Reflection for May 1, 2022
Third Sunday after Easter
Acts 9:1-6, 7-20
It is hard to believe and I can hardly believe it, but this is my 18threflection since early 2020. Thank you so much for this privilege. I love to do it, and I appreciate your trust.
Today, the Gospel passage is packed with messages. My connection to it began in 1949 when our parents gave me and my brother a skinny child’s book called “The Easter Story.” I still have it. There is one story and one
picture in the book that have always, always lived with me. This is the story and picture of a young and slim and elegant Jesus on the beach cooking fish. I don’t know why this image has stayed with me since childhood. But now I think that the memory of the story and picture are really, quite simply, a
Today’s Gospel passage has Jesus cooking on the beach. The passage is part of what is called the appendix to John’s Gospel. But I think that the passage is actually an extremely important capstone to the Gospel. And I’m really glad that it got tacked on so long ago. For one thing, it is the third and last time Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection. And three seems a special number. For another, food features in it just as food features strongly in all of the Gospels, just as it features strongly in our lives and in our liturgy.
Eating the bread and fish that Jesus cooked on the shore of Lake Tiberias (which is more familiar to us as the Sea of Galilee) and sitting around with him and your friends must have been a relaxed and happy time for Peter and the disciples who had joined him when he went back to fishing. They knew that the man on the shore was the Lord, and they knew that the last time they had eaten with him was on the night before his passion and death. By contrast with the Last Supper, how peaceful this meal on the beach must have been. I think back to the fires on the beach in my childhood and to how meals on the sand were part of our summer life. Even today we can
appreciate this meal on the shores of the Sea of Galilee because eating in company is one of the most beautiful things of life.
In contrast to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John’s story of the Last Supper before Jesus’ passion and death does not narrate the institution of the Eucharist. John has very long chapters on the Last Supper. And they contain a lot, but they do not contain the Eucharist. (John 13 – 17)
But I think that this meal on the beach is John’s own special narration of the institution of the Eucharist. John tells about it through the power of a story that resonates with our daily lives.
I have two reasons for saying that John is talking about the Eucharist in this story.
The first is that Jesus’ love for these companions is so evident because he goes to where they are and he feeds them. He actually does the cooking. This is a communion of love.
The second reason is that Jesus sends these guys forth into the post-Easter future. So, this is a passage about “going forth” and being “sent forth” just as we are sent and go forth after the Eucharist.
Let’s think about the first reason, the love in this story. If you are like me, you hear all the time that God loves you. But you really want to know how this love comes into your heart, how you feel it, how you visualize it.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says a couple of important things about love at the Last Supper. He says that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for his friends. (16:12) And, in fact, this is what Jesus is about to do. But Jesus goes on very nicely to talk about “friends.” And an important part of what
he says is “You are my friends . . . I shall not call you servants anymore.” (16:13) In the prayer that closes the Last Supper scene, Jesus says that he prays for everyone who hears the Word – that’s us – and he says, “May they all be one, Father, may they all be one in us, as you are in me and I in you.” (18:20-21)
Jesus is saying that we are his friends. And as we gather together in this Christian enterprise, if you will, we actually can identify with Jesus. He
makes an effort to get this point across because, at the Last Supper, he also says that he is the vine and we are the branches. (15: 5)
This is a true friendship that is manifested in the quiet of the companionship of the meal on the beach. It is a kind of friendship that is close and intimate. We can say, metaphorically, to Jesus around the fire, “Would you mind passing me a little more bread?”
This is love and friendship that is a Eucharist. We participate in it most mindfully and sacredly in the Communion service. But we also participate in it when we have a meal together. This is peace mixed with love, love mixed with peace, as we metaphorically eat on the beach. As Jesus also said at the Last Supper, “My peace I give you; my peace I leave with you.” (14:27)
So, don’t be afraid of Our Lord. He is not distant. He is your friend. And he manifests as your friend in your heart, in the liturgy, and in scripture.
I said that the Eucharist narrative here includes both love and a going forth and sending forth. So, how about the going forth?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a conversation with Peter. I think that Peter is one of the most attractive characters in the Gospels. He says: “Be quiet, Jesus, don’t talk about crucifixion.” And then Jesus scolds him. Matt. 16: 22 – 23) He says: “I’ll never betray you.” And then he does. (Mark 14: 72) He says: “Don’t you wash my feet, Lord.” And then, after Jesus takes this as a teaching moment, he says: “Wash all of me!” (John 13: 6 – 9) He is the guy who jumps out of the boat to swim to Jesus on the shore. (John 21: 7) And he is the guy who jumps out of another boat to walk to Jesus on the water. (Matt. 14: 28 – 29)
There is a lot of Peter in all of us. And through Peter, we receive the “sending forth” of this Eucharistic moment. Three times, Jesus says to him: “Feed my lambs.” This is a kind of sending forth summarized in what we call the post-communion prayer which closes with the words: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” In our dual Christian identity of lamb and feeder of lambs, we do our best in the world to be loved and to love others.
So, we have a meal on the beach that is a communion of love and we have a sending forth. Now, how about the somber way in which this Gospel passage closes? The chilling prediction of Peter’s martyrdom? Well, let’s hope none of us gets martyred or has to face the ultimate cost of discipleship. But we all know that the world is not a great place in many, many, many respects – war, famine, the political power of money, and so forth. And we know that we and other persons suffer greatly or even a little. We are all sometimes taken to a place where we do not want to go – illness, the troubles of our children, helplessness, the fear of war, and so forth.
How do we respond to this uneasy tension between the victory of Jesus’ resurrection and the defeats we see all around us? Well, here is where the Eucharistic moment comes to help us. Here is where we keep going back to the beach and keep being sent forth — over and over and over. This is where the Eucharist and Eucharistic moments of love give us each other and give us joy.
So, my last question today, how does joy work? Tish Harrison Warren is the New York Times’ opinion writer on religion. She is a Christian. And she has recently written very well and succinctly about joy. I’m going to quote some of what she wrote last Sunday, April 24.
Joy . . . does not refuse to face grief or sorrow. But it does say that they are not all there is and that they are not all that needs to be faced. . . . This means that death is real, but there’s something greater than death. Injustice is real, but it’s not the end of the story. Heartbreak is real, but it gives way to redemption. Suf ering is real, but it cannot erase beauty.
Let’s go to the beach, everybody, in this Easter season. “Hey, Jesus, can I have another beer?”
Thank you and Amen