Philip Pullman would like, the fact is that the church is alive and well and to be surrounded by literally thousands of other people singing “Hosanna” at the top of your voice is a great reminder of that.
Apart from the experience of that collective worship last year was particularly struck by three things during the week that I wanted to share with you briefly today.
The first took place during a seminar. The speaker said something which echoed a little of what I had been thinking for a long time, but which one does not hear spoken too much. It was, quite simply, that Christians should stop thinking about the Bible as being an instruction manual, or as a book of rules, which can always give you the correct “Christian” answer to every dilemma or from which one can quote verses out of context in an attempt to give the final word to every argument. The fact is that the Bible does not give a clear answer on many modern issues such as stem cell research, the possession of nuclear weapons, climate change and many other of the difficult issues that we face and, it has to be said, that if we tried to apply everything the bible said literally then we would still be keeping slaves and putting people to death for wearing garments containing two different types of thread. Therefore when we use the bible as a guide to ethical dilemmas our response to those questions can only be guided by biblical principles but, and here is the really important part, it is quite possible for Christians to hold contrary views on a range of subjects and yet still be good and faithful Christians. The reason for that is simply that Christianity is not about following a book of rules. Being a Christian is about being a follower of a person, Jesus Christ, and Jesus was much fonder of speaking in parables that are designed to make us think and are open to more than one interpretation than he was in laying down clear rules.
The second thing that struck me took place during some preaching by a man called Jeff Lucas. Jeff is a talented and very funny preacher who heads a mega-church in America but in previous years I have found that he has concentrated too much on being funny and not said anything particularly profound. Last year it was quite different and, whilst he was still really amusing, he also said some important stuff. He said that you can be depressed, and still be a Christian. He said that you can have days when you can’t bear to be cheerful and full of the joys of spring, and still be a Christian. He said, and this is really important, you can have doubts about faith and still be a Christian. And that is because being a Christian is not about being the right sort of person, and it is not even about believing all the right things. Being a Christian is, first and foremost, about being someone who seeks to follow the person Jesus Christ. We only need to look at the disciples to see that being a follower does not mean being perfect, it simply means looking to the master and trying to follow.
The third thing that impressed me was in the sermon on the last morning of Spring Harvest when 4000 people shared an informal communion. The preacher that morning was from a Salvation Army background and, you probably already know this, the Salvation Army as a denomination do not place much importance on Holy Communion. However the preacher said that as he got older so he had come to find communion much more important and that he was increasingly of the view that his church should try and share communion each week because in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup we not only commemorate the Last Supper, as Jesus commanded us to do, but just as importantly he has found that it is often through the mystery of communion that Jesus reveals his presence to us. The preacher spoke about the disciples who were walking on the road to Emmaus who were joined by a mysterious stranger whom they did not recognise. As they walked along the dusty road together this mysterious stranger spoke to them of all the things that had happened in Jerusalem and they were so intrigued that they invited him to stop and share supper with them. As soon as the stranger broke bread with them they recognised his as Jesus and they ran all the way back to Jerusalem saying that they had seen the Lord! There are clear echoes of that encounters with Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading, which is a story that I love as it says so much about the character of the risen Jesus, the person that we seek to follow.
After the crucifixion, and before the Holy Spirit fell on the church at Pentecost, many of the disciples had returned to their previous lives and occupations. Those that had been fishermen returned to their trade but, on the morning of this story at least, they were not having much luck and had caught nothing.
And then, while they are fishing, they see a mysterious stranger standing on the beach, and he tells them to cast the net again. When they do so there are so many fish that they can barely haul the net in. It is then, when they have followed his instruction and seen the result, that they recognise this stranger and the cry of recognition goes up: “It is the Lord!” and Simon Peter puts on some clothes and rushes to the shore to see Jesus. As an aside it is good that we do not view the bible simply as a book of rules otherwise there would be a very good argument that all fishing would have to be done in the nude so that we could be more like the disciples:
“If fishing in the nude is good enough for St Peter then it is good enough for me!” “But skipper, this is the North Sea.”
“Heathen, take off your clothes!”
When Peter and the other disciples get to the shore they find that Jesus has already got some fish on the barbeque for them and he gives them a hearty cooked breakfast. There is always the temptation to over-spiritualise the man Jesus, to imagine him as totally other worldly and ethereal. When that temptation strikes the remedy is to see Jesus eating and drinking. Time and time again we encounter Jesus throughout the gospels eating and drinking with people and meeting their physicals needs – at the wedding in Cana he turned water into wine, when he fed the 5000 and the 4000 he knew that people needed physical nourishment, at the Last Supper and again here Jesus reveals his character by feeding people – hospitality coming first. Perhaps that is a good argument for having a good cooked breakfast at the start of the service, or perhaps that is just me being hopeful.
But Jesus is not merely a bon viveur or a barbeque chef and there is a request – in this story it is directed primarily at Peter as Jesus asks him three times to “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus is departing soon and he is asking Peter to take on the mantle of feeding and caring for those he has gathered together. Jesus does not ask Peter to be a follower or a writer of a rule book, Jesus asks Peter to demonstrate his love for Jesus by caring for his flock, feeding and loving them as Jesus did and, finally, Jesus says to Peter, as he says to each of us: “Follow me.”
In a moment we will be saying the Nicene Creed together and I suspect that some people feel that they cannot call themselves Christian because they cannot assert all the statements in that creed. From what I have been saying this morning I hope it follows that we are not and do not become Christians when we get to the point of accepting either what the creed says or any similar set of propositions. We are Christians when we seek to follow Jesus’ command to follow him. Christians are followers of Jesus not followers of rules or even statements of belief.
The Jesus we follow is more enigmatic than any rule book, and was sometimes a mysterious stranger even to those who were closest to him in life, so we should not feel bad if our experience is also often one of enigma or mystery. The mysterious stranger may be mistaken for a gardener, or a fellow pilgrim on the road to Emmaus or Rochester or even Minehead, or it may be a figure on a beach cooking fish over an open fire, but when we listen to the sound of his voice we recognise him as the Lord, he reveals his grace to us in the sharing of food and he calls us to follow him.
I know that time is against me but I want to close by saying two final things. The first is that in June the booking lines open for Spring Harvest 2014 – the family and I hope to go next year and it would be great if a group from St Mary’s would love to come too – I shall distribute brochures closer to the time. The second is that I have not forgotten the wonderful story of St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and that undoubtedly deserves a whole sermon of its own. However –the one thing I did want to say about it this morning is that if your own conversion to Christianity was less dramatic or less instant or less memorable than St Paul’s conversion you should never let any other Christian make you feel like a second class believer. God works differently with each of us because we are each a unique creation. I suspect that St Paul’s conversion took the form that it did because that is what he needed to stop him in his tracks and change him. Do not believe the lie that unless you have had a road to Damascus experience that you are not a real Christian. God is at work in you regardless. All you need to do is to seek to follow Christ and he will meet you in your place of need.