I was finally able to figure out how to cut and paste from Word into the blog (I used to be able to do it, and then something changed to prevent me from doing so. Tip: if you're a Mac user and want to cut and paste from Word, paste into the "Edit HTML" option on your dashboard and that should solve the problem). So here's my sermon from this past Sunday. Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Easter 3.
“God of Glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell; fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way of life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.” Common Worship collect for Easter Day
Things were definitely different. This is the feeling I get when reading today’s Gospel lesson from John. Things were different—but how different was still to be figured out. In the resurrection appearances from Jesus that John describes, we get curious details about time that I hadn’t really noticed before these past few weeks. Jesus’s first appearance is to Mary Magdalene “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark” (20:1). He then appears to the disciples “when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week” (20:19). As we heard last week, Thomas isn’t around and when he comes back to the group and they tell him Jesus has shown up, he won’t believe them. Then we are told “A week later the disciples were again in the house” (20:26). And finally, today we begin the Gospel reading with “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias” (also known as the Sea of Galilee) (21:1).
So we have a full day between when Mary sees Jesus and when the disciples see him, a full week after that before Thomas sees Jesus (a week in which we assume the disciples were still in Jerusalem), and then “after these things,” an unknown amount of time when the disciples returned to Galilee. If you look at a map of the area, you would see that Bethsaida (where Peter, Andrew, and Philip were from) is not close to Jerusalem—in the geography of John’s Gospel, Jerusalem is about as far south as Jesus goes, while Bethsaida is about as far north. We’re encompassing the whole area Jesus travels in this Gospel by going from Jerusalem to Galilee. If we go back to the beginning of John’s Gospel, we find that the disciples were from areas around the Sea of Galilee (1:44). This means that at some point they decided it was time to return home.
I’m fascinated by these gaps in time—the gospel writer felt it was important to record them, yet we have no idea what goes on during these breaks. When Jesus was around, I imagine they were spending time with their teacher, learning and praying and talking and doing a lot of walking. But after Jesus’s horrific death and wondrous resurrection, the conversation must have changed. However, Jesus wasn’t around for these gaps in time—the details in the story come when Jesus is interacting with his disciples, and then he disappears again and we get the time gaps.
Here’s the question I’ve been pondering: what made the disciples decide it was time to go back to Galilee? They knew Jesus was resurrected—Thomas even believed by this point in time. We don’t have a record of Jesus telling the disciples to go home. At the end of last week’s reading, we get a short message from Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” and then the gospel writer tells us “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (20:29-30). So maybe he did tell them to go home, but my guess is that this was a decision the disciples came to on their own.
Most likely they weren’t really sure what else to do so they went home—but they continued to stay together as a group. Peter decides to go fishing—a fairly normal activity, it seems, even though John’s gospel never actually calls the disciples fishermen. They know enough, though, to go fishing at night, which I found out was actually the best time to fish on that part of the Sea of Galilee. They don’t have much luck, until Jesus shows up. New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out that the disciples never catch a fish in the Gospels without Jesus’s help. Apparently some things have stayed the same.
So here are these disciples who know that Jesus is resurrected, yet they don’t know what to do with that information so they go back home and take up a normal activity. I’m not sure if they knew Jesus was even going to show up again, as Peter is extremely excited when they figure out it’s Jesus on the shore, and he swims 100 yards in to see him. And, as our collect for today says, Jesus makes himself known in the breaking of bread—in sharing a meal, which is something the disciples did quite often with their teacher.
All of this seems to be building up to something, but what? I’d never thought about it before, but there’s a real sense of being lost on the part of the disciples. They have no idea how life as we know it has changed now that Jesus is resurrected. Everything looks the same, tastes the same, sounds the same, and maybe even feels the same. But the fundamental underpinning of life—namely, death—had been completely overturned. Jesus defeated death. Death does not have the ultimate hold on our lives anymore. But what does this even mean?
We begin to get a glimpse of what it might mean for us in Jesus’s conversation with Peter. This is the only one-on-one conversation we get between these two in John after Peter’s denial of Christ. Jesus approaches Peter and calls him “Simon, son of John,” the exact same title he used when meeting Peter for the first time. Raymond Brown says this return to a formal address signals a possible challenge to the friendship between Jesus and Peter. And then Jesus goes a step further—he says Peter, do you love me? I can only imagine the incredible pain, sadness, and longing that took over this apostle as the one he denied looks him in the face and says, “do you love me?” This is the point of Peter’s deepest shame. His past actions would make the answer seem that it was no. He claimed he would lay down his life for Jesus and would follow him, and when the moment to do so came, he turned away and denied him (13:36-38). And now Jesus has to bring it back up again—there’s no “forgive and forget” here. To make things even worse Jesus asks the question three times, not only mirroring the three denials of Peter but also frustrating Peter as he tries to make Jesus know that he does indeed love him.
This conversation can show us how the resurrection changes everything in our lives. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes in his book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, about how our normal interactions are based on the relationship of oppressor and oppressed. For all of us, we are a complex mix of people who oppress others and people who are oppressed by others and ourselves. This model of persecutor/victim or oppressor/oppressed is with us from the very beginning—before we even have a chance to understand it fully. There has only been one pure victim in history, one person who could make the choice to oppress and did not, one victim who fully understood the system—one who was not an oppressor but was only oppressed. That person is Jesus. In the conversation with Peter, we see the pure victim facing one of his closest friends, and one who oppressed him through denial. Peter is ashamed, and understandably so. I’m ashamed of myself when I hurt my friends and family—the thought of having to face that shame with Christ is almost agonizing. The reason for this is that I’m stuck in that idea of oppressor/oppressed. I’m functioning in an out-dated model, because the resurrection allows us to transcend the victim/persecutor relationship! It has been completely transformed. This does not mean that we “forgive and forget.” Rather, Williams writes that the transformation of our relationships is built upon our histories—even those that involve oppression, shame, and guilt (12). The real beauty of this is that our pasts and presents are not final. They are not the last word. The resurrection-JESUS-is the last Word!
Let’s think about this for a moment. Peter is the oppressor, and in today’s Gospel we see him speaking with Jesus one-on-one after his Resurrection. He faces his victim head on as Jesus ask,s “do you love me?” Peter is upset; Jesus has brought up the lowest thing he’s ever done, the most violent oppression he’s likely ever committed, and Peter has to answer. He doesn’t know how the resurrection has changed everything yet, and is stuck in the model of victim/persecutor, and all that comes with those relationships. Will Jesus be angry? Get even? Judge him? Berate him? But the resurrection transcends all of that—Jesus builds from Peter’s past and opens a place for the Gospel to take hold. What I find even more marvelous about this is that it’s not a one and done thing—it’s a process. “Feed.” “Tend.” “Follow.” These are verbs requiring continuous action.
The resurrection is for us a transformative process as it was for Peter, and as we heard today it would be for Paul as well. Jesus’s defeat of death in the resurrection changed everything about human existence—we are no longer tied to relationships based on oppression and a desperate struggle for life. Rather, we can transcend that and recognize the face of the risen Christ in one another and treat each other as such. We don’t have to fight against death anymore-Jesus already did that and won. We are called, instead, to live out a resurrectional reality in which we uphold Christ in one another, and overcome the bonds of this world that seek to drag us down, instead recognizing our bonds as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is part of the reason we renew our baptismal vows at the Great Vigil of Easter—to remind us that in the resurrection of Jesus “we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” and what that commitment means. That mark that is put on our foreheads in baptism is something that no one can take away—even those with whom we disagree deeply. The mark of baptism overcomes our human fickleness, anxieties, and jealousies, and instead is a mark of the resurrection. We are sealed as people of the resurrection. The challenge for us now is to live that way. For Peter and Paul, their resurrectional realities would take them throughout the Mediterranean world, proclaiming the Good News. Where will it take us?