‘This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.’ (St.John 21:14)
Yes, we are still in the season of Easter; something that has been celebrated on this site for almost thirteen-hundred-and-fifty years; since St. Wilfrid consecrated our crypt which itself speaks of the empty tomb of Christ. It is as if the very structure of this cathedral says that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation of our faith and nothing less than the basis of hope for the world.
It is interesting this morning that we hear the account of Jesus making all the preparations for a breakfast with his disciples. The space was arranged, the fire lit, some fish already cooked, and an enthusiastic welcome rehearsed. ‘Come and have breakfast’, Jesus said warmly and reassuringly.
Well, Mr Chairman, we at Ripon Cathedral have been preparing to welcome you and your guests to this ancient cathedral this morning. I can’t claim that we have lit the barbecue yet, or gone down and taken 153 fish out of the Ure! But we have prepared the very food of heaven – the bread of angels; and if you are willing to stay on to our beer festival tomorrow, we would be very happy to share with you a wide variety of this region’s finest ales.
We are delighted, Robert, that you asked to bring your civic service to the Cathedral; in the same way that I was delighted when you invited me to be your chaplain for your year of office. And it has been an honour to serve the county in this way.
This service does several important things. One of them is to give us an opportunity before God to thank you and all your fellow councillors, along with Richard Flinton the Chief Executive and all the staff of this great authority, for the dedicated service that you all give to this vast and wonderful region. Too often your labours are taken for granted. And, while constructive criticism is always welcome, I can only assume that too often you receive unjustified complaints. We do well to express the gratitude of the people of the seven districts, the 605,000 people who live across the county.
We live in a period when the strings on the public purse are still being pulled ever tighter, and when as a nation we are in the midst of national political turmoil. This turmoil can find expression in the local context – both in terms of the lack of policy and the venting of frustration, as seen in last Thursday’s local elections. We do well, then, to acknowledge that your job is far from easy. So, we thank you. And as a former parishioner of mine – a land agent working across North Yorkshire and the North East – used to say, ‘A bit of gratitude goes a long way – and it doesn’t cost much!’
Another dimension to this service is that it bids us open our eyes to the realities around us and consider the blessings showered upon us. The outlook on life that can see the presence of the risen Lord in the midst of us, that can feed on him in word and sacrament in a service like this, is the very sort of outlook that transforms our way of living and our way of seeing. It is an outlook that benefits individuals, families, communities, regions and nations. (It should reduce moaning!)
Over several years, as a cathedral, we have been working to engage more with the issues of this rural region we are keen to serve. One recent initiative is the Ripon Cathedral Rural Forum. I’m pleased to say that the County Council has agreed to be a member of it, with another 14 regional organisations. At the last meeting, we agreed that it is often too easy to focus on what we think we are missing – and no one is denying that there are real pockets of deprivation in this region, and real challenges to sustaining some key services. But we need to be helped to see the unquestionable blessings and advantages that we enjoy.
We can learn from the disciples. While still in emotional turmoil, probably still wondering what to think about seeing the risen Christ, they went fishing. They fished all night – with no success. Just after daybreak – they encountered an apparent stranger telling them they needed to adjust what they were doing. They needed to put out their nets on the other side of the boat. Just stop to think about this. These were experienced and skilled professionals – they were life-long fishermen some of them. A perfect stranger starts telling them they need to revise their practises. You might have thought they would be tempted to get out and punch him! It is a credit to their humility, and possibly a product of their desperation, that they did as advised. And their reward? They were amazed to discover how many fish were in this see that had, until then, seemed empty.
One of the messages of Easter is that by being prepared to see things differently, by being prepared to tune into what God is doing in our midst, we discover resources and potential for new life beyond our wildest dreams. Easter encourages in us a positive attitude when viewing the reality of our lives and of our world. Why do we so often describe this great county as God’s own country? Well, because it is! And hopefully because we count our blessings, which are many.
Finally, this positive – what we might describe as Easter – spirituality, this Easter outlook on life, might just help those of us who are keen to work together for the well-being of the people and communities of this region. Perhaps those of us who would unite to provide leadership through our service can learn something from St. Peter this morning.
At the end of this morning’s gospel reading we hear the account of Peter’s restoration to grace by the risen Christ. Remember, on Good Friday he had denied Jesus three times before the cock had crowed – damningly. Now Jesus restores Peter by asking him three times if he loves him. Every time Peter responds positively, he gets a job to do. I’m sure there are plenty of us in this cathedral this morning who can relate to that! But what is interesting is how the three successive questions relate to the work commissioned.
First, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than the other disciples. Peter claims he does, and so is commissioned to ‘feed my lambs’. The second question is less demanding, ‘Do you love me?’ Well, of course he does; and so he is commissioned to ‘tend my sheep’ – a bit more responsibility here.
Finally, the question comes ‘Do you love me?’ Except it is not quite as easy as that. Without getting too technical about it, the Greek word used in the New Testament changes here and some of us see real significance in this. In the third question, Jesus asks quite simply, ‘Are you my friend?’ Peter might have been becoming uncomfortable because Jesus seemed to be requiring less of him in terms of devotion and strength of relationship. But when he assures Jesus that, yes, he really is simply his friend, then Jesus gives him the most demanding job of all – ‘tend my sheep’.
This account of Peter’s restoration to friendship with Christ has much to teach our society and those of us who would provide leadership through service within it. Denial and failure never have to have the last word with Jesus – that is refreshingly counter-cultural in our society!
And Peter had to learn that what made the difference was his dependency upon Christ, not his ability to make some impossible, super-human commitment. There was absolutely no point at all in him trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t.
Christ was keen for his lambs and sheep to be cared for. The people we serve in this region are God’s, not ours. We should hesitate – before succumbing to the demands of public opinion to show that we are like God – to demonstrate that we are worthy of serving them. With Peter, we might find the burden is put in perspective if we can learn to trust Christ and God’s gracious providence, and then simply do what we can. For Christ is the one who now says to us and to the communities and people of this region, as he did to Peter, ‘Are you my friend… Follow me.’