Sunday, April 14, 2013
"Jesus Revealed Himself Again..."
27 years ago, this week, I was in the process of being considered for the position of Rector at St. John’s in Chico, and I was called there a month later. During that same week I attended an ecumenical clergy day at the Newman Center in Sacramento, on the topic of mixed marriages. The keynote speaker, a Catholic monsignor, I believe, from the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, failed to show up, so an ad-lib panel, including The Rev. Ann Hallisey, who later became the wife of our current Bishop Beisner, was hastily convened. It was similar to those many occasions, which most of us have probably experienced, where “man proposes and God disposes”. Unseen changes occur which set us on edge, unnerving and frustrating us and our plans. In the end, such experiences only go to prove who’s really in charge. As writer Anne Lamott would put it: “God is such a show-off sometimes!” Such is the reminder given us in today’s Gospel passage (John 21:1-9).
The first thing to be said about this passage is that it’s an add-on to John’s Gospel. Last week’s reading, from Chapter 20, ended with the comment: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book...” By way of introduction, and using Fr. Raymond Brown’s translation, St. John begins today’s passage by saying: “Later on Jesus [again] revealed himself to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and this is how it took place.” Fr. Brown sees this as as “an added account of a post-resurrectional appearance of Jesus... used to show how Jesus provided for the needs of the Church.”
It’s kind of interesting, then, to note who was gathered together on the beach: Peter, of course, who’d been to Jesus’ tomb and had seen him with the others once before this; Thomas, the doubting Twin who, according to Jesus, had finally “believed because you have seen me”, a week after the Resurrection; Nathanael, presumably the one who, in John’s first chapter, had been blown away when Jesus, at their first meeting engineered by Philip, called Nathanael a “genuine” and “guileless Israelite”, having seen him under a fig tree even before Philip had invited him; the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, a.k.a. “The Sons of Thunder”, although John, the “Beloved Disciple”, seems to have been closer to Jesus; and finally “two other [unidentified] disciples”, possibly Andrew and Philip.
Peter announces to the others, “I’m going fishing.” Fr. Brown notes that Peter’s statement expresses more than just momentary intention. He really means that he plans to go back to his previous life as a fisherman for good. This is corroborated by an ancient non-canonical document called The Gospel of Peter, dating from the second half of the 2nd century, quoted by a number of early Church Fathers, and first discovered in Egypt in 1886, wherein Peter says: “And I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, we took our fishing nets and went off to sea...” It’s rather astounding, given all that Jesus and he have gone through over the past three years, given the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, and given that he and the others had witnessed the visible changes which Jesus had undergone because of it! Back to business-as-usual. The others say, “We’ll come along with you”, and off they go in the boat!
At this point, it’s important for you and me to go back to the opening line of the passage: “Jesus revealed himself, showed himself, again to the disciples...” This story comes to grips, for the disciples and for us, with the reality of how one lives life in the days after the Easter event, in the midst of day-to-day routine. For the Apostles to go fishing after all the breathtaking events of the preceding weeks, in fact years, is quite an anti-climax. The vision seems to have quickly grown dim, their sense of mission to have become unfocussed. Boredom has set in and they’re antsy to get back to their old routine of life.
John the Evangelist observes: “However, that night they caught nothing.” The impression he leaves is of a group of people for whom each day is again ordinary, unproductive, without mountaintop experiences, giving no evidence that anything has really changed. It’s like us trying again and again, in fact every Sunday, to recapture the freshness and joy of what the Resurrection might means for us! Sometimes it’s there; but many times we leave the Sunday celebration, returning to the “same old, same old”.
In the story it’s at daybreak that the Risen Jesus reappears, standing alone on the shore, unrecognizable to the disciples out on the Sea of Tiberias. The Greek word, paidia, which John has Jesus use for calling out to them, is delightful and touching: “my boys” or “lads”. “Lads, you haven’t caught anything to eat, have you?” Much like us parents addressing our children! “‘No’, they answered.” In their self-reliance and their forgetfulness of all that Jesus had done with and for them in the recent past, they’d come up short. “‘Cast your net to the right of the boat’, he directed, ‘and you’ll find something.’” They cast, and the haul is so large that they have to begin dragging it in. They come to know in this moment that the Risen Jesus must be back, working on their behalf. “It is the Lord!”, Peter recognizes, and with his predictable impetuosity, he “tucked in his outer garment (for he was otherwise naked) and jumped into the sea...” Just as the disciples fished, but without success, there’s no way that you and I can rely simply on our own resources and strength, for a day or two, or even every week. Without the Risen Jesus we know only poverty and powerlessness. The Risen Christ is now the focus of John’s Gospel story. John even gives us visual images of forward movement towards Jesus: Peter, leaping into the water, eager to get to the shore; the others, close behind, towing in the catch. The message is unmistakable: everything depends on the Lord.
Peter becomes a sort of model for how a believer might act because of the grace of the Risen Christ. The story pictures him doing some things completely uncharacteristic of a fisherman: he lets go of the net; he immediately jumps into the water, abandoning the catch, in order to be closer to Jesus. Symbolically, that’s the kind of action that seems called for over and over again, a radical choosing on our part, i.e., a choosing that goes to our very roots. It’s what Jesus hinted at when he talked about leaving father and mother and family, about taking up one’s cross and following daily. That terrifies us, because we so depend on our own selves, we so need to be in control of what happens in our lives. To follow Jesus is to let go, like Peter, to let the Risen One be in charge.
The disciples are further astounded when they finally land on shore. The Risen Jesus, ever the perfect host, has a charcoal fire ready, with some fish already frying and bread toasting. But he refuses to shoulder the whole responsibility himself, without involving the disciples and their gifts. “Bring some of the fish”, he says, “the fish which you caught just now.” Peter hops to, and hauls the sturdy net ashore with 153 fish. “Come and have breakfast”, Jesus bids them. In contrast to John’s earlier observation that “none of the disciples knew that it was Jesus” on the shore, he now says that no one dared ask Jesus who he was, “for they knew it was the Lord.” Just as he’d done so many times in his ministry, Jesus provides for them. He comes to them, takes bread and gives it to them, then does the same with the fish. Jesus, though risen, is still the Servant of all, and holds up for the disciples and for us an example of how we’re to deal with others, especially those who are hungry and thirsty, inwardly and outwardly, those who are in any need, including ourselves.
Taking the example of servanthood even a step further, Jesus later asks Peter, not just once, but three times, if Peter loves him. Peter responds twice: “Yes...you know that I love you.” After the third question, Peter is “hurt”. We can imagine that he might still be carrying around a lot of residual embarrassment and pain because of his threefold denial of Jesus during the Passion. But undoubtedly this is also mixed with the passionate love of one who has truly repented of his cowardly betrayal and has come to a new depth of understanding. “Lord, you know everything; you know well that I love you.” Three times Jesus also confirms that Peter is, first, to “feed” the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, teaching them, preaching the Good News to anyone who will listen. Weak though he is, Peter and Jesus share a close friendship. Taking his example from the Noble, the Good Shepherd, Peter now, along with his cohorts, is to see that people are inwardly fed and nourished. Secondly, Peter and the other Apostles are to “tend” the “sheep”, to lead, guide, guard and see to whatever needs people have.
In the future Peter will hopefully remember this time spent with Jesus on the seashore. He’ll recall again and again, and remind others, that they can only be true “fishers for people” by following the example of the Risen One, through his grace and that of the Spirit sent upon them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this: “Could not Jesus have initiated the public into some new religious experience, and leave them as they were before? He would have done so, had He not been the incarnate Son of God. But since He is the Christ, He must make it clear from the start that His word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and this is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God.”