On this fortieth day of the fifty-day Easter festival, we have heard one of the stories of the Risen Lord appearing to his disciples. These stories at the end of three of the Gospels are extraordinary for a number of reasons. Yet one of the strange things about them is just how ordinary some of their elements are. Consider the banalities in what we have heard:
- Peter says, “I’m going fishing” – something he must have said almost every day of his life on the shores of the Lake.
- The other six disciples reply, “We’ll come with you”, which is just as routine.
- They catch nothing all night – something familiar to anyone who’s gone fishing.
- The man on the shore asks whether they’ve caught anything and they say no – nothing remarkable about that exchange.
But then things begin to turn strange when the man on the shore tells them to throw their nets “out to starboard”. Fish everywhere – 153 we’re told, big ones all of them. Then comes the moment of recognition – the vision of the extraordinary at the heart of the ordinary: “It is the Lord!” They see the Risen Jesus, or rather they recognise the one they have already seen: “It is the Lord!” Peter can’t wait once he really sees: into the water he goes. He leaves it to the others to do the routine thing of bringing the catch to shore. He’s more interested in the Lord than the fish.
But then we see Jesus doing something as ordinary as barbequeing fish on the beach. He calls them to have breakfast – nothing extraordinary about that. He offers them food as ordinary as bread and fish – something they must have eaten time and time again. Yet the bread and the fish speak of the gift of himself, appearing out of nowhere. The language is clearly Eucharistic; and in the midst of all this ordinariness, we’re on our way to the wondrous mystery we celebrate on the altar here this morning – the Body broken and the Blood poured out for the life of the world as the sacrifice becomes the feast.
Much of what a Bishop does is ordinary; he’s constantly caught up in routine. Meetings, appointments, ceremonies, long drives, parish and school visits, dinners, desk-work, emails, phone-calls and so on. It can wear you down at times. Yet one of the simplest and best bits of advice I was given before I was ordained priest was this: “Let nothing become routine”. The advice was given by an old actor who had performed some roles hundreds of times: but he let nothing become routine. For him, each performance had to be like the first. There had to be a freshness every time. The same must be true of the Bishop. He has to be a man who again and again discovers the extraordinary at the heart of the ordinary and who therefore can say, “It is the Lord!” He has to minister the freshness of Easter.
Beyond the threat of routine, there is also the threat of discouragement. More often than not, a Bishop has to deal with problems and complaints. More than most, Bishops see the mess of both the Church and the world. The clearest example of this at the moment is the crisis of sexual abuse and its mishandling in the Church which now looms over all, in a special way for Bishops. Dealing with it, at times almost drowning in it, can be deeply discouraging.
It’s not unlike the discouragement faced by the exiles returning from Babylon to a ruined Jerusalem. It was to them that the words of the prophet Isaiah were addressed in what we heard earlier: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up broken hearts, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to prisoners, to bring praise from despondency”. For the returning exiles, there was much to be despondent about: the task of rebuilding Jerusalem seemed not only daunting but impossible. People were feeling poor, broken-hearted, captive, imprisoned in a new way even though they’d been allowed to return home. Into such a situation, God sends the prophet to comfort those who mourn and to bring praise from despondency. The discouragement is real, but it’s not the end of the story. At the heart of all that is discouraging, the Bishop – like the prophet – is called to discover the hope that gives birth to praise. He is called – like the Beloved Disciple – to say “It is the Lord!”, so that others in turn may see and speak.
If a Bishop should fail to see the Lord, then routine will rule his life, bringing with it what Pope Benedict called “the grey pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness” (cited EG, 83). If a Bishop fails to see the Lord, then discouragement will surely take over, as he succumbs to what Pope Francis calls “a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses'” (EG, 85).
To see the Lord is to move beyond deadening routine to discover what Pope Francis calls “the original freshness of the Gospel”, that freshness which is found in the stories of the Risen Lord appearing to his disciples in the morning light. To see the Lord is to move beyond all discouragement to experience the joy of the Gospel, the joy that comes from nowhere, the joy that comes to those who have caught nothing all night but then fill their nets and have breakfast on the beach with the Risen Christ.
The truth of Easter is that there is nowhere that Jesus is not. Even in the darkest times and in the darkest corners of the human heart, he is there – as the presence and power turning darkness to light. The only question is whether we can see him. Once they arrive in Emmaus, the two disciples sit down with Jesus at table; their eyes are opened; and then he vanishes from their sight. This may seem strange; but once their eyes are opened to recognise him, the disciples don’t need Jesus sitting physically across the table. Now they see him everywhere; they drown in the Risen Lord.
He it is who breathed into the first disciples the Spirit which raised him from the dead and which raises them – and us – from death of a different kind, the death which comes when the last word is given to routine and discouragement. The prophet Isaiah says that “the Spirit of the Lord has been given to me”. That same Spirit is given today to Michael McCarthy – precisely so that as Bishop he may be able to see the extraordinary at the heart of the ordinary, be equipped “to bring good news to the poor, bind up broken hearts, proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to prisoners and bring praise from despondency”.
In his letter to the Corinthians which we have heard today, St Paul says that we are to be “a new creation”. He says that “the old creation is gone”, by which he means the world in which routine and discouragement have the last word. The same is true when he speaks of “the standards of the flesh” – what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”. If those standards apply in the ministry of a Bishop, then he will minister no newness, not the freshness of Easter but the soul-destroying staleness that makes Easter necessary. He will minister not life but death.
In the new creation born at Easter, we are – says St Paul – reconciled to God. That reconciliation means that we embrace love and allow ourselves to be embraced by love, the perfect love of Christ which, says the Apostle, “overwhelms us”. May the apostolic ministry of Michael McCarthy, tenth Bishop of Rockhampton, never fail in the freshness of “the new creation”, so that through him will flow the overwhelming love – the love which opens eyes to see and lips to proclaim to the world, “It is the Lord!” Amen.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge,
Archbishop of Brisbane
Delivered at St Joseph’s Cathedral, Rockhampton
May 29, 2014