Jesus Will Meet Us, Easter 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19; Psalm 30

John’s Gospel ends with four appearances that the resurrected Jesus makes to different groups of disciples: four scenes of Christ revealed alive, four assurances that death could never contain the life that Jesus lived and lives. First, on Easter Day, we heard how Mary encountered Jesus in the garden outside the tomb, and mistook him for the gardener, before God’s light flooded in and she saw him revealed as her teacher. Last Sunday, we heard of two encounters with Jesus: late on Easter Day, Jesus appears to the disciples in the house where they had been staying — only Thomas is missing and does not believe. So Jesus returns again the following week, and this time Thomas is there, and sees with his own eyes, and confesses his belief. And Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These appearances take place in Jerusalem, in the days just after Jesus’ execution. The terror of the preceding week has dissipated, but Jesus’ disciples are still filled with fear, not quite sure how to go on. They don’t know what’s coming next. John does a masterful job showing that fear transforms into joy. First Mary stands outside the tomb, weeping because Jesus is dead. And in the next moment she stands there weeping because he is alive. This whole section, John chapter 20, is imbued with a heavenly light. Think about how your memories of deep despair and deep joy seem more intense: your wedding day, or the funeral of a loved one. The picture you keep in your mind is brighter, more colorful, more deeply ingrained.

But then life goes on, and many ordinary days follow. So it is with the fourth and final appearance that John records, in chapter 21. Some time has passed — John doesn’t say how much. But the disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to their home in Galilee, back to the safety of the countryside and away from those terrible forces that Jesus confronted in the city: the chief priests and Pharisees in the temple, and of course the Roman governor and his soldiers.  Jesus’ loyal followers are home, but you get the sense that they don’t quite know what to do with themselves or what to make of those strange appearances that happened just after Jesus’ death.

Peter decides to go fishing, and several of the others decide to go out on the boat with him. They don’t have any luck, but the next morning, as they are coming back to shore, they find a man standing there who tells them to cast the net again, to the right side of the boat this time — and of course, the man is Jesus, and of course, they haul in so many fish that the net is nearly torn.  And Jesus invites them to sit down on the beach, around the fire he has made, to break bread with him once more: from the last supper to the first breakfast, if you will.

This is the last appearance of the risen Jesus that John records. But this is not Jesus’ last appearance. Look with the eyes of faith, and we begin to see Jesus in the oddest places: on the seashore, in the garden, on the street corner. Sometimes Jesus is hungry and cold and asking us for money. And other times he is inviting us to sit down for an unexpected meal. But always, always, Jesus is challenging us to live lives of kindness and compassion, of sharing and generosity, of justice-making and peace.  In a word, the abundant life that Jesus has brought us is a life of love: it comes from love and is intended to bring more love into the world.

The English language has a poverty of words for love. We have to modify love with other words if we want to try and be precise about what we’re talking about: we talk about “romantic” love, “familial” love, “brotherly” love, and so on. Greek does a better job of this, as we can see in the conversation that Jesus has with Peter after they finish breakfast.  Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers him, “Well Lord, of course, you know I love you.” But Jesus doesn’t seem satisfied with this answer, so he asks Peter again, and Peter again gives the same answer.  In fact, this exchange happens three times.

Now why would Jesus ask Peter this question three times? It turns out, in the original Greek, Jesus and Peter are using completely different words for love. What Jesus actually asks Peter is: do you agape me?  And Peter answers: yes Lord, you know that I philia you.

Agape and philia. Jesus wants agape: the kind of love that is life-transforming, wholly consuming, that means commitment beyond feelings. Agape is the self-giving love that sacrifices its own needs for the good of others. The kind of love that God has for us, in other words.  This is the love Jesus showed us on the cross, and Jesus is asking for this kind of love in return.

But all Peter can offer is philia: I have affection for you, Lord. I like you, well enough. That’s what philia is — more like, than love.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter though. Perhaps he was just trying to be honest about the kind of love he was capable of giving Jesus in return.  Peter saw Jesus’ brutal execution with his own eyes, so he is well aware of what can result from too much agape love. Letting go of yourself for the good of the other is not an easy calling.

A remarkable and beautiful thing happens at the end of this exchange though: the first two times Jesus asks the question, he says, “Do you agape me?” And Peter answers, “Lord, I philia you.” But the third time Jesus asks, he changes the question and uses philia instead of agape, the same word for love that Peter had been using all along.

Peter is hurt, perhaps because he feels embarrassed by Jesus’ lowered expectations. But in reality, he has no need for embarrassment: the point is that Jesus loves us enough to meet us where we are. If all we can offer is philia, then Jesus will meet us there, and keep walking with us. Jesus knows that the agape love with which God holds together the universe is more than enough to go around: it can make up for our deficiencies in love. And as we walk with Jesus and our hearts grow more open, God’s agape love will come pouring in, until we are so full that it begins to flow through us and out into the world.  This is the abundant life that Jesus wants for us: will we follow him into it?

Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 3C.

Written by the Reverend Jason Cox

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

The work of Easter, 3 Easter (C) – 2013

April 14, 2013

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

In today’s gospel story of breakfast on the beach, we enter further into the Easter season, and the work of Easter: working out what it means to have Resurrection set loose in the world, in the church, and in our lives.

One of the oddest experiences of Easter is that it can feel empty, after the graphic realities of Holy Week: bread broken, feet washed, thorns pressed into Jesus’ scalp, crosses raised, a body laid in a newly hewn grave. Easter, by contrast, is about an absence: the body is no longer in the tomb; and we are left to work out what that means.

Today’s story makes it clear that one of the functions of Resurrection life is restoration of relationship, and deep forgiveness.

Peter announces he’s going fishing, and several of the disciples decide to go along. In prior chapters in the gospel, Peter has denied Jesus and fled from the scene of his crucifixion. Though it’s clear that Peter loves Jesus without reservation, his fear has led him to distance himself from Jesus, and we are left to imagine his disappointment with himself, and his guilt and shame.

It seems that Peter has returned to what he knows; amid the confusion and grief in the aftermath of the crucifixion, he feels most like himself aboard a fishing boat, handling the heavy nets throughout the cold night. His efforts are fruitless, though; after a night of fishing, the group has caught exactly no fish. On top of his grief, and his sense of having failed Jesus, he is now confronted with failing at something he has done all his life.

But as the dawn breaks, the disciples see a man on the shore, and they see the smoke from a small fire. The stranger calls out to them and suggests something very odd: cast your nets on the other side of the boat, he shouts across the water. Surprisingly, the disciples comply – and suddenly the net is full to bursting with fish!

Suddenly Peter realizes that he has seen something like this before: on a hillside, with thousands of people, he watched Jesus break bread and fish until they were all fed. He remembers a wedding in Cana, when water was turned into wine of the highest quality. The beloved disciple shouts: “It is the Lord!” and Peter clambers toward the shore with his heart bursting with excitement.

In fact, it is Jesus, and he invites them to come have breakfast, as though this was just a normal morning after a night of fishing. The disciples shoot looks of amazement at each other across the fire and wonder if this is real.

This story provides a bookend to the Last Supper; this “First Breakfast” changes the trajectory for the disciples from grief and confusion to purpose and mission. Everything Jesus said to the disciples before his crucifixion – and in John’s gospel, he said a lot – is now coming to bear on the disciples, and their purpose.

But first, Jesus has some very specific business with Peter. It always bears repeating that Peter, in so many gospel stories, is a stand-in for us. His enthusiasm, awkwardness, lack of understanding, and enormous love for Jesus are just like our own. So when the gospel story focuses on Peter, it’s fair to say that we are also a part of the story.

Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, and sadly, his prediction comes true. Peter is accosted repeatedly by bystanders as he waits outside while Jesus is being interviewed, and each time, he denies knowing Jesus. He is absent at the crucifixion. He is among the disciples who meet behind locked doors out of fear. Now Jesus speaks to him directly: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks him three times, and three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Each time, Jesus says: then feed my sheep.

Peter is given the opportunity to undo his denial of Jesus with three affirmations of his love. Jesus tells him what to do with that love: feed the flock. Though the word “forgiveness” never appears in this story, it is nevertheless a critical theme. Peter, the impetuous, big-mouthed disciple, gave in to fear, and failed to acknowledge Jesus, failed to stick around for the bitter end. Now Peter is given the opportunity to face his risen Lord and begin again – in the words of Hymn 304, “forgiven, loved and free.”

And this story offers some of the deepest implications of Resurrection for us: we are forgiven. We are invited to start over. We are completely loved. And we have a job to do. This isn’t only Peter’s story; it’s our story, too. When fear holds us back, love calls us forward. When we feel trapped by the way things have always been, Jesus invites us to cast our nets on the other side of the boat – change our perspective, in light of the Resurrection.

So what does this mean for you? Are you held back from the abundant life Jesus promises by guilt, shame and fear? If you understood yourself to be completely forgiven, completely loved, and completely free, how would that change the choices you make about your work? Your money? Your relationships?

The light of resurrection, shining into us, invites us to look clearly at how we have made choices out of fear rather than love, and to move away from the fears that bind us.

The implications of this story also resonate in our faith communities: Are we making choices about budget and mission based on our fear of failure? Our guilt for past failures? Or are we pointed forward, with the light of the Resurrection at our backs? If we are completely loved, completely forgiven and completely free, what does that imply about how we are to feed the flock?

We are called not only to proclaim God’s love, known to us in Jesus, but to act on it. That means setting aside fear, and the way fear binds us into small lives; and embracing love as the basis of every action we undertake.

God’s love, set loose in the world in the Resurrection, needs our hands and feet and hearts to make it concrete in our place and time. Like Peter, we’re invited to change our perspective, and cast our nets where the love of God is available for us and there’s plenty for everyone.

Jesus invites us: Come and have breakfast.

In the morning light of Resurrection, there is no room for guilt and fear. We are forgiven, loved, and free, and we have some sheep to feed.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Earth Day: An Easter celebration, 3 Easter (C) – 2010

April 18, 2010

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today’s scripture readings are replete with hopeful images and stories.

In today’s psalm, David exalts God who has lifted him “out of the depths,” healed him, and brought him “up from the grave.” God turns David’s “wailing into dancing.”

In the reading from Revelation, millions of angels sing in a “loud voice.” Imagine being there and hearing the preposterous thundering beauty of such a chorus, all singing praise to God’s lamb, Jesus. And then imagine the rest of creation, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea” joining the chorus!

Acts tells the story of Saul’s conversion – from one issuing “murderous threats” against the early Christians to one proclaiming the gospel throughout the known world. If Saul can be converted, it seems safe to say, anyone of us could be as well.

Finally, the Gospel of John paints a beautiful picture. It’s dawn. Jesus stands on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. Seven of the disciples had been fishing the previous night. It must’ve been a calm morning as the disciples heard this stranger call to them from 100 yards away. He tells them to drop their nets one more time on the other side of the boat, and for the first time that night their nets fill to overflowing. What’s even more hopeful than the great catch, of course, is that the murdered Jesus was alive, had been raised from the dead, and was there on the shore, roasting fish for them over an open fire.

It’s appropriate that our readings today contain such images and stories of hope. After all, we have just celebrated Easter – we’ve gone through Lent to the unlikeliest outcome imaginable: that we are, along with Christ, raised from the dead; that a conversion like Saul’s is possible for us as well; that we can be released from our own prisons and be made whole.

Following the celebration of Easter, Earth Day comes along. The timing, frankly, seems a little off. Those who proposed and celebrated the first Earth Day probably didn’t consult the Christian calendar. If they did, they may well have chosen to mark Earth Day during the season of Lent.

Why Lent? Well, because Lent is often characterized by words like reflection, sacrifice, repentance. Lent is the time set aside to acknowledge our limits. After all, the season begins with a smudged cross on our foreheads and the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are Earth and to Earth we shall return.

Earth Day needs to call us to a stance not unlike that of Lent: a day to reflect on how our own lives and our society’s economic practices impact God’s creation. A time to reflect on our own call in relationship to God’s creation, human and non-human.

So what is our call here? It’s perhaps the most foundational question to ask, for if we believe all of creation is simply here for our own use and abuse, then it doesn’t really matter how our own lives or our economy impacts God’s world.

So what is our role? Consider, for a moment, that it is to serve, not just other humans, but all of God’s created order.

In the second chapter of Genesis we read that we were put in the garden to “till and keep” or to “work it and take care of it.” If we take a look at the Hebrew word often translated as “till” or “work” or “cultivate,” we find the word abad. Abad is the Hebrew word for “serve.” It’s the same word that shows up in the profound words of Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will abad the Lord” – meaning we will “serve” the Lord.

It’s telling to note that, by and large, we humans don’t think of “serve,” as appears in that second chapter of Genesis, as the best descriptor of our role in relationship to God’s Earth. Rather, it’s safe to say that more of us think of “dominion,” as appears in first chapter of Genesis. That’s the more famous verse.

Let’s briefly consider dominion. This verse was written within a Hebrew culture, and within that culture kings were those who had dominion. As Calvin DeWitt points out in his book “EarthWise,” a good Hebrew king exercised dominion with “mercy, justice and compassion” on behalf of his constituents.

Furthermore, as Christians, we proclaim Christ as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Christ has dominion. But Jesus was always turning things on their heads – including what it means to be a king with dominion. One of the places we see that most clearly is in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus says, “For even I … came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Our role here on God’s good earth is to be servants of creation.

The litany of evidence suggesting our service is not going so well is indeed long.

Species, expressions of God’s abundance and creativity and love, are going extinct at a rate not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They are disappearing at 1,000 to 10,000 times the “background rate” or natural extinction rate. Human activity, particularly habitat distruction, is the cause of such extinctions.

In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment or “MA” was released. Carried out over a four-year period, the report brought together nearly 1,400 experts from 95 countries. The assessment focuses on the benefits people obtain from ecosystems – such as food, water, pollination, and climate regulation. The bottom line of the MA findings is that “human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

While the debate in the United States goes on, it’s hard to look into the eyes of a Pacific Islander or Alaskan coastal native or Filipino farmer and say climate change is not real. Leaders of the Anglican Communion in the Philippines recently wrote the following in a letter to a justice network in the Diocese of Olympia:

“A year ago, our own Bishop of our Diocese of North Central Philippines, Rt. Rev. Joel A. Pachao, said in a meeting with some of our foreign partners, ‘We are doing all these environmental stewardship programs so that you can continue to drive your SUVs.’ It was an expression of anger … over the fact that it is us in the so-called ‘developing … countries’ who are suffering most from the effects of climate change which can be attributed to carbon … emissions, the bulk of which are from the western developed countries.”

It starts to become clear why it seems like Earth Day belongs in the season of Lent, marked by repentance and humility.

But isn’t there something missing here?

Yes, there is; and it’s the fact that Earth Day can also be a day of profound celebration. Think of all the beauty in the world: say, a newborn babe cradled in its mother’s arms; a glacier lily springing up from underneath spring snow; a basket of fresh collard greens; a walk in your favorite place; a fresh corn tortilla; your favorite bird song; you and your community taking care of the green space at the end of your block.

All of this beauty and goodness is a gift from God and God’s creation. The great ecologist E.O. Wilson believes we are all lovers of that creation; we are hardwired, he says, to love life. He calls this “biophilia.”

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently told an audience at Southwark Cathedral in London that people had allowed themselves to become “addicted to fantasies about prosperity and growth, dreams of wealth without risk and profit without cost.”

Those fantasies have disconnected us from our innate biophilia. Williams contends that those fantasies lead to a lifestyle where the human soul was “one of the foremost casualties of environmental degradation.” He went on to say:

“Many of the things which have moved us towards ecological disaster have been distortions of whom and what we are and their overall effect has been to isolate us from the reality we’re part of. Our response to this crisis needs to be, in the most basic sense, a reality check.”

So perhaps part of the really good news of Earth Day is that it offers the opportunity to heal our disconnection from that which we love so deeply. The distortions of who and what we are will begin to heal; we will reunite with that innate biophilia; no longer will we quiet the song of another species, or of a babe in arms. The angels and all the creatures surrounding the throne depicted in Revelations will be healed and proclaim praises in full voice.

May it be so. It may sound utopian, but it is something Jesus believed in so much that he was willing to die for it – for such will the Kingdom of God be like. Maybe Easter is, after all, an appropriate season for us to mark and celebrate Earth Day.

 

— Michael Schut served as the Economic and Environmental Affairs Officer of the Episcopal Church, following 11 years on the staff of Earth Ministry. His most recent book is “Money and Faith: The Search for Enough” (Morehouse Publishing, 2009). Michael speaks and leads workshops and retreats around the country, connecting faith, justice, sustainable economics, and care for all God’s creation.

Changed forever, 3 Easter (C) – 2007

April 22, 2007

Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21: 1-19

Saul heard a voice from heaven. It was Jesus, whom he had been persecuting. It came suddenly, and a light from heaven flashed around him. The experience was so intense that Saul fell to the ground. The light was so strong that he was blinded. After his encounter with the light and the voice, Saul’s life was changed forever. Like Jacob after wrestling with an angel, even his name was changed. At his baptism, Saul regained his sight and took his new name. Saul the persecutor became Paul the advocate. Voices from heaven change everything.

John heard voices from heaven. In fact John journeyed into heaven and saw it all. How he survived such a startling vision is surprising. John stood among the four living creatures, the angels, the elders – there were myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands. John heard them singing praises. And then he hears “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” Who could stand such glory? Who could endure the sound of everything that exists singing in full voice?

John shared his vision with the church, and none of us have been the same since. Now we sing in liturgy many of the songs John told us about. Now we hope to be in that number that praises the Lamb for eternity. Voices from heaven change everything.

In today’s world, if we reported hearing voices from heaven we would be suspected of fanaticism or mental instability. We know that nowadays folks don’t hear voices from heaven.

But wait; maybe we do hear voices from heaven. Maybe we encounter voices and visions of heaven everyday and just don’t notice them. We religious people, because we are rooted in scriptures that tell miraculous stories, expect our words and visions from God to come in flashes of light and thundering sound. And because these supernatural things are not seen and experienced, we don’t expect them anymore.

But maybe these voices and visions are right in front of us.

In the gospel today, Peter and the apostles hear a voice from heaven. It is the resurrected Christ. This voice from heaven isn’t flashy or loud. The voice they hear tells them not to give up on catching fish. The voice they hear tells them, “Come and have breakfast.” What a scene: the risen Lord, the King of the Universe, the Alpha and the Omega, sitting on the beach making breakfast. Yes, it is miraculous that the apostles encounter their risen teacher. Yes, it is miraculous that they catch so many fish that they can’t hold them all. But in the midst of the miracles is simplicity. In the midst of these miracles is everyday life.

This is where Christ meets us now. He meets us in the movements of our life. We need to eat; we need to work. And the risen Christ is there among us. God chose to come among us, and even after the miracle of the resurrection, God chose to make us breakfast.

In the Collect for today we remember that the “blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread.” We prayed that God would “open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.” Thus we prayed that God would open our eyes to what is right in front of us.

This is Incarnation: God appearing where we would never expect it. It starts with Advent in that encounter between Mary and Gabriel. It continues with the birth in the manger. Jesus Christ is part of everything we do. Our life is a miracle. Our life is a prayer.

The creation around us is also a prayer. We miss this all the time in our busy-ness and weariness. Look down to the ground and see grass and gravel: there’s God. Look up to the stars: there’s God. Look out among the people and buildings and trees: there’s God. Look at the person next to you: there’s God.

It isn’t that God is the gravel or grass, but the gravel and grass our infused with the creative love of God. It is that God in Christ was incarnate with creation in the form of a human being.

After the resurrection, Christ could have entered the cities and by-ways in glory and light. He could have really amazed the crowds and gotten more people to take seriously what the apostles were preaching. But he didn’t. He kept entering into everyday life. Everyday life is blessed.

From Christ’s birth to death, the Holy One is submitting to earthliness. Even at his Transfiguration, he stands in a glorious vision with Elijah and Moses and speaks of his impending crucifixion. The Alpha and Omega, who could “take over” the universe, always remains grounded.

Where are our voices from heaven? Where are our visions of glory? They are right in front of us. They are in creation. On this day as the secular calendar commemorates Earth Day, we raise our voices to thank God for creation. We remember that seeing a stream, a forest, a tiny garden in our back yard deserves a certain reverence. God’s creation deserves our love and respect.

God speaks to us now through earthly elements. In Christ, God chose bread, wine, and water to ground us in divine love. In water we are baptized and brought back to life and given back our inner sight. And like Paul, after we are given back our spiritual vision and washed in that water, we are given something to eat. God in Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread. In the Holy Eucharist we enter into the divine mysteries where somehow Christ is really present.

Water, wine and bread are the essence of human life. God is really present to us in the essence of human life.

God in Christ is feeding us. What could be more earthly than being hungry and being fed? Christ is feeding us.

In our gospel reading today, Christ puts Peter to the test. He asks him three times if he loves him, and each time he instructs Peter to take care of the people: feed them and tend to them. The third time Christ asks the question, Peter is hurt. But Peter had denied Christ three times. He needs to make amends for that denial. Christ is rooting Peter in the Christian mission: feed and tend to the people. It’s about the people. It’s about feeding and caring for souls, and it’s all right in front of us.

In the first chapter of Acts, as Christ is ascending into Heaven, two men in white robes appear and say to those gathered, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, “Don’t stand here gazing up forever. Go on your way and proclaim the gospel.” This is exactly where we can get caught: gazing up to heaven, waiting for a miracle. Life itself is a miracle. Everyday stuff is the prayer. It all goes together, and it is all a light from heaven.

When we come to realize this, then we will be changed forever. When we take time to recognize the beauty of the earth, the blessedness of those around us, then we will be changed forever.

 

— The Rev. Paul D. Allick hails from the plains of Montana and North Dakota. He graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1996, and for the past decade has experienced a wide variety of ministries in the Diocese of Minnesota, serving in Native American, African American, and suburban parishes, as well as campus ministry.