All Saints Margaret Street

Sermons

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Evensong & Benediction Easter 3

3 EASTER, 2019 HIGH MASS

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

You will read in the Note from the Churchwardens about the pastoral arrangements during the vacancy. Bishop Sarah is also encouraging the parish to look at its mission as part of the process of appointing a new parish priest after I retire. 

In response to that, we are looking to organise a parish consultation on our mission to get the ball rolling before I leave. After all, as I have been leading that mission for the past 24 years, I might have some insights, even a little wisdom, to contribute; even if only on how not to do it! 

The idea is to look at the context in which we are set – in fact, it's not one context but a number of overlapping ones - to identify areas in which we are already engaged but which might benefit from a fresh look, and others where we are not but where there are challenges and opportunities we could respond to. 

We are identifying people who can help us in this process and Fr. Neil will be involved, too. His association with All Saints goes back to the days of Fr. Sparrow. In my time here he has played a significant role in our life; both in his support of us and in ours of his innovative work helping churches minister to the mentally ill in Westminster, which has the highest levels of mental illness in the country. 

When Fr. Neil was placed in charge of St. Mary's. Bourne Street, one of its people said to me with a wry smile, “Isn't it ironic that we are to be looked after by the Mental Health chaplain?”  After the manner of Ian Richardson's Francis Urquhart in the original' “House of Cards,” I replied, with an equally wry smile: “You might very well think so, but I couldn't possibly comment.”  I recycled this story in a sermon at Bourne Street – and the congregation did laugh. 

Among the themes which any parish needs to look at are the pastoral and the missionary; too often seen as opposed or mutually exclusive.  They are sometimes seen as represented by the two great figures of the early Church who feature in today's readings. 

Peter, who we heard in today's Gospel being commissioned by the risen Lord to “Feed my sheep,” symbolises the pastoral. 

Paul, whose experience of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus inaugurates his role as the apostle to the Gentiles; whose tireless labours are the subject of the second half of the Acts of the Apostles, represents the missionary. 

Our reading from Acts was the beginning of the first of three accounts which Luke has Paul give of what is traditionally known as his 'Conversion': the dramatic tale of how the persecutor of the infant church goes from “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” to becoming the apostle of the Gentiles; the one who missionary labours are the theme of the second half of Luke's second volume. 

The dramatic encounter which transformed Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle, has been the subject of countless sermons. Some have seen it as the typical pattern, even the norm of becoming a Christian. It has been seen through the lens of Martin Luther's spiritual experience; the resolution of his agonized sense of guilt by his realisation that he was saved not by his religious works but by faith in God's grace.   

In recent decades scholars have taken a fresh look at this interpretation and helped us to see a fuller and richer picture of what happens to Paul.  He should be understood not just as the converted but as the called and commissioned. Paul himself, in the Letter to the Galatians, echoes the language used for the calling of the Old Testament prophets, that God graciously called him. 

Calling in the Old Testament carries with it a commission: in the case of Moses, to lead the people from slavery to freedom; in the case of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, to recall them to the relationship with God, their role as his people, their obedience to his law, from which they have fallen away. 

Paul's commission is to be the apostle to the Gentiles. If we read on in the account, the Lord tells Ananias, who is understandably sceptical about this sudden transformation, “...he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 

Paul's commission seems related to what had motivated his persecution: the admission of Gentiles to the community of Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Paul knew that the prophetic hope was that the Gentiles would come to Israel in the last days. But in the meantime, like all Pharisees, he believed that God's people must be preserved from pagan influence. His encounter with the risen Christ signalled for him that the last days had been inaugurated. 

Now he interprets his calling to be not just to allow Gentiles in, if they want to join,  but to urge them to turn to the true God by acknowledging his Messiah, the Lord Jesus. Those who had been excluded were now to be included. 

Paul's later suffering for Christ, so much a part of his apostolic identity and mission, also seems to grow directly out of experience of being called by God while a violent persecutor. The risen Jesus says to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 

In his letters we read that the experience on the Damascus Road, impressed upon Paul God's faithfulness and grace (1 Cor. 15.9-10 & gal 1.15). These were central to his mission and message.  The word 'grace' cannot be stressed too much.  There is no evidence that before his call Paul felt any guilt for his persecuting zeal; that he was tortured by self-doubt about his mission; that he was undergoing some spiritual or psychological crisis. Quite the opposite, he was absolutely convinced of the rightness of what he was doing to preserve the purity of Israel in preparation for the coming of the Lord. The change came from outside, from, God, not from inside, from Saul.

While it was a call and commissioning, it was still a conversion. It was a radical change and reorientation of belief, behaviour and belonging, of conviction, of conduct and of community. 

There is a challenge there for all of us, in whatever context we are placed?  Who are the excluded we are called to include?  How far are we willing to be changed by God's call? Are we concerned with mission as the proclamation of the gospel to all people, or just with maintaining things as they are because that's the way we like them?  

In today's Gospel we see Peter in an encounter with the risen Lord; one which though less spectacular is equally profound in its effect. Peter and some other disciples have gone home to Galilee; returned to their old life from which Jesus had called them in the first place. They seem to have given up. Simon Peter says to them, “I am going fishing” and they go with him. But this turns out to be a dead end too, a fruitless business; that is, until they figure on the lakeshore tells them what to do. 

Then, after recognizing the Lord, and sharing the food which he has provided and prepared, Jesus initiates a direct personal conversation with Peter. The setting and the threefold questioning bring to mind another charcoal fire and another question asked three times; the scene in the high priest's courtyard where Peter denies with increasing vehemence that he even knows Jesus. 

Saul may not have felt any sense of guilt about his persecuting ways, but Peter must have done recalling his repeated denial of his Lord after his extravagant protestations of undying loyalty. 

The Lord pointedly addresses him, not as Peter but as Simon, his name before being called. Looked at in simply human terms, Jesus should have written Peter off as a mistake, a failure; one who services should in modern management-speak, have been “let go;” advised not to give up the day job;  or, more charitably, eased into early retirement with a good pension deal.  But as we see, that is not God's way. The threefold interrogation of Simon son of John must have been a searing experience for him, but its outcome is not condemnation but a renewal of his original call and a new commission. 

The division between pastoral care and mission, while it can be helpful as a tool, is rather an artificial one. We see in the ministries of the two apostles that they cannot be separated; they belong together.  

In today's Gospel, the commissioning of Peter follows directly on from the miraculous catch of fish; which echoes the occasion in Luke when Jesus calls him and the others from their nets to be “fishers of people.”  In the Acts of the Apostles, it is Peter who is first led by the conversion of the centurion Cornelius and his household is first led to see that the mission of the Church must reach out beyond the confines of the Jewish community to the whole world. 

Nor can we read the letters of St. Paul without being struck by his constant pastoral concern, the burden of the care for all the churches he has founded. Much of his correspondence with them is about pastoral problems they have raised, or which have been reported to him. Even when most angry with them, however undiplomatic the language he uses, his concern is always for their stability and growth in the faith. 

If the ministry of Peter is seen as representing the unity and continuity, the ordered stability of the Church, the same is true of that of Paul. If Paul's ministry is seen as representing the innovative and radical, the same is true of Peter's. 

As they discovered, rather tempestuously on at least one occasion, holding these two together is not always easy, but out of holding them in a creative tension in which each challenges and informs the other,  can come new life and growth. 

The risen Lord questions both apostles:

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”   “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 

Both are told of the cost of their calling: 

“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 

“When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God. After this he said to him, 'Follow me.'” 

If we allow Jesus to question us, as we think and pray about our mission, we may find ourselves being taken to places we do not immediately want to go; led beyond our comfort zones. We are unlikely to suffer the fate of Peter and Paul: crucifixion or beheading.  But answering Jesus' call, “Follow me,” following “the Lamb once slain,” does not come without a cost.