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The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 6 May 2018 – 11.30am Matins
Ezekiel 47:1-12 John 21:1-19
‘I’m going fishing,’ announced Peter, as we heard in today’s second lesson. As a response to resurrection, this might strike us as rather odd, so let’s explore what might be going on here.
The two final chapters of the Gospel of John are devoted to accounts of the resurrection and, in addition to the Risen Christ himself, these chapters are concerned almost exclusively with four characters: Mary Magdalene, Peter, the one known as the Beloved Disciple, and Thomas.
At the beginning of chapter 20, Mary Magdalene, distressed at having discovered that the tomb where Jesus had been buried was empty, runs to tell Peter and the one described as the ‘other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved’, whereupon the two men run to the tomb with Mary to see for themselves. Mary, we read, stands weeping outside the tomb by herself, and it’s here that she encounters the Risen Christ in the one she presumes to be the gardener.
Later, Jesus appears to the disciples who’re locked behind closed doors, but Thomas is absent. A week later, Jesus makes another appearance, and this time Thomas is present as well.
Today, we heard from chapter 21 of seven of the disciples gathered by the Sea of Tiberias, when Peter says, ‘I’m going fishing’. Jesus appears and directs the operation from the shore, enabling them to catch such a large quantity of fish that it’s difficult for the net to be hauled in. Jesus then cooks breakfast for them on a charcoal fire, and this is followed by Jesus asking Peter three times if he loves him, which he answers affirmatively in each case.
So what’s so odd about Peter going fishing? Well, just imagine what the situation must have been like. As far as the disciples were concerned, the crucifixion of Jesus had been an unmitigated disaster, and for Peter himself there must have been a sense of personal guilt and shame at having denied that he’d ever even known Jesus. Then came the most extraordinary news that Jesus had been raised from the dead, something Peter came to see for himself at first-hand. He was presumably present when Jesus appeared to the disciples in Thomas’ absence, and then again when Thomas was present. So along with the other disciples, Peter was involved in experiences that were certainly difficult to comprehend, but which came with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and joy, along with the promise of liberation and new possibilities. And Peter’s response to all this was to go fishing! What do we make of this?
The gospels convey the distinct impression that the twelve whom Jesus called to follow him actually left their daily occupations, including their homes and families, so it would be seem, to wander around the Galilean countryside with him for three years, learning from him and being a small itinerant community. So when Peter declares that he’s going fishing, it looks like a retrograde step. It’s as if everything has ended in disaster, and not even resurrection is enough to make Peter reconsider the conclusions he’s drawn. It appears that the time Peter spent with Jesus counted for almost nothing and that Peter had learned little of significance from him. Peter seems to regress to what he knows; he settles back into his comfort zone.
There’s another way of looking at this, though, and it’s quite simply this: that the impact of resurrection is to turn us all in the direction, as it were, of metaphorical fishing. In other words, resurrection isn’t about some delightful experience which removes us from the world and from everyday life. It invites us to find the resurrection life in every situation, in every circumstance, in every person, at every moment. Although we habitually divide everything up, life is actually a whole. Our work and leisure are as important as our worship; what we do in the world as important as what we do in church. Divisions are false. Isn’t it precisely while Peter is fishing that he perceives the presence of the Risen Christ making a difference to his work?
This dynamic is paralleled in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, too. When the women discover the empty tomb, they’re told that Jesus isn’t there, but that he’s been raised and that he’s gone on ahead to Galilee. Now Galilee was where the whole Jesus thing had begun. We might have expected the women to have been told that Jesus was to meet them somewhere different and special where there’d be an amazing spectacle, a denouement where all ambiguities, perplexities and puzzles would be ironed out and everything made crystal clear for all to see. Instead they’re told in as many words to return to everyday life and get on with the business of living.
For those who like the spectacular and dramatic, this is hugely disappointing. The good news, though, is that this raises everyday life far above routine and drudgery. We all spend the vast bulk of our lives in what we call everyday life, being involved in work, enjoying family life, preparing meals, dealing with finances, caring for the sick, getting into arguments, promoting justice, making music, spending time with friends, planning holidays, making ends meet, and so on. What Peter discovered is that it’s precisely here, in our daily activities, that we discover the presence of the Risen Christ. The challenge for the Church isn’t only to gather people together, but also to enable all people to see that we’re walking on holy ground, whoever we are, wherever we may be, and whatever we’re doing.
So what will you do as you leave this cathedral? Have a chat with one of the clergy? Go for a drink? Get some lunch? Deal with your e-mails? Meet friends? Go to work? Have a rest? Whatever the case, these are all where we ‘go fishing’, and it’s there that the Risen Christ is already present.
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