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Easter: more than tongues can tell

The first Easter is simply more than tongues can tell, says a visiting English academic in a sermon delivered in Christchurch.

Martyn Percy   |  19 Apr 2013

RESURRECTION: Loving, Living, Feeding and Abiding (John 21: 1-19)

One of the strangest times in the Christian calendar is the weeks immediately following Easter. For the set texts, beginning on the evening of Easter day, offer us a series of bewildering-but-joyful encounters with Jesus that are hard to make sense of. Hard then; and hard now. From a Jesus who simply disappears at a supper, breaking bread with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the breakfast on the shore of today’s reading.

The words of the gospels cannot  ever do justice to the reality of the resurrection. The first Easter is, simply, more than tongues can tell. But the stories we are left with contain some vital clues as to what to expect of or hope for the future church. Take today’s Gospel. The 153 variety of fishes that are hauled up in the nets is probably trying to tell us something quite important about the future diversity  of the church. It will capture allsorts. Not just Jews, but Gentiles of every hue and persuasion. Christianity will not be a straightforward monochromatic religion; it will be more like the proverbial multi-coloured rainbow alliance. It will include women and children; slaves and free; black and white; grey will, however, be reserved for the episcopacy. The church will, in other words, be as abundant as a fisherman’s haul. Full of interesting specimens: if you don’t believe, just turn around and look at some of your neighbours. (Viewers of a nervous disposition should look straight ahead at the altar). 

Then again, perhaps John, in his recounting of the breakfast, is trying to say something about hospitality.  That Jesus still invites us to feast with him. Even though the disciples deserted Jesus after the last supper, there are other suppers. Jesus is, in every sense, the Host. We continue to feed on him, and feed with him. Or perhaps John, in the sequence of exchanges with Peter, is trying to say something about the imperative of provision.  It is a threefold, almost maternal kind of caring that is being advocated.  Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep. The invitation is to take an active lead in caring for, nourishing and providing for the flock – old and young alike; both lambs and sheep.  Just as Jesus has provided breakfast, so must the disciples provide for those whom they have been entrusted.

Then there is the swimming. One of the strange things about the Bible is that there is no example of successful swimming prior to the resurrection. Water symbolises the forces of chaos and overwhelming. But after Easter, it is different. That said, Peter must still take the plunge. The resurrection appearances are also stories that invite the disciples to take risks. The church will advanced by those who can learn to swim, or even to try and walk on water. And so our gospel story begins today with Peter swimming (in verse 7), and ‘coming ashore’ (verse 9). 

There are many folk who believe our beloved church has already taken one plunge too many: another high-risk strategy would surely ensure the church sinks like a stone. But the church lives in the light of Easter, and of resurrection faith. There is a Venetian proverb that goes like this: ‘the critic stands on the shore; but the artist swims in the sea’. In our resurrection faith, we are invited to take the plunge. Not because we are rash, but because Christ now beckons us to join him in a new life of adventure and hope. 

So, there is also a case for saying that the point of Easter is not so much the rolled-away stone as the carried-away church. The point of Easter is not to guard the empty tomb, and then to try and attract punters to peer inside, and persuade them as to the reasons why it is empty. Easter is, rather, about finding and encountering the risen Jesus in the very present. 

So, the Easter story is about showing that the ‘Jesus project’, which had looked doomed within the ashes of Good Friday, is somehow born out of the incredible and indescribable experiences of Easter Sunday. To modify a Swedish proverb, good theology is ‘poetry plus, not science minus’ .

Thank goodness, then, that none of the four gospels end by giving us abstract doctrinal reflections, in some kind of attempt to explain the resurrection. It can’t be. It is a matter of faith, which is why the stories, for all their raggedness, fear, passion and breathless wonder, are the best vehicles Christians have for trying to narrate the first Easter.

The advantage of stories is that they give us a kind of (deep) knowledge that abstract reasoning can never provide. Another advantage of ‘story knowledge’ is its particularity and exactness. Stories give us real people or characters in specific times and places, who are doing actual things: coming to the tomb to lay flowers and anoint a body; running away scared when the grave is found to be empty; not recognising the gardener; walking with acquaintances on the road to Emmaus; not recognising the stranger you are breaking bread with.

Resurrections challenge our worldviews. They remind that the ultimacy of Jesus, in the Easter light, puts all religion in the shade. The task of the disciples is not to guard an empty tomb; it is to follow the risen Jesus, and to try and understand something of how he appears to us afresh. So the stories of Easter provide us with clues as to what to expect from the One who was dead, but is now raised. A story of stark absence (Good Friday) is now one of intense presence. The reality of Jesus is bigger than reality itself. And Jesus is no longer a figure of the past. Nor does he merely live through our memories. When Jesus tells Mary Magdalene ‘do not cling to me’, he is really saying something quite simple. You cannot have the Jesus you once knew.  You cannot have the past back; whole, as it was. 

So, what can you have? Well, John seems to suggest that one of the key words or ideas to help us understand the ministry of Jesus is that of ‘abiding’. The word is linked to another English word, ‘abode’. God abides with us. Christ bids us to abide in him, and he will abide in use. He bids us to make our home with him, as he has made his home with us. Christ tells us that there are many rooms in his father’s Big House.There are many places of gathering and meeting there. And central to the notion of an abode is the concept of abiding.  To abide it to ‘wait patiently with’. God has abided with us. He came to us in ordinary life, and he has sat with us, eaten with us, walked with us, and lived amongst us. That is why John ends his gospel with Jesus doing ordinary things. breaking bread with strangers; eating breakfast on the seashore. God continues to dwell with us. He was with us the beginning; and he is with us at the end. He will not leave us.

And that is why God is Emmanuel – God is with us.He made us for company with each other, and for eternal company with him. God is with us in creation; in redemption, and finally, in heaven. God with us is how John’s Prologue begins – the Word was with God; he was with us in the beginning. God is with us in the valley of the shadow of death; he is with us in light and dark, chaos and order; pain and passion. And though we may turn aside from him, he will not turn from us. And in the resurrection, Jesus is again, with us – more powerfully and intensely than ever.  God is with us. 

The resurrection is all about embracing new life – but is a continuation of the life John describes the Father, Son and Holy Spirit having in his Prologue. The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. But in his life, death and resurrection, he continues to abide with us, and bids us abide with him, and with each other. Jesus is now to be truly encountered in the present: the familiar is now strangely unfamiliar, but if you look closely, you will see an old life utterly transformed. Or put another way, Jesus lives – and in new ways too. In the life and witness of each us. And now in the life and witness of all of us who follow in his name. But above all, Jesus waits for us in the future too. He calls us seek him afresh in every generation, because, quite simply, he is alive.

Evelyn Underhill, writing to Archbishop Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, reminded him that the world was not especially hungry for what was about to happen. Underhill put the main agenda pretty sharply in her letter: ‘may it please your Grace…I desire to humbly suggest that the interesting thing about religion is…God…and the people are hungry for God’.  Just so: ‘feed my sheep’; and abide with them too, just as God has already chose to make his home with us. Feed your people, love your people, live your people and love your people. This is our calling. The Lord Be With You.

Rev. Canon Prof. Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

This sermon was delivered to the cathedral congregation in Christchurch on Sunday, April 13.

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