Sermon for Easter 3 2019
5th May 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter 2019
“After this he said to him, 'Follow Me' John 21.19
Following the news of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s newly discovered paternity, many have commented on how this has shown him in a new light. He has given testimony to the difficult and messy circumstances of his life in a way many find open, honest and courageous. Such testimony speaks of real life as it is being lived by so many and it is to his credit that Justin has told it, as we say, ‘like it is’:
I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. Even more importantly my role as Archbishop makes me constantly aware of the real and genuine pain and suffering of many around the world, which should be the main focus of our prayers.
Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father's (Gavin Welby’s) case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.
The question ‘Who are you’ is one which, in the light of Christian Faith is responded to not on the psychiatrist’s couch, or in a way in which we can give ‘accurate’ account. Above all, it is for the Christian not of how we see ourselves but of how God in Christ sees us. Christianity is distinctive because it states quite surely that God is the One who wishes to establish once and for all his love and his trust and faith in you and in your life for now and for all time.
It is appropriate this morning, in the light of the Archbishop’s testimony, that we discover, unless we had forgotten, that the life of God’s Church rests on the lives and testimonies of two men who had proved at certain points in their lives, fragile, lost, dangerous and unreliable. I speak of Saint Peter and St Paul. St Peter, who in this morning’s Gospel famously affirms his love for Jesus three times (“you know that I love you”) had of course denied Jesus three times at Jesus greatest point of need and the cock crew... St Paul was a well know scourge of Christians in his early life as Saul, a kind of henchman under whose rough and ready authority Christians were put to death. At best, Peter and Paul might have been considered unreliable witnesses with the wrong pedigree. At worst, they might have been considered injurious to the life of the early Christian Church and the greatest threat to its future existence as ‘trouble from within’. But the opposite proved to be the case. Both were not only secured within the life of the Christian community, but were to become, bar none, its practical and spiritual leaders, responsible for the growth of the early Christian movement to unimaginable proportions.
This outcome came about not out of some lucky oversight, but because the life of the Church is marked out as Resurrection life. This is the life which sees the relationship between suffering and struggle with the possibilities for new life and of transformation in the likeness of the Christ who has gone before us. The community of faith, in the likeness of Christ proved to be kind and compassionate, just like Ananias. This involves believing and trusting and honouring the lives of all persons just as they are found, even and especially when those lives feel wrecked and lost. And so it is that, following the resurrection breakfast with Jesus, Peter is given a new mandate for his life. Jesus accepts Peter’s love and provides for his future. In similar vein. Saul, now Paul, following his dramatic conversion on the Damascus road, is given food for his sustenance and for strength to live the new life. In both cases the food they eat serves to remind us of the sacrament of the Eucharist, as the feeding for the new, transformed life which the Christian Faith makes possible.
If those who had believed in Peter and Paul had not been able to show sufficient compassion and understanding, and rejected them, the Church might have become just a pious sect and suffered spiritual death from its own small mindedness and become irrelevant. As it was, the two pillars of the Church, Peter and Paul were to become for all time the exemplars of lives which had been turned upside down but which had, in the process been ‘saved’ through faith in the One who saves, Jesus Christ. They were to shape the life of the Church as none other. But as men who were saintly because all too human.
The Archbishop finished his testimony as he looked back on his enthronement service at Canterbury Cathedral and remembered the formal dialogue with a member of the Cathedral community before he was allowed admittance who addressed him firstly as though a stranger:
“We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” I think both saints Peter and Paul found themselves at this very place of entry, with a tentative and yet purposeful foothold on their entrance into the Christian community. Did they know, any more of less than Justin Welby, precisely who they were, as though qualified for this apostolate? Or did they know that, come what may, the stuff of their lives and the very difficult circumstances that had preceded the moment of entry was the essential offering; the real thing? The offering of courage and commitment emerging from the receipt of grace. They had arrived at this place because God had willed it to be so. The community of the faithful, though manifesting imperfection, nonetheless trusted that the Resurrection life proceeded not out of calculation, ambition and human skill, but from the movement of the human heart, the place and arbiter of real love:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (For) love never ends.
(1 Corinthians 13)
In Saints Peter and Paul, God has made certain that life; messy, devastating, tragic, violent, denying, destructive can nonetheless be offered to God as a free gift. The possibility for its transformation can in the light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, promise more than might ever be thought possible: St Paul, a former murderer, St Peter, a traitor and The Archbishop of Canterbury, an illegitimate…. What ever next? But we may know that in this way the ever present love and compassion which issues out of the life, death and resurrection of Christ is being seen and known in the here and now. It is breaking through to establish and sound the Kingdom of God on earth. Where he has gone, let us, too, follow...