SERMON APRIL 10 2016 - EASTER 3
What languages do you speak? I wish I could speak more. I learned French all the way through school, though in those days it was all about grammar, not about speech. I can get by, and like to think I would pick it up better fairly quickly. I would love to know more Korean, but being unable to read the script, that is a bigger challenge. So I greatly admire all you people for whom English is a second language, with all the extra concentration that is required of you, which must be tiring.
Did you know that 87% of communication is non-verbal? That may seem a surprising statistic, but it is good to be reminded of what an impact body language can make. It’s also true that we may be communicating something we are not actually feeling. I remember being rather upset as a teenager making my long journey home from school on 2 buses after a busy day. I was sitting minding my own business when a man getting off said to me as he passed by “Cheer up. It may never happen.” The fact that I still remember shows that his words, in response to my body language, had an impact.
Words and body language combined are powerful. Have you ever been on the receiving end of real anger? I have, and it does things to one’s insides. It can almost physically diminish one, though of course it can also evoke a violent response. We see that in too frequent outbursts of road rage. Being on the receiving end of anger can leave deep emotional scars – hurts that can whittle away at one’s self-esteem. We hear too much about domestic violence and the devastating impact it has on the lives of the victim and any children, whether the anger is expressed verbally or physically. When I did a counselling training, many years ago, we were told that we had to own our response, that we should not say “You made me angry.” The implication is that anger is our own response to something and that we can choose what we do with what has happened to us. Now we are not all saints in that respect. Many, many things affect how we feel and how we respond. Tiredness, frustration, low sugar/energy levels etc. Anger is also important because it can propel us into action about something that has gone wrong, been unjust or hurtful, things that should not be allowed to pass by. We can also feel anger when something we value is denigrated or threatened. It arouses a protective feeling that, however become easily distorted. We can feel anger about things that we feel are done wrongly in the church, things that trespass on what we hold dear. I was told recently about a minister who overheard one of his congregation in the car park, verbally abusing another church member. They had just come out of worship. I have never seen a hint of that here! There are many things that shape us, that have made us who we are, and when that identity is threatened, we can react strongly or, at times, in a passive aggressive way that is really just as bad. It’s all powerful stuff and can so easily end up hurting not just other people but also ourselves, because it means we see through our own clouded lenses and shut out the light of God’s grace.
Saul, in Acts, was an angry man. Something was fuelling his violent persecution of the Christians. He pursued them. He had stood and watched as Stephen, one of the wise men of this young faith, was stoned to death. He carried with him a letter which, presumably was giving him permission to round up the Christians in Damascus. He was going after them. Was he trying to protect his faith, the faith of his people as he understood it as a learned Pharisee? Was his anger, his intensity, making him blind to what he might have seen in front of him? Whatever the case, he was well known to be a threat to the Christians, wherever they were. His reputation had spread.
In that frame of mind he set out for Damascus “Still breathing murderous threats”,
as the text tells us. I wonder what his body language was like! This is a well-known story. It has given rise to the description of a moment of enlightenment as a “road to Damascus” experience. How sad that today, there is so much anger and violence we see happening in that place, that country. How much blindness to seeing the “other” as a fellow human being!
Getting back to Saul, as he was then known, he has a dramatic experience, a flash of light. It is interesting to note that when Paul himself mentions this in letters, he does not speak of this dramatic conversion experience. Luke is telling us something in his description: something about what happened for this angry man. He lost his sight, for three days. For three days he was in darkness, as in a tomb, before he was brought into the light of life again. In that time, he would have had to sit and think about what he had been doing and what had happened to him. The voice of Jesus had addressed him, not in an angry way, but apparently quite quietly: “Saul, Saul”. Not one loud shout of his name. “Why are you persecuting me?” A question, not an accusation or reprimand. He is stopped in his tracks and has to allow himself to be led by hand into the city where he had been intending to go with murderous intent.
Then we hear of Ananias, a disciple, someone who knew Saul’s reputation very well; knew what a fearful, angry man Saul was, how he was coming to arrest them; knew what had happened to Stephen. Yet he is told that “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” I wonder what Ananias’ body language might have been telling as he approached that house in Straight Street. He goes in and places his hand on Saul, whom he has only known as the enemy and calls him “Brother Saul.” Saul is met with welcome and kindliness and hospitality. The language of love is spoken in the face of fear. Saul’s eyes were opened, and he begins to preach.
This is such an amazing transformation, turn around, repentance. The former angry passions were changed into a zeal for the gospel, for grace and peace. It seems that Saul/Paul did not look back. He moved forward because he knew how completely he had been set free from his past and he did not hold onto it himself. What is often not realised is that there was a long gap between this event and Paul’s own missionary journeys. His first letter to the Thessalonians, the first writing in the New Testament, is dated at 49 or 50 CE. We can assume that he was travelling to Damascus only a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, maybe in 33 CE. We do know that he went to Jerusalem 3 years later. But in between, we may assume that he was going about learning more, experiencing more as he preached about God’s grace and love. He was learning a new language, the language of love that was rooted in the forgiveness that had been offered to him, begun for him by that little community in Damascus. It was forgiveness that he accepted and allowed to change him. So he can begin or conclude his letters with greetings of grace and peace.
Let’s turn to Peter. In John’s gospel today we have what is an epilogue. It is clear that the gospel originally ended at the close of the preceding chapter, chapter 20. We don’t know why the passage we read today was added. We can assume that it was important to tell this story of how things were turned around for Simon Peter, how he too discovered the grace that set him free of the weight of guilt and shame that he carried; how he was enabled to be the leader of the disciples, he who had denied he knew Jesus, who had failed to stand by him at his time of greatest need. This story in John connects us to Luke’s account of Jesus’ call of Simon, James and John at the start of their journey with Jesus. It is the same story, used differently by the gospel writers. In Luke, the men had been fishing and not caught anything until this as yet unknown man tells them to cast their nets on the other side and they make a great catch. From then on they are called, commissioned to follow. Here in John, it is like a re-commissioning, a post-resurrection story. The ever-impetuous Simon Peter jumps in to go to Jesus when he has recognised him, then has to go back and help pull the overflowing net to shore, where there was already fish cooking over the fire. Little does he know that his deepest need, to be freed from his heavy burden of guilt and shame, is about to be met, painful though the process is. First there is an invitation: “Come and have breakfast.” They sit around, sharing a meal. How could they not have been wondering what was going on. “Do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” The language of love. “Do you love me more than these?” - can seem as if Jesus is asking Simon if Simon’s love is greater than that of the others. But it more likely is a question that means “Do you love me more than you love the others?” – in other words, am I the most important one in your life? What is hidden from us in English is that Jesus and Peter are using two different words for love in the Greek in which Joh’s gospel was written. Jesus uses “agape”, which is unconditional self-giving love. Simon Peter can only use “Philia” which is affection, friendly love. The same the second time. “Do you love me?” The third time, Jesus comes back to Simon’s level and uses philia also. Simon Peter’s love and life will become self-giving, agape, as the passage indicates. He would die, crucified, upside down as the legend has it, for love of Christ. But for now, Peter is called to follow Jesus again, freed from the burden of his past, set free to be the always-impetuous leader of the disciples in Jerusalem. Like Paul, like us, he was a flawed human being who came to know God’s grace and was able to accept it for himself, to be freed to go on with his life, with no anger, no resentment at how his failings had shown him up. He too learned a new language of love.
This passage shows us again the extravagant nature of God’s goodness. The net was overflowing with large fish where there had been none. 153? Maybe the number of followers of Jesus who were waiting and wondering. We don’t know. The imagery makes us think, perhaps, of the water being turned into the best wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. God’s extravagant love simply overflows and washes away the stain of anger, of past misdeeds that were laden with pain in all sorts of ways. We all carry some stain or scar from the past. What today’s readings seem to ask us is if we can let these go. Can we then experience resurrection life? What language will we speak? What language will we go on learning so that we can communicate with each other and with all those around us who may just be needing a quiet word of concern, of friendship, of grace and peace?
Both these accounts we have heard today tell us extraordinary stories of forgiveness and transformation and the grace that was required to offer and accept these gifts. They are the more extraordinary because these two, Peter and Paul, become the two giants of the new Christian community who, more than any others, helped to nurture and to shape the infant churches. They were chosen by Jesus maybe not just in spite of their mistakes but maybe also because of them. These two were able to leave behind their past and step out into a new future for the sake of others. Not many of us have such dramatic burdens of past mistakes and hurts that we carry, and yet we often still find it hard to let go. We can almost find comfort in letting our feelings go on festering. We may also think that our past makes us unworthy and that there is nothing we can do about that. But these stories today remind us that it is not we who makes ourselves worthy. That is done for us, when we can accept it, when we can hear the language of grace, forgiveness and love. It reminds us of how important, and how difficult at times it can be for our church communities to keep conveying that message.
There was a line in the communion liturgy last week that said “History and hurt still dismember us.” How often do we hear of fractures within churches with all their accompanying pain and distress? How much we are called to rise above these things that keep us mired in the dirt, in our anger and frustration. How often we see in public life how the language of division, fear and suspicion takes root and bears ugly, bad tasting fruit. It makes us see how we are called to be different, counter-cultural even. We have been shown the embodiment of the language of love, the non-verbal and the verbal communication. It has told us about forgiveness and taught us about gentleness that is matched by strength. It has brought about dramatic U turns. It teaches us about the nature of community and how much fear and anger we sometimes have to overcome to be able to learn and teach the language of love, for ourselves and for our communities. Thank God we have a good teacher. May we continue to learn together.