THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Sermon preached in the Church of S. John Baptist, Eltham
"I remember that the mist hung lazily over Galilee that morning and the Lake glistened in the early sun. I had seen many mornings like this, sometimes alone but more often with the other fishermen. But that morning was different: different in so many ways.
John saw him first through the light of dawn as we neared the shore. He knew it was Jesus even tho' he was but a shape sitting alone on the small sandy beach. John always knew, in his heart, when it was him. There was something between them that was stronger than sight, or hearing. You understand.
But I hadn't noticed him! Far too preoccupied (as usual!) with what was going on at that moment. If I remember right I was organising the others to gather in the net. They say I've always good at organising, even if my own life can be a bit of a mess! That's the trouble with us enthusiasts.
Well, you know what happened after that, the incredible haul of fish and then the meal which followed. Did you catch the resonances as you heard the story? It wasn't just a meal. The lakeside ... some fish ... broken bread? They call it eucharist now: then it was - life - that we shared. But life with a capital 'L'. His life: the world's life. The Bread of Life. John, of course, wrote about it in as many ways as he could.
Jesus! Just saying that name reminds me of the - inadequacy – of trying to communicate what we experienced! He wasn't just the Jesus we had known, not even the Jesus John had known! He was ... the Christ, the anointed One, the Son of Man on whom the angels of God ascended and descended! Flowery language? No language (not even John’s) can do justice to that man. Maybe you've read one of my letters: he's the only one who can save the world from itself - from its blindness and selfishness. God is so generous! That's what I want people to understand.
After our meal was over we began talking together in small groups. Then Jesus took me to one side. When he asked me to go with him I somehow knew this was going to be decisive moment. Many thought John was to be the one whom Jesus would appoint as leader after he left us. (We knew he must do that - leave. He'd made that clear. It was we who must continue the work: to be the witnesses to all that had happened). But it wasn't to be John. Some said it was because he was too close to Jesus. But that wasn't the reason. No, it wasn't their relationship that was the problem.
So why did he chose me?
Like the others, I thought it must be John. I often felt I was shallow. Impetuous. Someone who acted on the spur of the moment. Even my wife had found me hard to live with! (That's why you never hear much about her). John said, afterwards, that he'd always known that I was the one Jesus wanted as leader. 'You can hold things together', he said, 'And get things done'. But Jesus had to make me - force me - to examine my depths. So that question, 'Do you love me?' Three times! Of course Jesus knew I did! But did I? Did I know the depth of my love?
Jesus had to push me, force me to examine myself. I wasn't very good at self-knowledge! Not at that point, at least ... Three times. Three times before the cocks began crowing (yes, we heard them soon afterwards - a chilling moment). And I remembered that passage from the Books of Moses: 'If you return to the Lord with all your heart - and with all your soul - and obey his voice ... you will be made prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors'.
The word, suddenly, wasn't far away in heaven, it was there, in front of me! And it was in my heart - and then my mouth: ' Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you!' But I also knew that in asking me to face my passion he was also asking me to face my fear and the possibility of my own death. Because once I'm passionate about something, I'll give my life to it. All or nothing. That's the way it is with me.
There are plenty of leaders who are committed. But passionate? That's what often is lacking in leaders, or those who aspire to leadership. And the one who are passionate are often so focussed onto what they believe that they become dictatorial. Megalomaniacs! No, what we need are people passionate and committed to the good of others, especially the most vulnerable; to a way which can bring life to all. That’s what’s needed. And Jesus had already shown us the kind of leadership he wanted us to exercise - he wanted us to be servants - slaves of God, of his message and of his people. There's no glory in it. No glorifying success. The glory can only be his. The suffering, now, ours. That's why you've got to love him so much that people see you as that – disciples of his love – and find that love is the meaning behind all you do.
But the world (to use a phrase John loves) finds it hard to understand that. It can cope with success; it loves progress. But it finds love so hard, doesn't it? We're all crying out to be loved, but to love? That's why he had to ask me the question - three times! 'Do you love?'
I suppose I was fairly selfish. I wanted everything to go my way.
I was convinced that my existence - my ideas, hopes, desires - beliefs even – was all that mattered. So I had to learn not to be driven by what people now call their ego but be driven by him, by love for him, not by my-self. And that's so hard. It's still hard to really hand my life over to him. But that morning was, in a real sense, a moment of crisis and decision for me. My moment of real conversion as I listened to that question, ‘Do you love me?’
You might think that strange. After all, I had been with him for so long. Got used to him. But that question, ‘Do you love me?’ moved me into a new relationship with him. Funny to use the word conversion, but that’s what it was. Usually people use that word of Paul on the road to Damascus when he saw Jesus in a blinding flash.
He had ‘seen the light’ and had come to believe Jesus offered new life. Now he’s really passionate about his new-found faith! I wish other’s shared his passion … It changed his life and I want others to know that it can change theirs. I suppose both of us share the same passion – and we sometimes get into passionate arguments! But that’s life.
Maybe you won’t come to faith in a blinding flash. Most of us don’t. But – let me finish with that question Jesus asked me – and asks you – that question which came so suddenly after all those years and after so many mistakes I had made. That question which still echoes in my heart and continues to probe me so deeply. My conversion experience, if you like.
Do you love me ... "