Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Easter – April 14, 2013
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Richard Foster, a Christian theologian in the Quaker tradition, suggests that when we read the Bible, we should try to “live the experience. Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.” In other words, he is asking that we enter the Scriptures with all our senses. Today’s Gospel which relays the third appearance of Jesus after his resurrection is very graphic with images of the sounds and smell of the sea, the aromas of food being cooked, even, a disciple frolicking in his birthday suit.
One of my favorite things to do as a special treat is to go out for breakfast. Good food, good company—what a way to enjoy God’s bounty. That makes it easy for me to engage my senses in this story except that I will be smelling bacon and eggs instead of grilled fish.
It is a very human story. The disciples have gone back to their daily routine as fishermen because they need to survive in spite of everything that has happened to turn their lives upside down. We even meet a naked Peter frantically jumping into the sea in search of a Jesus sighting. Once again, they have difficulty recognizing the risen Christ—he appears to be a stranger— but their uncertainty is overturned once he begins to feed them—first by showing them where to catch the fish and then by making them breakfast. It’s not unlike our Sunday liturgy where God feeds us in the word proclaimed and preached and then gives us bread and wine to become the body and blood of Jesus as symbols of God’s presence with us, God’s mercy, forgiveness and love. Here, as at the Last Supper, Jesus acts as host.
But there are other significant pieces in this Easter story. The evangelist John is very specific about the number of fish the disciples hauled in: 153. Greek zoologists of the day believed that there were 153 different kinds of fish. So they made the perfect catch of the day, one of every kind. Here is testimony to God’s desire for great diversity in the church. The community gathered to preach the Good News and to invite all to hear it is to be populated by all sorts and conditions and demographics of people. That their nets do not tear under the strain of such a large catch speaks to the unity of the church even in the midst of its diversity.
In the end of the text, we find Jesus wanting to guarantee that Peter as the one who will shepherd the disciples after he leaves them, and the rest of them as well, will tend, and feed and care for and love those who will follow them as the new disciples who become the church. Jesus gave this charge not once but three times.
What stands out in this Gospel like a catfish among trout is the mission of the church as evangelism—growing the faith community, literally becoming fishers of people—made possible by the presence of the Risen Jesus. Without his care and direction—in guiding their nets and providing their sustenance—their efforts would have been fruitless. Two thousand plus years later, we cannot do this work on our own power. We do it because of God’s Spirit abiding with us, guiding us, nourishing us, encouraging us. When Peter and the others set out on their own, they failed. When they listened to the instructions Jesus gave them, their nets swell.
At the heart of the story is the importance of building community. The sharing of food is one of the things that defines our humanity but, more than that, it is what brings us together and unites us as friends, as a family, as a community. Animals scavenge alone. Human beings usually do not enjoy eating a meal in solitude. The comfort of a good breakfast or a cup of coffee or lunch or dinner and good conversation can be a moment of grace. It’s really all about building and sustaining relationships and staying connected to one another.
In our culture, how often do most people today sit at a table and share food together—as a household or family, as friends? Fast food, eaten quickly and often alone, is so much the order of the day and the technology of the internet and text messaging distracts us from even talking to one another. How often have you observed someone in a restaurant talking on a cell phone—ignoring, at least for several minutes, the person in front of them?
Isolation is not a healthy condition. Jesus was always bringing people together—all kinds of people from all walks of life—most often to sit down together at a table and share a meal. And Jesus gave us this holy meal in which we partake every week—no fast food, take out here. We gather together and share this repast as God’s family and the table to which we come is God’s table from which no one is ever excluded.
I think what Jesus was really doing that morning on the beach was literally trying to “break their fast” –to break their fast from joy and hope and expectation and show them in the simple and ordinary sharing of a meal together that life would go on and that he would still be with them. And the holy food and drink we are offered here each week comes with that same reminder.
Something that occurred to me as I read this post-Easter Gospel is that at one time or another you and I were not fully recognized—just as the disciples on the beach did not recognize Jesus—you and I came here as a stranger—unknown to most people here. Maybe we came feeling weary and hopeless and discovered something unique and wonderful here. Maybe we came with empty nets like Peter and Thomas and Nathaniel, and they were quickly filled by an abundance of God’s grace and peace.
We continue to welcome many people who enter our doors. Like the nets the disciples cast and hauled in, it does and will continue to stretch us. What we must never forget is that, once upon a time, all of us came as strangers seeking the welcome, acceptance and support of a community of faith. Some may have been treated as aliens in a former church or been greatly hurt by what was done to them in the name of religion. Others may have simply lost faith or felt that something was missing in their life.
By God’s grace and with the timeless instructions that Jesus has given us in hand, we continue to cast our nets, welcome guests, invite them to be part of this community. The challenge Jesus offers us is this: Feed them. Tend to their needs. Listen to them. Make room for them. Let them share in ministry with you. Let them care for you. That, I believe, is what he meant that morning on the beach when he said, “Follow me.”
Words of Episcopal priest and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor say it best for me: “It is probably a good idea to pay attention to strangers. Whether they are giving you unsolicited advice about where to cast you nets or just standing there looking at you with eyes like daybreak, it is probably a good idea to pay attention to them since Jesus has a whole closet full of disguises.”