Harrowing Of Hell
May 5, 2019

The Resurrection Life

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how quickly, after we celebrate Easter, we go back to “normal.” This morning we celebrate the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Next week we will celebrate the 4th Sunday and so on – in fact, this year we have 7 full Sundays of Easter before we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost…. And in all of these 50 full days of Easter, I doubt if any of us will find ourselves feeling unremitting bliss and the desire to shout Alleluia constantly. The bells and beauty of the Easter services seem to have faded. And so, in our minds, it can seem as if everything has returned to ‘normal.’

Some of this return to normal is probably greeted with great joy. Fasts during the ‘great day of the Lord’– which is comprised of all the fifty days of Easter season – are not allowed. So, guess what – if you want to get back to your normal nighttime snack of milk and cookies or you want to return to more normal chocolate consumption, whatever that means, this is an acceptable part of the Easter Season. So, yay to that new normal right?

But, that kind of getting back to normal isn’t exactly what I am talking about. What I am talking about is how soon it is that we lose sight of, if, indeed, we actually were able to wrap our minds around it in the first place—the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection life that we, too, have been promised and are in the midst of living right now. Jesus has risen from the dead—and while he is still hanging out and meeting with his disciples in today’s gospel—he will ascend into heaven where he will be waiting to hang out with us and greet us too when we get there.  Until then, we need to go on living as a resurrection people. But the resurrection life doesn’t necessarily look like what we think it should.  Outside our carefully-curated lives on Instagram or Facebook, our lives will not be constantly filled with excitement, breath-taking beauty or unending bliss. We have laundry to do. We have errands and grocery shopping. We have showers to take and little ones to put to bed. We will need to eat leftovers. We will wake up tired. We will sometimes be disappointed and sad. And still, we will be living the resurrection life. Because the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection has changed everything—and nothing will ever be the same again. 

But it is hard to hold on to that joyful, good news isn’t it? It reminds me of being in a concert when people start to clap along with a favorite song. Everyone enthusiastically starts stomping their feet and clapping their hands but after a verse or two, it starts sounding rather pitiful. I have sometimes willed myself to keep clapping through the whole song….but five minutes of clapping, which was at first borne out of pure enthusiasm, can begin to feel tedious indeed. The energy, the song, the moment are wonderful– but after five minutes your hands get tired. That is why even the most effusive of fans usually peter out.

In today’s story, we find Peter and the other disciples petering out too. The disciples have been through a lot. They have faced fear, grief, and disappointment. And while they have seen and been visited by the resurrected Jesus twice already, they are still at a loss as to what to do. For three years the disciples had travelled with and learned from their teacher and friend Jesus. And they had seen things—glorious and wonderful things—that we may not even be able to really imagine.  They had also hoped for a future that had never come to pass. And so, while they knew and believed that Jesus was risen from them dead, they didn’t understand what that meant. I can imagine them thinking to themselves “What do we do?”; “Where do we go from here?” Because, they had no idea just exactly what it meant to follow their resurrected Lord. They just knew that they somehow had to put their lives back together and go on without their teacher. 

In today’s gospel, Peter decides they cannot remain in a holding pattern. Life has to go on. They have to do something.  So, Peter decides to go back to what he knows – what James and John and the others know; fishing. They were, after all, just normal fishermen when Jesus called them. “I am going fishing,” Peter tells them and the others, also feeling the need to move on, say, “We will go with you.” But these skilled and once successful fishermen catch nothing. All night they work and all night they catch nothing. But as day is breaking and they are returning to shore, they hear someone calling, “Children, you have no fish, have you?…Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” And so, I imagine rather perfunctorily one last time they cast the net out.  And this time, they catch so many fish that they are unable to even haul them into the boat. Nothing about this was like their previous, normal experience. At which point the beloved disciple, recognizing both the miracle and the man on the shore for what and who they were, says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” And so for the third time, the disciples meet with and, this time, eat breakfast with the risen Jesus.

One of the things I most appreciate about this gospel story is how the Johannine author has so carefully recorded and passed on the quotidian aspects of this morning. These details really bring it all to life because, as commentators often note, these odd bits of information that have made their way into the canon of scripture are most likely true. So, in today’s gospel when the disciples go ashore and see and smell a charcoal fire with fish and bread cooking on it, we can be fairly certain that the smell of charcoal and cooking fish was in the air that morning long ago. And when we read that they are asked to bring some of the fish they have caught – which totaled 153 –we know that this was mostly the number of fish they actually counted. Both of these small details are the stuff of everyday life that, upon reflection, we remember as significant. I can only imagine how the smell of the fire would have brought back to their minds the night in which Jesus is sentenced to die. Phil Ware notes that the term “charcoal fire” (in Greek, anthrakia) occurs in the New Testament in only two places, both in the gospel of John. The first charcoal fire is remembered in the courtyard where Peter denies Jesus three times and the second is found in today’s gospel where Peter will affirm his love for Jesus three times. And the number of fish, probably counted because these fishermen could hardly believe the size of their catch, has come to seen as numerologicallysignificant in various ways. But honestly, I just love how the miraculous in this story is couched in the mundane. Because that is where miracles take place. Jesus has died and rose again, and yet he goes about the normal tasks of the day, “Come and have breakfast,” he says. And then he, as any good host would do, he takes the bread and gives it to them—and does the same with the fish.

That being said, while much of life remains that same, it also becomes clear that while the disciples might feel the urge to return to what had once been normal for them, there is no going back. Their lives, which on the surface might not look too different, have been forever transformed – and the kind of lives they had lived before were not even possible anymore because Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything. They were now moving into a new role. As followers of the earthly Jesus, they had walked with Jesus, who both led and taught them. If they had been unsure of something, they had been able to ask him directly and to listen to the audible words that he spoke. But as they transitioned into their new role as followers and later apostles of the risen Jesus, they were being asked to carry these teachings in their hearts and to teach and tell others what they had seen, learned and witnessed – how their lives were changed by Jesus’ resurrection. They also were being asked to help others understand how their lives, too, could be changed. Their old occupations not just as fishermen but as disciples have been transformed into the mission of bringing others to understand the love and promise of Jesus. John writes in the chapter 20, “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 believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” And at the end of today’s gospel chapter, he writes: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

So, while all the bells may have been put away until next year’s Vigil and while the Easter lilies may no longer adorn our space, we are still celebrating Easter, friends. We cannot return to ‘normal’ lives.  Because during the rest of the Easter season, and during Pentecost – in fact, for the rest of our days we will still be celebrating the resurrected life. And like the first followers of Christ, it is our work to embody this reality in our lives and help those around us come to believe through our own stories—through our own witness.  As Jesus reminds Peter in today’s gospel—a point he emphasizes three times –loving and helping others is our lifelong mission. Feeding and tending to Jesus’ sheep isn’t about one-off actions or instant fixes.  Feeding and tending to Jesus sheep is something we are called to do every day. Caring for souls and teaching about the resurrected life is about tending to and feeding one another in Easter, in Advent, on days we feel like it and on days we don’t. It is the way that Jesus continues to act. And so, if we think of celebrating the resurrected life just in terms of mountaintop experiences – in terms of those moments when we feel like clapping our hands and stomping our feet, we might just miss what real resurrection life looks like. Because resurrection life is about making the coffee, doing the dishes, putting the little ones to bed, even heating up the leftovers filled with the knowledge that Jesus is with us in it all. And so, if we think that resurrection life is just about big, glitzy moments, we might miss hearing the risen Lord calling out to us “Come and eat” and breaking the bread.