For us, who live the story liturgically, today’s Gospel lesson seems, perhaps, a little anti-climactic. After all, we’ve already got our ‘Alleluias’ back, and have heard the good news of Christ’s resurrection… What we forget, however, is that in the narrative, there are disciples who are dispersed and frightened. For all that the resurrection is good news, they still have no idea what to make of it. What does this mean for their lives? Before the crucifixion, at least Jesus was with them every day—now… Now, he pops in-and-out of their lives—in-and-out of their trying to figure it all out—in-and-out of their making sense of their time with Jesus—in-and-out of their trying to get over it, and get on with their lives.
Jesus has already shown up—resurrected and with a body which bares the marks of his crucifixion wounds. He’s made it to everyone at least once, but we gather that in this story there is something that is yet unfinished. For Peter and the rest, it’s just another day after ‘what happened in Jerusalem.’ It’s another day of remembering when he and his friends seemed to have some destiny other than hiding from the temple police. So, like anyone who grieves, he goes back to what he knows—fishing. I suppose even in doing this there is a kind of heaviness
Now, I know it sounds odd to talk about Peter and the disciples grieving, especially since Jesus really had returned. But I imagine everything felt different… Perhaps we’d call it a kind of survivor’s guilt. Maybe they should have been arrested too, instead of running away. All of their emotional wounds must have smacked of guilt, especially in light of the resurrection.
Perhaps if they were just able to keep Jesus around, it could be like old times—teaching in the synagogues, freaking-out the Pharisees. But this time afterward, this time of frustrating confusion about what it all meant, and what it all means must have just eaten them up. And so, they go fishing.
I wonder if they talked about things in terms of “Post-Resurrection.” It’s such a world changing event that it must have reached into every part of their lives. I suppose there wasn’t a place they could go, a thing they could do that didn’t remind them of that week in Jerusalem. But how do you come back? How do you come back from an event that so reshapes the soul of your world?
It’s really not that hard to put ourselves in their place. Both individually and corporately we carry with us a story and a variegated timeline which has made us who we are now. For each us there are certain things which have shaped who we are and how we understand the world. These may be things like our Baptism, graduations, the birth of a child, whatever. But they are the things by which we mark our personal timeline.
And, for all of us, there are shared experiences—historical moments which have so transformed our cultural memory that they are the things by which we mark the story of humanity. September 11, 2001 immediately comes to mind—but even things like the American Civil Rights Movement, the end to Apartheid in South Africa—all of these events and many others shape us as the human community.
So we haven’t very far to go to understand what the disciples might have felt. And just as we might do, they go back to what they know. They seek the comfort of the mundane, and the safety that comes with familiarity. But there is something different on this particular day. On this day, Jesus stands on the shore and calls to them and his features are barely discernable by virtue of darkness or distance. But somehow, they know who he is, and John says so. And as is typical of Peter, he responds with immediate action, and jumps into the water and swims to shore to find Jesus waiting.
We can see that it is a strained meeting, but it’s a good meeting. All the cards are on the table for Peter, and I’m sure that he can’t help but notice the irony of the coal fire. After all, it was while warming himself near a coal fire that Peter denied Jesus. But here at this fire, there is only acceptance, meaning and closure.
Rather than a discussion about betrayal, Jesus offers breakfast. Rather than a harsh rebuke, Peter is given a commission to feed the Lord’s sheep.
That day they had gone fishing because it seemed that there was not much else left for them. It wasn’t so much that the glory of the resurrection had worn off for them, rather it was just not that easy to figure out where it fit. So, for these disciples, who lived the narrative, all of the pain, the loss, the victory was hard won and in real time; because for them it was a matter of living through a series of life altering experience.
For those of us who try to ‘live into’ the Gospel story, and even moreso the Season of Easter, we may find it somehow contrived. The feeling of awe, or even the experience of overwhelming guilt turned to gratitude that we see in this narrative may seem too far away. Maybe it’s just that we’re doing our best to recover from the marathon of services in Holy Week. But what we cannot fail to understand is that the power of the Easter story is such that it cannot be contained in a day, a season, or even a lifetime.
By virtue of our liturgical observance, and stories like today’s Gospel reading, we are reminded of the lasting power and surprise of the Easter mystery. But the power of that mystery cannot be fully realized unless we allow it. And if we do allow ourselves to be changed by the power of Christ’s resurrection, we allow our story and our personal timeline to be marked. A thing which transforms us wholly.
It is still the Easter Season, and we are always a Resurrection People, in season and out. For the redeemed in Christ, there cannot be a lack of awe and gratitude for the gift of the Easter mystery. After the resurrection, we try our hardest to go back to our normal lives—just like Peter, Nathanael and Thomas. But there is no going back. Because even when we try to go back to the familiar, we find that it is anything but familiar, because it is there that Jesus will inevitably show up. And for all of our forgetfulness, our lack of faith, and even our betrayal, Jesus is there to love and forgive and offer renewed meaning to our lives.