The Third Sunday of Easter
The Very Rev. John Witcombe
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Well, it’s really nice to be here in Christ Church. I’ve really enjoyed spending some time with folks from the church here over the last day or so in learning something of the common patterns that we have between the congregation and the life of the church here in my own community in Coventry. And the thing that we’ve been thinking about particularly is about how we see and we share something of the same pattern of commitment to the arts. And I’ve been talking about that a little bit just before this in the adult teaching hour.
The scriptures that we have today that we’ve heard are all about seeing. They’re about lifting our faces to see Jesus in the world. They’re about lifting our faces to see Jesus in one another. And they’re about being able to look in the mirror and seeing Jesus within ourselves. I’ve had the opportunity while I’ve been here – in the states I’ve been here for about a week to visit a couple of your brilliant art museums. I was in Chicago last week and I went in to see the Art Institute in Chicago. And I went in to see the Detroit Institute of Art yesterday morning.
And I don’t know what you’re like when you go into art museums. And do you like to look at the labels that tell you what to look for in a painting? I have to admit that I actually really do like those. I quite like to look at a painting first and see what I spot, but then if I don’t actually have the little explanation next to it, there are often things that I miss.
And I noticed, that particularly in the DI here, there are loads of really helpful little cards. If you’re a younger person to kind of say, “Have you seen this,” or “Have you seen that?” And I bet that if you are one of the people that’s got smaller people with you this morning, then you’ve enjoyed using those cards to take them around and I bet you’ve spotted things that you haven’t seen yourself as well.
Well, here we have in our gospel reading an example of how Jesus helps us to see things, which we might otherwise not have spotted. And I love this reading. It’s kind of an extra to John’s gospel. John’s gospel obviously finished at the end of chapter 20. And so, you kind of think, “Okay, that’s great.” And you’re kind of ready to put the book down and you turn the page, and you discover there’s a whole new another chapter. And some people have said, “Well, it doesn’t really belong. The language is different. Why is it there?” But actually as you dig into it, you discover that it’s there for you and me. It’s there for you and me to find our way into the gospel story because, otherwise, we might not feel that we quite belong.
And it does that, like so many of these passages in scripture that have a similar kind of message through the person of Peter. The impetuous Peter who’s always kind of big on passion, low on reflection and very self-doubting. So the first thing that happens in this story is that Jesus sends to the disciples they’ve gone back to the thing they know best. They’ve gone back to fishing. And in fact, Peter’s taken them fishing.
Life has fallen apart for them. And as you reflect on this with me for the next few minutes, just start with that reflection. Go back to a point where it felt as if everything was just going wrong a little bit for you, and at whatever stage of your life you’re at, whether you’re small or whether you’re old, there will be a point where it felt as if it all fell apart. And what happens then is you kind of get a bit bowed down and you look at the floor. And this is what had happened to the disciples, they could no longer see around them. And they weren’t even able to see these fish.
And so, this incredible thing happened to the stranger on the shore, someone they didn’t know tried to tell how to do their job. Now, that wouldn’t have gone really well if it had been me in the boat. I don’t know how it is for you, but particularly, if you’re feeling a little bit insecure, which was exactly how they were all feeling at this time. What happens if somebody comes in and says, “You don’t want to do it like that.” But they listened and they listened to Jesus, “See the world in a different way.”
And as they were able to look at the world through Jesus’ eyes and not just their own, they saw potential there that they had not seen. What if you were trying to, say, renovate a house and you had just got completely stuck?. This is actually why you go back to the art gallery. You know one of – the kind of revelation for me when I first learned to read those Picasso paintings, and I began to understand that this was a way of looking at something from several sides at once, all within two dimensions. And the point where the kind of penny drops, you think, “Oh yeah, that enables me to see something I could not have seen.”
If you were renovating a house and somebody takes you around the far side or shows you a drawing in a different way, and says, “Have you thought about doing this?” I’ve heard a little bit about the capitol project that you want to do here in Cranbrook. How to see something with the potential that Jesus sees it with? How to see your life with the potential that Jesus sees it with?
I come from Coventry Cathedral in the UK as many of you know and Coventry was bombed, terribly bombed. The original cathedral was destroyed. The whole of the interior was turned to rubble in 1940. And my predecessors, as the leader of the cathedral community walked into the rubble, but he didn’t just see destruction. He looked up and immediately began to see what Jesus could do in that situation. He said, “We’re going to rebuild as a sign of hope and as a sign of peace.” And Jesus drew close to him in that moment.
So that was the first way of seeing that we need to see. We need to look around us and see the world with the eyes of Jesus. In Coventry, we call that healing the wounds of history. Not being trapped by our past. Not being trapped by our story. But being able to see things in a different way.
But the second thing, the second way of seeing that I love in this story is when Peter is helped to see Jesus. So there’s this really strange thing that happens. You heard it when Mother Imogen read the gospel that Jesus is on the lake shore and the beloved disciple says, “It’s Jesus.” Peter does a surprising thing. He puts on his clothes and jumps into the water. That is because he was stripped for work as a fisherman and so he puts on the clothes that he needed to wear on the shore. Clearly, they weren’t too far from the land and he takes off to spend time with Jesus.
But by the time he gets there, he’s obviously lost confidence. So that in this environment on the lake shore, Jesus is making breakfast for them and they’re all with Him, and they think “It’s kind of Jesus but it isn’t. We’re not sure. We’re not certain.” It’s one of those experiences where they think they know but they’re just not sure and they’re too scared to admit it. Often, we’re too scared to admit that we don’t know the people we’re talking about. This happens to vicars all the time. I can guarantee that Father Bill will know many of your names but not all of them. And one or two of you that he doesn’t know the name, he’s got too frightened to ask. He may not be like this, actually. But he may just be a little bit anxious about asking you.
I remember going as a vicar to one of my people after the service few years ago. And I said, “I’m really sorry. I should know your name.” And they said, “Yes, you should.” This took neither of us anywhere forward. I never did find out her name. Nobody else seemed to know either. She just thought everybody should know her name. And here’s the disciples, they think “Yeah, we’re sure it’s Jesus, but we’re just not sure.” And that’s because they didn’t’ expect to see Him in that place. They did not expect to see Jesus because as far as they were concerned, the story of Jesus had come to an end.
But for us, we can also find it really difficult to see Jesus where we don’t expect Him. And I love the stories that I’ve heard here about how you’ve got into working with members of other faith traditions and learning to see Jesus with the Muslim brothers and sisters, with our Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s a really important lesson that Christians have been learning in recent years.
But what happens if you’re a committed Democrat and you need to learn to see Jesus with the Republicans? Or maybe if you’re a committed Republican and you need to see Jesus with the Democrats? Or you’re a conservative Christian and you need to learn to see Him with the liberals? Or whatever divide you find yourself on one side of to be able to step across that divide and ask Jesus to help you see Him on the other side. Or it may not be about that kind of division. It might be that you find it difficult to see where Jesus is in places of destruction.
In the week leading up to Easter, many of us watched the pictures of destruction of Notre Dame. And many people are asking, “Where was Jesus?” And I was called to speak on the radio and on television in the UK because our story in Coventry mirrors that story. And I was able to say, “We know about this.” We know from our story that Jesus doesn’t abandon us in the place of destruction. And the sign of that for us is the Coventry Cross of Nails.
After our cathedral was destroyed, somebody picked up all these nails that were lying on the floor of the cathedral and tied them into a cross and said, “This is a symbol of Christ’s presence with us in the midst of destruction. And it has become our key symbol. It goes across the world. I wear a form of it here. The archbishop of Canterbury wears the same cross but there are crosses of nails made from the original nails in the cathedral or now from replicas in so many places of destruction across the world. There’s one in Saint Paul’s Chapel near Ground Zero in New York. There’s one in Saint George’s cathedral in Jerusalem. Saint George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. And cathedrals destroyed by earthquake in New Zealand, in places destroyed by allied bombing in Germany; places where we have needed to remind ourselves that God does not abandon us in a place of destruction. And the cross of nails is a symbol and a sign of that for us.
And we call that in our principles, learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity. It starts by seeing Jesus in places that we just don’t expect to see Him and being challenged to take a step into that place. I’ve only visited Detroit for the first time in this last day or two, and been taken for a little bit of a drive around the city. And I can see that the city is beginning to rise again from a place of desolation. Where is Jesus in those empty lots and in those ruined factories?
The third seeing that we find in our gospel reading is seeing ourselves. There’s this lovely interaction between Jesus and Peter. If you get into the Greek words of this business where Jesus says, “Do you love me?” And Peter says, “You know I love you.” You probably know this I’m sure, some of you, that actually the word that Jesus uses in the first two questions for love is actually the world that we probably say was more about friendship. It’s the word agape. And so, it’s a bit like Jesus says to Peter, “Are you my friend?” And Peter says, “You know I love you.” And Jesus says, “Okay. Well, feed my lambs.” It’s a bit like asking him to lead Sunday School.
And then Jesus says again, “Are you my friend?” And Peter says, “You know I love you.” And He says, “Hand out the bulletins.” And then the third time Jesus says to Peter, “So, you really love me?” And Peter’s a bit upset, but he says, “Lord, you know I love you.” The word Peter is using is phileo in the Greek. And what Jesus is doing is leading back into a place of intimacy and acceptance. Healing him of his shame and his guilt because he’s going to take that man and use him to build a church in a new community.
Recognizing that we need healing and receiving it is something that needs to be part of all our stories. For us in Coventry, the provost of our cathedral had the two words “Father, forgive,” inscribed on the walls of the ruined sanctuary. And it was a prayer for God’s healing and forgiveness, not just for those who had caused the destruction, but for those of us whose place had been destroyed as well because He said, “All of humanity needs forgiveness, and healing and restoration.” There is nobody except Jesus who can say, “Father, forgive them.” The rest of us need to say, “Father, forgive us.”
And that ultimately led to the Coventry litany of reconciliation. In a moment or two, we’re going to finish this address as I invite you to share that with me. Where we stand shoulder to shoulder with sisters and brothers of whatever character or tradition, or orientation, or even faith tradition across the world. And say, “As children of God, we know we have messed up, but we know that this is not the end of our story.”
And that leads to third of our commitments in Coventry which we call building a culture of peace. So we have these three stages in our shared life together in Coventry; healing the wounds of history, learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity, building a culture of peace. And it’s a journey which is embodied now in our building because 22 years after the destruction of our old cathedral, a new cathedral was consecrated. And it’s all part of the same site now, so you stand in the ruins and think about the honest reflection on the destruction of the world, but then you walk from the ruin straight to this huge porch and into a gigantic sanctuary. We seat 2,000 people.
And there’s a journey in that sanctuary that leads you to explore some, to experience a transition into a place of light. You can’t see all our windows until you actually come up to the altar to receive the sacrament, come face to face with Jesus and then to turn around – and when you turn around, only when you can turn around can you see all the windows that are contained within our space. And it’s a journey from honesty through hope and to healing. And it’s a journey that we are able, therefore, because of our history to lead others into. This was a journey for Peter where he learned to lift his face and see again, where he learned to look around and see Jesus, and where he learned to look inside and know himself accepted.
What’s the journey that God is calling you to follow? What is the journey that God is calling you to follow in this church as part of this extraordinary city? What is God calling you to follow as a community and as an individual in this community?
The prayer that we are invited to pray today is that we will have our eyes opened by the Holy Spirit to see the world, to see one another, to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, to live our lives in honesty, healing, and hope. And so, I’d love you to join with me, if you would, in the prayer that we now use every day in the cathedral. It takes those words, “Father, forgive us.” It’s a refrain. You find it written in the midst of your bulletin. There’s two lovely versions there. There’s the original which I’m going to use, and there’s a great contemporary version which you used in your jazz event here on my 60th birthday, I discovered, March the 1st, just a few weeks ago.
This is where the journey starts, where we learn to see the world as God sees it, as a place that has destruction in it, but also which has hope. And as you share in this prayer, you are sharing in a prayer used in places which have known both destruction and hope and healing across the world. Some of which I’ve already mentioned. Your part is just to join in the refrain, “Father, forgive.”
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class. Father, forgive. The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own. Father, forgive. The greed, which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste to the earth. Father, forgive. Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others. Father, forgive. Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless and the refugee. Father, forgive. The lust, which dishonors the bodies of man, women and children. Father, forgive. The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God. Father, forgive.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. Amen.