April 3 Sermon

“What’s After Easter”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Second Sunday of Easter – 3 April 2016
Based on John 21:1-19

In this gospel reading the resurrected Christ appears to a small group of disciples who have gone fishing. It has been difficult for the disciples to sustain the Easter experience after the resurrection appearances, so they return to fishing. Christ prepares breakfast for them on the beach. Then Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, is given three chances to confirm his love for Christ. We are being asked the penetrating question, “Do you love me?”

Lent was extremely significant in my spiritual development as a teenager. My congregation included youth in bible studies, mid-week worship services, reading special devotionals together. On my own (and without telling anybody) I fasted from communion on Maundy Thursday until I received communion on Easter morning. What was I thinking?!

I delighted in Easter morning glory: an ecumenical sunrise service, singing in the youth choir – usually at more than one service – and attending a third service just because there was a different preacher. And of course, Easter morning breakfast where I broke my fast, followed by Easter brunch, and most likely Easter lunch at someone’s home.

The week that followed was filled with Easter meal leftovers, but also disappointment. The days seemed lackluster, dull, empty, without focus or purpose. After the Lenten studies, no one helped me with an after-Easter study. The Lenten bible study concluded, and there was no bible study after Easter. The special Lenten devotional book did not lead to another devotional book. How do we retain the glorious luster of Easter morning? After the journey of Holy Week, after the special bulletins declare “Alleluia!”, after the choirs have sung their anthems, after the Lenten devotionals, after the children’s Easter egg hunt, how do we sustain our excitement for Christian discipleship?

The disciples seem to have had a similar problem. They saw Jesus arrested and crucified. They may have seen Jesus die. They have been to the tomb, and seen that Jesus’ body is not there. They have been in the upper room, locked up in fear – and the resurrected Christ has shown in up in that room twice: once when Thomas was not there and then again when Thomas was there. They are still hanging out together even though they don’t know what to do without Jesus leading them. And then Peter, without any preamble, simply declares, “I’m going fishin’.”

I think there were a couple things going on here. First, Peter needs to do something. Peter is a man of action – which has sometimes gotten him into trouble. But Peter is the kind of person who has trouble sitting still. Now, after the hectic events in Jerusalem, after the unexplainable events of the resurrection, Peter is going back to work with his hands.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “When things don’t make much sense, go work with your hands.” There is a lot to be said for working with our hands while we’re trying to make sense of our lives. My friend washed a lot of dishes when things didn’t make sense to her. Other friends knit, cross stitch, work with wood, put together jigsaw puzzles, do crossword puzzles. Peter is not the kind of guy to do these things, so he goes fishing. He goes back to what he knows.

And that’s the second thing: when things don’t make sense, we tend to go back to the activities that do make sense for us. Peter goes back to fishing, the life he knew before Jesus called him as a disciple. Some of the other disciples go with Peter, probably because they did not know what else to do either.

Here’s the thing, though: they catch nothing. It is as if all the skills they had years ago as commercial fishermen have departed them. The disciples have changed, and they cannot return to the old ways. Even though the old ways are comfortable, familiar, they are not an option for the disciples after the resurrection.

Jesus calls from the beach to the fishermen in the boat. Anyone who has ever been fishing knows this script: “Caught anything?” “Nope.” “Have you tried over there?” For some reason, the disciples decide to try that location. Maybe they have learned something in their time of following Jesus. Remember the story when Peter is called? Jesus shows up when Peter and the sons of Zebedee are mending their nets. Jesus borrows a boat to use as his podium while teaching the crowd that has followed him. He then tells the fishermen to cast their nets in a certain spot. The fishermen him and say: “These aren’t the right nets for this time of day or that kind of water.” And yet their catch is so huge it almost breaks the nets. That was how they first met Jesus.

Now the resurrected Christ replays that scene: “Try dropping your nets over there.” This time they do not hesitate, and they again have a record catch. Now they recognize their teacher and friend. When they get to shore, Jesus is cooking them breakfast.

I heard a story of a college religion professor teaching a class on the gospels.[1] One of the ongoing class assignments was to create a physical description of Jesus as he is portrayed in each of the gospels. In his class was a young man who played football – a lineman, a huge athlete. This student said hardly anything in the course until they got to the assignment to describe what Jesus looks like in the gospel of Luke. Then this football player’s large hand shot into the air. “This Jesus is huge – something around 260-280 pounds.” The college professor reflects that this was not a picture of Jesus from Sunday School, but he thought he had it figured out: this student was seeing Jesus like himself, a large athletic man. But the professor pressed on: “Why do you picture Jesus like that from Luke’s stories?”

“Well,” the student answered, “Jesus had to be a big guy, because in all the stories in Luke Jesus is always eating – party after party, meal after meal. Even at Emmaus, his followers don’t recognize him until he has food in his hand, they didn’t recognize him until he had the broken bread in his hands. It’s like Jesus doesn’t look like himself without a chicken leg in his hand.”

Here is Jesus making another meal. “Simon, do you love me.” ‘Yes I do.” “Then feed my sheep.’

You’ve seen me sit at the table with so many others, sharing meals with them; now go and feed others. Eating with others is a radical act of faithfulness. Invite them to the table, make sure they have enough to eat. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been to the temple, if they have a lot of money or status in the community: feed them. We are called to live out justice by starting with the hospitality of sharing the table.

We are called to justice by meeting people’s most basic of needs. We are called to recognize them as people.

“Simon, do you love me.” “Yes I do.” “Then care for my sheep.”

Go and become like a shepherd. Go not only to lead but to care for. Tending sheep begins with leading them from the pen to the field so they may eat, but tending sheep requires a lot more than walking with the sheep. It is making sure they are protected from predators. It is making sure that briars and sticks are removed from their wooly coats. It is making sure they do not hurt themselves as they run around in the fields.

Christ is not calling us just to be nice to others: we are being called to care and compassion even if it seems that others are bringing the problems onto themselves – because sometimes the problems are much bigger than anyone realizes.

“Simon, do you love me.” “Yes I do.” “Then feed my sheep.”

Christ, why do you keep asking if I love you?! Haven’t I proven that? I followed you around for three years, supporting your teaching, your healing, your miracles. I put up with all the strange folks you had dinner with – the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the other women, the children, the Samaritans and Canaanites, the blind and lame and lepers. It took me a long while, but I got to like them – Ok I got to love them. Why do you keep asking me if I love you?

Peter, I know you love me. Remember you denied me three times. I’m asking you now, three times, do you love me. I am forgiving you three times. Sometimes we teachers repeat ourselves so that we know the lesson was received. Remember, things are different know than the way the used to be. Feed my sheep.

We’ve been to the tomb and we’ve met the resurrected Christ. We cannot return to all the ways that we used to do it – and yet some of our old ways are sources not only for comfort but sources for God’s revelation. How will we follow? What works of justice is God calling us to do today? What acts of compassion is God calling us to do today? After Easter, what are we called to do?

[1] Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Companion, Year C (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006), 140-141.

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