Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Thu is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter 2022

Reading: John 13:31-35

St John has brought Jesus’ public ministry to a close at the end of chapter 12 of St John’s Gospel. This is the chapter before the chapter from which our Gospel reading for this week is taken. In chapter 12, St John has described how Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the cheering of the crowds that have come to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. Jesus appears to be a success, and it seems that there is nothing that can stop him. This is certainly how it appears to the Pharisees. They are despondent and say to one another that the whole world has gone after him (John 12:19). In fact, things are far more complicated than they seem.

The crowd who was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead continue to ‘testify’, to use St John’s word (John 12:17). They can’t stop talking about it, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the commitment to follow Jesus that Jesus asks for. The crowds who cheer Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, symbolically riding on a donkey, cheer him as a celebrity or as the Messiah they hope will deliver them from the pagans, but they do not believe in him for whom he claims to be.

Earlier in the Gospel, at the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, many people also appeared to believe in him in the way it appears to the Pharisees that people believe in him after he has arrived in Jerusalem for what will be his final Passover. St John told us in his account of Jesus’ first Passover that Jesus did not entrust himself to them because he himself knew what was in everyone (John 2:25). Jesus knew when people’s faith was real and when it was not. He knows now, at this final Passover before his death, what is in those who shout his praise. Despite all appearances to the contrary, they do not believe in him.

At this moment, although Jesus seems to be at his most popular, Jesus knows that the hour of his death has come. What seems to signal its arrival is that some ‘Greeks’ at the festival ask to see him (John 12:20). When Jesus is ‘lifted up’ he will draw all to him (John 12:32) and the Greeks coming to him are a trailer for what will happen in the future. But first Jesus must be glorified, which means Jesus must die, for that is why he came.

Now is the moment for the judgement of this world and for the ruler of this world to be judged (John 12:31). The crowd, however, don’t know what Jesus is talking about; Jesus’ talk of dying doesn’t fit with their understanding of what the Law says it means to be the Messiah. As far as the crowd are concerned, the Messiah will live forever (John 12:34). If Jesus is the Messiah, how can he be lifted up and die?

After three years or so of being with them, it is, then, a somewhat bleak picture. There is interest, but not commitment. St John’s own assessment of the situation is stark. St John writes:

‘Although he [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

Interest isn’t enough. Regardless of their interest in Jesus, they don’t believe in him. St John acknowledges that there were many, even among the authorities, who seemed to believe in Jesus, but they would not come out in the open about their faith for fear of the Pharisees. St John is damning in his opinion of them. He writes that ‘they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God’ (John 12:43).

St John, however, gives the last word on Jesus’ public ministry and of this section of the Gospel to Jesus himself. St John writes that Jesus cries aloud (John 12:45). Jesus wants what he is about to say to be heard. It is important. Jesus is going to give a summary of all he has been saying during his public ministry before he departs from them. This, then, is Jesus’ own statement of his message.

Jesus says that anyone who believes in him believes in the One who sent him. All those in Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem who have seen him have seen the One who sent him. Jesus came as light into the world, so that anyone who believed in him would not remain in darkness. He does not judge anyone who hears his words and does not keep them. He didn’t come to judge world but to save it. There will, though, be judgement for those who have not responded to him and his words by believing in him. The word Jesus has spoken will be their judge on the Last Day. This is because the word Jesus has spoken is not his own. His Father who sent him has given him a commandment about what to say and speak.

The Father’s commandment is eternal life (John 12:50).

The theme of Jesus’ teaching during the past few years he has been speaking to them has been eternal life. This is what his Father told him to speak about. It has been the theme of the first section of the Gospel. St John has described how God sent Jesus the Word made flesh as the Light of the world, but the world has not believed in him. Now the world is to be judged and its ruler dealt with. The world has had its chance. But it is still not too late for anyone who believes in him. Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). All who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). These are the words his Father commanded Jesus to speak. This is God’s commandment. This is what Jesus’ coming is all about.

Chapter 13, then, begins a new section of St John’s Gospel. It’s now the night that Jesus will be betrayed. This is what it has all been building up to. Jesus knows that his hour has come to depart the world he came to save but which has rejected him. He has loved his own who were in the world, and he hasn’t stopped loving them. The Devil has already put it into Judas’ heart to betray him (John 13:2). The stage is all set for the final drama. Jesus, however, has something he wants to do before it takes place, and what he does takes them completely by surprise.

During the Last Supper, Jesus gets up from the table and starts to wash their feet. This is shocking, and Peter won’t let Jesus wash his feet. Jesus tells him that unless he washes Peter’s feet, Peter doesn’t belong to him. Peter then enthusiastically accepts. If being washed by Jesus is an indication of how much you belong to Jesus, then Peter wants his hands and head washed too! Jesus then explains what he has done. Jesus says:

‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:15)

Jesus is preparing the disciples for the time and task ahead. He uses the phrase, ‘Amen, amen’. This is often translated as, ‘Very truly’. It is a phrase Jesus uses to emphasize the importance of what he is about to say. Jesus tells them:

‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’ (John 13:20)

After this, Jesus is very troubled. St John told us Jesus was troubled shortly before this when the Greeks came to see him, and he realized this was the ‘hour’ (John 12:27). Jesus is troubled again now, as he knows that one of those whose feet he has just washed will betray him. Satan has already put the idea into Judas’ heart, now as Jesus gives him a piece of bread, Satan himself enters Judas (John 13:27). Immediately, Judas goes out to do Satan’s work. St John writes simply and powerfully, ‘And it was night (John 13:30).’ The light of the world is about to be put out.

Jesus knowing this tells them that where he is going they cannot come. He has washed his disciples’ feet to give them an example of how they are to behave towards each other. Now he makes it explicit. Jesus says:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

Jesus is sending them out and anyone who receives them receives him. People will know they belong to Jesus by their love for one another. It is from ‘mandatum novum’, the Latin for ‘new commandment’, that we get the word ‘Maundy’, as in Maundy Thursday.

Jesus tells them he is going away and that they cannot come with him to where he is going. Peter, not unreasonably, asks where it is that Jesus is going. Jesus replies that Peter cannot follow him now, but he will later. As we saw in the sermon for Maundy Thursday this year, Peter asks why he can’t follow Jesus now. He will, Peter says, lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus replies that rather than Peter laying down his life for Jesus, before the cock crows, Peter will deny him three times.

We don’t hear again from Peter until they are in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Peter attempts, but fails, to give his life for Jesus (John 18:10-11). Peter is prevented from doing so by Jesus himself. Peter thinks that laying down his life means taking someone else’s in the process, and Jesus won’t let him. The next thing, Peter is denying Jesus three times.

But that was what we thought about in the sermon on Maundy Thursday. This week’s Gospel reading focuses on Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to his disciples. In what sense, however, is Jesus’ command to his disciples to love one another a new commandment?

Commentators, in attempting to answer this question, often begin by asking what the old commandment is, and naturally think in terms of the commandments of the Old Testament.

The first three Gospels each record Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Interestingly, St Luke, in his account, records that Jesus is asked by a lawyer what the lawyer must do to inherit ‘eternal life’. Jesus replies by asking the lawyer what he reads in the Law.

We read Jesus’ own answer at every Eucharist. Jesus, quoting from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18), says that the greatest commandment is to love God completely and that the second is to love their neighbour as themself. St Luke tells us that Jesus has to clarify for the lawyer who his neighbour is, but Jesus’ answer makes clear that the commandment to love is not itself new; it is, as Jesus says to the lawyer, to be found in the Law.

Given, then, that the commandment to love is not itself new, commentators argue that what is new about the commandment is that the disciples must love each other as Jesus has loved them. Jesus has just shown the disciples what this love looks like by washing their feet, and in just a few hours he will give the definitive demonstration of it by dying for them. It is Jesus’ command that their love for each other must be like his love for them that makes the commandment new.

It is certainly true that we see love in a new and vivid way when we look at Jesus, both in the way he ministered to people and, supremely, in the way he died for us. While it may be a new way of thinking it about what it means to love, the commandment to love, even with Jesus’ qualification of it, still doesn’t sound like a new commandment as such.

So why does Jesus describe it as a new commandment? The answer, I think, to this question lies not in going back to the Old Testament commandments and seeing them as the background to what Jesus says, but in asking whether there are other commandments in St John’s Gospel that Jesus might have in mind. Jesus has previously used the word ‘commandment’ in two other contexts in St John’s Gospel.

The first is in chapter 10. After Jesus has described himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus says:

‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ (John 10:17-18)

Earlier in the Gospel, St John has written:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:15-16)

In chapter 12, St John explains that the phrase ‘lifted up’ refers to Jesus’ death (John 12:33). In chapter 10, Jesus having explained how he lays down his life for the sheep says he gives his sheep eternal life (John 10:28). Jesus is commanded by the Father to lay down his life so that those who believe in him may have eternal life.

The second time Jesus uses the word is again in chapter 12, when, as we have already noted, Jesus summarizes his teaching. Jesus says:

‘… for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’ (John 12:49-50)

The whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry has been to offer people eternal life. This has been the central theme of Jesus’ ministry, as St John describes it in the first part of the Gospel. By his words and works and by being willingly prepared to die, Jesus is obeying the commandment given to him by the Father to reveal eternal life to those who believe in him. This commandment to reveal to people how they may receive eternal life by believing in Jesus will also be given to Jesus’ disciples, as they are sent by Jesus as the Father sent him. The Father’s commandment is eternal life. Jesus obeyed it by dying so that those who believe in him can receive it. We obey it by telling people about Jesus.

To this commandment, Jesus now adds another. It is not simply to love, but specifically and deliberately, more narrowly and exclusively, to love one another.

St John, in using the phrase ‘love one another’, has been seen as limiting love only to those who are members of the community of believers. This is not, however, what either St John or Jesus are doing. Jesus, in giving this command, is not concerned here with how his disciples are to relate either to God or to those in the world, but how they are to continue his work as they are sent as the Father sent him. As they are sent with the command to offer people eternal life in Christ, they are also given the command to love one another. It is by loving one another as he has loved them that they show people they are Jesus’ disciples and demonstrate what his love looks like. This is a love people can share in by believing in Jesus and receiving eternal life for themselves, something Jesus has made possible by his death.

The disciples are sent by Jesus with the command given by the Father to offer people eternal life by believing in Jesus and also with the new commandment given to them by Jesus himself to love one another as he has loved them.

There is another reason why they will need to love one another, as they are sent out by Jesus. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus repeats the command to his disciples to love one another (John 15:12-17). This time, Jesus links their loving one another with bearing fruit for him. Immediately after repeating the command though, Jesus warns the disciples that the world will hate them as it hated him (John 15:18-19). They do not belong to the world, if they did the world would love them as its own. Jesus, however, has chosen them out of this world, and this is why the world hates them.

The disciples will show the world they are his disciples by how they love one another. On the one hand, some people will be drawn into that love, as they believe in Jesus and receive eternal life. On the other, by showing they are Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another, Jesus’ disciples will also attract the world’s hatred and persecution.

The disciples’ love for one another, however, will help them face the hatred from the world. They are to take courage; Jesus has conquered the world (John 16:33). In loving him and loving each other, the disciples will know Jesus’ peace and conquer too. St John will have more to say about this in the Book of Revelation.

The hatred that Jesus’ disciples face in the world from the world helps us to understand why Jesus’ new commandment is so important. Jesus knows that he will be the one who is responsible for them being hated after he has returned to his Father. Jesus will not, however, leave them comfortless, he will ask the Father to give them ‘another comforter’ to be with them forever (John 14:16), but he also gives them each other.

Before leaving them, Jesus seeks to create a community of love to counter the world of hate he is sending them into. He wants them to support each other when the world persecutes them. He gives them a family they can belong to as the world rejects them.

St John’s Gospel has been severely criticized for offering a limited moral vision and for having a narrow ethic of only loving those who love us. This is to miss the point. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the reality of what life will be like when he leaves them and as they undertake the work he is sending them to do. They are going to need each other.

What is more, this new community of mutual love that Jesus is creating by his new commandment is God’s alternative to the world that has had its chance, and which has already been judged. God’s love is not to be found in the world, but in the community of those he has chosen (John 14:21). It is to these believers who love him and keep his word that the Father and the Son will come and make their home (John 14:23). This they will do by the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive (John 14:17).

I want to highlight three aspects of Jesus’ new commandment.

1. ‘That you have love …’

The English word ‘love’ causes all sorts of problems for us. It is impossible for us to think of love without thinking of it in the way it is used in popular culture. Firstly, it can be used simply to describe things we like, as in, ‘I love ice-cream’ or ‘I love watching football’. Secondly, it is more commonly used, of course, in the context of romantic and sexual love. Thirdly, and related to this, it is often used to advocate a lifestyle that is free of regulations and restraint: ‘all you need is love’. What matters, it is said, is that you love; anything you do is alright as long as it’s done out of love.

Love as Jesus means it, however, does not merely mean ‘like’. It is much more than that. Nor is Jesus talking about romantic and sexual love. And the fact that Jesus describes it as a ‘commandment’ at least suggests that Jesus doesn’t have in mind the removal of all restrictions on how we live.

The problem is that in English, at least, it is hard to find an alternative word, so we find that we have to try to explain its meaning, as I am trying to do now. The encouraging thing is that when St Paul wants to tell believers in the Church at Corinth to love, he finds he has to do the same. We have one of the greatest chapters in the Bible, 1 Corinthians chapter 13, as a result.

To help us understand what he means by love, Jesus adds the phrase ‘as I have loved you’. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus repeats the command adding:

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ (John 15:13-14)

We are not normally called to lay down our lives for each other, but we are called to ‘wash each other’s feet’. Jesus has already given his disciples and us a practical demonstration of what the love he is talking about looks like in action. What washing someone’s feet and laying down our life for them have in common is that both require a willingness to put another person’s needs before our own. They involve giving up what we want for ourselves for the good of another.

St Luke, in his account of the Last Supper tells us that the disciples argued about who should be regarded as the greatest among them (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus tells them he is with them as one who serves and so it should be with them. Love, as Jesus means it, means being willing to make sacrifices and to put ourselves out, not worrying about our rights and reputation as we do so. As Jesus’ followers, we all know we should love like this, but it easier said than done. Even when we are trying to do it, we can’t help ourselves, and our pride and ego, our regard for ourselves, gets in the way.

I can’t help finding it mildly amusing how often church leaders when they are appointed to a position in the church will often talk about how they see their appointment as an appointment to service and to serving others. Then, once in their appointment, they insist on being treated with greater honour and respect and being addressed not by their Christian name, but by a title. What could be more contrary to the teaching of Jesus?

It is as we give up our claim to position and privilege and give ourselves instead to the needs of others that we love as Jesus tells us to love. Jesus by dying for us gave us life; he also showed us how to live that life. Our Lord on his knees, washing the disciples’ feet, and nailed to the Cross, dying for our sins, is the be our role model as we too seek to live for him.

2. ‘By this everyone will know you are my disciples …’

It is impossible to hear this new commandment of Jesus without being ashamed and embarrassed. Even if we only have a fleeting knowledge of church history, we know that all too often in the past those who have claimed to believe in Jesus have failed miserably as believers to love another. Believers have condemned each other, fought and killed each other, and separated from each other. Whether it is in the language we use about one another or in the divisions we are willing to tolerate, and even encourage, among each other, we still fail to love one another.

It is very easy to criticize the Church both past and present for its failure in areas where we have no personal control or influence. But what about closer to home in our own local churches that we personally are members of? What do we do positively by way of loving one another and what negatively do we do to hurt and injure one another? How is our behaviour contrary to the love that Jesus commands?

We all have a personal and individual responsibility to help each other in practical ways in whatever way we can, but we also have a collective responsibility to do what we can to promote and preserve our unity and to love one another as Jesus’ disciples, so that people can see by that love that we are Jesus’ disciples.

At the very least, this means everyone of us not thinking highly of ourselves or considering ourselves better than others. It means metaphorically taking off our outer robe and washing each other’s feet. It means getting ourselves dirty, so that others may be clean. We do this because this is the love we owe one another as fellow members of the body of Christ, but also, Jesus tells us, so people who do not believe in him may know we belong to him.

Jesus at the beginning of the Last Supper speaks about sending the disciples out and of how anyone who receives them, receives him, and whoever receives him, receives the One who sent him (John 13:20). But how are people to know who they are and who it is who has sent them? Jesus says it is our love for one another that will show we are his disciples. Our love for one another is a visual aid for people as we are sent by him into the world to speak his word. People are to see what we mean by our words in our relationships with each other.

There are, however, two sides to how people will react when they see our love for one another and realize we are Jesus’ disciples. Some will indeed respond positively and will want to join us and become Jesus’ disciples too. This is how we normally understand Jesus’ words. Others, however, will respond negatively, and will react violently as they reject the message we bring.

When Jesus repeats his command to his disciples to love one another, he speaks of how he has chosen them to bear fruit, fruit that will last (John 15:16). But, after again repeating his command, Jesus immediately continues by saying:

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:18-19)

Not everyone will be drawn to Jesus when they see our love for each other just as they were not drawn to Jesus when they saw him in person. If they persecuted him, they will persecute them, Jesus warns them. If we love as Jesus commands us to love, they will persecute us too. We won’t be popular or liked, but whether the reaction is positive or negative, we are to obey Jesus’ command knowing, as St John writes in his first letter, that we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

3. ‘One another …’

As I have said, St John’s Gospel has been criticized for limiting the command to love to disciples only. It has been seen as an exclusive rather than an inclusive love. What Jesus says about the world hating his disciples and persecuting them, however, explains why it is so important for them to love one another. As Jesus is about to be crucified and leave them, it is an absolute priority for Jesus to see his disciples are not left alone.

Jesus, by this point, has spent three years talking to them about how they should live and how they should love even their enemies. But that is not his concern now. In what he has to say to his disciples before he leaves them, he wants them to know about the Holy Spirit who he will send to them to be with them forever (John 14:16) and who will guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

In giving them this word of command to love one another, Jesus tells them:

‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ (John 14:23)

The Holy Spirit abides with them, Jesus says, but he will be in them (John 14:17). In them, that is, individually as a person believes in Jesus, but in them and at home with them as a community that hears Jesus’ words, keeps his commandments, and loves him and each other.

As Jesus sends the disciples into the world that hates them as it has hated him, a world to which they do not belong, Jesus wants them to know they belong to him in a community of love that provides a radical alternative to the world from which they have been saved. In this community, they will receive the teaching and the fellowship they need to follow Jesus faithfully and to serve him selflessly in the world into which they are sent.

Jesus offers us a vision of the Church as place where the values of Jesus can be lived out in a loving commitment to all who belong to it. Tragically, it is a vision that we have largely abandoned. We don’t obey the Father’s commandment of eternal life either by holding it out to people or living it with those who experience it. We have other priorities. We want our needs to be met rather than to meet the needs of others. We want to stay where we are in the comfortable and familiar rather than to go out and testify to Jesus. We want to be relevant in this world and prefer sitting at the tables of power and having influence rather than kneeling at someone’s feet and becoming the least. Like those of the authorities who believed in Jesus but kept silent, we too love human glory more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:42-43).

So, our churches rather than being radical communities of love are more like performance venues where we can be popular, or preservation societies where we can escape to the past, or pressure groups where we can strive for prestige and position.

I have to take my own share of responsibility for this. I may criticize church leaders, but I am one of them. As one of the clergy, it is all too easy to go with the flow, to accept the status quo, and to live in an easy conformity with the world, rather than following him who calls us to die to self, to abide in him, and to speak of him in a world, which will hate and persecute us. I confess to a strange peace in facing up to my own failure, but at the same time to a sense of grief and loss at what might have been if only I had had the courage to be more faithful.

The world is, I believe, becoming progressively more hostile to those who have faith in Jesus and who follow him. In China, the Church is seen as promoting the religion of a foreign power and in the west, it is accused of having attitudes and values that belong to a colonial past. In both east and west, persecution is the result. But with the persecution comes the opportunity for believers to decide whose side they are on. Do we make peace with the world in the hope of gaining recognition in it? Or do we trust him who gives us a peace that is not as the world gives (John 14:27) and which leads to rejection by it?

The command to love one another as he loved us will identify us as Jesus’ disciples. He loved us by laying down his life for us. Those who love as he commands must be prepared to do the same.

May the Spirit he has sent us give us the courage to do so.


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter 2022

Reading: John 10:22-30

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is because each year for this Sunday in the three-year cycle of readings we use for our services, known as the Revised Common Lectionary, we have a reading from chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel. In this chapter, Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd and those who believe in him as his sheep.

[We are now in the third year of the cycle, Year C in the lectionary. The sermons for the previous two years, Years A and B, are still available online and the transcripts on my website.]

The passage from chapter 10 for this year’s reading has a different chronological location to the previous two. Jesus is still in Jerusalem, but it is now the Festival of Dedication. Before this, St John has been describing at some length what Jesus said and did at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-10:19).

The Festival of Dedication is the Jewish festival also known as Hanukkah. It is still a major festival in Judaism, and it is the only festival not found in the Torah itself. In the Jewish calendar, which like the Chinese calendar is a lunar-based calendar, Hanukkah takes place on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. This can be any time from late November to late December. This year Hanukkah begins on December 18.

The Feast of Dedication celebrates the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC after it had been defiled by the pagan ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that it was known as the Festival of Lights. The Feast of Dedication has strong connections with the Feast of Tabernacles, on which it was originally modelled (2 Maccabees 10:6). The Feast of Tabernacles is held two to three months earlier. This year, for example, the Feast of Tabernacles begins on October 9. St John reflects the connection between the two festivals, linking them both in this chapter.

Verses 1-21 of chapter 10 take place at the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus is speaking after healing a man born blind, who has been cast out the synagogue because of his faith in Jesus (John 9:34). When Jesus describes the hired hand, who does not care for the sheep (John 10:12-13), he has in mind religious leaders like those who were responsible for the blind man being thrown out of the synagogue (John 9:34). In contrast to those like the Pharisees who do not care for the sheep, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who does care for them. St John closes his description of the Feast of Tabernacles with the reaction of people to what Jesus has said and done. St John writes:

‘Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”’ (John 10:19-21)

St John then links what Jesus goes on to say at the Feast of Dedication with what he has said previously at the Feast of Tabernacles by picking up on what Jesus has to say about himself as the Good Shepherd. It’s now winter, and Jesus is walking in the Portico of Solomon in the Temple. This was a sheltered area of the Temple that provided protection from the wind and winter weather. It was also where the apostles continued to meet after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 5:12).

St John tells us the Jews gathered around Jesus. There is the sense that they are not entirely friendly. These are those who could not make up their mind about him at the Feast of Tabernacles. They ask Jesus to state ‘plainly’ whether he is the Messiah or not. Whether or not they would have believed in him if he had told them ‘plainly’ is another issue altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, he has told them, and they have not believed. To be fair to them, Jesus hasn’t exactly told them ‘plainly’. Jesus replies, however, that the works he has done testify to him and to whom he is. The reason they do not believe, he tells them, is because they do not belong to his sheep. Jesus says:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ (John 10:27-28)

Jesus continues to explain that the Father himself guarantees the sheep’s safety. Jesus and the Father are one.

This is how our reading finishes; it is not how the passage finishes! When Jesus says he and the Father are one, it proves too much for them, and they take up stones to stone him. This is how they had reacted previously when Jesus said something similar. St John is again referring back to the Feast of Tabernacles (John 8:59).

This week’s passage is a short one, and given that I have already preached on this chapter in each of the previous two years, you might expect a short sermon. I expected it myself until I started to write it! In fact, this passage again raises a number of issues that are particularly relevant to us today and to how we understand what it means for us to hear Jesus’ voice and follow him.

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has said he came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). The theme of eternal life is a major one in St John’s Gospel and, as we heard in the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday, St John says his purpose in writing his Gospel was so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing they may have life in his name (John 20:31).

The message of eternal life in Christ, as it is now understood and preached in many of our churches, however, is very different to how St John himself understands and presents it.

Picking up on the Easter message that Christ is not dead but has risen and is alive, many churches today preach and believe that the Risen Christ gives life to all unconditionally and that this life begins now and will continue for eternity. In this life, of course, we do not enjoy eternal life in its fulness, and many do not seem to enjoy it at all. Nevertheless, it is argued, this does not mean it is not ours, and, whatever happens in this life, we will all experience eternal life fully after death.

It is not in dispute that in this life most people are not aware of eternal life in Christ. In answering the question of why this is, the responses of those who believe that everyone receives eternal life do not differ substantially but are more a matter of emphasis. Some argue that it is for reasons beyond an individual person’s control. For example, they claim a person may not be able to enjoy the fulness of life God intended because of unjust social and economic structures in society that hold people captive and from which they need to be liberated. Others stress the need for faith if we are to know now the life Christ gives.

The Church’s mission, on this approach, is to invite people to enjoy the life that is unconditionally theirs already in Christ and to work to liberate people from those things that are believed to be preventing them from experiencing wholeness in Christ. It’s a message that many find attractive, but it’s not the Gospel as the Gospel of St John presents it!

Firstly, St John makes plain that eternal life is not primarily about our material and economic circumstances in this life, but first and foremost about a relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In his prayer to the Father at the Last Supper, Jesus says:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

Secondly, Jesus does indeed offer eternal life to all, but he only gives eternal life to those who come to him and who believe in him.

Thirdly, and crucially, when Jesus speaks of how those who believe in him will receive eternal life, he also speaks of how those who don’t believe in him will perish.

We manage to blank out this part of Jesus’ message. We want to believe that Jesus by his resurrection gives eternal life to all. While those who believe in Jesus may be more conscious of it, we assume that even those who don’t believe in him still receive it. This, I would say, is the default position of most Anglicans, but Anglicans are by no means alone in this belief.

If we are going to maintain this position, we need at least to see how different it is to how St John, for one, describes the message of Jesus. For example, St John writes:

‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.’ (John 3:36)

Jesus says explicitly to the Jews who are attacking him:

‘Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.’ (John 5:28-29)

In the synagogue at Capernaum after the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus says:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ (John 6:53)

These are not isolated verses taken out of context but the consistent message of Jesus in St John’s Gospel. It is the message of every part of the New Testament. Life in Christ is dependent on faith in Christ, and the alternative to eternal life is eternal death.

So how did we get to a position where the message that is preached in our churches is so different to what the New Testament says? There are many reasons. A lot of it is simply down to wishful thinking. This is what we want to be believe. It is far more in keeping with the spirit of our age, and we are every bit children of our age.

More seriously, though, we have got into this position because we have made a deliberate decision to link eternal life to what Christ achieved by his resurrection and to ignore the part played by his crucifixion. After all, the resurrection is about life, so surely it is the resurrection that gives life? By focusing on Jesus’ resurrection, it means, we think, that we don’t have to worry about what was happening in his death. Indeed, by centring what we believe on Jesus’ resurrection, nothing, as such, needs to be happening in Jesus’ death beyond someone giving himself for what he believes in.

What, therefore, we think makes Jesus’ death special and different to that of anyone else who has died for what they believed in is that God raised him from the dead, so vindicating what he stood for. Jesus was killed. There is no getting away from that, but what we now concentrate on and proclaim is not so much what he did by dying, as what he has subsequently become and who he now is. Our message is that Jesus is alive and Jesus is Lord. He overcame death and so too shall we.

What is more, as we think we now no longer have to worry about what is going to happen to us personally when we die, we can give all our attention instead to our life in this world and to working to overcome those things in this world that get in the way of us enjoying the life we have.

Our hope for the world, it is frequently said, is that one day Christ will ‘put the world to rights’ and, in the meantime, our task as a church is to announce that this is what God is doing in Christ. We, for our part, have a responsibility to work with God to achieve his goal for the creation.

There is no doubting the attractiveness to many people of this way of looking at things. It gets rid of quite a lot of the embarrassing parts of the New Testament while keeping all the nice bits. It’s ‘Gospel lite’, but so light that it isn’t the Gospel. Again, as I have said, it is what we want to believe. We want to be involved in this world and its politics. This understanding of the work of Christ and the church’s mission gives us just the sort of theological basis we are looking for to justify our involvement.

Whatever we think of this understanding, however, we need to realize that what we are living through in the Church at the moment is a major reinterpretation of the Church’s message. What we are experiencing is what is known in the scientific world as a paradigm shift. In the Church, we are not simply redecorating to stay up to date; we are making fundamental structural alterations. I personally find the situation we are in both deeply depressing and dangerous. Depressing in that we have so easily and willingly abandoned the Gospel and what the Church has taught and believed since it began, and dangerous because God will not allow it to go unanswered.

What is to be done? We can’t second guess what God will do, and it is foolish to try. Irrespective of what happens, we are called to be faithful and to follow Christ. Jesus says in our Gospel reading:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)

We need especially at the present, I believe, to hear what Jesus says about his death. We think of the Good Shepherd as someone who cares for his sheep by leading and providing for them. In this chapter, Jesus emphasizes how he is the Good Shepherd because he will lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:15-18). This is what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. Jesus’ death is not incidental to what he came to do. He doesn’t lay his life down because he is forced to; he does so ‘of his own accord’ (John 10:18). Jesus, in laying down his life, chooses to do something that he could have avoided.

Jesus’ death is not simply the prelude to his resurrection. His death is at the heart of what he does for his sheep. He does this because our problem is not simply that we are mortal and will die physically, nor even that our lives here and now lack meaning and purpose, although both are true. Our death in the future and the futility of our lives in the present are a consequence of our sin and rebellion against God. Our problem is that we are sinners who are perishing and who will perish eternally unless something is done to save us. That something is Jesus’ death. The resurrection was God acting to show that Jesus’ death has achieved what it was meant to achieve. As he hung on the Cross, Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). It is in Jesus’ death on the Cross that his work is completed and his mission fulfilled.

The first words spoken about Jesus in the Gospel are spoken by John the Baptist who says:

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)

In chapter 10, Jesus says he is the Gate for the sheep (John 10:7, 9) and whoever enters by him will be saved. Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), who lays down his life for the sheep. He is also the Lamb of God, who, by laying down his life for his people’s sins, makes it possible for them to be saved.

What has been described as the golden verse of the Gospel, and indeed of the Bible, is John 3:16. It is a wonderful verse about how God loved us by the giving of his Son, but, nowadays particularly, it needs to be read in context. St John writes:

‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:15-16)

St John will later explain that the phrase ‘lifted up’ refers to how Jesus will die (John 12:33). It is through Jesus’ death on the Cross that those who believe in him receive eternal life. Some want to argue that Jesus’ death is not only for the sin of all, but that it is also effective for all regardless of whether they believe or not. All, they argue, will be saved because of Jesus’ death. But St John will not allow us this option. In order for there to be no doubt about who it is Jesus’ death is effective for, St John will continue immediately after these verses to explain that those who do not believe are condemned already because of their unbelief (John 3:18).

It is Jesus’ death that gives us life. Again, as Jesus states it plainly:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ (John 6:53)

Jesus’ sheep are those who hear his voice, who believe in him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and who respond in faith by following him. The metaphors may at times be mixed but their meaning is clear. It may not be what we want to hear, but we should be in doubt that it is what Jesus says.

Following on from this, then, I would like to emphasize three things said by Jesus in our Gospel reading.

1. ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’

In the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), Jesus describes how a shepherd will leave the 99 sheep to look for the one sheep that is lost. In Jesus’ death, God was actively seeking and saving the lost, and the lost are found when they are brought to the Cross. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice. His voice is calling to them from the Cross and calling them to the Cross. It is as we see Jesus lifted up on the Cross that we see the Gate to life. The Cross rather than being the end is the gateway to a new beginning for all who believe in the One nailed to it.

Jesus laid down his life for us, and it is his death that is the key to our life, and we can’t have life without it. Unless we not only believe in that death, but share in it, dying with him and feeding on him, we cannot experience his risen life. St Paul writes that those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death (Romans 6:3). As a consequence, St Paul tells the Roman believers:

‘So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 6:11)

We are, then, to model our lives on his death not simply by looking to it as an example of sacrificial living and love, but by entering into it, experiencing forgiveness through it, and putting to death all that belongs to our former way of life. Jesus said:

‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23)

We are to take up our cross daily, denying ourselves as we follow him.

All this talk of death and sacrifice wasn’t quite what we thought Jesus meant when he said he came that we may have life and have it abundantly. We thought he meant that he wanted to give us all the things in life that we wanted and that would make us happy. This is why our prayers are so centred on ourselves and our life in this world. It is why we pray for what matters to us and what we care about rather than that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done.

The image of the Good Shepherd leading his sheep is one we like because we like to be looked after and for our wants and needs to be supplied without us having to worry about them. But a good shepherd leads his sheep where he wants them to go not where they want to go, and what they want may not be what they need.

Receiving eternal life and being alive to God in Christ means a radical reorientation of our lives and values; it involves a loss of our freedom and independence. We are no longer free to go where we please or to do what we want. His sheep hear his voice and follow where he leads even if it means danger, hardship, and sacrifice. They trust that, even though he leads them through the valley of the shadow of death, he will not fail them or lose them.

It is perhaps not surprising that many reject this sort of faith and prefer the modern reinvention of it, which stresses enjoying life here in this world. We want a shepherd who will give us what we want now and who will make life easier for us in the present. What need to worry about life after death in the world to come? We believe are already guaranteed eternal life when we die.

When following Christ turns out to be demanding and difficult, as we are already sure of life after death, then, we reason, why let following Christ interfere with our lives here and now. If the Good Shepherd won’t give us what we want, then we can go looking for it ourselves secure in the knowledge that he will always have us back if we go astray. The problem is that once we turn away there is no guarantee we will ever find the way back.

When Jesus speaks of his death people often turn away. They always have. They did when Jesus spoke of it in the synagogue at Capernaum. St John tells us that many of his disciples said:

‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (John 6:60)

As a result, many turned back and stopped following him. Jesus asks the Twelve if they too will go away, Peter replies:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, and he has the words of eternal life. No-one can snatch them away from him, no matter how difficult his teaching or how hard following him may be.

2. ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’

When the Pharisees see Jesus eating with many tax-collectors and sinners, they are highly critical of him. Jesus says to them:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9:12-13)

The words Jesus tells them to go away and learn the meaning of are from Hosea (Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees could not have done as Jesus said, for in chapter 12 of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the words again, observing that the Pharisees show by their words and actions that they don’t know what they mean (Matthew 12:7).

Jesus is clear that he came to seek and to save those who are lost. In this, Jesus is reflecting the character of God, his Father, who is himself a God of mercy. It is all too easy, however, as we see the mercy of God in forgiving sinners being demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus, to presume on God’s mercy and to take it for granted, as if there was something inevitable and automatic about it.

The mercy of God is extended by God, who has never desired the death of a sinner, to all sinners. God is the God who himself goes the extra mile to seek those who are lost and to offer them the chance to find salvation in Christ. As St Paul puts it, God shows his love for us in that it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

We must, though, be careful to remember that while mercy and forgiveness are offered freely and generously by God to lost sinners, they are, nevertheless, still lost sinners who need saving, and, unless they are saved, they will be lost forever. God does not the desire the death of a sinner, but the sinner needs to turn from their wickedness if they are to live (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, but they are not saved until they repent. It is, in other words, to those who hear Jesus’ voice and have faith in him that Jesus gives eternal life, and it is those to whom eternal life is given who will not perish.

What is more we must also remember that the mercy and forgiveness that is freely offered comes at great cost. We all too often don’t take that cost seriously because we are not convinced that there was that great a cost. After all, Jesus was not the first person to be killed unjustly or to die for what they believed in, and he won’t be the last. In any case, he is alive now and that, we think, is what matters.

The New Testament writers don’t see it that way and nor should we. The death of Jesus was a death unlike any other, and we won’t appreciate the love and mercy of God until we appreciate how much it cost for God to give his Son for us, so that we would not perish but have eternal life.

We are currently having to operate the government’s Vaccine Pass scheme at Christ Church. This means that we have to scan a person’s vaccination record before they enter the Church. Only those who meet the vaccine requirements set by the government are allowed in. What if, however, a ‘faith pass’ was in operation and you could only enter the church if you had faith? Would you get in? Only those who have faith in Jesus will receive eternal life. It’s that simple and that serious. The good news is that those who have faith in Jesus are given eternal life by him freely and they will never perish.

3. ‘I and the Father are One’

Jesus could be provocative, and he didn’t go in for easy compromise. Indeed, at times, he seemed instead to go out of his way to upset the religious leaders. They didn’t like him healing on the sabbath, but that didn’t stop him doing so. Not unreasonably, they asked why he couldn’t just heal on the other 6 days of the week (Luke 13:14). Did it really need to be on a sabbath? After all, what difference would one more day make to someone blind from birth?

The healing during the Feast of Tabernacles of the man born blind (John 9:1-38) proved to be especially controversial not only because it took place on the sabbath, but because the man born blind had the temerity to defend Jesus for doing so. It may seem obvious to us that he would do so given that Jesus gave him sight for the first time in his life, but the paralytic who had been healed by Jesus at a previous festival also on the sabbath (John 5:1-18) went out of his way not to annoy the religious leaders and even seems to have sided with them against Jesus.

What appears to have upset people the most at the Feast of Tabernacles, however, was not simply that Jesus had healed on the sabbath, but that when arguing with them he had said:

‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ (John 8:58)

This use of the divine name and the claim to divinity it implies was too much for them, and they picked up stones to stone him (John 8:59). It happens again at the Feast of Dedication when Jesus says ‘plainly’ that he and the Father are one! These were claims that crossed a line. The Jews had very clear rules about blasphemy, and they thought Jesus had broken them.

Scholars and theologians today debate whether that was in fact the case and argue about whether Jesus could have said what he did without it being blasphemous. They, however, weren’t there, and those who were there were convinced it was. Whatever the precise nuances of what Jesus was claiming for himself, it is clear that he was claiming a unique position for himself in relation to God.

I have argued that, in the church today, we have reinterpreted the message of the Gospel to focus on the resurrection and the belief that it gives eternal life for all, whether they know it or not, believe it or not, and even whether they want it or not! We have alongside this also reinterpreted the life of Jesus.

We now emphasize the humanity of Jesus and either ignore his divinity or reject it altogether. We stress instead how Jesus was human just like us. What was special about him was not that he was in any way divine, but that he lived a good life and by his life and teaching demonstrated what being fully human could look like. We see him as showing by his life the sort of life to which we should all aspire and which it is possible for us to achieve. In this he was special, but not unique. He had this in common with other religious teachers who also show us what humans can be like if they follow the right teaching. What matters most, or so it is said, is the teaching not the teacher.

Jesus’ sheep, however, don’t follow teaching; they follow Jesus. Jesus said that all who came before him were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them (John 10:8). Now Jesus has come, he is the Gate for the Sheep to go through and whoever enters through him will be saved. Jesus not only reveals God, he is God; he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). He and the Father are one.

This used to be Church’s faith and what everyone believed, regardless of what other arguments they may have had. Now it is seen as intolerant, exclusive, and reactionary. It is rejected as outdated by church leaders who seek a more open, welcoming, and inclusive faith, but in seeking it they are leading people astray.

Jesus is not just another teacher, one guide among many. He is not simply a good man who shows us how to be good and how to realize our potential as humans. He is the One who alone reveals the Father to those who hear his voice and believe in him. Jesus said:

‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.’ (John 14:6-7)

As Jesus says in our reading, he and the Father are One.

We come to Jesus because we know there is nowhere else for us to go. He has the words of eternal life. Today, may we hear his voice and follow him, wherever he may lead.


The Third Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter.

The Third Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 21:1-19

Last week, our Gospel reading finished with these words:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

Reading these words, it very much sounds as if the Gospel has come to an end and that this is St John’s conclusion to it. It comes, then, as a bit of a surprise that immediately following these words, St John writes:

‘After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.’ (John 21:1)

Many scholars are so surprised that the Gospel, having seemingly come to an end, instead continues in this way that they have suggested that originally the Gospel did end at the close of chapter 20. They argue that what we now know as chapter 21 was added later. This is, however, just speculation, as there is no hard evidence that the Gospel ever ended other than how it does in the form in which we now have it. Every manuscript of the Gospel we have has the Gospel as it is in the New Testament.

The best way, then, of understanding chapter 21 is as an Epilogue. As I explain every Christmas when we read the opening verses of St John’s Gospel, the Gospel begins with what is commonly known as the Prologue (John 1:1-18). In the Prologue, St John introduces the person that the Gospel is going to be about. The Epilogue, for its part, not only concludes the Gospel, it also looks forward to how Jesus’ work is going to be continued after he has ascended to the Father. It also ties up some loose ends, not least by describing what happened to St Peter and by revealing (sort of!) the identity of the Beloved Disciple.

The Epilogue records an appearance of the Risen Christ to some of the disciples, this time not in Jerusalem but in Galilee. St John writes of this appearance:

‘This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.’ (John 21:14)

This again causes problems for some commentators. In chapter 20, St John has described how the Risen Jesus has appeared first to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), then secondly to the disciples without Thomas (John 20:19-23), and thirdly, a week later, to the disciples with Thomas (John 20:24-29). This appearance in chapter 21 appears, they say, to make four appearances of Jesus to the disciples.

This is a good illustration of how commentators are affected by what they want the text to say as opposed to what it actually does say. As I said last week, in the sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, Mary Magdalene is never called a disciple in the Gospels. In fact, during Jesus’ appearance to her, Jesus gives her a message to take to the disciples (John 20:17-18). This means that St John describes two appearances of Jesus to the disciples in chapter 20. This one in chapter 21 is, as St John writes, the third. It goes against our prejudices today to think that only men are called disciples, but we should at least begin trying to understand the passage by being honest about what the text says – and what it does not.

In this appearance, Jesus appears to seven disciples. It is an interesting list:
  • Simon Peter, who denied Jesus
  • Thomas, who wouldn’t believe without seeing
  • Nathanael, who doubted that anything good could come out of Nazareth (John 2:46). We are also given the surprising information that Nathanael himself came from Cana of Galilee near Nazareth where the wedding took place at the start of Jesus’ ministry.
  • the sons of Zebedee, who are referred to here for the first time in this Gospel. From the other Gospels we know their names are James and John.
  • and two others, whose names we are not told
These disciples have left Jerusalem and gone back to Galilee. Peter decides to go fishing and the others say they will go with him. This reminds us that, although the disciples say they have left all to follow Jesus (Luke 18:28), it does not mean that they have abandoned everything altogether. They clearly still have a boat to go fishing in!

Being fishermen, they go out fishing at night. They are not successful, however, and they are making their way back to the shore when a stranger calls from the shore asking them if they have caught any fish. When they reply that they haven’t the stranger tells them to cast their nets to the right of the boat and they will find some. They have nothing to lose and so do so. The catch is a big one, and the Beloved Disciple realizes it is the Lord. Hearing this, Peter doesn’t wait a moment longer and jumps into the sea to get to Jesus. The rest of the disciples come the remaining 100 yards in the boat, dragging the net to the shore.

When they get to the shore, they see a charcoal fire with fish already laid on it and bread. Jesus tells them to fetch some of the fish they have caught, and Peter hauls the net to the shore. We are told that there were 153 fish. The fish are safely brought ashore without the nets getting torn, Jesus says to them:

‘Come and have a meal.’ (John 21:12)

St John writes:

‘Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.' (John 21:12)

This reminds us of what Jesus had said in the Upper Room on the night of his arrest. Jesus told them that on the day when they see him again, they will ask nothing of him (John 16:23). This is not, however, going to be a relaxed breakfast. The presence of a charcoal fire makes that clear. The last time there was a charcoal fire in the Gospel, Peter was warming himself around it and denying Jesus three times (John 18:18). Why does Jesus invite them to a Meal? Why are there 153 fish? What’s going on? The meal over, they are going to find out.

They may not ask Jesus anything, but Jesus has something he wants to ask Peter. Jesus asks Peter whether Peter loves him ‘more than these’. Jesus calls Peter, ‘Simon, son of John’. This is how he was known before he met Jesus and Jesus gave him the name Peter (John 1:42). Peter before the crucifixion had been bold in professing his loyalty to Jesus. In St Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples that they will all desert him, Peter says:

‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ (Mark 14:29)

Instead, although the others may have fled from Jesus, Peter actually denied him. So, does Peter now think he loves Jesus more than these other disciples? Peter does not answer that question. He replies simply that Jesus knows Peter loves him. There is a hard-earned humility to Peter’s answer. Jesus commands him to ‘feed his lambs’. Jesus, however, isn’t finished with Peter yet. He asks Peter a second time whether Peter loves him. Peter again replies that Jesus knows that he loves him. Jesus commands him to ‘tend his sheep’. Jesus then asks Peter a third time whether he loves Jesus. This time Peter is hurt. Jesus seems to doubt him. This time Peter replies that as Jesus knows all things, he must know Peter loves him. Jesus commands him to feed his sheep.

At the Last Supper, Jesus had answered Peter’s question about where Jesus was going by saying:

‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.’ (John 13:36)

Peter had replied:

‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ (John 13:37)

Jesus answered him:

‘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 13:38)

The words translated here, ‘Very truly …’ are literally, ‘Amen, amen …’. Jesus uses this expression whenever he wants to stress the seriousness of what he is about to say. It is used 25 times in St John’s Gospel. Jesus, having used it when he says Peter will deny him, now uses it again to begin what he wants to say to Peter having questioned him three times.

Jesus’ questioning has been a painful process for Peter to go through, but there is a different sort of pain in store for him in the future. Jesus tells him that as a young man, Peter has been free to make his own decisions and choices, when he grows old, however, his freedom will be taken from him, and he will be forced to do things against his will.

Jesus uses the phrase, ‘you will stretch out your hands’. St John writes that Jesus is indicating the sort of death Peter will die. Church tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero in the mid-sixties. It hurt Peter spiritually and emotionally being asked by Jesus whether Peter loved him; now loving Jesus is going to hurt him physically. At the Last Supper, Peter said he would lay down his life for Jesus and didn’t. In the future, he will. Peter had asked to be allowed to follow Jesus, and Jesus had promised that one day he would. Jesus now confirms his promise. There are just two more words needed. Jesus says to Peter, ‘Follow me’. Jesus renews his call to Peter to be a disciple, a call which will involve Peter in laying down his life. But first, Simon, son of John, can become Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his Church. Jesus, with the two words, ‘Follow me’, completes Peter’s restoration.

There are a couple of different metaphors at work in this passage. Early on in his time with them, Jesus had told the disciples that if they followed him, he would make them ‘fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17). The miraculous catch of fish they have just made symbolizes the work they are going to do for Jesus in bringing people to faith. By listening to Jesus and casting the net where he tells them, they can be sure that they will bring their catch to the shore without the net breaking. None will be lost. Once they have brought people to faith and they become part of the community of faith, Peter’s role will be that of a shepherd. Jesus himself is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep (John 10:14) and Peter is to look after Jesus’ sheep for him.

After Jesus says to Peter, ‘Follow me’, Peter turns and sees the Beloved Disciple following them. Peter, now he has been restored, his call renewed, his future told, wants to know what Jesus has planned for the Beloved Disciple. Peter has one more lesson to learn. Jesus says that if he wants the Beloved Disciple to live until he returns that is nothing to do with Peter. Jesus repeats his call to Peter, ‘You follow me!’ Peter is not to worry about anyone else; he is to concentrate on following Jesus.

St John closes his Gospel by telling us that because Jesus said that if he wanted the Beloved Disciple to live until he returned that was nothing to do with Peter, the rumour spread among the believers that the beloved Disciple was not going to die. The seven who were there when Jesus said this must have talked about what happened for the rumour to start. St John, however, clarifies that this was not what Jesus actually said. Jesus was speaking hypothetically to make the point that Peter’s focus needed to be on following him. Peter was not to worry about what Jesus’ plan was for anyone else.

The author then pulls a literary rabbit from the hat and announces that it is the Beloved Disciple himself who has been telling the story of Jesus and has written it down. The author of the Gospel is the Beloved Disciple. These closing verses of the Gospel don’t have the impact on us they should have because we are already in the know about the Gospel. The Beloved Disciple by revealing himself as the author of the Gospel wants to assure his readers that they can trust what they have heard or read because it is someone who has been a witness to all that has been described who has written it. His testimony is true (John 21:24). The Beloved Disciple hasn’t written down all that Jesus did; that would be impossible. What he has written, however, can be trusted.

Throughout my sermons on the Gospel, I have referred to the author as St John. This may seem obvious, as it is, after all, called St John’s Gospel. Traditionally, the St John in question has been identified as St John the Apostle. Nowadays, however, many scholars don’t think the Beloved Disciple was St John the Apostle and there are many arguments over who it might have been instead. Personally, I do think the Beloved Disciple and, therefore the author of the Gospel, was St John the Apostle, but that is a sermon or study for another day. For now, I want to ask what all this has to say to us.

1. Come and eat a meal

Our translations have, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ This is a perfectly legitimate translation, but it does mean that we may miss an important connection. Jesus invites the disciples to a meal he himself has prepared for them of bread and fish. Jesus has fed people with bread and fish before, and St John has described it in some detail in chapter six of the Gospel (John 6:1-15).

After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus went on to make this meal up the mountain the basis for his teaching about how he is the bread of life and of the importance of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:22-59). At the time, this had proved too much for many of his disciples and they had abandoned him.

These seven disciples here with him on the shore on of the Sea of Tiberias are his closest disciples, who stayed with him when the others left. They had been at the Last Meal Jesus had had with his disciples before his death. This Meal, he explained, is where he gives his body and his blood, which they are to eat and drink in remembrance of him. Now here in Galilee Jesus eats a meal with them by the sea one final time before leaving them.

The Meal Jesus gave them before he died will, after he has returned to his Father, become the focus of their meetings together. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this Meal, what we call the Eucharist, as the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324). Sadly, even many Roman Catholics don’t see it this way. The pandemic has exposed how lightly most believers take it.

In saying this, I do not want to make anyone feel bad. I do want, however, to encourage us to reflect on what our recent experience during the pandemic has revealed about our attitude to something that was so important to our Lord himself. The pandemic has shown that, for many churchgoers, the Eucharist is something of an optional extra and something that they can easily live without.

For example, here at Christ Church during the suspension of church services, we continued to offer the reserved sacrament on a Sunday. Some people came faithfully to receive it, but many did not. It was not that those who did not come were worried about the virus and catching covid, as they were still shopping in the malls, going out to eat at restaurants, and travelling on the MTR. These were all places where they were much more at risk of catching the virus than they would be in church. It was simply that they did not take receiving the sacrament seriously enough to make the effort to come to church.

Jesus will tell Peter to ‘feed his lambs’, to ‘tend his sheep’, and to ‘feed his sheep’. Feeding Jesus’ sheep is about a lot more than making sure believers come together to receive holy communion, but it is not less. Jesus thought that giving us this Meal was of such importance that it was the last thing he did before his death. St John closes his Gospel by describing a meal that reminds us of what Jesus said about feeding on him. We all need to start taking our spiritual diet more seriously!

Nutritionists disagree and argue over the precise details of our physical diets, but they all agree on the importance and need for a good balanced diet for our physical health. In the same way, we need spiritual food and Jesus has given us himself as food. We feed on him by believing in him and by hearing and keeping his word. We also feed on him in the Meal he gave us. We may not fully understand what is happening at the Eucharist, and we may even disagree with one another over various details concerning it, but Jesus gave it, the disciples continued it, and we should not neglect it.

The disciples are given the task of fishing for people, a task that is symbolized by the miraculous catch of the 153 fish. The Church’s responsibility is to continue this task and to bring the people of God to Jesus, who is waiting for them. Those who are brought to Jesus need feeding, and our task is not only to bring people to Jesus, but to feed them once we have.

It is the Church’s responsibility to feed Jesus’ sheep, but we each need to do our part and take our need for a good spiritual diet seriously. We need to feed on Jesus, and that includes availing ourselves of what he offers in the Meal he gave us. We each need to reflect on whether we take receiving what Christ offers us in the Meal he gave us as seriously as he did.

2. Do you love me?

St John stresses the importance of believing in Jesus. Perhaps the most famous verse in the Gospel is John 3:16. St John writes:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

In the ending to chapter 20, St John tells us that the reason he wrote his Gospel was so that we may believe in Jesus and in believing may have life in his name (John 20:30-31). However, it is interesting that when Jesus begins the process of restoring Peter, he asks Peter not whether Peter believes in him, but whether Peter loves him. This is the key question not only for Peter but for us. So put your own name there and let Jesus ask you, ‘X, do you love me?’

In my sermons on St John’s Gospel, I have tried to stress how being a follower of Jesus is all about relationship. What we believe is important. We won’t have a good relationship with someone we think bad things about. How we live and what we do also matters. We won’t have a good relationship with someone if we constantly do things that they don’t like and which make them unhappy. But we can think someone is a truly marvellous person and what we do can be what they like and approve of without it meaning that we love them. It is our love for them that gives significance to what we think and do. So, do we love Jesus?

St Catherine of Siena, whose feast day it was last Friday, certainly did love Jesus. St Catherine in her writing describes how we are all drowning in the river of sin. She sees Jesus as a bridge God has provided to enable us to get to safety. St Catherine describes three different stages in our relationship with Jesus the bridge. The first is as we come to Jesus. Perhaps we have come to Jesus for safety and out of fear of drowning. We want to escape from what was destroying us. The second stage is as we enjoy and experience all the benefits that Jesus gives. We move to loving Jesus because of all that he does for us and gives us. The third stage, however, is when we come to love Jesus for himself and enjoy our union with him. We love him now not for what he gives us, but for who he is and what he means to us.

This can all sound very unreal and even sentimental. As Peter was to discover it is very real and not at all sentimental. For Peter, loving Jesus was going to mean dying for Jesus. It does not mean that for everyone. It did not mean it for the Beloved Disciple. It does mean for us all, however, having more regard for Jesus than we have for ourselves.

God’s will for our lives is not primarily for us to be happy, but for us to be holy. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews compares the way God deals with us with the way parents discipline their children. He writes:

‘For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.’ (Hebrews 12:

God wants us to share his holiness and to make us more Christ-like. This can be frightening, as the things we enjoy and want for ourselves, while not necessarily wrong in themselves, may not be the best way for God’s purpose for us to be achieved.

We naturally pray for what we want and for what makes us happy. God wants us to pray for what he wants and for what makes us holy. Sometimes being happy and holy will coincide, but often, by the very nature of things, they won’t, and when they don’t, holiness must come before happiness. One who loves, however, can ultimately only find lasting happiness in the presence of the one they love.

The week past in the church’s calendar we remembered the poet, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). In my sermon on chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2020, the chapter where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, I quoted her poem, ‘None other Lamb; none other name’. Appropriately, her poem also captures what I am saying today:

'None other Lamb; none other name,
none other hope in heaven or earth or sea,
none other hiding-place from guilt and shame,
none beside Thee.

My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
only my heart's desire cries out in me,
by the deep thunder of its want and woe,
cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art life, though I be dead,
love's fire Thou art, however cold I be:
nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
nor Home, but Thee.'

Again, Jesus asks us, ‘Do you love me?’

3. Follow me

Peter was both a strong and brave person. I have tried to put to rest the impression we have of him as someone who was weak, unpredictable, and unreliable. Jesus chose him and named him the ‘rock’. There was a reason for that. Peter did love Jesus and was committed to him.

However, for all the reasons we looked at on Maundy Thursday this year, it went wrong for Peter as a follower of Christ. Things do go wrong in the life of discipleship. We do trip over and fall as we seek to follow Christ. The example of Peter provides hope for those who fall. It’s not that the fall doesn’t matter. Peter’s fall did matter, but Peter wanted back.

When Peter hears from the women that the tomb is empty, he can’t wait to get there to see what has happened and he is the first ashore when the disciples realize it is the Lord. Peter hasn’t stopped believing, but he does have to go through the process of restoration, and that process, as Peter discovers, can be painful: ‘Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ The charcoal fire that is burning there as a reminder of his fall and failure couldn’t have made it any easier for him either.

Perhaps like Peter we too have fallen. The fall can take many different forms. We may have committed serious sin, so serious that we wonder whether we can ever be forgiven. We may, however, have simply got distracted, so we have stopped following Jesus or have found ourselves diverted into following after other things, even legitimate things. Having stopped following Jesus or having begun to follow after other things, we worry that there may be no way back or we may even have doubts about whether Jesus will have us back.

For all who have fallen there is always hope. The question Jesus asks those who know they have fallen and who want to get back up is, ‘Do you love me?’ And if we can answer like Peter, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you’, then whether we have fallen into sin or simply into other things, Jesus renews his call to us. He says simply, ‘Follow me.’ And in those two words are the forgiveness and the invitation we need to begin again following Jesus.

If, however, we are to avoid falling again, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus, and that means not turning to see what is going on with others who are following Jesus. Peter turned and seeing the Beloved Disciple following them wanted to know what Jesus’ plan for him was.

We do look at others and compare ourselves to them. We do this in the everyday business of life, but we also do it spiritually as well. Sometimes we feel quite pleased when we compare ourselves to others. We see ourselves as better than they are. But often, we don’t come off well in the comparison. Others can seem more holy, more committed, or more devout than we are. It is easy to get depressed and disillusioned. We think we will never be as good as they are, as faithful, or as spiritual. Whether we are better or worse than others, Jesus says the same, ‘What is that to you? You follow me!’

Other times, we look at others out of jealousy or a desire to compete with them and to do better than them. It leads us to boast of our achievements and our gifts. They are not as good as we are, but still Jesus says the same, ‘What is that to you? You follow me!’

Jesus relates to each one of us as individuals. When Jesus calls out to the disciples in the boat, he calls them ‘children’. As children of God, we are all part of God’s family, the Church. While God does indeed have a plan for his family as a whole, within that family we each have our own relationship with Jesus, who is the head of the family. My relationship with Christ is different to yours and the plan God has for me is not the same as the plan he has for you. Comparisons are invidious. My call is to follow Christ and to do what he asks of me; your call is to follow Christ and to do whatever he asks of you.

St Peter did follow Jesus and in the book of Acts we see him leading both Jews and Gentiles to Christ. He fell, but Christ restored him, and he went on to be the rock that our Lord knew he would be. The Beloved Disciple also followed Christ and produced a Gospel that witnessed to him and through it he continues to witness to Jesus today.

Jesus says to us what he said to both St Peter and the Beloved Disciple, ‘Follow me.’

May we follow Jesus as they did.