GSC – Easter 3 2019
It can be very hard to get into supposed public places these days: think of museums and air ports and schools and I’m sure many other instances where security checks exist to stop you taking something like a bomb inside or taking something like a child outside. Here in the Church, of course, we are one of the very few places where literally anyone could walk in at any moment. Christians in Sri Lanka have seen the dangers of that too their immense cost. But it is surely an exciting and dynamic character of the Church and one we’d do well to remind society we have retained for all its false claims to inclusion.
Whenever we hear of Jesus in a boat we are to think of the Church and this includes the Gospel we’ve just heard from St John 21. But this is not the sort of boat my sister and I would go on when we were on holiday, a pedal boat where it was simply the two of us going round a pond in Blackpool with little room for a bag, let alone anyone else. But the boat that the Church is to be is more like a huge ferry or a cruise liner, not that I’ve ever been on a cruise, I should add, but you see films like Titanic and there was a vast number and a whole array of class and peoples brought together under one roof. This surely is the sort of boat the Church is. Jesus is there in our Gospel with the eleven disciples, Judas having betrayed and run. There on this boat is the Church!
St Augustine, commenting on this Gospel, notes that when the disciples are in the boat and manage to get a full net of fish they are one hundred yards out, as our translation put it. The original measurement was two hundred cubits, which is about the same length. St Augustine thinks the figure “two hundred” indicates the Church in her fullness at the end of the world, for the boat is approaching the shore where Jesus is, the final consummation. “Two hundred” then for St Augustine is the two elements of the Church at the end of time, being the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. This fullness, this comprehensiveness is the joy of being a Christian and worshipping God in places such as ours here.
A second quality of the church we’re reminded of is that it is a place of reconciliation. If you carry on reading John 21, which would be a glorious thing to do, you would see the great rehabilitation of St Peter. Peter, you will remember, had denied ever having met Jesus the night before He died. Peter’s betrayal was round a fire on that Thursday night while he, the guards and the servants warmed themselves (18:15-18). As we’ve just heard Jesus is on the shore and what do we see there too? Yes, a charcoal fire where they will presumably cook the fish for the breakfast (21:9-13). So it is around the fire that Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you you love me?” Three opportunities for Peter to reaffirm his love, for each of the three times he denied the relationship with the Saviour, both conversations round a fire.
That same fire of forgiveness, that same fire of rehabilitation, that same fire of absolution is kept alive in the Church today. We know this in the sacrament of the Confession, something we can do in Eastertide no less than in Lent. We know this too in the public recognition of sin that we make at every Mass, when we say: “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my bothers and sisters,” we say, “therefore I ask Blessed Mary all the angels and saints and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” We come to terms with our sin and ask God for forgive us, as part of a community, with others.
But this fire of forgiveness is also to be known between us, among God’s people. We have no record of how the disciples responded to Peter’s denial, presumably apart from anything else they were ashamed by their own failure and lukewarmness. The Church was to be the place where we forgive each other, when we let each other down, however that might happen. I think it’s a great disloyalty when we criticise those within the Church to those outside the Church.
Forgiveness is never content with sin though. There is a common misunderstanding of what forgiveness looks like both when we think of how God looks at our lives, but also when we seek to forgive others. When Jesus grants reconciliation on the Cross to the thief who repents of his sin and confesses it to Jesus, the Saviour is not content to simply grant forgiveness but admits to a different place and so He says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Forgiveness requires a journey to move, to improve, to be better. Forgiveness is not us just accepting that something is bad or unsatisfactory and there we are, it moves us on, it moves on the people who sin against us, it moves us on as a church to a better place.
This is the third character of the Church we learn about today. For that journey, we we are nourished by this Sacrament of the Mass. It is a powerful thing for us to note that Jesus again and again appears to the disciples after His Resurrection and does not nourish them simply metaphorically with improving words or encouraging sermons or inspiring lectures but physically, materially. In our Gospel today the disciples are nourished with bread and fish; as we heard two weeks ago Jesus appears in the breaking of the bread in Emmaus with Cleopas and the other disciple. The Church similarly is a place where we are fed. We come here to be fed ourselves and to ensure others can be fed too, not distracting others through our chit chat or behaviour. The priest has a responsibility not just to teach not just to lead in worship but to ensure Masses are offered and to call the flock to those places of pasture and nourishment.
We’re fed so we can travel across a bridge. On Monday last week we celebrated St Catherine of Siena, declared by the Church to be a Patron of Europe, who in 1370 had published her Dialogue, a series of conversations between her and God while she was in a state of ecstasy. One of the images that clearly comes out is that of a bridge, which, like a boat, helps us to traverse the waters of chaos, the choppiness and changes of the floods of the world. The bridge overcomes the gap, St Catherine teaches us, the gap between human beings and God, a gap caused by our sin for we were created originally to be familiar and proximate to our Creator, and yet we hide ourselves.
The bridge St Catherine saw revealed to her by God has three steps, being bits of a journey the soul has to go through. First, the pierced feet showing the affection for Christ we are to have, an affection which carries our soul as the feet carry the body towards its destination. Here we strip ourselves of our sins. The second step onto the bridge is the pierced side of the Saviour, which grants us access to His Heart and so we taste the love that the Lord has for us. We in turn are filled here with love and virtue. Third, we get to the mouth of the Saviour, where we discover peace and are granted this gift of peace.
On this bridge St Catherine saw a tavern, “which keeps and ministers the Bread of Life, and gives to drink of the Blood, so that my Creatures, journeying on their pilgrimage, may not, through weariness, faint by the way.” The bridge itself is unlocked with what St Catherine refers to as the key of the Blood. On the other side of the bridge are those who have already crossed it, namely the saints, showing us the way.
So, brothers and sisters, Jesus appearing on the shore and enabling the disciples to draw in fish teaches us what the Church is to be: a place welcoming all, a place of forgiveness, and a place of spiritual nourishment. It is as the bridge from St Catherine of Sienna’s vision: let us hear the voice of a Saviour calling us to cross it, forged by our membership of the Church.