18 April 2010

Three searching questions about fame, heaven and success

The Lamb of God on the throne a ceiling fresco in a monastery in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 April 2010: The Third Sunday of Easter

Sung Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Acts 9: 1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5: 11-14; John 21: 1-19

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I want to ask each of us three questions:

1, What is your idea of fame?

When I was a child, just as I was about to become a teenager, I became a keen autograph collector.

My uncle, who was my godfather, bought me an autograph book as a present, and I set about eagerly seeking the autographs of great footballers, pop singers, movie stars – and my first girlfriend and my school friends – in the early 1960s.

The pop stars stopped being No 1 hits just as my taste in music matured. The footballers aged as I became more interested in rugby and cricket. The movie stars’ fame faded as my interests shifted to literature and poetry. My first girlfriend lost interest in me. And I moved town, changed schools in my teens, lost touch with so many of those childhood friends, and I lost that autograph book at the same time.

But I do remember basking in the light of Bobbie Charlton and Brendan Bowyer for a few weeks in my old schoolyard. I suppose I thought of it as a sort of vicarious fame.

And I don’t suppose we stop behaving like that as adults with our own adult versions of autograph-hunting: asking authors to sign books … as if they had given them to us personally; standing in for photographs with the good and the great … not that visitors looking at our photographs at home could ever imagine I am a personal friend of so many Popes or Patriarchs, Poets or Presidents.

When you’re ordained, you will have plenty of photo opportunities that day: photographs with your ordaining bishop … photographs with an archbishop, perhaps.

I still treasure photographs from the days I was ordained deacon and priest. But who will you want to be photographed with, and who will want to be photographed with you?

I remember an escapade from my early 20s where some friends – rising to the challenge of a dare – crashed a wedding. The ushers asked: “Bride’s side or groom’s side?” And the reply was: “Who do you think we look like?”

Who do you think you’ll look most like in your ordination photographs?

The Apostle Paul describes Christ as the image of the invisible God (II Corinthians 4: 4; Colossians 1: 15; c.f. John 1: 18, 12: 45, 14: 9; Hebrews 1: 3). He is an icon or an image of God, and we are called to be an image of Christ.

These words are recalled at the laying on of hands at the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops, when the ordaining bishop speaks of Christ as the image of the Father’s eternal and invisible glory [Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp. 559, 568, 570, 579, 581].

At your ordination you are called to be an image of Christ. You will be asked at your ordination as priests to always set the Good Shepherd before you as the pattern of your calling [Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 565] and to pray and seek to grow into the likeness of Christ [Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 566]. Indeed, the Orthodox tradition speaks of the priest as an icon of Christ.

When people look at you will they see the image of Christ, the likeness of the Lamb, an image of the Good Shepherd?

Will they see Christ’s signature or autograph written across everything you think, say and do?

Will you be happy to give up your own ideas of fame, and instead to call people to be fans of Christ, his autograph-hunters, people who want to bask in his glory?

2, What’s your idea of heaven?

The Adoration of the Lamb from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck … see Revelation 5: 11-14

There are places I go to regularly, that are part of my life story, and that I often think give me a little glimpse of what heaven must be like: the road out from Cappoquin towards the Vee, past my grandmother’s farm; the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, under a star-filled night sky in summer; the banks of the Slaney, between Bunclody and Enniscorthy, or further down as the river flows into Wexford Harbour; the beaches of Skerries and Portrane; the road from Iraklion to Rethymnon in Crete, facing the sun as it sets in the Mediterranean.

But what’s your idea of heaven? … Fishing, Golf, Horses?

Some rectors think a day playing golf is a taste of heaven.

And then, the story is told of one rector who called his horse “Parish Rounds.” When his bishop or archdeacon phoned looking for him, his wife could always say truthfully, “He’s out and about on his Parish Rounds.”

For others, you can’t find them on a day like those days we had last week. A sign outside might as well say: “Gone fishing.”

But is your vision of heaven a selfish one or one that offers hope for others, one that calls others in?

Is it one that invites others to the Heavenly Banquet with the Lamb on his throne, that challenges you to make disciples of all nations, to draw to him myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say Amen to this (Revelation 5: 11-14) … is that what you can call heaven?

3, What do you mean by success?

The disciples that Sunday morning aren’t very successful, are they? (John 21: 3). So unsuccessful are they that they are willing to take advice from someone they don’t even recognise (verse 4 ff).

The disciples are at the Sea of Galilee or Sea of Tiberias, back at their old jobs as fishermen. Not just the inner cabinet of Peter, James and John, but Thomas, who had initially doubted the stories of the Resurrection (see John 20: 24-29), Nathanael, who once wondered whether anything good could come from Nazareth (see John 1: 46), and two others who are unnamed … how about that for fame, lasting recognition and success?

They’re back on the same shore where there was once so many fish, so much bread left over after feeding the multitude, that they filled 12 baskets (John 6: 1-13). There’s not so much fish around this time, at first. But then John tells us that after Jesus arrives 153 fish were caught that morning (verse 11).

This number is probably a symbol meaning a complete number. The number 153 is divisible by the sum of its own digits, and it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of cubes of its digits, since 153 = 13 + 53 + 33. Aristotle is said to have taught that there were 153 different species of fish in the Mediterranean.

Whatever they say, the disciples must have thought they had managed the perfect catch that morning.

But the perfect catch was Jesus. When they came ashore once again he invites them to share bread and fish, to dine with the Risen Lord (21: 12-13).

To eat with the Risen Lord and to invite others to the Heavenly Banquet, so that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea can say Amen before the Throne of God … now that’s what I call success (Revelation 5: 11-14).

Christ’s three questions

On the shore after daybreak, Christ breaks bread with the disciples and asks three searching questions of Peter

Those are my three questions. But Jesus has three questions that he puts to Peter this morning. They appear a little confused or repetitive in most English translations, but the difference is clear in the original Greek.

In his first two questions to Peter, Christ uses the verb ἀγαπάω (agapáo).

CS Lewis talks in one of his books of The Four Loves:

The first, στοργή (storgé), is the affection of familiarity; the second is φιλία (philía), the strong bond between close friends; the third, ἔρως (eros), he identifies not with eroticism but with the word we use when we say we are in love with someone; and the fourth love is ἀγάπη (agápe), the love that takes no account of my own interests, that loves no matter what happens – it is the greatest of loves, it reflects the love of God.

Perhaps, the first time, Christ asks: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than you and your friends love one another but the way God loves you?” (John 21: 15).

But Peter is either evasive or misses the point, and answers with a different verb: φιλέω (phileo): “I’m fond of you, I like you like a brother, I agree with you. I’m OK, you’re OK” (verse 15).

“OK,” says Christ, “feed the little ones the Good Shepherd welcomes into the fold” (verse 15).

Then a second time, we can imagine him asking more simply: “Simon son of John, do you love me the way God loves you?” (verse 16).

But Peter once again misses the point, and answers with the verb φιλέω (phileo): “I’m fond of you, I like you like a brother, I agree with you. I’m OK, you’re OK” (verse 16).

“OK,” says Jesus, “look after those in the flock the Good Shepherd tends” (verse 16).

But then he asks a third question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (verse 17).

Our English translations say Peter was upset, felt hurt, when Jesus asked him a third time. We might be tempted to think it’s because he was asked the same question repetitively, three times, that his answer wasn’t listened to the first or second time round.

But this third time, Jesus asks a different question, using Peter’s verb φιλέω (phileo), as if to ask: “OK Peter, do you love me as your brother?” (verse 17).

This time around, Peter replies using the same word Jesus uses in his third question. But, more importantly, he confesses Jesus as Lord (verse 17), as Lord of everything. This confession of faith comes the third time round from the disciple who earlier denied Jesus three times (see chapter 18). And Christ then asks him to feed the whole flock, all the sheep of the Good Shepherd, lambs, ewes, lost ones, found ones, the whole lot (21: 17).

The disciples don’t recognise Jesus as he stands on the beach just after daybreak (verse 4). Paul fails to recognise Christ – even when he falls from his horse he calls out: “Who are you?” (Acts 9: 5). But despite their initial blindness, their initial failings, their initial denials, God continues to call them.

And so too with us. God calls us in all our unworthiness to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep, not just the little ones, not just the big ones.

Do you love him enough, as he loves you, to see this as enough fame to bask in?

Do you love him enough to see this as how to decide whether your ministry is successful?

Do you love him enough to see this as the benchmark against which you mark how you relate to the myriads and myriads, the thousands and thousands, to all living life?

And so may all we think say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Lamb of God … a stained glass window in a church in Cambridge

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in the institute chapel on Sunday 18 April 2010

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