Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” John 21:12
Yesterday morning one of my favorite Christian writers died. Rachel Held Evans was only 37 years old, and I can’t yet fathom that the world has lost her voice. In her most recent book Inspired, she shares some wonderful wisdom about many fascinating stories in the Bible. Today’s gospel comes up in a chapter on fish stories. Rachel tells about a time when she was enjoying a meal at an Episcopal church after an event. As she often did, she asked the strangers around the table what their favorite Bible stories were. One young mother said, “The one where Jesus meets his disciples on the beach.”
Rachel agreed. She said she liked that one too, and then Rachel proceeded to share a theory that in rabbinic numerology the number 153 – the number of fish the disciples catch – might represent completion or wholeness. Or it might correspond to a specific prophecy in Ezekiel that describes a great river full of all kinds of fish flowing out of a restored temple. Rachel also noted that the net is full but not torn, so the net might represent the church, holding a great diversity of fish together in unity.
That’s the challenge of these curious stories in scripture. There are countless ways to read them, and I’m grateful for the scholars and thinkers who help me find all kinds of meaning in these texts. But sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the heart of scripture.
This one is full of delicious, weird details. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus standing there on the shore, even though he’s been with them twice since his resurrection. There’s the fact that they listen to this supposed stranger when he tells them to try fishing on the other side of the boat. And then once Peter realizes that it’s Jesus, Peter – oh, Peter – Peter, who is naked, puts on his clothes before jumping into the water and scrambling the 100 yards to the sand. Peter leaves the rest of his friends on their own with those 153 fish.
But in the midst of all those crazy moments, there’s this: Jesus beside a fire, cooking some fish and warming some bread. “Come and have breakfast,” he says.
It always moves me that the disciples are trying to fish in the first place. I say “trying” because, as you may recall, it doesn’t go very well for them at first – until Jesus shows up. When the resurrected Jesus has been with them before, it’s been behind the doors of a locked room where the disciples had huddled together in fear. In that locked room Jesus has said to them over and over again “Peace be with you.” He has breathed the Holy Spirit into them. He’s told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples know that Jesus expects them to do something big. Something worthy of what they have learned by watching him and listening to him. There’s a mission on the horizon, although it’s not yet clear what it will be.
They must be so scared. And confused. Where is he sending us? How will we know what to do or what to say? What if people don’t listen? What if we get hurt, arrested, killed?
All of those questions. All of those living, breathing, logical questions.
So they go fishing. It’s what they used to do for a living. They know the smell of the salt air on the open sea. They know the rhythms of the waves. They know how the nets feel in their hands. It’s what they know.
That’s what we often do when we’re looking at an uncertain future. We get scared. We huddle up with people we trust. And we turn back to what we know.
I remember standing in front of the building where my PhD-level statistics class would meet. It was the first day of the quarter, and I was scared. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the desire to be back in the high school classroom. Being a teacher was crazy hard, but at least I knew how to do it. Statistics, not so much.
I remember the day that I was ordained as a pastor. I felt the Holy Spirit so powerfully that day – and yet a part of me wanted to go back to being sixteen and sitting in the pew and asking questions about the pastor’s sermon. It felt daunting to be the one now responsible for preaching that weekly sermon.
But going backwards doesn’t get us anywhere. It certainly doesn’t get us closer to the future into which God is leading us.
When the way forward is unclear or overwhelming, what do we do other than going backward?
We have some hints in the exchange between Jesus and Peter, in which Jesus keeps asking Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, in fact. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? “Yes, Lord, you know that I do.”
And then Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say, “Wait until everything is clear and certain before you do anything. Wait until you get to know the sheep and like them and decide that they’re worthy of your attention.” He doesn’t even say love the sheep in this moment. He tells Peter to feed the sheep.
And Jesus has already done just that. He has gathered his friends around a campfire and fed them breakfast.
Jesus seems to be saying, “No matter what uncertainty or fear you might feel, try doing something. Act as if you believe that wonderful things can happen when you step into that unknown. Act as if the kingdom of God is already fully here on earth. Act as if you believe resurrection is possible.”
Do something. Feed people. Take care of them in the way that God would take care of them. They still belong to God. Feed my sheep, Jesus says.
Imagine that ragtag, half-dressed group of fishermen on a beach at dawn, chomping on some fish and bread. These are the folks who will soon be sent out with the power to change the world with their message. They’re going to tell people the story of a God who loves us into life and whom death could not defeat.
But first – before all of that – they eat.
Rachel Held Evans once wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”[ii]
Come and have breakfast. And then say yes to the life God opens before you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Luke 24:30-31
As I prepared for Betty Schneeberger’s funeral service this week, I had the great pleasure of hearing stories about Betty from her family members and from some of you. Here’s what I learned. Eventually those stories were going to involve baked goods. Betty and her husband Frank ran the Chatham Bake Shop for many years, but even after it closed, they kept baking for friends and family for years after.
Any guesses as to what kind of baked good came up most often? Cookies. When talking about these cookies, people’s faces take on an expression of pure bliss. Even though it’s been years since some of them have had these cookies, they can describe in great detail what the cookies looked like, what they smelled like, and how they tasted.
For each holiday there were special kinds of cookies – heart shapes with pink icing for Valentine’s Day, bunnies for Easter, and owls with chocolate and vanilla icing for Halloween. If you were one of her kids or grandkids, when that holiday rolled around, a package of cookies would appear on your doorstep – whether you were away at college or had taken a job out of state. Those cookies found you wherever you were. And they brought with them a love beyond measure.
We often associate food with love. We gather with loved ones around special meals for Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas. We love catching up with old friends over delicious food. Just recently I was thinking about the many hours I spent playing canasta with my grandparents at their kitchen table. At some point in the game Granddaddy would get out his special snack supply, which often included my personal favorite – chocolate-covered graham crackers. (There’s a chance that he was trying to distract me from the strategy of the game with these snacks, but I could never prove it.) I can’t recall a time when his special snack containers were empty. I could depend on those cookies being there, just like I could depend on the love of my grandparents.
At the beginning of today’s gospel, the people walking along this road to the village of Emmaus feel like everything on which they have depended is gone. This story starts right after our Easter gospel from last Sunday. There have not yet been any Jesus sightings, although the women have told their story of the empty tomb, and Peter has seen for himself that Jesus is no longer there.
The people walking along this road have every reason to believe that Jesus is still dead. They are weighed down by grief, by the shattering of the future they had imagined: “We had hoped,” they say. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem us.”
Suddenly Jesus is there walking with them along the road – but no one realizes who he is. I’m not sure why. Certainly that road to Emmaus is far away from our reality in which every moment of every day is documented and shared with the world, so there wasn’t yet a “#resurrection” movement to follow. Maybe grief had clouded their vision. Maybe a resurrected Jesus looks a little different than the one they had known. Whatever the case, Jesus walks alongside them and talks with them – and even teaches them – without being recognized.
We might wonder why they didn’t know Jesus when he was right there with them, but how often do we miss seeing Jesus too? We know what it’s like to walk through our lives feeling overwhelmed, distracted, weighed down by grief or stress or fear. Every day we are confronted with more violence, this week from Sri Lanka to southern California. The magnitude of it all can keep us from seeing Jesus – especially in the people around us – the people we love most and the people we meet in passing and the people in places around the world. Those people are one way that we encounter Jesus again and again. He is present in all of them, but we sometimes forget to see each other that way.
Do you remember when it is in the story that the people finally recognize Jesus? It’s when they eat together. He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his friends. And then their eyes are opened.
Does that seem familiar? It sounds a lot like Holy Communion, doesn’t it?
Today we celebrate First Communion for Chloe, Ava, Caitlyn, and Grace. We’ve had a lot of fun learning about this sacrament together. We’ve talked about how Jesus promises to show up when we share this meal. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, to have a week of making no mistakes and following all the rules. Jesus is with us in this meal not because we deserve it or have earned the right to receive it, but because he has promised to be here. He has promised to be here with the love and forgiveness that we all need so much.
In Holy Communion Lutherans say that we experience the true presence of Jesus. Sometimes we call it real presence. The wafer and the wine are not just symbols or metaphors. We’re not just re-enacting something that happened centuries ago. Jesus is really here with us now, feeding us and giving us strength to go out and serve others in the ways that he has shown us.
As I was explaining true presence in our First Communion class, I shared a title from one of our Lutheran theologians Timothy Wengert. His chapter about the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is called “When Jesus Throws a Party, He Shows Up.” I think it was Ava who said, “Of course he shows up! It’s his party!”
Of course Jesus shows up. It’s his party.
And this party is a gathering of love. A party in which we join with Christians throughout this community and throughout the world, with those who have died and with those who are just being born, with those we have loved and with those we may never meet. We are one in the body of Christ, joined in our call to make sure everyone knows the party is for them too. That’s what those first travelers did: “They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
We do not walk alone. Like those people on the road to Emmaus, we have good company as grieve together, as we learn together, as we celebrate together, and as we eat together. Jesus is with us. We don’t always notice him. We sometimes wish we could see him more clearly. But he is here.
So he says to us: Hold out your hands. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. I’m right here.
It really is that simple. That simple and that profound. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ