EASTER SUNDAY SERMON
Peter the apostle was a man on a steep learning curve. He is traditionally shown as middle-aged or older in religious art. We know he had a wife and a mother-in-law and a fishing business by the time he met Jesus. He was clearly marked from the beginning as the principal disciple, with a special leadership role, but he struggled all the time to get the story straight. Like a young apprentice, he had to make a great many mistakes and learn from them.
Just moments after he acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, he was told to Get behind me, Satan! because he expressed the wish that his master should try to avoid a nasty death. He jumped out of a boat to walk on the water at Jesus’ invitation but immediately began to sink and call for help. He witnessed the Transfiguration but made the wrong response, wanting to build booths for the figures on the mountain instead of just standing in awe at the revelation of glory. He promised to follow Jesus to the very end but denied him as soon as he was challenged.
I think Peter is really a very engaging character. We can all relate to someone who wants to do well but who constantly gets things wrong, not through malice but through human weakness and stupidity. Popes like to claim him as their forerunner, but I doubt that he would have had much in common with most of the princely Bishops of Rome. The newest one may be the exception – I think that plain-spoken, no-nonsense Peter would be happy to meet a Pope who refuses to live in a palace and prefers shared meals in the common room of a guesthouse.
Peter, of course, was also a devout Jew. He may have been an ordinary workingman without much education but he knew the scriptures and he believed in the special relationship that God had with his people Israel. Like all the Jews of his generation, he was looking forward to the deliverance of his people whenever God would choose to act by sending his chosen Messiah.
The learning curve just got steeper after the crucifixion of Jesus. We hear in the gospel today that Peter, having heard the alarming report from Mary Magdalene that the grave had been tampered with, ran to the tomb as fast as he could to try to find out what had happened to the Lord. But having seen the graveclothes in the empty tomb, he did something very odd, not at all what you would expect: he simply went home. I can imagine that by this time he was shell-shocked by the effort of trying to work out what was going on and what his part in it might be.
Remember that he had on his conscience the three times he had denied being a follower of Jesus. Perhaps, even if he began to believe that Jesus had risen, he assumed that he would no longer be welcome in Jesus’ company. He must have been frightened at the prospect of coming face to face with the Lord whom he had betrayed after all his fine promises of staying with him until death.
Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus is one of the most moving stories in the gospels – come back to church in two weeks’ time and you will hear it read. But for today we stay with the events of Easter morning, and we have to leave Peter in his fear and confusion. The story turns instead to Mary Magdalene, weeping in her grief and unable at first to see in the gardener the teacher she had loved and followed and the healer who had already turned her life around.
It is a constant theme of the Resurrection appearances that the friends of Jesus find it difficult to recognize him when he is risen from the dead. He is not simply resuscitated to his old life, like someone who has had a life-threatening medical emergency, who perhaps has even been pronounced clinically dead, but who then somehow miraculously pulls round and gets on their feet again. Such a person usually looks as though they have had a terrible time – they will be pale and shaky and out of condition for quite awhile. But then they gradually re-adjust to the life that has been restored to them, no doubt full of profound gratitude and appreciation.
Jesus’ reappearance is not like that. He is not restored to the disciples as he was before. His words to Mary Magdalene warn her that something new is happening. He has passed through death and into a risen life with God, and he won’t be returning to his old life of a wandering rabbi. Despite having been tortured to death and still bearing the scars of his wounds, he is not a recovering invalid but a figure of mysterious strength and powers. Next week’s gospel sees him appearing inside a locked room, for instance. He turns up unexpectedly all over the place, causing confusion as well as rejoicing.
Jesus returns to his friends from the realm of death, and he comes back with a message for Peter who denied him and for all the disciples who ran away in fear. He entrusts the message to Mary Magdalene: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. When she reported these words to Peter and the others, they must have been electrified by them. Because what Jesus is saying is that he is still our brother. We are children of the same heavenly Father. We can still pray alongside him, in his own words, to our Father in heaven.
This is a message of profound forgiveness. The failures of the hand-picked disciples, the people to whom Jesus had entrusted all his teaching, are simply wiped out. He is not coming back from the dead in order to punish and repudiate them. He seeks them out in order to let them know that they are loved and forgiven, before he is withdrawn from their sight. He wants to commission them to carry that love and forgiveness throughout the world.
Over the past few days, in the Holy Week services, we have been re-living the experiences of the disciples. We shouted Crucify him! with the fickle crowd on Palm Sunday and we ran away from the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday evening. On Good Friday we reminded ourselves of the events that led Jesus to his death. In a long procession we knelt at the foot of the cross to acknowledge our own part in the universal human tendency to betray, deny, cast out and destroy those who disturb our peace. This morning at dawn we kindled the fire of Jesus’ resurrection, bringing light into the darkness, and we renewed our vows in the water of the font. Baptism unites us with Christ in his death and his resurrection: we go down into the waters of death with him and we are raised up to the new life of those who are loved and forgiven.
These are powerful liturgies. But they are meant to be transformative, not just enjoyed for their drama. What difference does it make to us to enact them? Easter is not about remembering a distant superman whose magic re-appearing trick somehow creates a reason for eating chocolate eggs.
Greeting the risen Lord on Easter morning means standing in his gaze and receiving the message that are forgiven. We will go on doing the things that human beings do. Every Good Friday we will need to return to the foot of the cross. There is no escaping the predicament we are in. But despite our constant, humiliating failures, Jesus calls himself our brother. We still belong to his family. Again and again, he commissions us to receive afresh the risen life he offers, and to be transforming agents in the world.
If we walk out of church and put the Resurrection story aside until next year, we have not fully received that forgiveness. The risen Lord who met Peter and Mary Magdalene and dealt with each of them gently and personally wants to meet with every one of us as well. The disturbing outsider whom we cast out and killed draws close to us and brings us the good news that we are all children of one Father.
How we act on that good news will depend on our circumstances. The new Pope was reminded by a brother cardinal to “remember the poor” and he named himself after Francis of Assisi in order to make that message the heart of his ministry. On Maundy Thursday he washed the feet of young offenders, including both women and Muslims.
In this parish we are given the privilege of serving young people who are at risk of involvement in gangs because of poverty, neglect, abuse and low expectations. Through our community youthwork the message that they are loved and valued is constantly enacted in mentoring relationships. I want to end this Easter message by saying thank you to the people who responded to our appeal last week to raise enough money to keep our programme operating. We are already 80% of the way towards our goal. It is wonderful that so many of you observed Holy Week by remembering those who were of greatest concern to Jesus in his ministry, and by obeying his command to wash each other’s feet in loving service.
Peter finally got that message and found the confidence to preach the gospel. And he continued to learn, even after Jesus’ return to heaven. In the house of Cornelius he acknowledged a new understanding, that God shows no partiality to his own people, but offers the gift of forgiveness to all who will receive it. The risen Lord comes to us today with that same offer, challenging us to live the forgiven life in company with him.