Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter: “Do you love me?” – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 1 May 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green.  (Acts Ch 9: v 1 – 6; John Ch 21: v 1 – 19)

When I saw the Readings for this Sunday I was really spoilt for choice on what to base my sermon. We heard about the Conversion experience of Saul (soon to be known as Paul) on the Road to Damascus; an account that has come into common parlance to describe some sudden change- ‘that Damascus moment’. For our Gospel Reading we heard of the Resurrection appearance of Jesus to some of the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the sea of Galilee, and Jesus’s encounter with Simon Peter, and, as we are in the great Fifty Days of Easter, I would like to share some thoughts with you on this Resurrection encounter.

There are two distinct parts to the Reading.  The first part concerns a miraculous catch of fish. The disciples had been fishing all night, but had caught nothing. Jesus is standing on the shore, and, at first they do not recognise him, but he tells them to throw the net on the right side of the boat, and they will catch some. They did, and John realised it was Jesus standing on the shore, and it was a large catch of fish, 153 of them. Scholars have argued about this specific number being included in the text, but in Mathematics it is a significant number. It is what is known as a triangular number, and taking the numbers 10 and 7, both numbers signifying completeness, and then adding them together making 17 we find that by adding 1+2+3+4 right up to and including 17 = 153! Now before you get too absorbed in mental arithmetic, there is more. Augustine even went further and assumed 10 referred to the Ten Commandments, and 7 referred to the Seven Gifts of the Spirit, so 153 stands for all those who either by Law or by grace have been moved to come to Jesus Christ. There is one further point worth noticing, and that is the net did not break. If we continue with the allegory, the net stands for the Church. Remember Peter was told that instead of catching fish, he would catch people. There is room in the Church for all people of all nations, even if everyone becomes a member, the Church is big enough to hold them all.

In this Music Festival weekend it is worth noticing that mathematics plays a crucial role in music. It determines what speed a piece is to be played, and how many beats there is in a bar, and the rhythm of the notes. As we listen to the wide variety of music in this festival, it all has a mathematical framework.  But I digress.

Back to our Reading. Following on from the catch of fish, they all have breakfast, and after the meal Jesus then begins to speak to Peter. It is at this point that we need to see the similarity to the scene when Peter denies Jesus prior to the Crucifixion. Here we have the group around a fire as Peter was in Caiaphas housewarming himself; the similarity is uncanny, and Peter is even more unnerved when Jesus turns to him and asks “Do you love me?” Here we need to look at the text, because our New Testament, originally written in Greek, has several words for “love”, and in this passage two of these are used: philo and agape. Philo describes brotherly love, companionship. Agape is sacrificial love, being willing to surrender your life for another. The first time Jesus asks the question he uses agape, but Peter replies using philo. He can’t really answer otherwise, having only a matter of days ago denied he knew Jesus three times. The second time Jesus asks using the same words, and Peter replies again using philo. The third time Jesus asks the same question, but this time Jesus also uses philo, and Peter naturally is disturbed by this for Jesus is saying in effect “Am I your friend?” to which Peter replies “Lord you know that I am your friend”. We can see that these three questions are to counteract Peter’s threefold denial, and so bring about healing.

After each answer as Peter honestly expresses his love for Jesus, Peter was given a task, “Feed my lambs”, “Take care of my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”. Our love for Jesus is expressed by our love for one another. Love is the greatest privilege in the world, but love brings the greatest responsibility in the world. In the end love brought Peter a cross. Peter became the great shepherd of Christ’s people despite his weakness on the way. It is always reassuring that, despite his failings, Peter becomes a leader in the Church.

Jesus has asked the same question all down the centuries, “Do you love me?” What is your answer? Yes, I am your friend, or more….?