‘Summoned to a great drama!’

A homily for  Easter 3 (Year C)

Acts 9.1-6; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19

Anyone who thinks the Bible is boring should be in church today. In each of the readings from Scripture, there unfolds an epic tale of suffering and victory, betrayal and reconciliation, great courage and personal loyalty in the face of persecution and certain death. Yet followers of the leader on whom this tale is centred are not driven from him by danger; neither do they lack confidence in his power to save them. After all that has happened to him in Jerusalem, they know him now as one who has been made new and who is himself renewing all creation.

The triumphant Christ is praised in three stirring hymns in Revelation 5, two of them in the portion set before us (verses 12 and 13), and one coming earlier (verse 11). They are initially sung by a modest choir of just 28 voices, but are quickly reinforced not only by myriads of angels, but eventually by every creature in heaven and on earth, under the earth and in the sea: in short, by the massed voices of all creation, joined together in one great cry: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!

But why is he worthy, and of what? Because by his blood freely sacrificed he ransomed God’s people, he alone is worthy to take God’s gospel-scroll, to open its seals and excite the vigilant into a repentance whose focus and reward is God’s self. This rejection of the world’s self-absorbed fascination with all kinds of power will expose John’s community to the brutality and pain of Roman persecution, signified by the bitterness of the scroll when it is consumed in chapter 10: all who live by the gospel must budget for bitterness and prepare themselves for passion. The Lord has made this clear to us in his general teaching about the relationship between his own experience and that of his followers.[1] He makes the point again when he refers to Paul on the Damascus Road to the persecution of the church as a persecution of “me, Jesus.” Jesus’ suffering is our suffering; our suffering is his. This is why Pascal reminds us that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world and we must not sleep during this time.”[2]

Any commitment to Christ, accepting as it must the suffering of his Cross, will require daily conversion of life and a constant response to God’s call to obedient service.

In my experience, such conversion looks less like the conversion of Saint Paul and rather more like the experience of Saint Peter. Paul’s is a one-off, dramatic event that immediately ‘takes’ and seems to endure without mishap for the rest of his life. Peter, on the other hand, has at least his fair share of ups and downs: lauded one minute as a ‘blessèd’ and inspired disciple; dismissed, the next, as the very devil. He imagines, in the first flush of responding to Christ’s call, that he is prepared to follow him even unto death. But in the all-revealing firelight of Maundy Thursday night, he and we discover how easily such high hopes fall into distressingly ordinary betrayals. And even after the extraordinary events of John 20, and the apostles’ gladness at seeing the risen Lord, Peter returns to Galilee with the apparent intention of going back to his life of fishing. This will not be a fruitful enterprise if it is undertaken without the Lord’s involvement: as one scholar has remarked, ‘it is notable that never in the gospels do the disciples catch a fish without Jesus’ help.’[3] Any ongoing conversion of life for faithful following will similarly require a dogged closeness to Jesus: it is his call to which a disciple is seeking to respond.

Such closeness is mediated at least in part by the companionship and complementarity of other disciples, as Peter and the Beloved Disciple amply illustrate. At the empty tomb, it is Peter who first dares to enter, but it is the Beloved Disciple who reads the scene for what it is and believes in the new life of Jesus Christ. Here on board the boat, although the Beloved Disciple is the one who identifies the character by the Sea of Tiberias as “the Lord”, it is Peter who hitches up his sou’wester[4] and plunges into the dark waters to be reunited with Jesus and nourished by him.

Thus, by grace, it comes about that both Peter the betrayer and Paul the persecutor are called to their own work of proclaiming Christ to the whole brimming netful of Jews and Gentiles, so that all the world might hear and be baptised. To move the metaphor from water to dry land, these are the sheep and lambs of Jesus the Good Shepherd over whom he sets Peter as chief pastor in the threefold commissioning which absolves and restores him after his threefold betrayal. But for the crucified Peter, as for the beheaded Paul, this call to follow Christ is a call to death and sacrifice.

For us also, who have been plunged into the waters of baptism, this is the health warning and promise that lie at the heart of our faith: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if … Oh, but if …[5]

This ‘dying’ may indeed one day be for us a literal death, if not absolutely ‘for the sake of the gospel’ then at least as a consequence of our nation’s historic association with it. It is easily possible that we should one day be caught up in some terrorist carnage in a tube train or shopping centre; possible that we or our children should one day be prey to the sword of the warriors of hatred and death.

It is important that we do not neglect to note the sufferings of Muslims and many others who are not Christian; it is important, too, that we do not forget that the vast majority of current suffering is by no means confined to northern Europe — rather the opposite. But, as many will have remarked on Good Friday, we must in any event be ready for death, firm in the faith that Christ has defeated it, and that it no longer holds any power over us.

Statistically more likely, of course, is that we shall live long and contentedly, and die in our beds full of days and medication. But this does not get us off the hook or excuse us from taking up our cross as our Lord has taken up his. For us, the probable nature of this cross will be to live lives that are marked by the perpetually Lenten elements[6] of ‘fasting, prayer and acts of service’.[7] But this is a cause of neither despair nor tedium for us. Rather, it plunges us into the practice of askesis or training that was used by early Christians to prepare them for martyrdom in violent times, and as a substitute for it in quieter days. It also puts us squarely in the territory with which today’s readings deal: martyrdom for John’s community as it sought to witnesses faithfully to the Lamb; conversion and martyrdom for Paul; and for Peter that laying-down of his life of which he had once glibly spoken. In short, this talk of sacrifice takes us to the heart of our faith.

Timothy Radcliffe, the inspiring Dominican preacher, writer and theologian, says that there is a great temptation for us to package Christianity as if it were a nice harmless spiritual path, a bit like aromatherapy. But this is no way to win converts to the faith, especially from among young people. “We must summon them to a great drama!” he insists. We must tell them about the martyrs, about suffering. “They don’t want soft options: make it tough!”[8]

There is something profoundly exciting in this sort of challenging approach that gives us confidence amid the headlines of decline that we do indeed have a future to share and a faith to commend. Suffering is, naturally, never an end in itself, but always a concomitant of the battle against injustice, perhaps even a necessary instrument in the world’s refashioning. It is certainly a stage in the victory of the Lamb, one that continues to ripple and recapitulate in our own day, always promising and pointing towards final triumph. In the cry of pain, there is already a hint of the victory song; in the bitter cup, there is a foretaste of the final banquet.

There is indeed ‘a great drama’ of profound intensity into which we must call people of every tribe, language and nation to plunge themselves with us. It is a drama requiring in all its actors a deep reliance on grace, a daily conversion of life, and a nourishment at the Lord’s hands so that we may follow faithfully even unto death and sing the praises of him who was slaughtered, and who is now enthroned in glory for ever. Amen.

Alleluia.

[1] Typically in Matthew 25.

[2] Pascal: Pensées, Penguin 1966, 313

[3] Raymond E Brown, SS: The Gospel According to John (XIII – XXI), the Anchor Bible, Doubleday, New York 1970, 1071

[4] Again, we follow the late Fr Brown’s interpretative lead: ibid, 1072

[5] John 12.24

[6] cf Rule of Benedict, 49

[7] Proper preface for Lent: Times and Seasons, 218

[8] Timothy Radcliffe OP: lecture to a conference of school chaplains, Liverpool Hope University, June 2015.

Biblical commentaries consulted included The Book of Revelation by Simon Woodman (SCM, 2008) and Acts by Jaroslav Pelikan (SCM, 2006)

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