Sunday, April 18, 2010

Post-Resurrection Experiences

Third Sunday of Easter – Year C (RCL)
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Sunday, April 18, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

In today’s Gospel reading we have John’s last reported encounter between the Risen Christ and his disciples, sometime after the encounter between Christ and Thomas, which we explored last week. Seven of the remaining eleven disciples are hanging out at the Sea of Tiberias, possibly for a little R&R. After all, they are overwhelmed by the events of the previous week or so – Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, their last Passover meal with Jesus, his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before Pontius Pilate, his flogging and humiliation, and then his crucifixion like a common criminal at Golgotha. And then, as if all that weren’t enough, three days later, Jesus was resurrected, and appeared several times to various of their number. This was almost more than a group of simple fisherman from Galilee could take. They need to take a break from all this disciple stuff. And what better way to do that than to return to some semblance of normalcy, something safe and comfortable, to go back to what they had done before this wild ride began three years before. So they return to the seaside and go fishing.

But alas, they aren’t going to get much of a break. For Jesus manages to track them down even here. What ensues is really three short stories that are woven together to create a larger tapestry. At first Jesus shows up but the disciples don’t recognize who he is – just like all the previous post-resurrection appearances. The disciples have been fishing all night but have caught nothing. So, Jesus offers some advice on fishing technique. And in so doing, he also provides a miracle resulting in the catching of a great number of fish – 153 to be exact. In this miracle the disciples recognize who he is. In the second scene, the disciples have finished bringing their great haul of fish ashore. And there is Jesus, waiting for them. And he’s even cooked breakfast for them, providing them with much needed and appreciated sustenance. And in the third scene following breakfast, we have the famous exchange between Jesus and Simon Peter in which Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him, and each time, with increasing frustration, Peter responds that of course he loves Jesus.

On the surface, this may seem just another encounter between the Risen Christ and his disciples, complete with miracle, meal, and mentoring. But what is presented is really much more than that. It is really an epilogue to the Gospel According to John. And like most epilogues, it serves to wrap up the entire story presented thus far. Or in this case, it doesn’t so much wrap up the story as it reveals that the story really does not end, but continues, and what we are to expect in its continuation. In this respect, the story is not so much about Christ’s encounter with the disciples as it is about our encounter with the Risen Lord. In this, the disciples are stand-ins for us. The disciples merely portray how the Risen Lord will, and does, work in the lives of those who carry on the story. And that would be us.

As I see it, the totality of today’s Gospel reading provides us with an overarching lesson about our relationship with our Risen Lord. And each of the three component stories provides us with a more specific characteristic of that relationship.

Probably the most significant lesson about our relationship with the Risen Christ is revealed in the way in which he enters into the Gospel story. Namely, the Risen Christ breaks into our everyday lives, meeting us wherever we’re at in any given moment, even though, like the first disciples, we may not recognize his presence. Just as Jesus came to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias where they were fishing, be it recreational or for purposes of earning a living, so too the Risen Christ breaks into our lives and is present to us not only in church on Sundays, not only in our times of prayer and private devotions, but even in our times of recreation, times with our families and friends, and even while we are at work. Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus promised his disciples and all who would be his followers that he would be with them always. That is part of what it means to be the Body of Christ – as members of that Body, with Christ as its head, we are always connected with him, he is always with us. Now, more often than not, we don’t necessarily realize it. We may not be consciously aware that Christ is with us. Not unlike in our Gospel reading when Jesus shows up at the Sea of Tiberias but the disciples do not initially recognize who he is. Of course, nowadays, Christ does not generally appear to us bodily, but in other forms. That makes it even more difficult to recognize him. Certainly he is there, dwelling within us in and through his Spirit. But he is also present to us in more external ways – most notably through other people. In his Rule, St. Benedict discusses how one of the keys to our spiritual lives is to be open to seeing Christ in those whom we encounter. But whether we recognize him or not, Christ is always in our lives, always present, always available.

Each of the three mini-stories comprising today’s Gospel reading provides a lesson that exemplifies the ways in which the Risen Christ is present to us and active in our lives.

In the first story Jesus shows up and learns that the disciples, despite having fished all night, have not caught any fish. He tells them “cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” And with that “advice” the disciples catch so many fish that they are not able to haul in the net. Now he doesn’t always provide miracles in our lives, but the Risen Lord does continue to guide us in our lives. This guidance is provided in more formal ways through Scripture and through the teachings of the church, through educational programs and worship experiences. And it is provided in more informal ways through our connections with each other; in the ways we counsel, support, and challenge each other; in the ways we help each other discern our callings, and in holding each other accountable for living the Gospel.

In the second story, the disciples finish their fishing adventure and come ashore, where they find that Jesus has been busy cooking breakfast for them. This demonstrates that the Risen Lord continues to bless and nourish us. While not always nourished in a physical senses, although sometimes food and drink given us can seem as if a blessing from God, most of our blessings and nourishment come through spiritual means – through the presence, comfort, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. One of the particular ways in which we continue to be blessed and fed directly by our Risen Lord is every time we gather around God’s table to make Eucharist. In this meal, the simple elements of bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ. In partaking of these elements, though providing only a mere taste with a token of physical nourishment, we are provided with spiritual food and the gifts and graces that nourish us for the continuing ministry that Christ has called us to.

And in the third story, Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him. This exchange is often seen as a parallel to Peter’s earlier threefold denial of Jesus, in which Jesus is rehabilitating Peter, testing his conviction, redeeming his previous unfaithfulness. This exchange is also sometimes seen as Jesus’ commissioning of Peter, and calling him to the ministry and the faithfulness that Jesus knows Peter is capable of. Regardless of Jesus’ specific intent in questioning Peter three times about his devotion, it is clear that even in light of the fact that just a week or two before Peter had denied his Lord and Master three times, Jesus is giving Peter another chance. Jesus knows where Peter’s true heart lies, where his true devotion lies, and is willing to overlook past indiscretions and allow Peter to grow into his true calling. So too, with us the Risen Lord does not focus on the past, on where we may have fallen short or royally messed up. Instead, he is able to see deep within us to what we are capable of, to see where our true devotion lies. And because he is willing to look beyond past mistakes, he gives us all second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. And as many chances as we need. All he asks is that we take responsibility for the ways in which we have fallen short, recognize how we have failed, and to sincerely work to turn ourselves around and try to get back on the right path.

As the Great Fifty Days of Easter progress, we continue to explore the ways that the Risen Christ manifested himself to his disciples, providing them with the final instruction they would need as they prepared to continue the ministry Jesus had begun, as they prepared to carry the Gospel out into the world. The words he spoke to the first century disciples, the lessons he attempted to impart, are also meant for us, the 21st century disciples who continue in our own day the ministry Jesus began. Even though he is no longer physically present, even though he no longer makes regular post-resurrection appearances to us, he is with us nonetheless – breaking into our everyday lives, guiding us, feeding and nourishing us, giving us all the chances we need to live into what he is asking us to do in his name. For the Easter story does not end with the cessation of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. The story continues right up to the present, and is being constantly played out as the Risen Lord makes his presence felt and known in the lives of each and every one of us. In that, we are all witnesses to post-resurrection experiences, if we just take a closer look.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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