Sermon for Easter 3C – 1st May 2022

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)  • Psalm 30  • Revelation 5:11-14  • John 21:1-19

Hauling the nets up on the shore – James Tissott, in Brooklyn Museum

How do ye live with the dead? When the end comes a door closes fast and there is never a road back to the living. The trouble is – there are so many doors! How do we find one another afterwards? How do we live with the dead? This man was my brother, he taught me all that I know. The little things as well as the big, the things that matter, the things that are only for fun! But he’s taken a road now that he can never teach me to follow.  All the certainties are with the living. All certainty and all hope. There is no road back from the dead?

The Widows of Clyth” by Donald Campbell

On Wednesday, the twenty-sixth of January, 1876, six men from Clyth, in Caithness, put out to sea to fish for haddock. The following morning, almost within sight of their own homes, their boat was wrecked and they were all lost. Between them, they left behind five widows and twenty-six children in a state of acute poverty.  

The “Widows of Clyth” is a play about the ‘Clyth Calamity’, in which these six fishermen lost their lives.  The Caithness playwright Donald Campbell gives this remarkable historic incident a sort of mythic quality. In his hands, it becomes not a tragedy, but a parable about the triumph of the widows left behind in their nearly hopeless struggle for survival and the universal truths about those left behind after terrible events.

Today I see us at the intersection of events in our world, which this play and our Gospel have things to says about. In the Easter story we have a tendency to see just the triumph.  We allow the fact that we’ve heard the story before to blind us to the reality of the journey that the disciples must make from being reliant on Jesus to lead them in person, to taking up his great commission:

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19

The Widows of Clyth have also to undertake a journey from being dependent on their men for income, status and support. They have to learn to be able to fend for themselves in bringing up their 26 children and they do that together providing mutual support as they take each tentative and bold step. In the play the two acts are set 10 years apart to emphasise the time that this journey takes.

I’ve spoken before about the slow realisation that Jesus has risen, rather than it being a suddensparkling event, so as we hear about the resurrection appearances, we should see these appearances as part of the disciples journey from dependence to self-reliance as a community, providing each other with mutual support. We should see resurrection as more of an invitation to something rather than a successful conclusion.

This man Jesus was their brother, he taught them all that they know. The little things as well as the big, the things that matter, the things that are only for fun!”.

Modified from “The Widows of Clyth

Having heard about the Easter events, what is there for the followers of Jesus to do now? Jesus has told them to go out into the world and spread the Good News, but how do you do that, or more particularly summon up the courage to do that when the whole ‘project’ seems to have ended in abject failure and the whole world seems to be against you?

The whole thing has been about great expectations and also great disappointments, and in such timesdoubt can so easily creep in. Days have become weeks since the reports of the empty tomb were confirmed by Jesus’ personal appearances among those who knew him best, mostly behind locked doors. The disciples are cowering waiting for the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised would come to them, but they don’t know what that looks or feels like and they don’t know what to do while they wait.

They’ve enjoyed the thrill of being caught up in the coming revolution which the Messiah was going to bring, but it hasn’t occurred to them that the victory wouldn’t come to pass in their lifetimes.

Delayed gratification has always been difficult for the children of God, they always want things to happen quickly, but as we read about time and again in the Bible, they rarely do – they happen all in God’s time. Peter and his friends are living in an in-between time waiting for God’s next move. Forthe disciples, it’s a matter of getting them out the door, despite the risks they face, to fulfil their commission from Jesus.

The resurrection appearances so far have served to build trust between Jesus and his disciples after his crucifixion. But can they trust Jesus enough to leave the locked house and “go out” wielding the Holy Spirit as he commissioned them to?  Well perhaps as far as the going out bit, but not the Holy Spirit bit.

Over the last two years we’ve lived through extraordinary times. For a while, like the disciples, we were confined to the house and like them now we’ve been told that the coast is clear.  Many of us have emerged rather slowly blinking in the bright light. There are however many in our society, especially the elderly, the infirm and the vulnerable who aren’t really ready for that. And even for the rest of us can things ever be the same again?  And now there is conflict and war in Europe.

So seven of the disciples go back to the fishing, just like before. They fail to catch anything all night long. So their impatience and confusion simply brings more disappointment. But have they forgotten what Jesus said to them – “from now on you shall be fishers of men”. The empty nets are a sign – “this isn’t what you are supposed to be doing”.

So Jesus meets them on the shore and to encourage them in what they should really be doing, he helps them to a bumper catch and serves them breakfast and now they start to get it.

The entire narrative has been an invitation to join with Jesus in God’s mission – a mission that’s not about heaven when we die or converts to a religion. Jesus’ disciples are to be doers, working for God’s Kingdom here on earth.

The disciples are still on a journey of discovery marked by their relationships with respected friends and loved ones. They’ve to rekindle the habits of discipleship they’ve practiced for three years when Jesus was amongst them: regular experiences of God intruding into the ordinary, lengthy discussions about seeing the difference God’s grace makes in the lives of people who encounter acts of love and kindness.  Much like the Widows experience in their journey.

But if the disciples think that Jesus will always be with them in person, they’ll soon see Jesus return to his father: 

“He will take a road that he can never teach them to follow.  All the certainties are with the living. All certainty and all hope. There is no road back.

Modified from “The Widows of Clyth

They and we must find our way forward guided by the same Holy Spirit, but to do so we have to pay careful attention to what he said and did and what he commanded us to do. 

Amen.

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