This is one of those texts (John 21:1-19) that have so many good images, you just don’t know where to start. There are easily six sermons in this text, but I won’t give all of them. Don’t worry.
Which one do we pick? Maybe it’s a bit like a “choose your own adventure sermon.” I’ve always wanted to preach one of those… But, we have so many rich pieces to choose from:
- There’s the one where the disciples go out to catch fish but don’t get any. And, Jesus—who they don’t recognize—is standing on the beach, yelling at them to throw the net off the other side of the boat? And they do, and they catch so many they can’t pull all the fish into the boat. That’s a powerful lesson about them not recognizing the Lord, yet him guiding them anyway. There’s a sermon there…
- Or, what about the strange little image all by itself of Peter being in the boat, when John recognizes Jesus, and putting on clothes (because he was naked) and then jumping into the sea? Who knows what is going on there! But, maybe there’s a sermon there…
- Or, the one about when they finally made it to shore and pulled the fish-filled nets on the bank, and they find Jesus sitting by the campfire with fish and bread, ready to serve them dinner? He’s already prepared dinner for them, in what is, for us, this remarkable Eucharistic image of Jesus preparing a meal for us. There’s a sermon there…
- Or the one when they all sit down to eat, “and none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.” Maybe they’ve caught on by now. And they all shared fish and bread together, with Jesus eating real food, in his resurrected body? There’s a sermon there…
- Or, the one with Jesus asking Peter three times if he loves him. Peter gets more and more frustrated that Jesus keeps asking. “Yes, Lord, you know I love you!” But, we can see the deeply meaningful piece around Jesus asking three times, and Peter responding and affirming three times that he loves him…knowing how meaningful it is that Jesus gives Peter a space to affirm three times after having denied Jesus three times on that sad night in the courtyard before he was crucified. What a marvelous image of redemption. There’s a sermon there…
- Or, even the one about how Jesus tells Peter that he will be led into places he would rather not go, that, before, he dressed himself and went where he chose, but later, others “will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” There’s a sermon there, too.
Why so many sermons? Why lay out this text like this, for this one Sunday? Why not spread them out among six weeks?
I asked my wife about this, one of the best teachers I know. She explained how teachers use differentiated instruction in classrooms. With this pedagogical technique, the teacher is guiding all the students toward the same goal, or the same point. But, they incorporate different styles or modalities within one lesson in order to make sure that multiple students can understand the basic point or lesson. It honors the students’ differences in learning styles and strengths as well as the lesson to be learned. Our Buddhist friends would call this “skillful means,” employing an image or technique to enable a student to have a “break through” realization and experience the true nature of reality. From a theological point of view, we would say that it honors what St. Paul reminds us of with different spiritual gifts and the way our being mindful of these helps nurture the development of an integrated, holistic spiritual community.
I believe that is what the writer of the Gospel of St. John is doing with this text: differentiated instruction or skillful means. If we think back to the Easter text itself, with St. Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Jesus in the garden, we see that this resurrection reality is something new, something that had never before been encountered or described. How would you describe something that had never been witnessed? What language would you use? How would you teach this truth to another human being?
This new resurrection reality is the fundamental groundwork of our Christian faith, yet St. John is showing us that there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to understanding it. There are certain elements he wants to emphasize in this new space. Using the same six images within the text, maybe we can see the following lessons on living into the resurrected life:
- Sometimes—oftentimes, maybe—it isn’t going to be easy to recognize the risen Lord. Yet, even when we don’t recognize Him, he still offers us guidance in our lives…the spiritual practice to nurture here is deep listening, a practice of awareness, of mindfulness.
- Oftentimes, we find Jesus having already gone before us, inviting us into a space of nourishment. We find him sitting next to a campfire, as it were, with a meal at the ready. The spiritual practice here is gratitude for God’s abundance in our lives.
- Sometimes, we need reminding that this resurrection life isn’t some figment of our imagination—it isn’t fantasy. Christ’s life in us is real and true, and his embodiment among us is real. The spiritual practice here, I think, is trust that the hope God gives us in Christ is, to use the ancient three-fold description: true, beautiful, and good.
- Oftentimes, we are surprised when Our Lord gives us spaces for spiritual growth when we stumble. God never gives up on us, never abandons us. And, no matter how many times we struggle and fail, the grace of resurrection life is always there to offer us a space of redemption. The spiritual practice here, I think, is honesty and self-examination, opening our hearts to God and seeking reconciliation.
- Sometimes, we are reminded that we are not in complete control of our own lives, that we are called to live together and rely on one another. This is the lesson of our Benedictine heritage as Anglicans: that the resurrection life is experienced within the richness and complexity of spiritual community. I think the spiritual practice here is an attitude of holy yielding, of letting go of our own self-centered agendas.
- And, sometimes, God just find us naked in a boat for some reason, and we get disoriented and put on our clothes and then jump in the water. Because, we’re human and we’re weird that way. Maybe the spiritual practice here is an appreciation of our own limitedness, our own frailty.
The writer of the Gospel of St. John knew that it was going to be hard for people to imagine what it means to live into this life of resurrection and hope. He knew that this was going to be a space of reorientation. That is why it’s so helpful that we have these different starting places, if you will, these points of origin, within this one text. We’re each going to find ourselves in a different place at different times in our lives.
Today’s collect for the Third Sunday of Easter beautifully describes this call to practice our faith:
O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself—or who made himself known—to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in his redeeming work… The dynamic between the Son who manifests himself…and our call to have our eyes opened…
Faith is not easy. And, faith isn’t about figuring out the quick answer to life’s problems. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be called faith. It would be called fixing. Faith is about the process, the journey, the experience of stepping into the problems and struggles of life with both an appreciation of the reality of what troubles us—of just what it means to be human—AND an awareness of the hope and love that always suffuses us with God’s grace.
This is how today’s Psalm describes this practice of faith, this process of realization:
“Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“You have turned my wailing into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth—clothe me with joy.”
The writer of the Revelation of St. John tried to describe what it is like when we truly experience this resurrection life—when we see that God truly does surround us and suffuse us—that we do not have to fear—that life beyond death is true, beautiful, and good. This was the best he could do to describe this reality: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Easter III, Year C
April 10, 2016