April 29th, 2001
Wesley, Doncaster East
Easter: so what? Christ is risen: so what? I guess, when I spoke about those questions a couple of weeks ago, I thought I was doing something new.
When I began to look at today’s reading from John’s gospel, I realised that John had beaten me by about 1,920 years.
Back in chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17, John had recorded Jesus’ Farewell Discourses. In these Jesus spoke about the future of the community from which the Church would arise. How would this Community cope without Jesus? What shape would their lives take? How would they endure the seemingly inevitable misunderstanding, contempt, and persecution? How are they to experience Jesus’ presence into the future far beyond that first Easter? What will be their characteristics and marks as a community? What will make them different?
Now in chapter 21, John sets you thinking about how those who first followed him – and we who follow him today – will experience Jesus’ within our midst and how we will carry on the work Jesus began. It’s John’s answer – from the late First Century – to the “so what?” question!
Way back at the beginning of John’s gospel, are these words, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after,” or as Eugene Peterson expresses it, “We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift.” There was also right at the start of Jesus’ ministry a story about wine Jesus miraculously supplied at a wedding feast – more than enough of the very best scarcely describes what he produced.
Here in the midst of this post-resurrection, post-Easter community as the disciples go about a mundane task there’s a miraculous catch of fish – so many that they remembered just how many there were. The extravagance of God continues. It didn’t stop with Jesus’ death. It goes on, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and as extravagantly as ever. It happened for the fisher disciples. It happens today for us.
Several weeks ago I was leading a devotional session at a retirement village. Normally the folk sit and listen. On that particular occasion I asked them about their experiences of the extravagant, surprising love of God. I’ve never seen them so animated. They told story after story – some mundane and everyday – but some quite moving of the way they knew God continued to touch their lives.
That extravagant, surprising love of God is the background to the story of Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Every one of the miracles – including this miraculous catch of fish – is only a sign of something much greater: the gift of Jesus’ own life in love. Jesus calls Peter to the sharing of his life in love – something, which Peter will only be able to do because of his love for Jesus. Peter’s care for Jesus’ sheep had to be grounded in his love for Jesus. “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.” A threefold question: a threefold answer! A pledge of life: a pledge of love without limits. If commitment to Jesus had to be the basis of Peter’s life of love, the same commitment must be the ground of all our concern, service, work for justice, and love for others. It was true for Peter: it’s true for us. Whatever we do for others – if it’s to be love that costs and costs and costs – is only possible in the long run in response to Jesus’ love for us.
During the early days of the American Civil Right Movement many White northern Liberals journeyed south to show their support for the Blacks. Some were critical of the way the movement was grounded in the Church with so many of the meetings in church buildings. One older Black put them in their place. “It’s all very well for you,” he said. “You come here for two or three weeks. We live here all the time. Without the support of the church, we couldn’t have kept going year after year after year.” Their enduring love for Jesus was the basis of their continuing love for others. It was the reason they were prepared to put their lives on the line in the struggle for justice.
In many ways it would have been more helpful if the lectionary this morning had continued on. It presents us with a dilemma from within the life of the early church. Peter’s life was Christ-shaped: it ended in death on a cross. The “beloved disciple – whoever he may have been – died in old age. Peter was a witness to the Faith – the Greek for witness is our word for martyr.
What about John? Was his life really Christ-shaped if it didn’t also end with a cross? “What’s that to you?” was Jesus’ response. Comparisons are beside the point. Peter had to follow his path of discipleship: John his.
In our age, here in Australia few are called to follow Jesus’ path to the cross by laying down our lives for love. But we know that the history of the Church is filled with people who took Jesus at his word and found that the only way to love him was with their lives. And that’s as real today, as it ever has been. Example after example after example could be told by Ron Clough of such people. He knows. That’s a large part of his responsibility within the world Evangelical community.
The beloved disciple’s story is there to assure us that what we do should be gone about as seriously as Peter went about his life of love for Jesus – yet may never involves us in martyrdom for our faith. When we compare our lives with those who have suffered bitterly for their faith, we may feel somehow short-changed. But what we truly do in love we should never devalued. Comparisons are beside the point.
Some years ago now I preached at the funeral of a woman who had undergone incredible experiences in China when the communists took control. Maybe I laid it on a bit thick. I couldn’t help it. You can’t help but be incredulous about someone virtually imprisoned with another woman missionary in a pantry and defiantly signing Christian hymns while the communist soldiers caroused in the kitchen outside. Certainly some who listened criticised me – perhaps justly for making them feel second-class. I didn’t make the compassion: they did.
In the end comparisons are beside the point. Ours is to shape our lives in love. Nevetheless, we do need to ask ourselves, “If love costs nothing, what is it worth?”
But there’s another aspect of these stories to think about before we’re finished. The stories of the twenty-first chapter of John began with neither the call to martyrdom of Peter nor the praise of the beloved disciple’s witness, but with the story of Jesus’ gifts. For Peter, the martyr; for the beloved disciple, the witness; for Thomas and Nathanael, who wanted to see to believe; for the sons of Zebedee; and for all the disciples John doesn’t name, Jesus provided a miraculous catch of fish and a celebratory breakfast on the beach. All who give up their lives in love; all those whose love may never seem to be noticed; all those whose love achieves prominence – all receive Jesus’ surprising, extravagant, miraculous gifts.
Our discipleship begins in the gifts God has already given us through Jesus. Our discipleship finds fulfilment in the way our lives reflect the love of Jesus. That’s John’s answer from 1920 years ago to the “Easter: so what?” question. It’s as relevant as ever.
 John 1: 16.
 John 21: 23.