Other Side of Easter

A sermon preached at North Decatur Presbyterian Church in 2007, in the days following the shooting at Virginia Tech. It seems appropriate after the bombs at the Boston Marathon too.

John 21:1-19

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

That was our refrain two weeks ago. It is our refrain today.

How are our lives different today because of that news? What does it mean for us to stand and say “Christ is risen!”

No matter how we understand the event of the resurrection, we know that in the act of God raising Christ from death, God defeated death. Death no longer has the last word. Death is no longer the last thing we say about Christ, about this world we live in today, or about our hope for the future.

This is a profoundly liberating word. Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

While it often leaves us with more questions than answers, it also gives us hope. The violence and pain we see around us every day are not going to be victorious. Christ is at work, risen from the tomb, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to bring about God’s New Creation.

Christ does not promise us a life now that is separate from this broken and fearful world, but to be with us in the midst of this broken and fearful world. And to remind us that by breaking out of the tomb and conquering death, this broken world is not all there is.

We, as Easter people, are people of hope. Hope in a future that has seen its beginning in Christ’s empty tomb. The future is clearly not here yet, but we have seen the promise, the potential. We have hope.

And so, the paradox of living on the other side of Easter, means that even though we are surrounded by senseless violence, death, war, sadness, hunger, and disease, we do not give those things authority. We live knowing that God has conquered death, we believe in a different future for God’s children.

So, how are our lives different? Have you felt different these past two weeks, knowing that you are on the other side of Easter? Have you radically altered your schedule, patterns, habits?

I confess that after Easter, I had not. I heard the good news, people sang the Hallelujah chorus, and I went home and worried about the paper I had to write, the theology I had to read, the soccer practices to which I had to drive my children. On one hand, I know my life is different after Easter. I fully trust and believe in Paul’s words that in Christ we are a NEW CREATION. But on the other hand, I feel very much the same as I was before.

Despite this EXTRAORDINARY news, my life feels very  ORDINARY.

The comforting news to people like me, to people like us, is that we have a story in scripture this morning of people like us. People who were also operating on the other side of Easter.

Peter had been there through the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. You’ll remember that Peter was also the disciple who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. But despite his denial of Christ, and the shame, guilt, and whatever that must have come with it, Peter was there on Easter morning. Mary Magdalene told him what she had seen at Jesus’ tomb and Peter races to the tomb, goes in, and finds nothing but the cloths in which Jesus had been buried. He doesn’t know what to do with what he’s seen, so he and the other disciples go home.

Later he hears about Mary Magdalene’s visit with Jesus in the garden. And Peter was in the locked upper room with the other disciples when Jesus appeared in the midst of them. Twice.
So, if anyone should know that the world is not as it was before, it is Peter. If anyone should be different. look different. act differently. it is Peter.

So Peter, gathered together with the other disciples, says, “Christ is risen! Let’s go fishing.

Now, for many of you, I’m sure that makes perfect sense. What could be better than a day on the lake with friends, catching fish, enjoying the company? But for Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the other disciples, fishing was not just something they loved to do. It had also been their job. Remember, those jobs they left behind to follow Jesus? The nets they walked away from so they could go fish for people?

So…. what does Christ is risen, let’s go fishing! mean?

Do they go fishing because it is where they find comfort? Because that is what they do?  Because it is who they are?

Or do they go fishing because that whole following Jesus business didn’t work out so well for them? Do they think they are out of work? Even this side of Easter, having seen the risen Lord, is there still some confusion about what it means for them to follow Jesus?

The text doesn’t spell it out for us. But I do think we should carry it around with us for a while.

What does it look like to “follow Jesus” when it hasn’t turned out exactly as we envisioned? Messiah. Lord. We don’t know exactly what the disciples thought they were signing up for when they put down their nets, but I think we can safely say they were not expecting their leader and teacher to be killed as a common criminal by the Romans. They certainly were not expecting him to rise from death. Resurrection was a Jewish belief. But it had never before been understood as something that would happen to one person. Resurrection was an end of time event for all of God’s righteous.

So whatever they were expecting, it wasn’t the dead coming back to life.

Yes Lord. We’ll follow you.

But where are you?

First the disciples thought he was dead. finito. It was over. They were hiding. avoiding arrest.
And then he appears. out of the tomb. talking to them. Letting them touch his side. Giving them his peace …
and then disappearing again.

We’ve had 2,000 years in which the theologians and Sunday school classes could help us understand what it means for Christ to have risen from death, and on most days it still seems a little fuzzy. But what did it mean to the disciples in that moment, without the benefit of Augustine and Karl Barth?

How did they process that extraordinary news?

Christ is risen! Let’s go fishing! And it is at that moment, in that place of confusion and uncertainty, that Jesus appeared again to his disciples.

Going about the normal routines of their lives, despite the extraordinary news that their teacher, who was dead is now alive again, shows us that the disciples trusted that the world, which has been turned upside down and is not as they thought it was, is still in God’s hand.

Perhaps fishing is Peter’s way of saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t know if Jesus is going to show up again or not. But I do know and trust that God is in charge and I am going to go about the living of my life. The authorities can’t keep me hidden, cowering in fear.”

And it is when the disciples take that step to go about the living of their lives in hope, that they encounter Jesus.

Peter says, “I’m going fishing”, grabs his pole and gets the can of worms out of the fridge. The disciples with him join him, get their new lures and tackle, throw their rods in the back of the pick up truck and go fishing.

All night long, they fish. nothing. not a bite. I’ve fished enough to know how maddening that can be. And for them, it must have been insult to injury. “Not only can we not fish for men but now we can’t even fish for fish any more!”

But then Jesus appears on the beach. And he says,  “children, you don’t have any fish, do you?

No.” they reply. He tells them where the fish are biting, they follow his directions and immediately, what had been an unproductive night becomes successful and fruitful.

Isn’t that how it goes? One minute, we don’t know how we are supposed to follow this resurrected Christ, but we gather together in our community anyway, we live out our lives in hope, and then he appears, bringing grace into what had been frustration, confusion, fruitlessness.

Frederick Buechner writes “Our days are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance—not words that are written in the stars but words that are written into the raw stuff and nonsense of our days…” It is in the going about the details of our lives, the very ordinary act of fishing, or running, reading, volunteering, shopping, doing laundry, working, whatever it is for you that is ordinary, that God speaks to us words of great significance. “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you?”

Perhaps they heard the concern in his voice for their welfare. Perhaps they heard the voice of the one who loved them more than anyone else ever had.

In any case, they follow his instruction, cast their nets on the other side, and bring in the catch of a lifetime. This will go down in the annals of fish stories. “We’d been out all night and NOTHING and then he appears, we cast the nets where he tells us and we get the biggest catch you’ve ever imagined. There were so many fish our nets should have busted right open, but they didn’t. 153 of them, to be exact.” Right there. In the Bible. The biggest fish story ever–after Jonah, I guess.

Then Peter, true to character, lives out his impulsive and exuberant nature and leaps into the water and swims to Jesus while the rest of his friends bring the boat into shore. When Peter raced to the tomb on Easter, he missed Jesus. Didn’t see him. Even though the boat was only 100 yards from the shore, he wasn’t going to miss him again. He dives into the water and swims to Jesus. They gather. They eat fish for breakfast. They sit on the beach, around the fire, talking with Jesus.

And Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. Peter says, “yes Lord, you know I love you.” three times.

Peter is the disciple who denied Jesus three times—Jesus knows it. Peter knows it and he knows that Jesus knows it. Presumably the other disciples around the fire know it—and Jesus brings it up. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? This is the confrontation toward which Peter has been running, giving Peter the chance to affirm what he has denied. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t bring this up when the disciples first see him standing on the beach, after a night of unsuccessful fishing. He provides for them first. He gives them fish. He builds a fire. He makes them breakfast.

Then he asks Peter if he loves him. Grace first. Breakfast first. Challenge second. Like all of our encounters with God. Grace first. Our response is second. Feeding sheep is literal—Jesus has just done it, in their presence, for them. Feeding sheep is not obligation, duty, guilt. It is response to love. Jesus entrusts his sheep to Peter’s care.

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

This is Christ’s response to what has been on Peter’s mind since Easter, has been on our minds since Easter. What does it mean to follow the risen Jesus? In the very ordinary world in which we receive this very extraordinary news, how does it look to follow Jesus?

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.
In response to God’s love for us, given despite Peter’s denial and our denial, our response is to feed God’s sheep and tend God’s lambs.
I have been privileged to serve with you this year, watching you feed God’s lambs and tending God’s sheep. You give of your time to teach children, youth, and adults, to provide care in the nursery, to provide and serve meals, to make biscuits, to go on service trips, to volunteer in worship leadership, to visit with and give rides to those who need rides, to sing in the choir, to play handbells, to advocate for social justice, to speak out for peace, to speak up for God’s creation. The list goes on.

But remember that as Peter and the disciples are told to tend God’s flock, they are also in need of tending. They must receive as well. For many of us, that is the bigger challenge. Allowing people to tend to us.

And, to the part of the passage that I tried all week to pretend was not there, after Jesus challenges Peter to love his flock, Jesus tells us something else about what it looks like to follow the risen Lord.

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”

Following the risen Lord does not always take us where we want to go. It is often difficult, uncomfortable, and painful.

Some of you have seen the New York Times article this week about David Evans brother, Alexander Evans, who is pastor of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church and who accompanied the police into meetings with the families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims this week to give them the news and often identify their loved ones bodies from photographs. “There is no way to prepare for this, to train for this,” Mr. Evans said. “It demands all of our compassion as human beings. It demands that we help each other through it.

In addition to being with the families, he was present with the police officers and other rescue personnel on the scene. Mr. Evans said he hoped he had been able to show both the police officers and victims’ relatives who are suffering that they were not alone and that they were not without God. “I think God is crying with all those who are crying and giving encouragement to all those giving encouragement,” he said. I suspect that he could tell us stories of where he saw Christ this week.

Hearing all of the church people interviewed by the media this week reminds us of Jesus’ comment to Peter. Following Jesus will take you where you do not want to go. For certainly, nobody in Blacksburg, minister or church member, wanted to go this deeply into grief this week.

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

Accompanying people through pain and loss. Accompanying Christians in Colombia, as members of this church have done. Working for peace in the Middle East, which we will hear more about next Sunday. Whenever we follow Christ’s flock into dangerous valleys, we are taken where we do not want to go.

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

So, as we live on the other side of Easter, expect Christ to appear in the ordinary times of your life. Watch for Christ’s sheep, so you may feed them. Watch also, for those times when your net is empty. When Christ is calling to you, telling you where to find fish. And, be prepared for this journey might take you where you do not wish to go. This side of Easter, we may look and feel the same as we did on the other side, but we look with new eyes, we live with new hope, and we respond in love to Christ’s surprising presence in our midst.

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