Saturday, April 17, 2010

Needing a Change

Psalm 30, Acts 9.1-6, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19

Psalm 30 was written by someone who was recovering from a serious illness - so serious that the Psalmist thought he, or she, was going to die. In fact, when things were really bad, the Psalmist said to God, 'Look, if I die I won't be able to praise you any more or tell other people about your faithfulness.' And then things looked up. The Psalmist felt so much better that he, or she, was even able to dance for joy and the psalm closes with a promise to go on praising God and never to be silent.

The psalm reminds us that when things are going well, we tend to be full of confidence, but the minute things start to go wrong we are easily filled with dismay. We need to remember that God's favour lasts for a lifetime.

But what about after this life has ended? The psalm contains many clues that the Psalmist wasn't really thinking about life after death but, of course, for Christians the psalm inevitably makes us think about resurrection. It tells us that God can restore us to life from death, that weeping lasts only for a night and joy comes in the morning, and that we can go on giving thanks to God for ever.

The Book of Revelation makes a virtue out of death and resurrection. If Jesus had not endured death for us - and been slain like a sacrificial lamb - he would not be worthy to be praised. The modern fashion for interpreting Jesus as a good man, or a charismatic leader, and measuring the impact of his life and teaching in isolation from his death is - according to the writer - to miss the real point about him. The meaning of his life endures, and changes the future, precisely because he died. This means, of course, that the Psalmist was wrong to expect God to rescue us from danger and death. We should praise God not because he saves us from death, but because he is able to bring us through death.

The two New Testament readings continue the theme of resurrection because the risen Jesus is the central figure in both stories, but they're really about the impact of faith, or spiritual experience, on the way we live and what we do. Saul, or Paul as he was known in Greek, had an amazing spiritual encounter with Jesus which literally stopped him in his tracks. He set out for Damascus as a persecutor of Jesus' followers, and he arrived in the City as a follower himself. But being a follower of Jesus is about much more than discovering that Jesus is alive. It's much more than feeling different about ourselves. It's much more than discovering the meaning of life, or feeling confident in the face of death - important though all these things are. It's also about doing. But Paul doesn't decide to do some things because he now belongs to Jesus. Instead, following Jesus is about being told what to do and then going and doing it whether or not it suits us, or fits in with our plans, or makes us feel good. It's about submitting to a whole new way of being and living where we are under orders.

Peter and his friends make the same discovery in the story from John's Gospel. Although they know that Jesus is alive they have returned to their old way of living - as if we can have an encounter with the risen Jesus and then resume life as normal. But we can't. Once we meet Jesus there is no going back. Everything is changed. For one thing, extraordinary things start to happen. When we place our lives in Jesus' hands opportunities are given to us to make a difference to the people and the world around us, and if we want to be true to him we will keep our eyes open and be ready to recognise the chances he gives us to serve him. Anything less would be a denial of what being a follower of Jesus really means. Simon, nicknamed Peter, accepts the challenge this time. He has denied Jesus three times, now he affirms three times his willingness to be a shepherd of Jesus' little flock.

Did you watch the leadership debate on Thursday? Its seems to have transformed the election. The key question it raised was about change. There seems to be an assumption that we do need a change. Gordon Brown's 'steady as she goes' message, that he is an experienced pair of hands at the helm of the ship of state during tempestuous times, didn't cut much ice. Even though he made his case in an impressive way, because people want a change, the only question which the debate provoked was, 'What sort of change do we want?' Nick Clegg won the debate because he managed to persuade viewers that David Cameron can't offer a real change, a change for the better, but only more of the same. Clegg repeatedly described himself as representing newness, whereas both Labour and the Tories were the old parties.

Whether Nick Clegg persuaded you, or whether you think he just made a clever sales pitch, the theme of real change is what our readings are all about. To be a follower of Jesus we have to really change; we have to become totally new; we can't go on being and doing more of the same.

In some ways that suggests a once in a lifetime transformation, like the one which Saul underwent on the Road to Damascus, a genuine watershed between his old life as a persecutor and his new role as a champion of Christianity. But Simon Peter offers us an alternative model of what it means to be a Christian. Here is someone who kept on changing in response to his encounter with Jesus - first when he left his nets by Lake Galilee at the start of Jesus' ministry, then at Caesarea Philippi when he recognised that Jesus was the Messiah, again when he changed in response to the resurrection appearances of Jesus, then - after his rooftop vision at Joppa - when he decided to go to Caesarea and baptise Cornelius, and finally when Saul convinced him that he had denied Jesus again, and become a backslider, after he was persuaded by Jesus' brother James and some of the other leaders of the Early Church that Gentile converts should be circumcised and observe Jewish food laws.

Isn't this what most of us are like? We alternately deny Jesus, or slip backwards into our former ways, and then rediscover his challenge and make a fresh start. And it's not just as individuals that we have to do this constantly throughout our lives. We also have to change repeatedly in response to Jesus' challenge in our life together as the Christian community. He comes to meet us, in the Eucharist, as he met his first disciples for breakfast beside the Lake, and when he meets us he always challenges us to be ready to accept the need for real change.

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