A Sermon for Easter 3
Readings: Acts ix.1-6, 7-20: Rev v.11 –14: John xxi.1-9
The scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he was baptised. John of Patmos is granted the vision of myriads of angels absorbed in the worship of heaven. Simon Peter, having three times declared his love for the Risen Jesus, receives both commission and prophecy over a most unlikely breakfast. In each reading we encounter moments which make known the sacred, the mysterious, the eternal, and which reveal something of personal future. And neither Peter nor Paul are granted a wholly attractive picture of that future. Ananias is told that Saul Paulus will suffer much for the truth of the gospel: and Simon Peter receives a chilling intimation of his martyrdom as an elderly man. I can’t help but cast these two phrases in the same mould as the words spoken by Simeon to Mary as he proclaims the arrival of the messiah for whom he had longed. ‘And a sword shall pierce your heart.’
Revelation of glory, accompanied by intimations of suffering – reflecting the essential nature not merely of following Christ, but of Christ himself. In a sense, it marks a reversal of the normal order of things, where from the midst of earthly suffering, the consolation of eternal bliss is offered as an encouragement in the midst of trials. Both Peter and Paul are presented with the awesome reality of the risen Christ – a reality which from now on becomes the overriding consideration for everything. And, in the midst of this glorious canvas, they are invited to paint their own efforts, which, if they are to be true to the whole, will be shot through with inevitable suffering – a suffering which each of them was to embrace, but not before they had each preached Christ’s own suffering, and shaped the destiny of the church for ever.
And I never cease to marvel at the transformation which took place in each man, and the spiritual journey which each of them undertook – the overcoming of specific and huge obstacles. With Peter, there was the business of denial, which his conversation with Jesus this morning parallels, and which would forever underscore all his efforts to preach the Risen Christ. And then there was Paul, and the small matter of his persecuting followers of the way – how long, I wonder, before he was completely trusted, if ever, by the remnant church in Jerusalem? Both men were granted the means to overcome these past events, and they are an object lesson to us during the season of Easter.
There is nothing – no event, no action, which can place an insuperable barrier to our life in Christ. The Risen Christ transforms our entire lives and the context in which they are lived – all of human history, in its broad sweep and intimate particularity. Put simply, if the Risen Christ can help Peter to overcome his profound sense of shame at his public denial of Christ, and if He can enable Paul to face his own actions and background with such profound honesty and with such amazing fruit, then surely I can live with, and make greater sense of, the moments of sin and shame in my own bank of memory? This is part of what is meant when we talk about the death and resurrection of Christ overcoming sin. When he is at our side we can face that sin down, putting it in its proper place, not allowing it to hold sway over our lives and callings. This happens when we permit the Risen Christ to repaint the canvas from the very centre of our being. In the second letter to Corinth Paul speaks of the ‘slight momentary affliction… preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure’. George Herbert manages to say, in four short verses, what it could take me an age to say.
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became Most poore:
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became Most thinne.
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Vice Principal, St Stephen’s House, Oxford