Sunday, April 10, 2016

Relationship with the Risen Christ

Third Sunday of Easter – Year C
Acts 9.1-6 (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19
Sunday, April 10, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

I want you to think about your relationship with Jesus. When did he come into your life? How did he come into your life? How did he change your life?

Some people can name the exact date, time, and place when they first encountered Jesus or when they felt that he had changed their life in some substantial way. This is generally due to having a significant conversion experience resulting in them choosing to follow him in an intentional way. In some Christian movements, this is referred to as being “born again,” indicating a definite demarcation between an old way of life before Jesus, and a new life of faith in Christ. For some, this is a dramatic change.

For others, development of their relationship with Christ is far is more subtle. Sometimes it’s as if Jesus just slipped into their lives while they weren’t looking. Or maybe he was just always present, particularly for those who grew up in Christian families, where church and matters of faith were just part of normal life. There is no real defining moment separating life before knowing Christ and life in relationship with him. And there may not be a dramatic change in their lives as a result, since they have been slowly formed in the teachings of new life in Christ.

I fall into the latter category. My parents were devout Christians. Church was always a part of my life growing up. I was taught from an early age about God and Jesus. I was taught that we are God’s children and that we have a relationship with Jesus Christ. For me, there was no defining moment beginning my life of faith. I can certainly recall significant moments in my faith journey – moments when I had meaningful encounters with God or with Christ. These did not mark the beginning of my life of faith, but rather served to help me clarify and develop a deeper understanding of my relationship with God and of the part I play in that relationship.

Today’s scripture readings, particularly those from Acts and from John’s Gospel deal with the varying ways in which relationship develops between us and our Lord. Now, there is a caveat. What the scriptures for today are talking about is relationship with the Risen Christ. Things get a little dicey when dealing with the disciple’s relationship with Jesus. After all, they had followed him for three years. For each of them, there was a defining moment in their relationship when Jesus invited them into ministry with him. But the nature of those relationships necessarily changed after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those relationships became ones not based on physical relationship, but based on faith. Not unlike how we enter into our own relationships with Christ.

Our readings from Acts and from John are both about the beginning of relationship with the Risen Christ. Both entail those who would become significant figures in carrying on Christ’s message and ministry in the world, in the development of what would become the Church. But there is a significant difference in how those relationships began.

Our reading from Acts is the story of the conversion of Saul – of the man we now know as the Apostle Paul. This is probably the most dramatic, most radical conversion experience ever. Saul, a devout and zealous Jew is going through the land rooting out any and all followers of Jesus. He has made it his personal mission to persecute, and to prosecute on charges of heresy, any who so much as speaks the name of Jesus. On his way to Damascus, the Risen Christ appears to Saul. In the process, Saul is struck blind for three days. During this time of physical blindness, he realizes his spiritual blindness. His blindness to the truth of who Jesus truly is. After three days, Ananias lays hands on Saul, invokes the name of Jesus, and his sight is restored. He is immediately baptized and then begins his own ministry in the name of Jesus. First proclaiming to his fellow Jews in the synagogues that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and then proclaiming the Gospel to Gentiles. As a result of his conversion, Paul undergoes a radical change in his life and his ministry.

Then there’s the Gospel from John. It is sometime after the resurrection, although we don’t know how long. But the disciples have essentially moved on. They have returned to Galilee, to their previous lives and to their previous occupations. The three years with Jesus was interesting, to say the least. It was certainly transformative. But Jesus is gone and now they feel the need to get on with their lives. Now, the fact that they have so quickly gone back to what they had previously known indicates that they did not really get the part about Jesus wanting them to continue his work after he was gone.

But Jesus will take care of that. He appears to a group of seven disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, where they have been fishing all night. Unlike his appearance to Paul, Jesus appears to the disciples in a very gentle, almost casual, way. At first, they don’t recognize him, despite this being the third time he has appeared to them since his resurrection. It is only when they catch a boatload of fish based on his suggestion that they are able to recognize who he is. And then Jesus makes breakfast for them. A casual, heartwarming act.

While there are significant differences between Paul’s conversion and the disciples’ encounter with the Risen Christ, there is one very important commonality. Neither Paul nor the disciples sought out Jesus. Rather, he sought them out. In fact, all the recorded encounters with the Risen Christ are initiated directly by Jesus himself. From the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, it is Jesus who initiates contact, who initiates relationship. While Mary and others may have set out to find Jesus, they do not actually find him. It is always Jesus who finds them. And truth be told, this is how the Risen Christ operates even to this day. We may attempt to find Jesus, but we don’t find him. We will never find him. But when we are ready, he will find us. He does find us. That is the mystery and the power of our relationship with Christ. That he intentionally seeks us out, because he wants to be in relationship with us. Because he sees something in us. Because we have something that he can use in order to continue his ministry in the world. Make no mistake about it. You are in relationship with Jesus, you are here, because Jesus wants to be with you. You may want that too, but he is the one who makes it possible.

Today’s Gospel story provides us with some insights into just how the Risen Christ comes to us and works in our lives. First off, he approaches in a very gentle and loving manner. In the Gospel, he greets the disciples calling them children – not a demeaning form of address, but one that is tender and intimate in nature. He approaches them, and us, with great love. The activities that occur during the subsequent encounter with Jesus give a sense of when and where the Risen One chooses to engage us. The disciples are busy fishing, engaged in their work. And following that, he spends time with them in a simple meal. This tells us that Jesus chooses to come to us and engage us not necessarily in dramatic events as he did with Paul, but in the ordinary, everyday events of our lives. In our work. In a meal. In fellowship with others. And when he engages us, he offers us the best he has to offer. We are told in the Gospel that the disciples hauled in 153 fish. There is nothing significant about the number, other than that it was a lot. When he comes offering his love, offering his blessings, it is always offered in abundance.

There is also what I consider to be a comic scene, which I think also tells us something. When Jesus performs the miracle resulting in the huge catch, one of the disciples recognizes who he is and says “It is the Lord!” Upon hearing this, Peter kind of freaks out. We are told that he was naked. Nothing unusual. It was not uncommon for fishermen to work naked, or with only a loincloth. Nothing to be embarrassed about. But Peter, presumably out of embarrassment, gets dressed nonetheless. And then, in his excitement to go to Jesus, he jumps into the water fully clothed. Seems a little silly, really. I’m sure Peter looked quite the fool in the eyes of those watching. But that didn’t matter. Because Jesus comes to us even in the midst of our foibles, our idiosyncrasies, even our foolishness. He comes to us in our very humanness.

But even more important than how he comes to us – with great and gentle love, offering his abundance, in the midst of the ordinary events of our lives, even in the midst of the foolish moments of our lives – is what happens when he comes to us. When he asks us to follow him.

After breakfast, Jesus gets serious with Peter. Three times, Jesus asks him, “Peter, do you love me?” Each time Peter responds “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Peter us undoubtedly a little taken aback that Jesus would even have to ask. And by the third time, he is obviously feeling hurt that Jesus feels a need to press the issue. But then again, remember what happened not too long before, on Good Friday. When Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Three times. Just as now Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. But Jesus is asking more than whether Peter loves him. He is asking Peter if he still believes in the mission and ministry they had shared for the last three years. He is asking him if he is willing to devote his entire life to Jesus and to carrying on his ministry in the world, even to the point of his own death.

In the threefold questioning by Jesus, asking Peter to affirm his love for Jesus, there is a reversal of the threefold denials by Peter on Good Friday. This reversal is evidenced by the threefold command that Jesus issues – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. This is a threefold command that Peter is to take on the role of shepherd of the flock, to become leader of those who follow Jesus. That he is to nourish and nurture the disciples, and the new church that would begin growing in response to the disciples’ witness. Jesus is placing his upmost trust in Peter. And in the threefold questioning, the threefold commanding, he wants to be sure that Peter understands the seriousness of the task being given him; that Peter is up to the job. In Jesus’ questioning and commanding, in Peter’s affirmative responses, Peter’s entire life and ministry is redefined. This is what happens when Jesus enters into our lives. Our relationship with him redefines who we are. He redefines our entire lives.

I return to my opening questions. I invite you during this next week to spend some time thinking about your relationship with Jesus. Really thinking about it, praying about it. The questions of when and how he came into your life – in a dramatic conversion experience, or in a gentle, quiet manner – are moot. He’s in your life now. Now that he has come into your life, he is asking you “do you love me?” Of course we answer in the affirmative. But what does he say in response? What is the unique message he has for you? What is he commanding you to do? That is the real question. And how do you respond when he then says, “Follow me”?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was an excellent piece. Very well done, Kevin!