“Christ is Risen Indeed! So What?” Acts 9:1-20 Jn 21:1-19
If you did not have an alleluia in your heart on Easter Sunday, if you did not “see the Lord” last week when Thomas did—if you’ve not encountered God for decades now—it doesn’t mean God has forgotten or abandoned you. Not everyone experiences the resurrection in the same way or at the same time. Nor does it change this unalterable truth: Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!). Jesus never stops conveying this Good News in ways that will resonate for each one of us exactly as we need it.
Our Scripture readings today give a couple of examples of how Jesus keeps seeking out and bringing new life to the people God loves, no matter what they have done or left undone, no matter how far removed they are or think they are from God, no matter how hard they’ve been trying to hide.
The central character in our first reading from Acts is a deeply religious man who has not experienced the joy of new life in Jesus. Saul did not celebrate Easter. His religious zeal does not spring from God’s willingness to be vulnerable and self-giving; it is not rooted in God’s abiding love, nor does it express God’s grace and mercy for all. Instead, Saul’s religious fervor is the kind planted in rigid rules and score-keeping. If anyone threatens his beliefs—which, by his definition, are the only right beliefs—he feels compelled to physically harm them. The mix of violence and toxic theology is not a new phenomenon.
Anyway, Saul, who is trying his best to be faithful as he understands faith, is on his way to Damascus when Jesus literally knocks him off his high horse. He hears God asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Now of course, Saul didn’t think he was persecuting God. He thought he was defending God’s honor! And—though this story is often called the Conversion of Saul—he does not suddenly become a new person after his rough “come-to-Jesus” moment. Ananias’ patient teaching and spiritual mentoring are necessary for Saul’s gradual resurrection.
Easter is not a day; it is an earth-shaking experience that dis-orients us, forever altering our world-view, and then re-orients us to freedom through Jesus. It just so happens that Saul needed a dramatic disorientation in order for his new life to begin. If you’ve ever heard an addict talk about hitting bottom, you know that sometimes profound life changes are provoked by bleak experiences. Sometimes the stone rolls away from the tomb when God’s voice penetrates the fog, alerting us to how our misguided and sinful conduct hurts people, including ourselves. Sometimes Easter has to knock us to the ground before it raises us up. The Good News is that the despair of a Good Friday is always followed by the radiance of Easter Sunday. God never leaves us alone in the darkness while we wait.
Peter experience of Easter in today’s reading from John is completely different from Saul’s. Saul had been faithfully abiding by his beliefs, however misguided they were. Peter, on the other hand, hand-picked to be one of Jesus closest 12 disciples, had been spectacularly unfaithful to his professed God, in a public and poignant way. When Jesus needed him most Peter announced, repeatedly, “Jesus? Nope. Don’t know him.”
Last week we heard a story about the resurrected Jesus visiting Peter and the other disciples in a locked room. Jesus showed them his wounds, breathed the power of the Holy Spirit on them, and instructed them to share his peace with all the world. So what are these disciples doing this week? Are they witnessing to the crowds, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, strategizing for effective evangelism? Nope. They are doing exactly what they were doing before they ever met Jesus—fishing. My hunch is that they are fishing because that is something they know how to do, rather than witnessing to the resurrection, because that, obviously, is something they do not know how to do.
So Jesus comes to them again. Again, he doesn’t to scold or shame them. Instead he cooks them breakfast. He brings Easter to them, because that is what Jesus does and who Jesus is. One resurrection is just not enough for many of us. When Jesus shows up, he first listens to the disciples complain that they haven’t caught anything all night, and suggests they try doing something differently from the way they’ve always done it before. “Throw the net out on the other side of the boat!” he offers. Bear in mind these are lifelong fishermen in tiny little boats. Such a little shift, mere inches from one side of the boat to the other, seems like a silly suggestion. Still, when the disciples do as Jesus asks, his point is made. Sometimes for abundant life to emerge, the old ways need to change, even if just a tiny little bit. Listen to Jesus for inspiration.
Interestingly, though Jesus enables the disciples to catch a ridiculous number of fish, he doesn’t need their haul. He’s already got breakfast cooking on the grill when they come ashore. As always, Jesus has more than enough and is eager to share. The trick is teaching the disciples to trust this reality and to live into the promise of God’s enduring provision for all.
After breakfast, Jesus singles out Peter for some questions—or really, just one question, three times (maybe to counteract the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus?). Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter responds the way most of us would, I’m guessing, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Even though Peter has shown himself to be utterly unreliable, Jesus entrusts him with a significant task: “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” Peter is forced to leave behind his guilt and shame in order to be reoriented into proactively engaging in work of the Gospel. His resurrection comes from hearing that Jesus hasn’t given up on him.
It’s worth noticing that when Jesus describes what his old fishing buddy Peter is to do, the image Jesus chooses has nothing to do with fishing. Jesus doesn’t ask him, as he had in other times, to be a fisher of people. Instead Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd. It’s an almost imperceptible twist, as if Jesus were trying gently to awaken a different part of Peter’s soul. Live differently, Peter. Start now.
In the cases of both Paul and Peter, the old mantra of “This is the way we’ve always done it” has to be disrupted. In order to be reoriented, a period of disorientation is needed. Saul experienced a period of literal or metaphorical blindness reinforcing God’s message: “STOP what you are doing, and you will find new life.” By contrast, Peter needed to articulate and receive words of love to begin the work to which God was calling him: “START doing something else, and you will find new life.”
Resurrection emerges in both quiet and dramatic ways. The church shares this truth through the symbol of water in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It seems obvious that a religion born in the deserts of the Middle East would embrace water as a precious sign of eternal life. We also say that a baptism is a mini-drowning, which is a pretty alarming metaphor. Nonetheless, we claim that new life comes from drowning the old. Baptism rejects the usual ways of understanding a full, abundant life, and calls us to serve others, to seek justice and peace instead of clamoring for power and prestige. When we emerge from the waters of baptism, we do so dripping with the promise that we belong to God forever, no matter what else happens to us. We are called to remind Raleigh, baptized here this morning, that God is always with and for him. And we are called to remind each other that we are claimed as God’s own for the sake of the world.
So, my baptized siblings in Christ, I am compelled to ask you, to what new challenge is Jesus inviting you on this third Sunday of Easter, 2019? How might Jesus be calling us, collectively, as University Lutheran, to be resurrected? What old pattern is God shaking loose so that new life can arise? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to start doing? Please spend some time exploring the seeds of new creation we planted in early March, and prepare to humbly share what you see growing.
It’s ok if we get it wrong, by the way. Jesus never picked perfect people or ideal situations to complete his mission. He chose violent, self-righteous Saul, who became Paul, to nurture a baby church into being. And Jesus chose Peter, who repeatedly made a fool of himself with bold statements and timid actions, to be the rock on which the church is built. Neither seems an appropriate choice, nor did they always conduct themselves well, even after today’s stories of resurrection and new life. Paul and Peter clashed with each other often as they strove to structure and maintain faith communities. These two actually started the ugly trend of church infighting before it was even a year old, before there were even Lutherans! THAT’s the foundation on which we rest. Arrogant, disobedient, dense, unreliable leadership.
And I find that supremely comforting—as should all those who will be elected to church leadership roles later today. Because if God can use Peter and Paul, God can use us.
And since we are still likely to go fishing again when we can’t figure out how to shepherd God’s world, since we remain prone to persecuting or abandoning people whose faith lives differ from our own, Jesus doesn’t stop at one Easter. Or even one per year. Nope. Jesus disorients and reorients us repeatedly, regularly inviting us to dip into the baptismal waters of acceptance and belonging. Jesus never stops calling us to come and be fed at this table with Christ’s own compassion and character. Jesus is always encouraging us to abandon the graves we dig for ourselves and others, and turn again to the extraordinary gift of Easter. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
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