We are in Easter tide—the fifty days following Easter Sunday that ends on Pentecost. And although Easter is the Church’s commemoration of our very reason for being, for the most part, we don’t take much notice of it, certainly not in our individual spiritual lives. While Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and fasting, there are few, if any devotional traditions surrounding the season of Easter. That’s why, if you’re interested, some young adults in our area, led by Fr. Jonathan Melton, chaplain of St. Francis House UW, put together a devotional for the fifty days of Easter. We might reflect on how our personal spiritual lives might be different if we consciously and attentively focused on the joy of resurrection during these 50 days of Easter—the joy of a Risen Christ, but also our hope for resurrection, for the bringing together of body and soul in new beings, new creations, made alive through Christ, remade in God’s image.
Our Sunday worship does take on a slightly different tone, as well. In addition to the opening acclamation—Alleluia. Christ is risen; and the seasonal blessing and dismissals, we tweak our liturgy to de-emphasize the penitential aspect and emphasize the joy of resurrection. Thus, we do not say the Confession of Sin, and at the early service, we omit the Prayer of Humble Access. I also encourage you to stand throughout the Eucharistic Prayer in Eastertide. In fact, the Council of Nicaea in 325 required Christians to stand during the Great Thanksgiving in Easter Season. As our Eucharistic Prayer B states, “we are worthy to stand before you.”
But the season of Easter is not just about celebration and joy of resurrection. It is also about empowerment, call, and mission. We see that clearly in the reading from Acts, which is Luke’s account of Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. To use Paul’s own words, he was transformed from being a zealous follower of the Jewish Law to a follower of Jesus the Messiah. His encounter with Christ changed everything, especially his understanding of God—and he worked for the rest of his life to bring that new understanding of God, and of Jesus Christ, to life in the lives of Jews and Gentiles across the Roman Empire.
The gospel reading shows some of the same dynamic. It’s a wonderful, puzzling text that raises lots of interesting, though not always insightful questions. In the first place, it is puzzling because it seems to be an addition to the gospel. Chapter 20 concludes with a couple of verses that would work very well as the conclusion of a gospel:
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.
Here, the gospel writer suggests that there were a lot of other things he could have written about, but chose not to. What he wrote should suffice for the reader to come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
But then comes chapter 21, which recounts another appearance of the risen Christ to some of the disciples. I’m not sure it is an add-on, for if it is, this story very carefully comes back around to other stories and themes in the gospel. For example, it takes place on the Sea of Tiberias or Galilee, where earlier in the gospel Jesus had miraculously fed the five thousand from a five loaves of bread and two fishes. Now, Jesus offers his disciples a breakfast of grilled fish and bread, in the context of a miraculous catch of fish. Like the miraculous feeding of the crowd, the disciples had plenty to eat for breakfast, and they caught a miraculous amount of fish, after having been unsuccessful all through the night.
And about that charcoal fire—such a fire appears earlier in the gospel, after Jesus’ arrest. Peter and another disciple followed the soldiers who captured Jesus into the courtyard of the High Priest, where Peter denied Jesus , while warming himself by a charcoal fire.
As you remember, Peter denied Jesus three times, after rashly vowing at the Last Supper, that he would follow Jesus and lay down his life for him. Now, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, seems to predict that Peter will die for his faith, and concludes by saying “Follow me.”
One other thing. In the other gospels, Jesus called his disciples, or at least Peter and Andrew, James and John as he walked along the sea of Galilee, and as they were working on their fishing nets. In John, the first call of the disciples takes place slightly differently, but when they encounter Jesus, the ask, where are you staying, and he replies, Come and see.
Now, at the sea, the Risen Christ bids the disciples to come and eat and then at the end of the story, tells Peter, “Follow me.” So, yes, this is a story about discipleship, about following Jesus.
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.
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.
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.
Peter probably didn’t understand what Jesus was saying to him in that last encounter. He may not have been sure what Jesus meant when he said to him, “Follow me.”
In that, we’re not so very different. Our encounters with the Risen Christ may not be as certain or as life-changing as those of Peter and Paul, but in them, whether they are of the Road to Damascus variety, or of a less dramatic encounter with him in the breaking of the bread, our encounters with the risen Christ can and do change us. Christ comes to us, Christ enters us. Christ fills us with joy. And perhaps more importantly, our encounters with the Risen Christ empower us to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others, and offer others the possibility of new and changed life in and through Christ. Thanks be to God!