I was at an ecumenical meeting earlier this week that usually begins with some sort of round-robin check-in for all of the board members. This time, the chair asked us to respond to the question, “What is saving your life right now?” I was second in line, so I didn’t have much time to think about the question, and when my turn came, all I could muster was, “the Gospel of John.”
I know, it’s a really lame answer but at the same time, there’s a great deal of truth in it. I have been overwhelmed over the last weeks by the depth and power of this gospel and it’s probably because I was working on today’s gospel reading earlier in the day, that when I came to the meeting, those words came out of my heart. As I’ve said repeatedly over the last months, the gospel of John continues to fascinate me even after years of reading and study, and preaching. I continue to find new insights, new challenges to views I’ve held about the gospel, each time I read through it. This week’s reading is no exception.
Today’s text is the third appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples and it’s an enigmatic story that invites a series of questions. The first question isn’t obvious unless you read chapter 20 first. The last verse of chapter 20 reads:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
That sounds like a pretty nifty way to end a gospel. But then comes chapter 21, with another appearance of the Risen Christ, and at the end of that chapter, with another conclusion. So that’s the first question: what’s chapter 21 doing there in the first place.
Then come another series of questions the text opens toward, but doesn’t really answer. Why do the disciples, having seen the Risen Christ, decide to go fishing? What’s the miraculous catch of fish about? Why does Peter, who apparently was fishing without his clothes, put on his clothes to jump in the water and swim to shore? Why 153 fish? Why mention the net wasn’t torn? Where does Jesus get the fish that he prepares for the disciples’ breakfast? And then there’s the strange interchange between Jesus and Peter? There’s also the apparent prediction of Peter’s martyrdom, and in verses not included in today’s reading, Peter’s question to Jesus concerning the Beloved Disciple’s fate.
So there are lots of questions, more questions than I could begin to address in a short sermon and I encourage you to go read the text and ponder it on your own. And if you’d like, email me any questions you might have and I’ll write about them on my blog. Of all the questions that I have of the text, the issue I want to focus on are Jesus’ last words to Peter in today’s gospel, “Follow me.” It’s the invitation Jesus gives when he is calling his disciples, both in John and in the synoptic gospels. I find it rather strange in this context. It makes sense at the beginning of the gospel as Jesus sets out on his ministry, to invite others to follow him. Discipleship is a central theme of all the gospels and at the heart of discipleship is the invitation and the decision to follow Jesus.
But why here? Why does Jesus tell Peter to follow him at the very end of the gospel? Where is he going? And can Peter truly follow him on that journey? Well, I suppose it’s a reminder that encounters with the Risen Christ are not just about peak experiences. They are about Jesus empowering his disciples to forgive sins, as in chapter 20, and commissioning them to make disciples. Encounters with the risen Christ are about discipleship and call.
That’s especially obvious in the familiar story of Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Images of travel are abundant in this story. Followers of Jesus are not yet known as Christians; they are identified as belonging to “the Way.” Paul is on the road himself, in pursuit of those belonging to the Way. During his encounter with Christ, Jesus tells him to “get up and go into the city.” From then on, Paul will be on the move, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to Europe, first to the cities of Asia Minor and Greece, and culminating with his journey to Rome, the center of the known world.
There’s a sense in most of the accounts of appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples that they don’t recognize him at first. In many ways, Luke’s account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is definitive: he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. They are encounters in which the disciples come to know and understand fully who Jesus was and is, they begin to make sense of all that had happened to them, and they become much more than what they had been: followers themselves, but also missionaries, preachers of the good news.
Paul’s case is only slightly different. We are somewhat misled by Luke’s account of the Damascus Road experience. For Luke, Paul has a dramatic conversion, turning away from a life of persecuting Christians to being a follower of Jesus Christ, a transformation that takes place when he encounters the Risen Christ. Luke’s account has become almost normative for Christian experience. In Evangelical Christianity, the emphasis is on dramatic conversion, a turn around from a life of sin towards a life of faith. We expect that too, shaped not only by this passage but by hymns like “Amazing Grace” “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
In fact, it’s interesting that when Paul speaks of his own experience, he doesn’t see it as a dramatic break with the past, a conversion. When he tells his story, he uses other imagery drawn from the Hebrew Bible; he draws on the experiences of the prophets. In Galatians, he seems to be quoting or at least alluding to Jeremiah’s call. Paul writes:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles. The text from Jeremiah 1:5 reads: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’
For Paul, his encounter with the Risen Christ is his call to follow Jesus and to become an apostle, proclaiming Jesus Christ to the nations. Easter is a time of joy. In spite of our ongoing struggles to experience the new life of spring as winter seems to linger, Easter is a time to celebrate that new life, to rejoice in the resurrection and in our ongoing encounters with the Risen Christ.
But it’s not enough to encounter the Risen Christ. Jesus Christ beckons to us, calls us by name, and calls us, as he did Peter and Paul, to follow him. All of those men and women in the gospels who experienced the risen Christ did more. They ran and told others; they shared the story, the good news. They did it immediately, but they didn’t stop there. They continued to share that good news with everyone they encountered.
I’ve had several conversations with Grace members or newcomers over the last couple of months in which we’ve talked about the difficulties of sharing or even acknowledging one’s faith in the contemporary world. It can be especially difficult for people in academe where the sciences and social sciences often seem openly hostile to religion and spirituality. But it can be difficult for any of us, for we fear that if we are too open about what we believe, or even that we attend church regularly, we might be regarded as religious zealots or members of the religious right.
Think about it, though. If you’ve had a great meal at a new restaurant, seen a wonderful movie or play, you want to share that experience with your friends. If you come to church for any reason other than habit, if you come because you encounter the risen Christ here, in the gathering of the community and in the breaking of the bread, if you receive spiritual comfort and renewal, don’t you want to share that with others as well? Can you keep your mouth shut, or are you so excited that you want to share with everyone the good news that Jesus Christ is Risen!