Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Question That Never Goes Away

John 21:1-17
Easter 4
April 25, 2010
William G. Carter

We celebrated Easter three weeks ago. It was a grand day. Bright flowers, great music, good crowd, and a few children with chocolate hands. As the days march on, I remember what a young boy said to me one Easter day. It was the year we ended the worship service by singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Everybody came up, took their place, and belted it out. I don’t think this little guy had ever heard that piece of music before, because he started to clap when the last note rang out. I had stepped until the pulpit to give the benediction, so he stopped. But you could still see the thrill and excitement written on his face.

In fact, he met me at the back door, shook my hand, and blurted out, “I wish it could be Easter every day of the year!”

I share his hope. On Easter, the pews are full. The plates are full. The people are full. There’s an air of excitement. We know it is our big day. It would be nice to have a little bit of that same power, that same exuberance, all throughout the year.

But it seems difficult to keep it there. Listen to Simon Peter. What does he say after Easter? “I’m going fishing.” And not only him – Doubting Thomas, Sarcastic Nathanael, Blusterous James and John, and two others. They weren’t “fishing for people,” either. Jesus was risen and gone. Sounds like they were going back to the old ways. Easter didn’t hold their excitement.

They went out, got into the big boat, fished all through the night, and caught nothing. It was slow going, a long night. Whatever disappointment they felt was matched by their weariness. This is life after Easter, the slow slump after the Big News. And I suppose John tacks on this story after his Easter story, if only to remind us that the sanctuary is not always full, the joyful noise is not always plugged in, and even a handful of believers take off to go fishing.

That in itself is a helpful reminder. Every Sunday is not a revival. There is a rhythm to the practice of faith. We can’t expect to be excited all the time. In between the mountains of enlightenment, there are valleys of boredom and routine. We have to slog through the underbrush, and there’s no quick assurance

I got a note from one of our former members last fall, and kept it in a file reserved for good reminders. I save some of the cards and notes that I receive, especially if they can give me encouragement at a later date. This lady and her daughter moved to a city in a southern state some years ago. They immediately hooked up with this busting church in a busy part of town. They have four worship services each Sunday, each one of them jammed. You can never find a parking space. Two different choirs, both of them enormous. The preacher has a deep tan, and preaches a lively sermon. Whenever she came north to visit family, she made a point to tell me how that church is so wonderful.

Then last November, she sent me a note. Attendance has dropped off. Two choirs merged into one. It’s easier to find a parking space. The preacher seems tired. It just doesn’t seem the same. She wrote all these things in a card, and sent it to me. I said to myself, “I’m going to keep this card.” I found it deeply encouraging. And if she ever appears again, and tells me that big church has turned things around, I’m going to pull out that note and remind her of what she wrote.

The plain fact is every Sunday is not Easter. We cannot live by adrenaline alone. It simply doesn’t jibe with human ups and downs, with the cycle of seasons. The sage of Ecclesiastes said well: “There is a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to seek and a time to lose.” Shortly after Easter, Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, said, “I’m going fishing.”

Yet something happened. Actually a number of things happened. This story, which most scholars declare was tacked on to the end of John’s Gospel, reminds us that the Risen Jesus continues to be alive. He may have ascended to his Father in heaven, as he promised Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, but he keeps coming back. As the Bible scholar Raymond Brown notes, all of the resurrection appearances have Jesus returning from heaven. He keeps showing up, mostly unnoticed or unidentified. And those people whose hearts are prepared will see him. That is the promise after Easter.

The seven of them in that big fishing boat see a stranger on shore. They don’t know who he is. He calls out to them, and they don’t recognize his voice. How long has it been? A couple of weeks, maybe; John doesn’t say. He calls them “little boys” and asks, “You don’t have any fish, do you?” No, they don’t have any fish.

“Put your net on the right side of the boat; there are some over there.” They are too tired to argue, too worn out to question him. They toss in the net, and all these fish start jumping into it. It’s so heavy they can’t even haul it in. Suddenly the light goes on for at least one of those “little boys.” He knows of only one person who would be playing with them like that, only one person who would be so generous, so insightful, so astonishing. And here he is, a hundred and ten miles away from Jerusalem, where they last saw him. He came to them where they were, at dawn. One blurted out, “It is the Lord!”

When Simon Peter heard this, he was so thrilled that he jumped into the water to make his way to the shore. It’s a comical scene: he leaves the other six guys to drag in an overflowing net without his help. Even then the scene turns on a dime. No sooner does Peter hit the shore, when he spins around and goes back toward the boat. Some might think he went back to help the others; I happen to believe it’s what he saw that made him really nervous.

Jesus the Stranger, who had called out to them - asking for fish - already had some fish. He was cooking them on a fire, and not just any fire. It was a charcoal fire. The Gospel of John loves its details. Some details are obscure, like the number of fish that they caught (153); don’t know what that signifies. But we have heard before about a charcoal fire and Simon Peter. Anybody remember the moment?

When Simon Peter denied Jesus on the night of his arrest, it happened by a “charcoal fire.” Three times, Simon Peter was asked if he knew Jesus, and three times he said, “I do not know the man. I am not one of his disciples. I wasn’t in the garden with him.” The cock crowed at dawn, just as the Lord has predicted.

Now, at the end, all is said and done. On the other side of the cross, after the tomb is found empty, Jesus finds Simon Peter a hundred and ten miles away. Jesus comes to him at dawn, that is, at cock crow. He is waiting for Simon Peter by a charcoal fire. And he is ready to ask three times: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” He is given Simon Peter the opportunity to undo what he denied.

“Do you love me? Do you love me more than these?” That’s the persistent, troubling question. It lingers for Peter, for all of us. “Do you love me?” That’s his question when you’ve gone back fishing, when you have run away in fear, when the initial embrace is completed, when the excitement has died again. “Do you love me?”

The poet, Stephen Dunn, struggled with this question. He had long ago turned away from believing the Lord, much less loving him. And then he took his little girl to a subversive week of Vacation Bible School. He hadn’t counted on her learning stories and songs about Jesus. He and his wife had thought they had given up on belief, but now he’s not so sure. Here is his poem, called “At Smithville Methodist Church”

It was supposed to be Arts and Crafts for a week
But when she came home
with the “Jesus loves me” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the song
the sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism.
That other sadness.
O.K., we said. One week. But when she came home
singing, “Jesus loves me,
The Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.
It had been so long since we believe, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and our friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child.
On parents’ night there were the Arts and Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark
And Hallelujah
and one in which they had to jump and down
for Jesus.
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
She sang the song,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

It might be that subversive week could save the poet’s life. Too early to tell. He might stop relying on easy answers that explain life but do not hold him. As he says, “I didn’t have a wonderful story for my child and she was beaming.” He didn’t have a wonderful story for himself either.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. “I will come to you.” One of the implications of a Risen Christ is that he can find us, that he can come to us. We may not notice him right away, but he’s there. Or he’s here. Or he meets you in the grocery store, or the hospital waiting room, or the dark room where you’re bored, or the bleachers of the basketball game, or in the parking lot of the mall, or the place where you’ve gotten into deep trouble. And he asks, “Do you love me?”

Twice he asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” And twice Simon Peter responds, “You know I’m your friend.” So Jesus moves in closer, meets Peter where he is, and asks a third time, “Simon, are you my friend?” To which Simon says, “Yes, you know I’m your friend.” With that, Easter becomes an assignment: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep.”

The Easter lilies have been taken away. The hymns are back to normal. A few of the faithful have gone fishing. Yet there’s no telling where a Risen Lord may find us. He may stay quietly anonymous, guiding and helping behind the scenes. He may speak the word that opens our eyes or redirects our attention. He may call us toward our own charcoal fire, where he could remind us of our failures before he forgives us in his mercy. We cannot know when he will come or how he will reveal himself.

What we do know is that he keeps asking the same question, over and over: “Do you love me? Do you love me more than these? Are you my friend?”

He will wait for the answer. And his question never goes away.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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