Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter
April 10, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Love creates moments of such joy and pain, sometimes simultaneously. Yesterday the church was packed for Dean Harrison’s funeral. Despite the sad occasion, the service offered great joy, with lots of beautiful music from Mark and our choir, and the hopeful words of our Prayer Book that assure us that the resurrection and the life which it offers us are for real.
Joy, though, is not a synonym for happiness. At every funeral it seems like one or two people always say, “happy to see you,” and then catch themselves and get embarrassed because they think that’s an inappropriate thing to say. It’s sad enough when a long, rich, full, life draws to a close. But other losses are harder to bear and leave us asking questions.
That seems to be why the epilogue to John’s Gospel, which we just heard, was written. The previous chapter, the end of which we heard last week, sounds pretty final. And indeed, the consensus among biblical scholars is that what we just heard was added later. The main text of John is thought to come, if not from John himself, than from a community he founded. Either way, it represents his memories, teachings, and preoccupations. This epilogue is a close match. It revisits the most important characters, refers back to several key events, and is even more intensely symbolic and stylized than the text it seeks to supplement. You could argue it is more Johannine than John. You could also write it off as fan fiction, deny the historicity of the incident it describes, and reject it as impure and unnecessary. But first of all, there is a long tradition of scriptural authors using a combination of history and symbolism to make theological points. Just as good fan fiction answers questions fans care about, deepens understanding of characters, and fleshes out the fictional world, all worthy aims, scriptural writers labored to make sense of the real world which produces an endless stream of trouble, confusion, and loss. And secondly, you would be cheating yourself out of an opportunity to understand what this very early Christian community was concerned about and how they came to terms with it.
The question is not, did this story happen exactly the way it was written? But rather, who wrote it, and why? To get to who, we need to know when. John’s Gospel dates to the end of the first century AD. At that time, who would have been interested in continuing the story? The Christian community that grew up around John. To get to why, we need to know what. What that community was worried about. What questions they wanted answers to so badly that they augmented the master’s text. And these really aren’t hard to see.
Clearly they were interested in Peter. Some describe his relationship with John as a “rivalry,” but at this point, John’s followers seem anxious about his legacy and want to rehabilitate him. “At this point,” though, probably means about thirty years after Peter’s death by crucifixion, traditionally upside-down, at his request, as a gesture of humility toward Jesus. So perhaps they had simply lost touch with Peter and his community. Tiny Christian communities were widely scattered and persecuted, and communication was difficult under the best of circumstances, so this seems plausible. It doesn’t seem like there were any hard feelings, if there ever were.
Specifically, they were concerned about his denial of Jesus. The charcoal fire is an obvious reference to the Passion, where Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus while warming himself at such a fire. His three affirmations symbolically cancel his three denials. Of course Jesus forgives him, and also gives him a mission, to follow him, and care for his other followers, and indicates the cost of carrying out that mission.
The Johannine community was also concerned about Jesus himself. Not about his reputation, but about his nature, and his relationship to them. The text seems anxious to affirm both his divinity, in a miracle and a prophecy, and his humanity, solving problems and sharing breakfast. So very early on, Christians were defending a key and hard-won understanding of who Jesus is and trying to prevent a rejection of either his humanity or his divinity. Which suggests that some were trying to oversimplify him, which is an understandable reaction to mystery and paradox. It seems a bit abstract and academic, but there are real consequences to misunderstanding who Jesus is.
If Jesus wasn’t fully human, he wasn’t really one of us, his suffering and death a cruel illusion. If Jesus wasn’t fully divine, then God hadn’t really met us, and Jesus never had the authority or ability to offer forgiveness and salvation to all people. And, if he wasn’t both, John’s followers had already realized that denying either would dissolve their faith, their hope, their mission, and their community.
That’s the real concern at the bottom of this reading. John’s community realized that they were really Jesus’s community. That’s why the disciples’ unassisted effort at fishing yields nothing, but with Jesus they haul in a massive catch. This symbolizes their mission to “fish for people,” and without Jesus, it’s not happening. No one gets fed without him — the real Jesus, in all his mystery and paradox, not a simplified substitute. That’s why Peter’s affirmations of faith prompt Jesus to say “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” Sheep don’t eat fish, but that’s not the point! In case it wasn’t clear enough, the story ends with Jesus telling Peter, and of course anyone with ears to hear, “Follow me.”
The reality of the Resurrection gave John’s community, and gives every Christian community, our mission to seek, serve, and love Jesus in all people. It makes it possible for us to survive the loss of the best people, as John’s community was deeply troubled by the losses of Peter, and John himself. As a monk once said, our community has truly indispensable people; the cemetery is full of them. So while we always miss good people when they’re gone, we can always keep going because we know who Jesus is, and where to look for him. The risen Jesus assures us that we still have hope, and a mission, a community that loves us, a world that needs us, and a God who will never abandon us