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Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 9:1–6, Revelation 5:6–14 & John 21:1–19

As most of you know, I was blessed to be part of a pilgrimage that visited the Holy Land in January 2018. During the pilgrimage, our group spent four days at the Sea of Galilee, and one of the places we visited in our time there was the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter.

It is a Franciscan church located in Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. It supposedly marks the spot where Jesus recommissioned Peter as first among the Apostles, the story which of course forms part of the passage from John’s Gospel that we heard this morning.

The current church building, which was erected in 1933, incorporates parts of an earlier fourth century church. The church contains a projection of limestone rock in front of the present altar that is referred to as “Mensa Christi”, which is Latin for table of Christ. 

According to tradition, this is the spot where Jesus is said to have laid out a breakfast of bread and fish for his disciples, and told Peter to “feed my sheep” after the miraculous catch of fish, the third time he appeared to them after his resurrection.

The species of fish that Peter and the other disciples are thought to have caught that morning was the Tilapia Galilea, a species of freshwater fishwhich is now affectionately known around the Sea of Galilee as “St Peter’s Fish”. We actually had lunch at a restaurant located close to the The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter and I sampled “St Peter’s Fish”. Perhaps the kindest thing I could say about it is, that now that I have tried it, I don’t have to have it again.

It was an amazing experience though, to sit so close to the place where Jesus was believed to have eaten breakfast with the disciples after his resurrection, and to eat the same type of fish that he supposedly ate with them. 

Which brings me to today’s gospel passage. A number of scholars believe that this section of John’s Gospel was a later addition to the original version, but I don’t intend to bore you with the arguments “for” and “against” this theory. I just thought you might like to know that there is a line of thinking that this section of the gospel was not part of the original. If you are interested, you might like to explore this further yourself or, if anyone is interested, I would be happy to discuss it further with you outside of our Sunday service.

There is too much contained within this passage to deal with in a single sermon, so I have decided to restrict my discussion to the “threefold confession of love” that Jesus commands of Peter. 

We know that Peter was a fisherman. But in today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus recommission Peter to take on a new occupation. He is to be a shepherd–a shepherd of the followers of Jesus. 

Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and each time Peter answers Jesus in the same way, “you know that I love you”. The reason that Jesus asks Peter this question three times, is probably to counter the three times that Peter denied Jesus. Peter is clearly hurt that Jesus would doubt him. He obviously believes he is faithful to Jesus, even if he did desert Jesus in his hour of need. 

But to love Jesus means to obey his commands, and in this case, Jesus is commanding Peter to love all those would follow Jesus. Peter is to care for these people in the same way that Jesus has cared for them, which included laying down his life for them. Jesus makes it clear to Peter that the same fate awaits him when Jesus says to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18 NRSV)

So Jesus is challenging Peter to make sure that he is truly up to the task this time, and that he will not fail him as he did previously. If you love me, then you will take care of my sheep. You will feed my sheep, which is perhaps a reference to providing them with spiritual nourishment to enable them to grow in faith. You will tend my sheep, which means you will not desert them in times of trouble or danger; you will look after them and protect them, even if it means your own death.

And we know that Peter, and several of the other apostles, were all martyred for their love of Jesus. As were those Christians who formed the majority of the 253 people killed in the terrorist bombing attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Day. It is claimed that the attacks were carried out by Islamic State fighters, and it is believed the attacks were in retaliation for the attacks against Muslims in Christchurch in March.

Which brings me to an article I read earlier this week, which was written by Brendan O’Neill, a British Columnist who writes a column for the Australian. I don’t share O’Neill’s political views, but I did find myself agreeing with much of what he wrote about in his article, concerning the response of the global community to the massacre in Sri Lanka, compared to its response to the recent Christchurch massacre.

“Where is the anger over the apocalyptic barbarism visited upon Christians in Sri Lanka?”, he writes. “Where is the fury? Where are the tweets and blog posts and viral videos offering solidarity to Christians and slamming the bombers as a members of a global fascistic movement?”, he asks.

He goes on to say, “Such wrath has been notable by its absence, or at least its rarity, in the aftermath of the extremist slaughter that killed at least 253 people, the majority of them Christians marking the resurrection of Christ at Easter Sunday services. Yes, there has been sorrow. But rage? There has been very little.”

 O’Neill argues that this is in disturbing contrast to the aftermath of the mosque massacres in Christchurch last month. He claims that the Christchurch atrocity provoked an angry and distinctly political response with world leaders and commentators insisting that we must stand as a human family against this vile Islamophobia. But he notes the Sri Lanka atrocity has generated no such sense of global resolve, and that this disparity needs to be explained.

O’Neill also noted that after Christchurch, Barack Obama said he was grieving with “the Muslim family”. But in contrast, the former US president described the terrorism in Sri Lanka as an attack on “tourists and Easter worshippers”. As many tweeters said in response: “It’s okay to say ‘Christian’.”

Hillary Clinton also used the term “Easter worshippers”. After Christchurch, Obama said we must stand against “hatred”. Clinton went further. “My heart breaks” for the “global Muslim community” which has been attacked by “white supremacist terrorists”, she said.

To quote O’Neill further, “This is not about having a competition of victims. On the contrary. It is about raising a simple but pressing question: Why do many in the West mourn Muslim victims of white supremacist terror more determinedly than they mourn Christian victims of Islamo-supremacist terror? Why are they choosy rather than humanistic in how they respond to terror attacks?”

I think this last question is an important one. I’m normally not one to make political comments, but I believe this question goes to the heart of something that has been troubling me for some time now. In my opinion, we have become an overtly politically correct society, where the interests and voices of minority groups, seem to be more important and carry more weight than those of the majority. That’s not to say that those minority groups shouldn’t have a voice and that their interests shouldn’t be respected. They should. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of everyone else’s interest and voice.

We need to remember, that Jesus died on the cross for ALL people. And as the Apostle Paul wrote in the Letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV)

All people are equal in the eyes of God. I pray that our leaders and politicians may come to recognise this, and that they may start to be more humanistic in their response to people, and the tragic situations that can affect people, rather than use people and tragedies as opportunities for political point scoring and ‘one up manship’.

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