Sermon Preached by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park on Sunday 10th April, Easter 3

Sermon Preached by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park on Sunday 10th April, Easter 3

Oliver Cromwell was, in my opinion, a cultural philistine, particularly in relation to his destruction of some of the most beautiful parts of churches and cathedrals through this country. Statues, stained glass windows, any form of imagery was defaced or destroyed. In his puritan mind he thought was such imagery was ‘papist idols’. He had the huge and beautiful West Window of stained glass in Winchester Cathedral smashed into thousands of pieces, because it contained pictures that he considered idolatrous. However, when his forces had left, someone swept up all of the pieces, waited until Cromwell’s death, and then got them out and tried to reassemble the window. Unfortunately, it proved too difficult a jigsaw, and they simply put them back higgledy-piggledy so that it now looks like a piece of modern art.

Today we reflect upon lives that had been shattered, of two men in particular – Peter and Paul – who had to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and try to make sense of tumultuous events that had changed everything for them.

It’s what Peter had to do in this week's gospel. He had to pick up the pieces of his broken life. We find him dirty, wet and tired from fishing all night and catching nothing. Breakfast followed, for which Jesus had made all the preparations, just as he had done for the Passover meal. In fact, Jesus had made meticulous preparations, because for Peter, there was to be a new beginning. The Gospel writer is careful to specify that a charcoal fire was involved. Our sense of smell evokes memories, and this smell would bring back for Peter the vivid, painful memories of betraying Jesus by a charcoal fire. Jesus intended to take the sting out of those memories, so that they didn’t paralyse him for life.

Jesus dealt with Peter's three denials by providing opportunities for three affirmations of love. As Peter extended the palms of his hands to warm himself before the crackling fire, Jesus asked him three times, ‘Peter, do you really love me?’ Three times Peter responded, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

We are told that "Peter was hurt" by Jesus's query. The triple question evoked a deeply painful memory of his triple denial. Yet through this encounter, Jesus undid the power of Peter’s memory of failure, taking him back past his betrayal to his memories of Jesus's command to love and to his prayer for them to be protected (John 14-17). In that context, Jesus called Peter to share his responsibility as the good shepherd (John 10) by feeding his sheep.

Another person whose life had been shattered was Paul. Today’s account describing his road to Damascus encounter with Jesus. Before this experience, Paul ‘breathed out murderous threats’ and aggressively sought to imprison believers. After his encounter with the risen Christ, the greatest persecutor of the church became its greatest propagator. Paul would travel over 10,000 miles to spread the good news of God's love. But in those days following his dramatic encounter, blinded, his whole worldview thrown into disarray, he must have felt bewildered, disorientated. Through his encounter with the risen Christ, his life was to change forever.

Into these two lives, Peter and Paul, we witness the transforming power of the Gospel, the good news. The Gospel is all about new beginnings. We have travelled through the season of Lent, the ashes of Ash Wednesday reminding us of the brokenness of our lives, our sin, as well as our mortality – through to the celebration of Easter. And Easter faith is about new life, new hope, new beginnings. The metaphor of the caterpillar is evocative here: the caterpillar that is transformed, through the pain of death, into a beautiful butterfly that soars into the sky, free.

So, the Gospel, is about new beginnings. But that doesn’t mean that the past doesn’t leave its scars. While Peter knew deep down the forgiveness Jesus offered, he would never forget his betrayal. I imagine that it might have made him more humble, and perhaps more forgiving towards those who stumble.
Paul also found his past difficult to forget. His memories of the past always cast a dark shadow. Even as an old man he remembered his past to the younger Timothy with remarkable candor: ‘I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man’. He considered himself ‘the worst of sinners’.

Both Peter and Paul were to learn that God works through human weakness; the sting of their past would be healed and used for good.

God will do the same with the broken pieces and people of creation. And he will put them together so that they all fit into a picture that is even better than before. He will redeem, heal, and renew in such a way that the light of God will shine through the cracks, the scars of redeemed lives.

In short, it is about God shining through brokenness. There is a Japanese art form that expresses this most beautifully. The image is of ‘kintsukuroi’ – which means ‘to repair with gold’.

These days, in our throw-away culture, would we even consider a broken ceramic bowl worth repairing, let alone consider it more beautiful for having been broken? Probably not. ‘Kintsukurio’ is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer in such a way that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. There’s a profound truth here. It is in our woundedness, through our weaknesses, through our shattered or brokenness lives, that we may become a source of life for others. That was the thesis of the RC priest Henri Nouwen in his marvellous book, The Wounded Healer (1979). This model is the opposite to Nietzche’s vision of an ubermensch – superman – giving birth to a strong, powerful race. There’s no time here for the weak, broken and vulnerable in this model. There is precious little space in this system for showing compassion. And that’s the way of much of our world – honouring the strong and powerful. In such a world, you cover up your weaknesses, the brokenness and your scars.
How different it is in God’s kingdom. The scars that mark our lives, in contrast, may become the very bits where God’s light shines through. Those scars can enable us to see with compassion; our scars may give us eyes to see those who are experiencing pain. Our suffering creates an intense solidarity with the whole human world. Our pain can give us the key to love.

The point is that love can co-exist in the very midst of our brokenness, our emotional scars, our fear, self-doubt, depression. When our wounds cease to be a source of shame or embarrassment they may then become a source of healing, and we may, along with Peter and Paul, become wounded healers. We too may hear and respond to God’s call to become the good shepherd – loving, protecting, caring for the sheep in God’s world.

Revd Dr James Heard

Holland Park Benefice