Acts 9:1-6 (7-20); Ps 30; Rev 5:11-14; JOHN 21: 1-19
Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, in truth. Alleluia!
The Easter 3 readings are full of Wow, thanks and then help to paraphrase. The numbers in scripture always intrigue me, and so one year, in reading this John, I looked up, maybe, 14 commentaries about 153 fish, why 153? Each commentary had an authoritative definitive answer; none was the same; each writer had earned directly or indirectly $’s for his (I’m pretty sure) answer. John’s Gospel is, however about theology, not narrative history. Unless, in the culture then 153 was the record number of homeruns, lambs shorn in a day, or water vats turned into wine at one party, I’d guess 153 was a number of a big bigness of fish caught, but real fish, not symbolic ones. John was saying Jesus turned a bad day of fishing into one of enormous bounty, bigger than imaginable, enough for eating then, a stockpile for a communal future, and one reflective of a generous Creator’s constant awareness of what his beloved creation always needs—enough to eat, to work, live, and love on. Here John is telling a parable in using a random, specific large number to convey the extent of the care and gifts to G*d’s people, in need and in their lives to come. John wasn’t doing a one to one allegory where fish = food, 153 = 10 fish/each of 12 tribes and one for each of his 33 years or some other nonsense. I’d guess it’s an introductory rhetorical largeness for the next story.
Jesus calls his fishing friends, “children,” “paidia” which conveys a kind of friendship and intimacy, and it’s the only time he addresses his friends in this way. They would have heard that and been alert to what else he was saying to them, that was so special, that he wanted to catch their attention in a new way. They’d had such a bad night, and they were discouraged. Then he showed himself to them and gave them clear instructions to reach over on one side of the boat. Not only was the catch unimaginably abundant, but the net didn’t even break. When they understood that it was the Lord, Simon Peter named him, put on his clothes, and jumped into the sea. Having been called children, they acted like children, and it’s a pretty funny scene. The scene calms down when Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.” Again it’s such an ordinary and intimate sentence to say, so regular. They didn’t dare ask who it was; they knew, knew, it was the Lord.
John’s Gospel should always alert us to meaning, theology, and complexity of understanding. Every part of this story is worth considering and the way it works on us, its hearers and readers. We don’t begin hearing theological subtleties, but watching the disciples in a real scene of ordinary living with Jesus, after the resurrection. In some ways our guard is down, and we take this story as simple narrative, one to lighten up in the aftermath of the crucifixion.
Then Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. We know that bread and fish are both common foods, and also essential symbols of Christ’s Eucharistic action, presence, and on-going life. We’re alert to a transition from a beach breakfast narrative to a bigger topic. Then Jesus asks Simon Peter, three times, “Do you love me?” Of course, he answers, “Yes,” each time. Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” Tend my sheep,” and finally, “Feed my sheep.” There is an increasing level of almost annoyance, or emphasis in Jesus’s replies. Don’t you hear answers one, two, and three as getting increasingly exasperated? Isn’t he asking, “What is it that you don’t get? What is it? Feed my lambs, sheep, my sheep!” These men were fishermen, not shepherds, so they would have heard it as a larger command, than one about sheep tending.
We’re ready, because we’ve been watching along with the disciples and have followed the meaning along with the narrative and the pictures. We’ve been seeing the risen Jesus startle the “guys,” and then comfort them and feed them. Then he starts talking to boat people about sheep, and we’re aware that John has expanded the narrative into metaphor, and we hear it personally. We are uncomfortable with Jesus’s insistence on feeding the sheep. It’s about our feeding the sheep, our experiencing the abundance and unimaginable overflowing from the Creator of the essence and sustenance of living, of life, our feelings of “wow” and “help.”
Let’s interrupt for a minute. The lectionary builders have added to this dramatic picture of the way G*d feeds people the dramatic way Paul was summoned on the road to Damascus to be an instrument to bring the name of Jesus to the Gentiles. The Acts narrative is more complicated than the repeated unsubtle “Feed my sheep.” Paul is confronted with his chasing of people on the Way, and is struck down. Jesus sends a disciple to lay hands on Saul, and he is released from whatever he’d been struck with, and “The scales fell from his eyes.” Whatever happened to the tormenter of Christians was undone, and he became Paul, zealous disciple. This account is an astonishing one—Saul had been bigger than life in his attacks on Christians. Whatever happened to Saul was powerful, dangerous, and an unknowable (except to those people, especially neuroscientists, who’ve spent years trying to diagnose the seizure as a temporal lobe seizure) event. Then Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, healed and transformed him. This account was not supposed to be a case study of a seizure, but rather was a “wow” account of the way Paul stopped tormenting Christians and became a genuine leader. The Lord can and does do astonishingly transformative actions: wow!
The psalm was selected to underscore these lessons. You have not let my enemies triumph over me; you have lifted me up. You restored me. O Lord, be my helper. O Lord my G*d, I will give you thanks for ever.” Again the point is not to know what happened, but to recognize the wonder of it, and say, “Wow; thanks.” Similarly, The Revelation reading says the same thing in stylish language I’d guess many of us hear this in Handel’s music: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power, and riches, wisdom and power and honor and glory and blessing!” We can paraphrase, “Thanks; wow!”
Then when we hear the reading about a huge catch of fish, we are lead to several thoughts. John was not telling about a countable fishing expedition. Usually counting, at least for Greeks, was, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20, many.” Although accountants and bookkeepers could keep adequate books for commerce and taxes, people were not much concerned with this sort counting. Instead, this resurrection account starts with a genuinely “Wow!” occurrence for the disciples. Then Jesus instructs his closest fishing friends to “Feed my sheep.”
We hear this clearly as a command to transform what they did, and what we do. We do not hear Jesus as urging his fishing friends to change careers from sea work to pasture work. Somewhere in the first or second command to “Feed my sheep,” two things happen to us. We remember that: “the Lord is my shepherd.” Since Jesus is talking about “my sheep,” then he is a shepherd, and if he is my shepherd, he is my Lord. When our Lord commands his followers to feed his sheep, and we are fishermen, shepherds, teachers, secretaries, and whatever else we are, we understand we too are being given instructions, and those are not about sheep, lambs, pastures, or job change. We hear the command, and then we may well have an afterthought. Hear Jane Kenyon’s thought in “Back from the City.”
After three days and nights of rich food
and late talk in overheated rooms,
of walks between mounds of garbage
and human forms bedded down for the night
under rags, I come back to my dooryard,
To my own wooden step.
The last red leaves fall to the ground
and frost has blackened the herbs and asters
that grew beside the porch. The air
is still and cool, and the withered grass
lies flat in the field. A nuthatch spirals
down the rough trunk of the tree.
At the Cloisters I indulged in piety
while gazing at a painted lindenwood Pietà—
Mary holding her pierced and desiccated son
across her knees; but when a man stepped close
under the tasseled awning of the hotel,
asking for “a quarter for someone
down on his luck,” I quickly turned my back.
Now I hear tiny bits of bark and moss
break off under the bird’s beak and claw,
and fall onto already-fallen leaves.
“Do you love me? Said Christ to his disciple.
“Lord, you know
that I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”
We hear that person asking for a quarter clearly, as ourselves, and see ourselves challenged to respond. We feel that person’s disappointment in turning his/her back and hearing again Christ’s command, “Feed my sheep.” Thinking back to John’s account and the other readings for today, I remember we’re still in Eastertide. Two weeks ago only we celebrated the Resurrection. Christ is risen. Then the following Sunday, last Sunday we experience with Thomas the real disciples’ question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead and be recognizable to his friends as both himself and as himself really dead and truly alive again. Thomas checks that out for us then, now, and for always. Then what?
Then what does the risen Lord want, want from us? He shows his friends he’s there, he can be part of an overwhelmingly showing off exhibition of his generosity to them, and then he gives them, gives us, our life’s work: “Feed my sheep.”
We here at St. John’s have heard that command and worked to respond two ways. We’ve run feeding programs and with a particular kind of liturgy, welcoming all people, all, all, all, in an intentionally choreographed pattern. Our numbers have diminished enough to make a real food feeding program beyond us, and so we yearn to support St. Paul’s program. In this Sunday, two weeks after Easter, we experience this “Feed my sheep,” command as a reminder of what we are called to be, to do. We experience the “Wow!” of Easter, when we feel the cool water of baptism again. We’ll join together and feel both that “Wow” and a profound “Thanks” as we all receive together. Whether asked for a quarter, or told to feed sheep, we know we need “Help.” We need that communal fellowship of those long ago biblical disciples, and our communities here to do this. “You know we love you. Feed my sheep.” However well we do alone— or better together, Jesus welcomes us with him for ever. Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black C 3 Easter 14 April 2013 St. John’s. Boston