David Walker - Easter 3
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
There was an item in last week’s news about pressure on local A and E Departments during Easter Week, and one of the reasons for this apparently was that a number of people had come in complaining of a surfeit of chocolate. Too many Easter eggs. I’m not sure what to make of that. Is it a good thing to keep the Easter traditions going or is it just another symptom of the stupidity that can come from over-indulgence and taking our vital public services for granted? Discuss.
Actually, what struck me most was having too much chocolate. It’s like this morning’s lectionary readings. There’s just too much. The conversion of Paul by itself would be the equivalent of at least one Snickers multipack. Add to that Jesus’ appearance, the miraculous draft of fish, breakfast on the beach, and the commissioning of Peter and that’s like being locked up overnight in the local branch of Hotel Chocolat.
Too much. Too rich. How to make sense of it all. How to appreciate it all.
Pick out the first chocolate you see and concentrate upon it. Savour it. Make it last. The first is always the best, the one you remember most.
So, I’m not going for the coffee cream. That would put too many people off. And the Snickers Bar is too obvious. I’m going for the plain dark chocolate, the authentic, 70% Columbian. The one that permeates all the others, is part of all the others. I can already see you salivating.
These reading are all about faith. Where it comes from, how we understand it and what we do with it. And how it can come to us in different ways.
In both these readings God reveals himself in spectacular ways. In the Gospel Jesus, post resurrection, post death on the cross, appears by the side of the lake to his disciples, his disciples who have been fishing all night without any luck. Jesus tells them where to cast their nets and straightaway they catch so many fish they can’t haul their nets in. A miracle, a miraculous catch.
In Acts, Paul is breathing threats and murder when he’s knocked off his horse by a flash of light from heaven and he hears the voice of Jesus. Another miracle.
Both these events are spectacular, miraculous. They both break the rules of this rational earthly world in which we live. To put it mildly they are unexpected. They are also vital. Without these interventions God’s plan would have taken a different course.
The disciples had gone back to Galilee. They had dispersed, ready for something but not really sure what. They didn’t know what to do next. They were still in shock after the death of their friend and master. Even though he had appeared twice to them after his death they still did not believe or understand enough not just to revert to their lives as fishermen. What if they had just fished out the rest of their days? Would Peter have just lived out his life surrounded by his children and grandchildren telling them stories of the three short years when his life had been taken over by a mysterious young teacher from Nazareth?
Paul or Saul had carved out a name for himself persecuting members of this new sect whose belief in a new Messiah was undermining Judaism. He was on his way to Damascus to seek out and bind followers of this new way. He could have succeeded. He could have completed his mission to stamp out this new belief.
Peter and Paul. God did something spectacular for them. He needed them to understand. He needed them to do his work. And there was an urgency about what happened to them.
Miraculous, unexpected revelation. God knocked them on the head – with a huge catch of fish where there had been no fish, with a sign from the heavens. He sent in the praline cluster, the salted caramel surprise, the champagne truffle – and they were all in one lump.
But did that do it? Did it do it for everyone? For all those involved? We need to read more closely.
The disciples didn’t actually recognise Jesus. ‘...the disciples did not know it was Jesus’. And for Paul it was even worse. ‘...though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight...’
So, it was miraculous. It was unexpected. But it wasn’t immediate revelation for everyone involved. As well as the sledgehammer God used other, much more subtle, tools and methods.
It was only when Jesus said to the disciples ‘Come and have breakfast..’ that they knew who it was . ‘Now none of the disciples dared to ask him ’Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord’. Just like before, at Emmaus, and in the locked room, it was only when Jesus did the ordinary but special things, the things they were familiar with, the things of this world, did they recognise him.
And with Paul it took the bravery and courage of an ordinary man, Ananias, a disciple, one of those whom Paul would have persecuted and most likely have killed, to talk to Paul and explain simply what had happened.
Both Peter and Paul had been overwhelmed. Meeting with God directly can’t always be comfortable, can’t always be something you can cope easily with. If Jesus physically appeared amongst us this morning how do you think you would cope? But if someone does something normal and gives you a sign how much easier is it? When we exchange the peace, when we break the bread, that’s when we can know. Or when hear the words of a fellow disciple, that’s when we know.
Peter and Paul were special, singled out. God needed them and gave them extra help. But even they struggled. We don’t have to be Peter and Paul and we don’t have to worry about not being them. God has different plans for us, probably not quite so spectacular or world changing.
We can’t expect divine intervention in our lives or a flash of light from heaven. I don’t think that’s what we looking for, waiting for. But we do need the help that comes from the little things, the reality that is our daily living.
Faith, belief, comes to us in different ways. We are all different. In that famous quote from The Life of Brian, we are all individuals. We have different likes, dislikes, we have lived different lives. We learn things and understand things in different ways. Would we have needed the miraculous draft of fish, the blinding flash or just the charcoal fire (a reminder of that other charcoal fire that burned on the eve of Jesus’ death), the breaking of the bread – a revelation or a reminder of who we are? How do we expect God to break into our lives? For most of us it will have to be sufficient to be reminded, to be nudged, cajoled and immersed in the stuff of everyday life, the stuff we expect, but always with the possibility of the unexpected. Listen to what John Wesley famously wrote
‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’
He felt his heart strangely warmed. Not set on fire with burning passion. He wasn’t struck down. He didn’t jump out of the boat. Well, not straightaway.
Our reality is here, in this world. This is where we live. We don’t live apart from God. God is here amongst us, but we need help. We need the ordinary things, the signs and symbols that remind us and help us to recognise him. We need to listen to his words, listen to the words of others, look for the message to us, and speak that message into our world.
Sometimes we may strain to hear anything above the white noise of our routine lives. Be patient.
We shouldn’t worry when we doubt our faith or when we look for it in vain. In fact, the more we look for God the more we can miss him. He is looking for us. God will give us signs (if not wonders). God will give us help. God is not hiding from us. He is here in this world. And we will find him because we don’t have to look very far and because he is looking for us. God is here in these readings. In our prayers. In our liturgy. In our hymns. In the sharing of the peace. And in the breaking of the bread. He was there before the service started and he will be there at the end. On our journeys home. And when we arrive. Yesterday. Today. And tomorrow.