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Sermon – John 21:15-19. Second Sunday of Easter – White Sunday Quasimodogeniti

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God. And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s sermon is based on the gospel text from the Gospel of John, the end of the 21st chapter. Since we have already heard the text, I will repeat just the last verse: “And after this he (Jesus) said to him (Peter), “Follow me.” (John 21:19b).

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, be among us at this worship service and give us an open heart as well as grant us wisdom to proclaim your gospel and to understand it. Amen

I am very glad to be again here in Gothenburg Saint Paul’s church and to preach from this pulpit once more after some long years. I came under the vaults of this church for the first time as a young theological student and a fresh deacon in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church more than twenty years ago. This was in February of 1994, when I as the clergyman from Pärnu-Jakobi congregation was a guest of your congregation for a space of a month. I breathed in and absorbed that which was seen here like a thirsty wanderer from a cold spring of fresh water. I savoured the hospitality of the family of the then serving priest Stig Andersson and I was the “worker shadowing” Stig’s undertakings  learning a lot from the example of Saint Paul’s congregation, how a living congregation fulfils its role in society and the community. Upon departing I took with me in the largest suitcase which I could find in the local department store about fifteen kilograms of theological literature, mostly New Testament commentaries.

I confess today, that this visit almost a quarter century ago and the following times visiting you (all together I presume over thirty times) have very much influenced my service in both Pärnu-Jakobi and Tallinn Cathedral congregations. Meetings and conversations with your clergy and congregational workers have shaped much of my understanding of the Christian church and influenced my theological thinking. Having seen the developments in the life of the church over the last decades here in Sweden as well as in Estonia, I am especially very pleased and thankful to God, that my personal contacts with the Swedish church started just through the Gothenburg Saint Paul’s congregation clergy and members. I believe, that in a way, some of the responsibility for the role that I fill today in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is also yours. I wish to thank you for all the care and love that I, my family and the congregations that I have served over the years have experienced! Thank you!

In Estonia and here in Sweden as well this Sunday has the name: Quasimodogeniti. It means in translation “just as new-born babes”. This Sunday’s name originates from the First Letter of the Apostle Peter, from the second chapter where Peter writes of the changes that should characterize the follower of Christ. Peter says: “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like new-born babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” (1 Peter 2:2.3)

I was baptized when I was a 16-year old. I am not from a Christian family just like most children of my generation. Unfortunately, the fate has come upon successive generations of children in Estonia. Even today in Estonia most of those entering confirmation classes have not been baptized as children and the average age of those coming for confirmation is about 30 years. This means that one has just entered middle-age however at the same time one is only taking the first steps on the road to becoming a Christian. Even in adulthood one arrives in the church as an infant “just as a new-born babe” – quasimodogeniti.

I remember, when the Christian teachings began to open for me, when the Bible and the content and meaning of the catechism began to appear from under the shell and my eagerness was great. It felt like the truth was right before my eyes, yet I had not realized that before. All of a sudden my eyes were opened, just like the Apostle Paul after he had met the Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:18). From my eyes too, just something like scales would fall and I began to see. From this understanding would follow a thirst for “living water” which was unquenchable and great the excitement for following Christ.

How is it with my excitement, with all of our excitement today?

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” asks Jesus of his disciple Peter, already the third time appearing to his disciples after his resurrection. He asks this of Peter three times and three times he receives the answer: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Did Jesus doubt Peter’s trustworthiness? True, Jesus had his reason for this, for he had seen and heard Peter deny him after his arrest.

From today’s gospel, in the story read from the Gospel of John, we have the heart-warming story of the disciples who return from the unexpected events of the Passover feast in Jerusalem to their secure activities, as fishermen on Lake Tiberius, a beautiful summary of the whole gospel. This is a very personal and intimate story, that it is hard to credit this chapter to none other than authorship of John. True, John may have written this a little later than the rest of the gospel; still it is so very personal and heart-warming that it must be written by no other than the disciple whom Jesus loved – John.

There are those, myself included, that are bound to this story of the resurrected Jesus with its human simplicity and friendliness. We see the same Jesus, who some years before there in Galilee had called his first disciples, among them also Peter and John. Everything is as it was before. Even the way in which Jesus teaches those men to catch fish. Especially dear is to read how Jesus has prepared on the shore a “fish-fry”. John writes how the disciples coming up on the shore see the charcoal fire and the fish lying on it and bread. And Jesus says to them: “Come and have breakfast.” (John 21:9, 12). It is as if nothing had changed.

We have already spent a week in Eastertide. Has this week been in any way different from the week before? Has our weekly rhythm been different of that of our weekly rhythm of a month or two ago? Half a year ago? How have our life and faith changed compared to the time when we – “just as new-born babes” – took our first steps in the faith? Is our excitement and striving, our faith and trust, our dedication and love toward our Lord the same as it was or has it cooled? Have we become prisoners of habit or burns the spark of love, just as before, toward Jesus Christ?

How do we relate to the message of Christ’s rising, when every year again and again we greet each other with the proclamation: “Christ is arisen! He is truly arisen!” Do we dare ask ourselves: do we really believe it?

In Estonia last year a sociological survey titled “About life, faith and spiritual life 2015” took place, where Lutherans were asked amongst other things about their stance on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Of those who responded 27 percent (%) were clearly ready to believe this and almost 30 percent (29.7%) were more likely to believe this. This means that at confirmation in the excitement of ones’ first love to say “yes” in confirming ones’ belief in Jesus as the Saviour, who died on the cross for our sins and on the third day rose from the dead, is witnessed to by only 57 percent of Lutherans who have remained faithful to the one they love.

I do not know, how it is with the belief in the resurrection amongst Swedish Lutherans. However in Western Christendom, particularly in Europe we need to ask the question: “What has happened?!” And this question does not need to be answered firstly by politicians; but this question echoes the strongest under the vaults of emptying churches.

Faithfulness to Jesus is not like the promise of fidelity given at a wedding: “together, until death do us part!” Jesus expects from us such faithfulness, which does not end with death; but is eternal. Have we really taken this into account?

Peter with the other disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection had gone back to the fishing nets. They returned to the life, in which Jesus had at one time found them and already at their first meeting called them to follow him. This was the period full of excitement. Love at first sight, is how we say it in Estonia. In today’s gospel reading there is none of this excitement left. Rather one does not know what to do and there is confusion. Fishing, at which Jesus finds his disciples occupied with, is a secure routine which gives the disciples a sense of security in their shattered world.

Peter had calculated that he would be together with his Teacher “until death parts them”; however he had not quite understood that Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than they had imagined. Already at their first meeting with Jesus Peter’s brother Andrew came to Peter with the news: “We have found the Messiah!” and Jesus already then says to Peter: “So you are Simon the son of John, you shall be called Cephas! – which translated means Peter.” (John 1:41, 42).

The Jews, the disciples amongst them, had never though that their expected Messiah would need to fulfil his task through death. The prophetic predictions of such a Messiah began to dawn on the apostles and early Christians only at Pentecost with the support of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The dead and risen Messiah was not the one that they had expected. Therefore they were filled with fear when Jesus was arrested. They were not able to compose themselves even when Jesus appeared to them as resurrected and showed them the wounds in his hands and feet. Yet this confusion was the beginning of change. Change occurred in the disciples when they had met the risen Christ.

Meeting the risen Christ always causes big changes in people’s lives. Paul turned around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees from a persecutor of Christians to one of the most fervent witnesses for Christ.

Today, a week after Easter we need to ask, have we ourselves met the risen Christ? Did we meet with him reading the Bible, listening to the sermon, in confirmation class, while praying together with someone we know or with our family? How far have we come from our first meeting with Jesus?  Are we like the Peter, who after the stilling of the storm asks Jesus to leave saying: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8), knowing very well that Jesus had come to seek out those who are sinners.  Or are we like the Peter, who answers the questions of the sociological survey when asked about Jesus’ resurrection: “I do not know what you mean! I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:70, 72). And immediately the cock crows. Or are we like the Peter who declares to the risen Jesus three times “Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 21:15-17)

I would like to be very much just like the Peter who declares his love for Jesus because from this comes the task that gives content to my life as a Christian and gives it meaning. To the Peter who had declared his love Jesus says three times: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17).

Faith is not a contagious disease, however, in Estonia, and I have heard that also more often in Sweden, it is feared that faith is just something which infects and makes people crazy. Therefore effort is undertaken especially with kindergarten and school-age children to keep them as distant from the church as possible. Since faith is not a contagious disease, there is no epidemic of Christianity in Estonia, Sweden nor elsewhere in Europe. So we need to take much effort as a church as well as all together as Jesus’ disciples in keeping and feeding Christ’s “lambs” and “sheep”. How to do this? We need to be those who offer “new-born babes” “pure spiritual milk”, through which to grow up to salvation, as the Apostle Peter has referenced to in the just quoted passage of scripture (I Peter 2:2-3).

In the church we cannot offer a “milk substitute”, diluted human centred love and care without the proclamation of the risen Christ. Love without God is fleeting and not whole and creates only an impression. “Pure spiritual milk” that which society thirsts for is the clear and undiluted proclamation of Christ who died on the cross for our sins and arose from the dead so that we believing in Him and professing our love may inherit eternal life. Loving Christ also gives us the ability to love our neighbour unconditionally, also foreign refugees who have come a great distance. Christ’s love helps to keep and feed His sheep like the good shepherd does.

This would not be possible, unless we continue after meeting the risen Christ with our own life changed. With a life, where beside our daily routine with its secure “fishing” there is something completely new, a new quality – Christ’s eternal love from which even “death cannot us part” – a life which is the answer to Jesus’ challenge to Peter when He says: “Follow me!” (John 21:19).


Urmas Viilma

03.04.2016 Gothenburg Saint Paul’s Church

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