Hymns: Good Christians all, May the grace, Be thou my vision, Jesus Christ is risen today
Readings: Acts 9: 1-20, Ps 30, Rev 5:11-14, John 21. 1-19
Christmas is about the birthing of God in Jesus, and Pentecost about the birthing in the Spirit of all who experienced that day: both are clearly birth narratives. And this Easter season is also SO clearly a birthing narrative, the birthing of understanding, without which Pentecost cannot become the icing on the Christmas or the Easter cake. But it’s a bit slower, starting with the single event of the living again of Jesus, and continuing week by week with the teaching, the moving into the light, of the disciples. They are, if you like, continually re-born, with Jesus as their midwife. I guess that’s one thing I’m not too keen on people who earnestly ask ‘are you re-born’ and if one doesn’t give the right answer immediately, assume one is still a pagan, a blind ignoramus, and either look pityingly, try to convert their victim or walk off to avoid contamination. Such re-birth seems to be a one-off Paul on the road to Damascus drama, or the single Pentecost event. But the challenge of re-birth in the Trinity is that it is and must be continual and unending, open to doubt and certainty, anxiety and security, emptiness and joy.
It’s the birthing, just the beginning, of understanding for Paul. Our first reading tells of how an educated and highly placed Jewish religious zealot became one of the leading missionaries of the fledgling church and, given his writing skills, the most important. That is in itself extraordinary. But according to Paul’s own words, found in his first letter to the Church at Corinth in Greece, this is what happened. Furthermore, he says that his life changed due to his having seen the risen Christ, as his overwhelming experience transformed him. Agreed, he says in that letter to the Corinthians that his experience is different from that of the other leaders of the Church, for they knew Jesus. But he used today’s vision as the basis for his authority to teach.
It’s the birthing of understanding for seven of the disciples, as the gospel reading makes clear. In these days after Jesus’s death and return to life, the group were not wrestling with the problem of loss, the problem of what the appearances of Jesus meant, the problem of what to do now – and no doubt the anxiety of keeping their distance from the Roman authorities. They were fishermen doing what they knew best- fishing: but they’d had a fruitless night. Then a stranger calls out from the bank, “Hey you, have you caught anything?” A rhetorical, even mocking, question, for it would be clear the boat was not filled with fish: but Jesus simply wanted to wake them up and energize them. It is only after, on his advice, they have caught a great haul of fish that Peter realised it is Jesus. In what is probably a modest re-making of the event, the naked Peter dresses before jumping into the water and going to Jesus on the shore: as ever, Peter is impetuous, and in his special relation to Jesus seems not part of the team of fishermen.
Then we have an exchange, pointing to next week’s Gospel and psalm, between Peter and Jesus, in which their close relationships is restored after his pre-crucifixion denial. Jesus makes clear that this showing of himself, and their enlightenment, is not just an event, another one-off ‘been there, got that, but carry on regardless’ snippet. It contains expectations of and demands for future action, which Paul followed through response to his new birth vision, saying to all ‘He is the Son of God.’ If this event on the beach, or the event on the road to Damascus, had been just that, events with no future, births with no after care, no socialisation, no becoming, there would be no meaning in them. Jesus had ‘turned the disciples mourning into dancing, and girded them with gladness,’ as our psalm puts it. But he expected much of Peter, and of all there, who would not in future do what they wanted or go where they pleased, for if they were to be open to the revelation of God, their life would be lived in that relationship.
When I was ordained priest, one Bishop with lots of clergy put hands on my head, which was important, and significant. But when the other Bishop anointed my raised palms, the light dawned fully: from that second on, my life was no longer mine to go wherever I wished, my hands were no longer just mine, but must follow Christ’s hands, Christ’s way. It was a re-birthing, but yet just a beginning.
You may we thinking, that’s all well and good, you’re ordained, and few if any of us are. No. All of us here, in our various ways, are part of the priesthood of believers, all of us here, in our various ways, have seen glimmers of new life, glimpses of God or of godliness. We are human, we don’t follow through perfectly, or even adequately. But we know that through Christ’s gift of life we are forgiven when we truly work through our wrong-doing and make amends, cease to hold bitterness, cease to drown- or is it revel- in guilt. Forgiven, cleansed and strengthened. If we are to be open to the revelation of God, Father Son and Spirit, our lives will change and change again, as we learn and grow, fully able to be a blessing to each other and those we meet. Therefore let our hearts sing without ceasing, ‘O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.’
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg April 12th 2016