It has been two weeks since we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. But what does his resurrection really mean for us today?
As I read the accounts of his post-resurrection appearances, it strikes me that Jesus seems to be taking great care to “wrap up loose ends” among his followers before his Ascension. He seems to appear to as many of them as possible on Easter – Mary Magdalene, two followers traveling on the road to Emmaus, a whole group of disciples who were gathered together behind locked doors. A week later he appears to them in the same place, apparently because he wants to give Thomas, the disciple who was missing on Easter evening, a chance to see and hear him for himself. Now in another appearance, after those that took place in or near Jerusalem, he appears before seven of his disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee.
Today’s reading demonstrates one of the differences between John and the other gospel narratives. The others all have a commissioning story, when the disciples are first called by Jesus to follow him. In John the disciples meet Jesus through his relationship with John the Baptizer. There is no particular story about their being commissioned. If our story for today, which is a post-resurrection appearance that takes place at the end of the gospel, sounds familiar, it is because it is similar to the call story in the Gospel of Luke. Those who attended intergenerational Bible study last week will remember that story, when the potential disciples were told to cast their nets back in the Lake of Galilee after a night of unsuccessful fishing. The disciples obeyed and a huge catch was the result. Jesus then issued the call for them to follow him.
In John’s gospel it is only the women and the beloved disciple who keep faith with Jesus to the end, staying with him to the cross and taking responsibility for Jesus’ mother. All the others are in hiding. So perhaps their failure to catch any fish not only offers an occasion for Jesus to reveal his identity through the miraculous catch of fish, but it also it reminds them of their failure to remain faithful. And so, in a kind of re-commissioning, Jesus invites them to try again, even after failing all night long. They catch a large number and variety of fish, representing the number and diversity of people who they have been called to “catch.” Once they have hauled their catch to shore, Jesus invites them to bring some of the fish they have caught and add them to those he has already provided for them. Jesus not only provides for the disciples but also invites them to contribute what they have caught. As they add what they have to what Jesus provides, they are drawn back into the fellowship of the faithful.
The scene with Peter is even more powerful. Three times Jesus asks Peter to confess his love. Peter complies, though by the third time he is disheartened, even hurt, by Jesus’ repeated questioning. But we understand what Peter doesn’t quite catch on to right away. We remember that the last time Peter was gathered around a charcoal fire he was in the high priest’s court yard and denied knowing Jesus three times. So Jesus invites Peter to confess his love three times, symbolically wiping away his three denials. In the same way that Jesus joins the fish that the disciples have caught with the fish he has provided for their morning meal, he doesn’t just provide for the future of their community, he also invites Peter’s participation by telling him to “feed my sheep.” Peter is not only forgiven; he is also drawn back into the community of disciples and given meaningful work to do as their leader.
Our first reading reminds us that Jesus remains active in the world even after his Ascension. There was a well-educated young Jewish man named Saul who zealously took up the cause of persecuting those who followed “The Way,” as followers of Jesus were called before the name “Christian” came into use. He guarded the cloaks of those who took up stones to kill Stephen, one of the original deacons and the first recorded Christian martyr. Then he traveled around the area hunting down those Jews who followed The Way so they could be brought to trial in Jerusalem.
But Jesus had other plans for Saul. He appeared to him in a vision as he was traveling on the road to Damascus, hunting down followers of The Way. In quite dramatic fashion, Saul hears Jesus speaking to him and loses his sight. He has to be led into the city, where he is brought to the home of followers of The Way and for three symbolic days – it was after three days that Jesus rose from the dead – he does not eat or drink. He was helpless, at the mercy of those who cared for him. A trusted leader of the group, a man named Ananias, is commissioned by God to go to Saul, to teach him and eventually, baptize him.
Like the prophets in Hebrew scripture, Ananias has his own opinion about the job that God has given him. He is not afraid to point out that Saul was a fierce persecutor of all members of The Way, and expressed doubts about the validity of converting him. But God tells him “Go” and so he obeys, and Saul undergoes a complete conversion, so much so that after studying for a few years with the disciples and leaders of The Way in Jerusalem, he will be known by his Roman name, Paul, and will be the most effective and well known evangelist for the new religion, winning thousands of converts across the Roman Empire.
These stories have implications for us today, as we are called, re-commissioned, and/or converted to become effective followers of the risen Christ. We are commissioned at our Baptism to share in the work and ministry of Jesus. Yet, like Peter, we sometimes fall short, failing to give witness in word or deed to our faith in the living God. The good news is that Jesus not only re-commissions us, Jesus also forgives us whenever we fall short. And Jesus does not just forgive us, but calls us to try again and invites us to share what we have and gives us meaningful work to do. Like Paul, some of us may have at one time either not known Christ or completely rejected him. Yet the risen Jesus restores our sight and converts our hearts and minds to follow him.
Sometimes it is difficult to connect what we do most of the week with our profession and celebration of our faith on Sunday. God in the risen Jesus wants us to know that every area of our lives offers potential opportunities to add what we have to offer to all that Jesus has provided, so that we, like Peter, will feed God’s people. Whether we are parents, grandparents, spouses, children, siblings, neighbors or friends, students, employees or volunteers, we are called to look for opportunities to care for the people and the world that God loves so much. We must also be prepared for some failures, because it is inevitable that we will fall short of our goals and aspirations. At times we will have to compromise and sometimes we will not always follow through. Sometimes we will disappoint and even deny or fall away. But these stories remind us that Jesus never gives up on us. Like Peter and Paul, we aren’t perfect, but God loves us anyway. After each failure he invites us to try again, provides encouragement and nourishment and then calls us to add what we have to the bounty God has given us, so we can accomplish meaningful and loving work in the world. Amen.