a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year C]
John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
“After he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.”
And so begins one of the few accounts we have of Jesus after his resurrection. We don’t have a whole lot of these particular stories, which has often been a bit of a downer. Mark, with its original ending, doesn’t really have any stories of the risen Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus gives a very short message to his disciples, and then it ends. Luke and John both have a bit more with the resurrected Jesus, including this story today, but even their stories paint a picture of Jesus that is constantly appearing and reappearing to them out of nowhere, almost like most of the time he’s off doing something somewhere else on his own. You would think that if someone rose from the dead for the first time ever, we might get more stories of what that person was like and what he did. But, as it happens, Jesus was only around for 40 days after his resurrection, according to Luke, and so I guess we should be grateful for the half of dozen or so that we do have.
And based on this one that John includes, we come to learn that the stories we have are plenty. Like the fish that the disciples don’t expect to catch that just keep coming up out of the sea and into the boat, the messages about Jesus and who he is for us seem skimpy at first but end up becoming a load that will feed us from now until he returns. Like the meager meal that once ended up feeding five thousand by the lake, these few stories will miraculously provide more than enough for us as we continue as his disciples.
The first thing we learn about Jesus after the resurrection is, simply enough, that he eats. The other day there was a crane fly in our bathroom and our son wanted to catch it and keep it as a pet. So we managed to get it into a bug keeper and then we figured we’d better find something for it to eat. Melinda and I thought crane flies preyed on mosquitos, and I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to catch mosquitoes, but when we asked the authority in our house—Alexa—what crane flies ate we learned, to our surprise, that adult crane flies actually don’t eat anything. They emerge from their pupa form without mouth parts. They have enough energy stored up in their bodies to continue their life for a few days, lay eggs, and then die. So as it turned out we ended up finding one of the easiest pets to keep ever. No cost to keep a crane fly!
Jesus, however, is different, and his community is too. He emerges from the tomb hungry. In fact, about half of the stories that include the risen Jesus, he has a meal with his disciples. In this one that John tells us about, Jesus is on the shore of the lake and there is a campfire there. He apparently has already been preparing this meal because when the disciples get off the boat from fishing and walk ashore, there are already some fish and bread on the fire. Jesus asks them to bring more from what they’ve caught and he invites them to breakfast. And taking the bread from the fire, and then the fish, he shares it with his hungry disciples who are still trying to understand how to live into this new reality of a risen Jesus.
Eating together will be central to the life of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection. It seems so ordinary and un-mysterious—you know, sitting down for a bite to eat—but as it turns out gathering regularly for a meal will help Jesus’ friends understand how to make Jesus’ presence real in the world. I think this is an aspect to our faith that we can take for granted, because it’s easy to make faith into a head-trip. I think we can easily turn worship into little more than a seminar with music, if we’re not careful. We come so often to worship to be moved by the things we hear and sing and read that we can forget that Jesus’ risen life for us is about community and sharing. A meal gets us to do that, perhaps more than anything else.
In Jesus’ time, of course, sharing a table with someone else was one of the most intimate things you could do with them. Eating together put people on the same level and almost made them family. In a time of drive-thru service and Door Dash we probably don’t think a whole lot about the power of eating together. That said, studies done recently on international diplomacy have shown that summits and meetings between national leaders that include a meal are more successful in accomplishing their goals of peace and understanding than meetings that do not have the principal players gathered around common food.
Jesus knows this, so when the risen Jesus gathers his disciples for a simple breakfast that morning, he is not just starting the day right. It’s starting their new life right. He is showing his followers that taking time to share his meal of bread and wine will help keep them united to him and to each other.
The second thing we learn about life with the risen Lord is that it revolves around second chances. The first lesson this morning, the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as told in the book of Acts, may be the most dramatic example of that. It’s the story of how a man goes from a life of persecuting the church and happily watching Christians killed to founding and nurturing Christian churches throughout the known world. The man we know as Paul, the one who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament and helped train numerous disciples for Jesus, started as Saul, a man who had an intense hatred for Jesus. As cruel as Saul was, Jesus turned his life around toward good.
And the life of the risen Jesus is about giving people second chances even before Paul. That day by the lake as the disciples share a meal together Jesus approaches Peter and asks him three times if he loves him. Just as Peter had denied even knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ death, now Peter has three chances to profess his love for Jesus.
God is full of grace. Jesus rises from the dead and immediately wants his life of new beginnings to resurrect Peter’s faith. Jesus doesn’t rub Peter’s nose in what he’s done. Jesus doesn’t toss Peter to the curb and move on to the next disciple instead. Jesus invites Peter back into a relationship of love and trust. Since we’ve been embraced by this relationship too, we must watch and tend how it then creates new beginnings in our relationships. This is the power of God’s forgiveness—to wipe away past wrongs and move forward with new possibilities.
Church can so easily become a type of society or club, with all its committees and its business features, but we do well to remember that at our core we are a just a weekly meeting of D.A.: Deniers Anonymous. Peter’s denial did not cause him to lose his spot in Jesus’ disciples. Jesus immediately found a way to bring him back in. People show up for worship and other ministry activities each week in the shoes of Peter, wishing for a new start, a new crack at God’s grace. And that is good, because Christ’s risen life revolves around infinite second chances.
The third thing we learn from these post-resurrection stories, and particularly this one this morning, is that we receive tasks. Faith in Christ is not just going to be something we reflect on intended to make our lives better. We feed Jesus’ lambs. We tend his sheep. Jesus calls Peter to nurture the life of his flock and, through them, the lives of the sheep in the whole world around him.
When I look back on the past two years of ministry in our congregation, and especially 2020, the first year of the pandemic, I realize that this aspect of Jesus’ risen life was especially important to this congregation. It was probably true for many congregations. For obvious reasons, it was difficult for us to gather and share Jesus’ meal, since physical presence is required for that. And although virtual ministry allowed us to continue to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, living together as a reconciled second-chance people and sharing our stories was tricky too. But the congregation really felt called to feed and tend the needs of those around us. The serving ministries of this congregation never faltered, and, in fact, in 2020, they set records in many areas. In a time of stress and disorientation, you heard Jesus calling us to continue feeding his lambs through support of our food pantries and to tend the Christ’s flock at St. Joseph’s Villa and Encircle through special drives at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year’s Lenten Wednesday offerings raised over $6000, which will be split between our denomination’s assistance to people fleeing disaster and war and Safe Harbor, a local program that provides assistance to people experiencing domestic violence and human trafficking.
One day this week I happened across the members of our Micah Ministry meeting in our parlor. Micah Ministry is our outreach to Southampton Elementary School, a Richmond City Public School just south of the river. The team was planning activities for Teacher Appreciation Week there, tending to the needs of educating sheep who have certainly had a challenging last two years.
Sharing Jesus’ meal periodically in a life of endless new beginnings as we work to tend to the needs of the world: all of this crammed so lovingly into just a handful of experiences after Jesus rises from the grave. Jesus knows it will be enough for us to go on, keep us busy for a long time. It’s as if he knows—it’s as if he knows he will be somehow present with us as we continue, in our forgiveness of one another, in his Words, through the Holy Spirit.
The thing is: we never know exactly where this path will wind, where it will take us— the joys, the pains, the tragedies, the triumphs…the weeping that spends the night and the joy that comes in the morning. That can be the scary part. But Jesus knows we can do it. He believes deep down we can walk this journey of faith. He says to us, as he says to Peter: Follow me.
And so we do. With God’s help and guidance, we follow, knowing that through all the twists and turns the path eventually leads to the place where “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them—even the crane flies without their mouth parts—will be singing to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb. To him be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.