Saving For God

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February 10, 2019

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news…through which you are being saved.

"Don’t die, Dad – but they die."

The opening words of a poem by Australia’s greatest living poet, the 80 year old Les Murray. "Don’t die, Dad – but they die." An evocative poem about his father’s last illness, death and funeral.

A poem which charts how a man of immense character and charisma becomes a bit wandery, due to a brain tumor the size of a duck egg, which causes a predictable and inevitable decline in this once great man, as the reality of death looms ever larger and closer.

A poem entitled The Last Hellos, because, as it tells us, in the western culture of misplaced confidence that we inhabit, "People can’t say goodbye anymore. They say last hellos."

And so the poem charts the gradual diminution of the abilities and facilities of this man who had been a towering presence both in terms of personality and physique, until it comes to "Two last days in the hospital: his long forearms were still red mahogany. His hands gripped steel frame. I’m dyin."

And, when the old man dies - in what I had assumed would be the closing stanza of the poem – we get the wry observation that "On your day there was a good crowd…But of course a lot had gone to their own funerals first."

But I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news…through which you are being saved.

"Don’t die, Dad," wrote Les Murray - and how would you end such a poem with good news? So, let’s move on, by moving back some 2000 years, to an even more famous orator. The self-titled "least of the apostles" (and if you believe he believes that, you should probably think again), the man who claims to have been "untimely born," and "unfit to be called an apostle" – the itinerant preacher and tent-maker we know as St Paul, whom we find in full flow this morning, working hard (as he is always keen to remind his audience), because he, also, wants to talk about death. But, in this case, he is talking about death, only so that he can talk about life.

Because, working hard – some 2000 years before Les Murray acknowledged the problem -  Paul knew just how true it was that "people can’t say goodbye anymore…"

Working hard – he knew how important it was to get people past the point of talking about "last goodbyes" – because he knew that a ‘goodbye’ should never be regarded as a last word. 

Working hard, because – as he is making clear to his audience -  because Christ was "raised on the third day" – and that, that has implications…

For the passage we have just heard that opens First Corinthians chapter 15 is just the start of a wonderful piece of Christian oratory about resurrection and the hope of new life that it brings. If you can’t make it to church on the next two Sundays, when we will hear what follows on from today’s brief passage, then go and open up your Bible when you get home – for this is some of the most powerful stuff written in its pages.

"If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied, the great apostle continues – But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead," he proclaims, and the implications of this – the implications of this for us – for you and me, and for everyone - the implications are enormous – because – through the resurrection of Jesus –  God has given us victory.

And the implication of that is that we should strive, always, "to excel in the works of the Lord" - which was, I think, what so shocked Simon Peter, who "fell down at Jesus’ knees," in the panic-induced hope that he might be let off God’s hook; that he might be allowed just to continue doing the works of Simon Peter, and just carry on fishing for fish, and thus fishing for death, on the shallow shores of the lake of Gennesaret. As we sung just now, "Dear God, forgive our foolish ways."

Because, at this early point in the gospel story - Simon Peter has not yet realized that it isn’t just about working hard - it’s about doing the kind of hard work that leads to life. And that’s the difference, quite literally, as you will discover - that’s the difference between life and death. That is the difference between the untransformed Simon Peter we discover at the beginning of the gospel stories, and the utterly transformed Saul-become-Paul we find in First Corinthians.

"Master, we have worked all night long," says Simon. "We have worked all night long, but have caught nothing." "And that is because," so Jesus says, "you are doing the wrong kind of work! Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people…"

And that’s where - for Luke, whose wonderful and complex gospel frames this story of the call of Simon Peter in a far fuller and more detailed way than we get with Mark or Matthew - that’s where it gets really interesting.

If I stopped you in the street and asked you what you remembered about Jesus calling Peter, you’d probably quote the old phrase about ‘fishers of men’. And even if you follow the lead of the original Greek, and turn that into ‘people’, you are probably still thinking about fishing. And, according to Mark and to Matthew, that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about - the language of fishing, but applied to humans and not fish - nets or rods at the ready.

But not for Luke - that is not what Luke thinks Jesus is talking about in his unique recasting of this vital story. Luke has Jesus telling Simon Peter not that he’s going to fish for people - he is going to catch people. It’s a completely different verb, both in English, and, more importantly, in the original Greek - and its full meaning is about catching something that is alive. The catch is not going to die - which is, of course, what happens to fish when you catch them - something inevitable and necessary if you are then going to sit down and eat them. This catch - Luke’s catch - is going to live.

Because Luke’s Jesus wants Simon Peter to get out there and work not for death, but for life - for life which you and I are meant to understand and proclaim as being the new and unstoppable life that is resurrection life - the life which, as St Paul will go on and tell us, is the life which will allow us to excel in the works of the Lord - the kind of life which can change this broken world and make it a place of love and of grace, where the forces of death are overcome by those who excel in doing the works of the Lord.

So now let me ask you the $64,000 question. Why did Simon Peter agree to "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch"? After all, Simon and his partners were hardly new to the fishing business. They had been doing this all their lives, and they would have known how fish behaved, and when it was or was not worth trying to catch them. And when this story begins, they are washing out their nets, having fished by night - because that is when you have the best chance of catching the fish. Despite the miraculous haul that transpires (which is, of course, exactly that - a miracle - a supernatural event, not a natural one), despite what transpires when the nets get thrown into the deep, Simon actually knows more about fishing in that lake than Jesus does. So why did he agree to go along with this bizarre injunction from Jesus? What made Jesus’ words so believable that Simon went against all his instincts, experience and training, and threw out the nets again?

Well - of course, we don’t know. But take note - take note that this command comes directly after Jesus has been teaching the crowds. Crowds so numerous that he has had to get into one of Simon’s boats so that he can find room to teach them about the word of God. And the word of God - ultimately - is, and can only, be the word of resurrection life that banishes selfishness and death, and which calls people to excel in the works of the Lord. And it was hearing about the word of God which made Simon’s life change for ever, and led him to excel in the works of the Lord, by putting out into the deep.

And if it was true for Simon Peter, do not think, not for one moment, that it is any the less true for you and for me. Because, my dear sisters and brothers, it is when we put out into the deep water that big things can happen. It’s when we put out into the deep water and prepare to work for just the same kind of catch, it is when we bother to get beyond the shallow and the superficial knuckle-headed stuff that entraps us so often and so easily, it is when we get out into the deep waters that we can start making a difference, we can start excelling in the works of the Lord, and we can show the world the truth that it so desperately needs to hear, that not only is life followed by death - but that death is followed by life. Because that is what we are called to do "if we hold firmly to the message that was proclaimed to us - that is what we are called to do unless we have come to believe in vain."

For I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news…through which you are being saved.

Which is why I end, as I start with Les Murray - and I return to the question I asked at the start of the sermon: how would you, how could you end such a poem with good news? For when I first encountered The Last Hellos, I expected it to end with that poignant description of the funeral, and that acknowledgement of how many of his dad’s friends had gone to their own funerals first.

But I was wrong - for, unexpectedly, there is one final, brief stanza. At first I read it as an after-thought - a post-script to the real poem. But as I have read it again, and again, and again, I am the more convinced that it is actually the real justification for the entire poem. For at the end of this poignant depiction of his father’s last months and days, and the wistful and melancholic events of his funeral, Murray comes to an extraordinary comment and conclusion.

And he does so in words that are not easy, and which need to be used very carefully in such a space as this, but which contain a truth so important that they demand not to be edited out by the squeamish, but acknowledged with the hard truth they demand:

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.

And do be aware, just how true that is. People undervalue and disdain what you might call ‘established’ religion. What we are doing together this morning is not regarded as ‘fashionable’ any more. 

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.

Saint Paul had to remind the Corinthians about Good News - about the real, unstoppable Good News that changed his life, can change our lives, and change the life of the world. He had to remind the hapless Corinthians, and anyone else whose faith was wavering or fragile, that when you get into the deep water, you can catch people and bring them to a new life that does not and cannot be negated by death. And, like Les Murray, he called on the Corinthians, and on me, and on you to get out of our comfort zone and to go and proclaim it.

So let’s get out there - right out there, into the deep waters of the world - let’s put out our nets, and let’s catch all those we find who are marooned out there in the deep, and show them how to live. As the man said - let’s go and wish them God. Amen.