I took a new book on preaching out for a test drive on the fifth Sunday of Lent, when we read the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus as part of the third scrutiny of our catechumens. The book, Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching by Paul Wilson, suggests that both preparation and content be organized around four “pages,” each addressing a different theological and creative component of the homily.
· Page one presents the trouble or conflict that takes place in the biblical text itself.
· Page two looks at similar conflict—that is to say, sin or brokenness—in our own time, in our world.
· Page three returns to the Bible to identify where God is at work in or behind the text—in other words, to discover the good news.
· And page four points to God at work right now, particularly in relation to the situations described in page two, presenting the good news in our world.
This four-fold approach worked like a charm for my homily about the raising of Lazarus, so I thought I’d try it again when preaching to the candidates for the permanent diaconate at their monthly formation weekend.
This morning’s text doesn’t seem nearly as packed with trouble as the Lazarus story, which includes a serious illness, a distress call from Martha and Mary, physical danger to Jesus and the tragedy of a death in the family.
In today’s Gospel, the biggest problem seems to be the fishermen’s bad luck.
But is that really true? Is the lack of a catch really the “trouble” here? If that were true, the homily wouldn’t need to be four pages long. The record-breaking catch offers a nice happy ending and there’d not be much left to say.
In fact, this Sunday’s Gospel presents more than enough trouble to fill page one of any homily. If we focus our attention on Peter, we get a ringside seat at one of the most intense and difficult conversations anywhere in the Bible.
For Peter’s sake, I almost wish his dialogue with Jesus had stayed between the two of them. Peter, still soaked, has just had breakfast served by the man he denied and abandoned. His emotions have run the gamut from aggressive defense in the Garden of Olives to cowardly lies in the courtyard to jumping overboard with enthusiasm at the sight of Jesus. He’s elated, ashamed, and exhausted all at the same time.
And this is the moment that Jesus chooses to reconcile Peter to himself. Three times Peter denied Jesus, so three times he will get the chance to acknowledge him. Scripture scholars do interesting things with the different Greek verbs translated here as “love.” But I don’t find that to be central this morning, since I think Peter was probably too emotional to register the finer points of what Jesus was saying.
The meeting hurt Peter. It had to. So there you have page one: the pain of Peter’s failure, the pain of an honest and intense encounter with the God-man he had failed.
And so we turn, metaphorically speaking, to page two. Where do you find that kind of trouble in your world?
I suspect you find it right where I find it, and right where Peter found it—because his denial is not all that different from mine and yours. We don’t get asked point-blank “aren’t you one of His disciples?” but we answer no to the question often enough. Each time we go along with the crowd—even inside the Church—we reply “I do not know the man.” Each time we surrender to sin, we might as well hear a cock crowing in the distance.
And since Jesus is no less risen and present in our lives than in Peter’s, we too face the awkwardness of meeting him. We too feel soggy and mixed-up when the Lord starts the difficult but necessary conversation we need to have with him.
Writing page three of this homily is easy. The good news jumps off the page. Yes, this meeting hurt like hell! At least it hurt like purgatory. [I can say things like this outside of a parish setting—I told the deacons-to-be not to try than themselves!] But when it was over, Peter’s sin and folly were expunged, his mission was clear, and he knew himself once again to be a follower called by Jesus.
Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus is not cheap. Jesus doesn’t wave his hand and tell Peter “don’t worry about it.” He gives Peter the chance to be reconciled by love. Love—the ultimate penance and the sure path to redemption. This meeting involves the opposite of what the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”
And so it is for us. Page four tells the good news we can all relate from experience: the good news of the tender mercy of God, the God of second- and seventh-chances, the God who meets each of us where we are emotionally and physically, and asks us the only question that really matters “Do you love me?”
When he’s satisfied with our answer, he puts us to work. And that is very good news indeed.