This is the first sermon I ever preached! It was at the church I attended while a student at Harvard Divinity School, First Church Somerville. I was so nervous, so tentative, in my delivery. I shifted from foot to foot, I spoke softly and quickly. Afterward my ministry mentor, Molly Phinney Baskette, gave me sound advice: “You have to evoke your inner thespian a bit, as much as it might seem uncomfortable to do so. Lean into the drama — create a little theater,” she said. She was right.
First Church Somerville
April 22, 2007
According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we are on honeymoon right now. The resurrection of our crucified Lord impacts our world so deeply and fundamentally, that our celebration of it overflows the temporal boundary of just one day. It spills out in divine largess on both sides of Easter, into the Lenten season of preparation beforehand, and into the season of Eastertide that follows. During these weeks following Easter, we continue to look back at the resurrection, struggling to understand its mystery and the absurdity of its reality in our lives, even as we are pushed forward through Pentecost to what the calendar calls “ordinary time” – the period of year dedicated to enacting discipleship. The lectionary readings during Eastertide, like the story from John we read today, help us understand this transition and its purpose. The risen Christ is still very much present in the world, and like a living ghost of flesh and bone and wounds still fresh, he appears to his disciples, each time revealing how and why he is still present for them, each time reawakening them, each time pushing them forward in their call to a life of discipleship.
There are some passages in our scripture that are so full and beautiful, the truth they speak about our selves and our God so evident, you need hardly tilt your head to hear the Word of God yodeling out from it. The story we read from John is one of those passages. It is our faith in nineteen vivid verses.
So let’s dive in. We need to enter the story by placing ourselves in the sandals of Peter, Nathanael and the others. They left their entire worlds behind to follow Jesus. And now Jesus has been executed by the Roman Empire and they are trying to figure out what next. And, perhaps unsurprisingly for those of us who know the disciples, they go back to the lives they had before Jesus came along and made them “fishers of men” – they return to the Sea of Tiberias in order to be “fishers of fish.” Throughout the years, many have interpreted this as just another example of their continued inability to meet their teacher’s commands. After all, in the preceding passage, which we read last week, the risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit into them and told them to go out and spread the good news, not to head a couple towns North to do some fishin’.
But I dunno, I think there’s something more going on here. Our tradition can be so harsh on the disciples, and sometimes this condemnation can feel like self-abuse in so far as we identify with these disciples; in so far as we are struggling disciples ourselves.
So let’s not forget: these men, they just lost their beloved teacher. Their Prince of Peace was stolen from them, tortured, and executed. And they were not there because they abandoned him in fear and horror and denial. We can only imagine the overwhelming mix of emotions they felt when Jesus first appeared to him after his death: joy and relief, yeah definitely. But not just that. Also guilt and shame, for having run, for having left him behind to his fate after he had asked them to stay. Especially Peter, who had to face the man he denied, three times over. Can you imagine having to confront that ghost?
And then Jesus just upped and disappeared again, hurling them back into a state of mourning, confronting them once again with the glaring Jesus-shaped absence in their lives. Given all of that, can you blame them for wanting a little familiar routine?
And so they returned to their Sea of Tiberias, to their worn, familiar boats, to the ancient rhythm of fishing through the night, when the air is cool and crisp, and sleeping away the hot days. And as the dawn began to break after their first night out, they saw through their tired eyes, through the morning fog, an apparition on the bank of the lake – a figure that was small, and distant. A figure called out across the expanse of the lake to them. “Friends” he said. “Friends. Have you caught anything?”
The figure, as we know, is Jesus. And his question is ironic. The Lord knows the answer. They haven’t caught anything. Although our dear disciples are fishermen by trade, in no passage of the gospels do they ever actually succeed in catching fish without the help of Jesus. And so Jesus does what he does: he grants them abundance that weighs down their nets. And then the fog fully lifts, and there is a skipped heart beat of recognition, and Peter stands up abruptly.
I have a good friend, who I love. And she has an old friend with whom she was very close for a year, several years ago. A year that contained a lifetime in it. A year when they struggled with intellectual insecurity at graduate school, when his mom got sick, and when a woman she grew up with slowly died. A year in which they both, for these and other reasons, slipped into fogs of depression so thick, they weren’t sure they’d make their way out again. And as this year came to a close, they were no help to each other. People who are depressed, as many of us know, turn into themselves for self-protection – they close up and in; they need to for survival. These friends, they only let each other down, betrayed one another. And then he moved away, and they lost touch.
In time, they got better. They regained their health. But I know that for her, at least, there are ghosts that still haunt her. Regrets, shame, resentments about how it all went down. And then this week, the boy suddenly appeared back in her life and asked her if she wanted to get a coffee. Now. My friend, she is wary. She isn’t sure we can bear to sit down in front of a grande soy latte and confront this boy. She is scared to see the wounds in him, wounds she believes she played some role in inflicting, wounds that if they are anything like her own, are still fresh enough that you can see them, that you can reach out and put your finger in them. But she is going to go, she told me, because maybe, in the end, they can call each other friends again. She hopes so, and I do to. Because I know that like Peter, like many of us, she moves forward burdened by the weight of what went down back then, how she hurt this one she loved as she sought to protect herself. I have seen how carrying this from her past keeps her from living fully in the present, and from moving openly into the future. Evading it and him wasn’t working; maybe confronting will. I don’t know how my friend’s story will end yet, but I have a prayer for what this encounter might look like.
So let’s return to Peter. Who has now recognized Jesus on the shore. Jesus, who he denied. Jesus, who he abandoned. Jesus, with wounds still fresh. Jesus, who just called him friend. And upon hearing this, and recognizing him, Peter says nothing. He just stands up, puts on his clothes, jumps in the sea and swims to shore while the other disciples follow in the boat. You have to love Peter for this. Not just because he was fishing naked, which is awesome. But because of his manic eagerness. He is the serious preacher, the one who will build the church, the first pope. He is the one who was dragging through the present, but still stuck in the past, living like a zombie. But here he forgets himself. He is just a giddy and wild child, forgetting his shame and grief, gleefully canon-balling into the Sea in order to get to Jesus as fast as possible.
This, my friends, is a story like the others during Eastertide, of encountering the risen Christ. This is the story of the fog lifting, and of the gray light of morning breaking to reveal your savior, still calling out to you, forcing you up and out of your entanglement in the suffering of the past. This is the story of plunging into an experience of the sacred and tasting the Kingdom of God while on earth, for just a moment, but long enough to begin to loosen your death grip on old insecurities, and fears, and stresses, and cynicism. This the story of being awakened from disengaged living in order to see in flesh and bones the triumph of good over evil, and to know deeply that it is not only possible, but it is the Truth.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. Because this is also the story of Peter whose belly is now full of a breakfast of fish, who is lounging on the beach in the presence of his risen Christ, basking in the dawn, feeling strong and alive. And so Jesus turns to Peter and asks one question. One question, three times. “Do you love me?” Three times, in perfect balance to Peter’s three denials back in Jerusalem. Jesus knows the answer. But he asks for a different purpose, because each time that Peter insists that he does, another tie is undone from the mummified wrappings of his shame. Peter was stuck, wrapped up so tight in a thick blanket of shame and self-criticism, pain and grief, that he was dragging through the present, returning to the old fishing boat, inevitability and familiarity. He may have wanted to take hold of the sort of future Jesus had envisioned for him, but he couldn’t with all the chains holding him back. He couldn’t until that morning, when the fog broke and he confronted Jesus. And when he did, Christ called him “friend,” and fed him fish, and then asked him to address the past. To stop evading his inner demons and to confront them head on. Three times he asked him if he loved him. And Peter said Yes. And with each yes, Jesus unwrapped our Peter, he undid those chains, he set him free.
I have a prayer for my friend with her looming coffee date. I have a prayer that she will go to that Starbucks (or, knowing her, more likely Diesel or Darwin’s), and she will sit down across from her old friend, the one with whom she went to hell and back, and they will look each other in the eye, and they will call each other “friend.” And then they will gently begin to unwrap each other, undoing the binds of shame and resentments that are holding them back. Not by rehashing the past, but by moving forward, setting each other free so that they can move on, most likely in their separate ways, but doing so unshackled.
We are not done with Peter. We have not reached the end of his story. What we have would be a good ending, certainly. But the story of our faith does not end with the good news. Our story does not end with the encounter of the Risen Christ in your life, who breathes the Holy Spirit into you and gives you the courage to do the hard work on your self and your relationships that our faith requires of us. Our story does not end with the power of forgiveness to liberate a person paralyzed by their shame. Three times, Jesus commands Peter: feed my lambs, tend my sheep. Peter, now fed, now restored, now released from the past and living fully in the present, needs to leave the seashore. He needs to move forward into the future, and to feed others the way Jesus has fed him.
This is Eastertide, the season where we encounter the Risen Christ. It is a season of celebration, a season of affirmation, a season that proclaims that good will triumph over evil and that life will triumph over death. And it is good and it is right to celebrate and witness the Risen Christ, to swim in his Spirit until we are pruney, to lounge with him seaside until we are fed. Because when we do this, he breathes the Holy Spirit into us, reworking our hard wiring that tends toward disengaged living, inevitability and predictability. The Spirit that brings us from death into life. And these divine experiences haunt us – in a good way – with hope, and strength, and resolve. They resurrect us again and again and again, reminding us of all that is possible, that all can be well, that all will be well. But that cannot be the end. Because these experiences of the Risen Christ, they are encounters with Jesus, after all, our teacher, and he has homework for us: to feed, to care, to proclaim, to do good work.
We cannot stay sitting out there in that fishing boat. That is not at all what our faith is about. We are called to confront. We are called to leave that boat behind, to swim through the Sea of Divinity in a new baptism, and then to climb ashore to take care of Christ’s sheep. We are called to travel from the Eastertide celebration on into Ordinary Time to become living disciples, prepared and empowered to dismantle the machinery of death, prepared to face down the violence of power and injustice and pain that destroyed Jesus’ body on Good Friday but that cannot destroy his Spirit.
And that, finally, is our story. The story you can hear over and over again, if you want. All you need to do is tilt your head and listen. Listen for the voice of Christ cutting through the fog in your world, echoing across the expanse of your life, calling you ashore.