Sunday, 22 April 2012

Easter 3: Let's hear it for the broiled fish!

The disciples were quaking with terror. Frankly it had been a terrible weekend. Jesus had been brutally killed, and for all they knew they were next in line for execution. Now rumours were spreading that he was alive again. People said they’d seen him, that the tomb was empty. None of it made sense and his followers felt they had been catapulted into a world where everything they knew had dissolved, melted around them into baffling mystery. And now, to cap it all, he seemed to be standing in front of them, appearing out of nowhere. I’d be terrified too, and so, I guess, would you. It was all completely beyond them, overwhelming and surreal.

They stand there, stunned into silence, and Jesus says…“Have you got anything to eat?” What? Miracles are happening in front of their eyes, the world is being turned upside down, and all Jesus cares about is the fact that he is feeling peckish? It’s as if he showed up here today, standing among us in all his shimmering glory, and announced “You know, I could murder a nice cup of tea…”

I read one commentary on this story this week which rather wrote this story off. “Couldn’t Luke have done better than this?” the commentator asked. Somehow the image of Jesus munching his way through a bit of broiled fish, apparently just to make a point that he wasn’t a ghost, was too banal, too ordinary. What has broiled fish got to do with the vanquishing of death, the opening of the gates of glory, the life everlasting and the new creation? It does all seems a bit mundane.  But I think that is just the point. It is mundane; mundane literally means to do with the earth, with the reality we can see and know.

Our first reading was all about the real and the physical too. It is an account of the aftermath of the healing of a man who had been lame from birth. Peter and John had come across him begging at the gate of the Temple. He asked them for money, but they had none. Instead they offered him healing, something which would liberate him from his dependency on the charity of others as well as relieving his physical pain and disability. Straightaway he jumped to his feet, praising God. We don’t know what happened to him after his healing – did he join the disciples, or just melt back into the crowd? – but in real physical terms his life was transformed, and that seems to have been what mattered most to Peter. The life of Jesus, who he calls the Author of Life, life itself, had overflowed into this man’s life and the change that brought about was absolutely real and tangible.

Of course, we tend to come to stories like these – of resurrection and miraculous healing – with a lot of sceptical baggage. With our post-Enlightenment understanding, we often get completely stuck on their impossibility and can go no further with them. But we need to recognise that our viewpoint – and our problems – wouldn’t have been shared by those who first heard and told these stories. People of the first century, and many centuries before and after  didn’t think resurrection or miraculous healing were impossible. They believed the world was ruled by the will of God, not the law of nature. If he wanted to heal or raise from the dead, he could. I know I have said this before, from this pulpit, but I’m saying it again because if we want to be able to read the Bible in an intelligent way it’s vital that we understand this. I don’t know what we would have seen if we had been there on Easter Day or at the Temple gates. I don’t know what the disciples saw. They weren’t trying to address our modern concerns with recording facts .But I do know what it meant to them. Somehow their experiences convinced them that God was at work in their midst, and at work in a very specific way which revealed his priorities for his world and his church.   

And it all comes back to the broiled fish.

We often think of Christmas as the great feast of the incarnation – God becomes flesh in the child of Bethlehem. But actually for the early Christians it is clear that Easter was just as much about incarnation as Christmas, and perhaps even more so. It was just as much to do with bodies, bodies that lived and breathed, ate and touched, felt pain and pleasure too. “You shall call his name Emmanuel” says the Angel Gabriel to Mary before he is born. Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us”. But if it is a fitting title for the baby in the manger, it is even more appropriate for the risen Christ. God is with us, says the Resurrection, even though we have tried so hard to send him away into the shadows of death. God is with us even though we have done our best to wipe him from the face of the earth. God is with us, in the person of Jesus, raised from death, different in some ways, but unmistakeably flesh and blood too as he eats that piece of broiled fish, something you could smell and taste, with bones you had to pick out from between your teeth, and juices you had to lick off your fingers, as real as it gets. God is with us, and at work in the nitty-gritty things of life, just as committed to his world , in all its messy physicality, as he always had been.

The resurrection, just like Jesus’ birth, is a message that our vulnerable, fallible bodies aren’t some kind of prison for the far more noble spiritual material of our souls, prisons which we should look to rise above and long to be delivered from. They are a gift from God, who made the world and all that was in it, who looked at it and called it good.

That mattered to the early Christians, whose words we are reading when we read the New Testament. They didn’t have the physical presence of Jesus among them anymore, but they were still convinced that he was very much there. They believed that they encountered him first and foremost  in one another, as they tried to form new communities, drawing together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. They were the body of Christ.  It wasn’t about mysterious rituals or complex liturgy or abstract theological ideas, but about the real, and often rather ordinary, things of life, the things that can seem insignificant, but make all the difference. Jesus commandment to them had been “to love one another as I have loved you”, They were to wash one another’s feet, share their belongings, treat others with dignity and respect, look first to the needs of those who were most vulnerable, those at the bottom of the pile and help them in the practical, physical ways that they most needed, regardless of whether there was any reward for them in doing so.

When I hear people today saying that faith should be something private and spiritual, that Christians shouldn’t make waves about the way we spend money, or look after the environment, or engage with our local communities, I have to wonder what Bible they are reading, because the one I read seems to me to be all about these very real and practical issues. It says very little about life after death, and a great deal about life before it. I get a bit fed up, too, with Christians complaining that they are being made invisible if they can’t wear crosses to work. Frankly if people need to see a cross around your neck or on your lapel to know that you follow Christ, there is something wrong with the way you are living out your faith. Jesus said that people would know we were his followers by our love, not by our jewellery. The cross isn’t just a club membership badge, it is, or should be, a way of life that is obvious in our attitudes and actions towards others.

After this service we will be holding our Annual Parochial Church Meeting – the APCM. It’s a legal requirement that we have such a meeting, and like all legal things it is surrounded by all sorts of jargon and littered with paperwork. We elect new members of the PCC and churchwardens. We receive the accounts and the reports of what has been done to look after the fabric of the church. Frankly, it can seem as if it is all about drainpipes and deficits and ticking boxes to make sure we comply with charity legislation – not exactly thrilling, unless you are into that sort of thing.
It’s tempting to think it doesn’t really matter, that it is a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the really important stuff, prayer and worship, to dull trivialities.

But our Bible readings today should remind us that, in God’s eyes, these things really matter. They are the broiled fish of our lives, the real, nitty-gritty, practical ways in which we live out our faith, a faith that is all to do with flesh and blood, with ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in a way that speaks to others of the love of God. The fabric of the church matters because for so many it provides a safe space for reflection and comfort in a trying world – that applies to those who slip in and out in secret as well as those who come to public worship. The jobs done by members of the church matter; looking after the church hall, getting involved in the school as foundation governors, providing transport to the over-60’s club, visiting those who are housebound. It is these things which in this place – the place where God has put us - make him real to those around us. It is in these things that they meet him – or don’t as the case may be.

So let’s hear it for broiled fish, because that’s where we discover that God is real and that God is with us.


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