One of the many joys of ministry is welcoming school groups to our church. We visit the different parts of the building, exploring what they are for. We rehearse the names of different objects and items, learning what they are for. The children are sometimes allowed a play on the organ – but don’t tell Andrew that, and they usually enjoy having a peek in the choir folders – but don’t tell them that either. We usually make our way from the font to the High Altar, and usually close by sitting in the Choir Stalls looking at the East Window.
If you were in church on Easter Day, you will have my esteemed colleague in ministry, Michael Baker, preaching. As part of his sermon, he reflected on the figures who are the bystanders in the East Window of our church. Our forebears in faith were a canny lot and, as such, churches across the land have windows such as ours created to tell the story of an event in the life of Christ. Others windows around churches will portray images and accounts of events and saints – biblical and of later years. Contemporary windows also offer reflections in glass, meditations even, on events for which the window is designed to provoke thought, wonder and mystery. Take the stunning Prisoner of Conscience Window in Salisbury Cathedral, or the Rose Window at St Albans.
As so many Ministers up and down the land will tell children visiting their churches, these ‘pictures in glass’ are there from a time when very few people could read, and they needed the pictures to remind them of the biblical accounts of the life of Jesus and their ancestors in faith. I could also suggest they are something to look at when the sermon is rattling on too long – waiting to see who among you smiles so that I know who hasn’t yet drifted off down that particular route!
I talk of images because that is exactly what we have before us in our readings today. Those who wrote these accounts paint for us vivid pictures of the many different events that form part our collective consciousness of faith. I use the word ‘collective’ deliberately because, although we are each journeying with God in ways unique to us as individuals, there is an inheritance of faith that we stand within and that we interpret to and for one another. Our interpretation stands alongside that of artists and theologians throughout the ages – thus we have East Windows, Rose Windows, Icons, Statues – and the Scriptures.
Picture the scene then… the dusty, hot, long, wearying road out of Jerusalem to Damascus. Saul in typical ferocious lather, on his way to ‘get’ these Christians – to root them out, seek them out, annihilate them (and, in truth, this was a form of ethnic cleansing). On this dusty road this man of fervour was brought to his knees, literally, in an event that is so often referred to in everyday life: She/he/I saw the light, a Damascus experience, blinded by the light… the event that came upon Paul gave rise to all of these!
Why this picture of this man? Why this life-changing experience? Why this picture of this event? The simplest answer is because it gives us an image of a life completely altered. This man is given this gift and it is revealed to us so that we might know the life-changing power of God. If God can change this man, God can change us too. If God can act in this way to change the lives and experiences of the early church, then he can act to change the lives and experiences of Christians through the ages too. This man, this experience, this event all point towards the impossible becoming possible – with God. In a time when being a Follower of the Way, was still not entirely a safe thing to own up to being the people of the Early Church needed to understand that God could and would act for their good. This man Saul, whom we know as Paul, became an enormous figure in the landscape of the Early Church – travelling near and far, teaching, preaching, praying, and healing as he went. If God could change this man, God could and would change the whole landscape of life.
Another impetuous hot-head, Simon Peter has acted in haste for love of Jesus throughout Jesus’ ministry. No standing back as a fainting wall-flower for him, he has been a man of action throughout… until that fateful night. Peter's place in the action on the Mount of Olives, and then his apparent betrayal is painted in heart-breaking clarity. In account of the Passion, Jesus tells Peter he will deny him, Peter is affronted at this prediction, but then Peter is heartbroken as he hears the cock crow for the third time. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Peter went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:62).
In the seashore BBQ event that we hear today (the last of Jesus’ miracles recorded in John’s Gospel) we are witnesses to a life-changing moment for Simon Peter. The man who had denied Jesus is given a chance to turn his life around and begin again. “Simon son of John, do you love me…?” Three times Simon Peter is asked this question and, as so many commentators remark, it mirrors the triple denial given during Jesus’ trial. The third time Jesus asks, we read that Peter was hurt by the question. Imagine how Jesus will have felt though, not just by Peter’s denial, but in having to predict Peter’s denial. Perhaps, in this moment of asking Peter if he loves him, Jesus is not only giving Peter the chance to redeem himself but there is an encounter of an even greater profundity as Jesus affirms to himself that, in predicting a denial that came to pass, he has not pushed Peter so far away from him that Peter could not love him any more. The questioning could, just possibly, be as much for the benefit of Jesus as for Peter… and for us.
Why this picture of this man? Why this life-changing experience? Why this picture of this event?
Simon Peter was there from the first but apparently failed at the last. Jesus redeems him though. As we have seen, and I hope it is not heretical, we might even consider that Jesus redeems himself… he has not tested Peter too far, Peter loves him, the disciples love him and the work of the kingdom can continue in the hands of these people.
Looking back to Saul, to Paul, we know it will not be plain-sailing for these disciples, nor for the apostles that will be gathered around them. The path will be dangerous and will cost some of them their lives. “Do you love me more than these?” Peter is asked, the answer has to be yes, because Peter will have to show this with his own life.
It is a scary question to be asked: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Deborah, daughter of Tom, do you love me? David, Michael, Suzanne, Jane… do you love me? Fill in your own name… “do you love me?”
“Do you love me?” In the silence, I pray your answer will be, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” so that we can each take our place in the wonderful picture of the church that has been painted through the years and which continues to be painted in our times and which will continue to be painted in the years to come.
Lord Jesus Christ, when you ask us of our love for you, let us affirm this in confidence and faith, trusting that you can change all things for good. Amen.