Sunday, April 25, 2004

Sermon: Easter 3

25 April 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: John 21:1-19 (RCL)

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia!

At the risk of making every belly in the sanctuary grumble, today’s Gospel text makes it necessary to talk about food. The disciples are fishing – not for a day of relaxation and recreation, but rather they are working the night shift in their small business: fishing in order to supply the market with food.

The risen Jesus appears to them from the shore, and gives them a suggestion as to how to increase their yield. Jesus is repeating the first miracle that Peter was ever to see Jesus perform, telling Peter to cast his nets on the other side. This divine déjà-vu reveals to the disciples that this mysterious figure on the shore is the risen Jesus. Out of respect for the Lord, Peter dresses himself modestly and dives into the water to meet Jesus. By the time Peter and his associates have brought their bulging net with 153 fish back to the beach, Jesus has already fired up the grill and invites the disciples to have breakfast with him.

And notice that Jesus not only issues the invitation to eat with him, Jesus himself serves the bread and the flesh of the fish with his own hands: “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them.” John calls this sharing of this Lord’s meal a “revelation” – as this was the third time that the resurrected Jesus “was revealed” to the disciples. The grammar in this sentence is not an accident – it makes it very clear that this revealing, this revelation, was carried out by God himself. Notice that the sentence has no subject. Biblical writers do what our composition teachers tell us not to do – write sentences without subjects – as a way of telling us the subject is God. God does the revealing. The disciples only receive what God has revealed in Jesus’s sharing of the meal with them. Just as when we discern the Lord’s Body and Blood, we do so because God himself reveals this reality to us in the meal we share with Jesus. Every Lord’s Supper is a revelation of God, a revealing to us something that remains hidden to those outside the church.

Now, if all this food-talk were not enough, the Evangelist next tells us about a conversation Jesus has with Peter right after breakfast. This conversation has to do with food. Jesus tells him to feed his sheep. Jesus uses food as a metaphor for Peter’s work as a pastor. With all of this talk of food, do you suppose St. John is up to something – something other than making us all think about what we’re going to eat after church today?

John is the same evangelist who spends a good bit of time quoting Jesus when he calls himself the Bread of Life. In his Gospel and his other New Testament books, John attacks those who claim Jesus is only a spirit, as opposed to being a true, flesh and blood man. John is the evangelist who quotes Jesus’s shocking and scandalous quote that whoever would be a follower of our Lord must eat his flesh and drink his blood – a sermon that would cost Jesus a 30% decrease in his congregation. (Fortunately, Jesus didn’t have district and synodical officials to call his attention to more successful church growth strategies.)

St. John overwhelms us with presenting Jesus as more than a spirit, more than a rabbi, more than a philosopher. John presents Jesus to us in no uncertain terms as God who is in the flesh. And the greatest way to prove your solidarity, your “realness” with the people around you is to join them in a meal. Jesus routinely eats with human beings. He does what no spirit does – he puts food in his mouth, chews, swallows, and digests. He does what no ancient pagan god does – he walks up to a table and sits down to a meal – not only with pious religious folks, but also with thieves and prostitutes. Jesus eats, he weeps, he gets angry, he speaks, he listens, he bleeds, he dies. He does what every mortal does. He also goes beyond mortality by rising from the dead. And yet, even the risen Christ is still human, still one of us. He proves this by continuing to sit at table with mortals and puts cooked meat, the flesh of a fish, into his mouth, chews, and digests – thus continuing to bring creation itself into the Godhead.

And we Christians continue to bring the Godhead into ourselves, as we eat the flesh of our Lord, who continues to come to table with us mortals, with us sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and thieves. Jesus eats with us, and also “feeds his sheep” through the ministrations of the men who are called and ordained, like Peter, to render this service. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who feeds his sheep. He is the Good Shepherd who takes care of his flock with “under-shepherds” like Peter, like all pastors, who feed and care for Jesus’s precious lambs. The word “pastor” means literally a shepherd. This is why bishops of the church are often seen with a curved pole called a crosier. Although they tend to be fancy, they are a ceremonial reminder of the common shepherd’s crook, a hooked stick used by shepherds to herd the sheep. Every bishop, every pastor, is given the same charge as St. Peter, to tend Jesus’s lambs and to feed Jesus’s sheep.

Pastors feed the sheep with the Word of God – just as St. John was instructed to eat the scroll in the Book of Revelation. As God himself revealed to Moses, we are fed “not by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” Our pastors also feed us the Lord’s Body and Blood, inviting us on our Lord’s behalf to: “take eat, take drink.”

Just as the fall of man came about by eating, so also our redemption comes to us by eating. Just as the Book of Genesis opens with a food-laden Paradise, so the Book of Revelation closes with a New Jerusalem, a new promised land rich in luscious fruit, centered on the Tree of Life – from which we will eat with God and the Lamb for all eternity.

In this private encounter with Peter, Jesus has forgiven Peter’s sin of denying his Lord. The threefold nature of Jesus’s question: “Do you love me” reminds Peter of his painful threefold betrayal. Like Judas, Peter’s faith was shaken. Using the weapon of fear, Satan had gotten his way with Peter. But unlike that of Judas, Peter’s faith is restored to him. Although Peter sinned, he never stopped believing. Although his faith was a dimly burning wick, our Lord did not blow it out, but rather fanned the flame, reigniting Peter’s faith, allowing him to confess and to receive the Gospel anew. Peter is renewed, and Jesus restores his ministry. Once again, Jesus invites Peter to service as a disciple and as an apostle: “Follow me.”

And with this invitation, with this fanning of the flame, comes a cross. For while Peter saved his own hide during our Lord’s passion, there would come a passion of his own, and a cross awaiting Peter later on. This doesn’t only apply to St. Peter. For in our first lesson, the Lord says regarding St. Paul: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

The life of the Christian – and especially the life of a Christian shepherd – is a life lived out under the burden of the cross. To take up Jesus’s invitation “follow me” is to end up like Jesus at Golgotha, and from there, into a tomb.

But let us never forget that the pain and shame of the cross do not have the final say. Death doesn’t get the last word. For this very lesson was taught to Peter, to all pastors, and to all Christians, from the mouth of the resurrected Christ. Just as a cross awaits all of us in life, and death itself waits for us at the end of our own walk through our own versions of the passion, our own stations of the cross – let us keep in mind that a resurrection lies on the other side. And as St. John testifies in our second lesson, part and parcel of this resurrection is a feast, a feast of victory, in which we join (today, and forever) the thousands of thousands, the myriads of myriads, the church militant on earth, the church triumphant in heaven, angels, archangels, and all the hosts of heaven singing: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”

This is the feast of victory for our God, alleluia, now, and in the age to come, world without end. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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