May 5, 2019
I dream of other worlds, ones like this one, with all of you there, but there’s something different, one difference that changes everything, the collapse of the old and a beginning for the new, like, for example, a world without guns, with no more weapons, without arms manufacturers and dealers, without rockets flying in and out of Gaza, a world without border fences and prison walls, a world without corporations making money off of detention centers and ankle monitors and bail bonds, a world without pollution, without factory waste dumped into rivers, without fossil fuel emissions, without the slow violence of environmental racism, a world without cancer, without disease, without sicknesses that sneak up on the young and lead to their death. I dream of worlds that still have all the people we’ve lost—your people and my people, your friends and mine, all our loved ones, even the ancestors we never met.
That’s what this story from John’s Gospel does to me—this appearance of Jesus on the seashore, Easter poking at our hope, the resurrected Christ pressing his life into our hands and our side, into wounded hearts, our wounded hope.
Resurrection is supposed to mean a new world. Easter is supposed to mark a new beginning, a new creation, the old passing away as all things are reborn. But, here are the disciples, after the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, after Jesus came to the disciples who had locked themselves in a room, after he showed up again in that same room when Thomas returned. After all of this—after the shock, after the bewilderment, after a shift in the cosmos, what do the disciples do? They go back to the lives that they had, back to back to their usual work, back to normal.
The resurrection should have changed the world, a fundamental transformation of life. That Jesus returns from the dead must mean the beginning of a whole new world, a revolution in the laws that govern life. Everything must change, everything has changed. Yet here they are, out at sea, the sea of Tiberias, fishing.
Lots of Christians over the ages have talked about Jesus’ death and resurrection as a story of victory—Christus victor, Christ the victor, over death and violence, the victor over the powers of sin and destruction. That’s not a bad way to think about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the atonement, as it’s called in classical theology.
But stories like this one in John’s Gospel make me wonder about the kind of victory that happens with the resurrection of Jesus. Usually victories make a real difference; victories have obvious effects. Your army invades, you conquer your enemy, and then you set up a new reign, a new kingdom, the birth of a new society. The day after your victory, you wake up and the world is different. You are in charge. The enemies are vanquished and your forces are busy setting up a new government, laying the framework for a new society.
But that’s not how it goes in the story that John tells about Jesus. It’s hard to see any kind of decisive shift. The victory metaphor seems to break down. Life goes on the way it did before. What kind of victory is going on here, with Jesus eating breakfast on the shore, lounging around with his friends who are at work, counting fish, 153 of them?
That’s my favorite detail of John’s story—that someone somehow takes time to count the fish and the storyteller thinks it’s important to tell us exactly how many there were. This is verse 11: “So Simon Peter…hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them.” 153, it says. Not “about a hundred,” or even—if he wanted to be more exact—“around 150 fish.” 153. The exact count mattered for some reason. Every last fish.
Just think about how this must have happened, the scene on the beach, with the resurrected Jesus, newly raised from the dead, standing there, and the disciples keep him waiting while they fling around those squirming and slippery fish, counting every single last one of them. They are fishermen, after all, and they had spent all night at sea, to have a catch to sell in the fish market in the morning—the freshest fish get the best price. Every one of those fish is money in the pocket. Of course they would count them all; it’s their livelihood.
And that’s what so strange about this whole story—after the beginning of God’s kingdom-revolution, the disciples are back at work, back to the same old boat in the same old lake doing the same old thing. What’s so strange about this Easter appearance of the resurrected Jesus is that it is not strange at all. It’s so mundane: the disciples are at work, Jesus shows us, they bring their catch to the shore, count the fish, and eat some breakfast with Jesus.
But maybe that’s just it, that’s the point, which might sounds like a ridiculous purpose of resurrection—that Jesus conquers death so he can come back and be with his disciples, to enjoy another meal, to fellowship around the fire, to linger with his friends for as along as he can, because that’s what God has wanted from eternity, to be with us.
Christ shows up in an ordinary gathering of disciples—like with us, here, nothing very special and much of life feels the same as it did last week. And we’ll go back to work tomorrow, but we go knowing the good news of Easter: that Jesus returned from the dead to be with us, because he loved us, because he wanted another meal with his disciples, nothing special, just fish around a charcoal fire: “When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread… Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’… Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish” (Jn. 21:9-13).
The good news looks like that ordinary Easter experience; Jesus, coming back from the dead to be with us, a gentle presence, nothing flashy, just there, always there.
The Christian story is a love story about God, the God revealed in Jesus. “For God so loved the world”—that’s how the Gospel of John begins. With a declaration that Jesus is the love of God made flesh. His love proclaims the truth of the gospel, the truth about us—that we are the beloved of God, and that in Christ the eternal love of God strains toward reunion with us, reaching beyond the grave, breaking every barrier, because we are the delight of God: you and me and our ordinary lives, our daily work, our important and trivial concerns, our heartbreaking longings and our petty frustrations. God holds all of it, all of us, all of you.
I know this might be a weird thing to say, since we’re talking about resurrection after all, the most unreasonable thing about our faith, but I think there’s a realism to this story, because there’s no attempt to evade the ordinary, there’s no escapism from the everyday, no fantasies about what to expect in this life.
This resurrection account returns us to the truth about this world, that Jesus still bears wounds as we heard last week, and that the disciples still have to work: that there will labor, there will be struggle, there will be loss and trauma, agonies and grief, heartache and sorry, and, in the midst of it all, the consolation of fellowship, the comfort of friendship, the joy of communion, and the strength of God’s love, a mysterious love, silent and steady, now as the pulse of our lives together, as we do what we can for each other, for our neighbors, as we await God’s redemption, a redemption that has perhaps already begun, starting there around a charcoal fire, as we live out a dream for another world, God’s dream for new life, life without violence, life without death, for another world happening in the midst of this one, anywhere we give ourselves to unending love, to resurrected love.