The Third Sunday of Easter
4 May 2019
O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
There is a lot going on in this morning’s readings: we get the conversion of Saint Paul, the hymn to the seven-horned and seven-eyed Lamb, and the post-resurrection haul of fishes and the subsequent beach barbeque. Each of these stories merits homiletical attention, and while, at first, they don’t seem to coalesce easily into a unified message, together they can help us understand how we come to see the signs of God’s risen presence with us in the here and now.
Acts’ version of Paul’s encounter with Christ and his change of vocation from one who persecutes the church to being the primary apostle of Christ to the Gentiles is a great story, beautifully told. We get an evil villain, practically twirling his moustache as he contemplates finding “any belonging to the Way, men or women, [so] he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” We get a sudden flash of “light from heaven” making him fall, perhaps as artists have imagined from his beautiful white horse. Our unlikely hero then hears a mysterious voice, unheard by anyone else, who reveals himself to be “Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” who gives him instructions to “rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” All of this leads to Paul’s baptism and new ministry and mission. It is an exciting, colourful tale of a man, devoted to God, who is given a new mission by Jesus to make that same God available to all through Christ. Whereas Paul had seen Jesus as a threat to his beloved faith, he comes to understand that it is through Christ that the rest of the world will, alongside the Jews travelling on their own path, be incorporated into the unfolding work of the Kingdom of God.
This story is so often called the conversion of Paul, but it is no conversion in the conventional sense we imagine where someone changes from one faith to another. Paul does not stop being a Jew and become a Christian. Rather, Paul is given a new, more expansive understanding of the God of Israel and how Jesus fits into God’s purpose for creation. It is, however, a conversion in the sense that Paul is able, literally, to turn with the circumstances he encounters. He goes along with what is happening to him, he does not resist, but allows himself to be led to Damascus, to the next steps on the new path, where he will meet Ananias, where Paul will allow him to lay his hands on him and hear the words, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Paul turned with his circumstances, “and immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.”
Paul, who in many ways is one of the most arrogant figures in scripture, someone with a very high opinion of himself, basically as the best Jew ever who, in his own words, “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14), this man was flexible and open enough to respond to the events of his life as they unfolded. He accepted that “he who had set me apart before I was born [that is to say, the God of Israel], and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16). Paul teaches us to be open to the signs we see in the world around us of God’s presence, God’s love, and to be prepared to respond to them by taking up the ministry that is set before us. But how do we recognise the signs? They are unlikely to be as dramatic as the one’s in the story of Peter’s journey to Damascus.
In today’s Gospel, in a story unparalleled in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Peter decides to go fishing. John gives us a rather big build up to this rather mundane fact: Jesus has risen from the dead, he had revealed himself already twice to the disciples (once without Thomas and once with him) and now the disciples are up in Galilee, and Peter, a little out of the blue, announces, “I am going fishing.” His friends agree to go with him, set out, and after a night out on the sea, fail to catch any fish at all. In the morning, they spot a man standing on the beach who asks them for food, and the fishermen have to confess they have nothing. The stranger then gives them a suggestion: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” Rather than question this advice, they do as he says and, to their amazement, “they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish.”
In this moment, the disciple whom Jesus loved, John, turns to Peter and exclaims, “It is the Lord!” John could see it. The confidence of the suggestion of where to place the net, the resulting draught of fishes, the abundant catch, these were all signs to John that God was at work. In the exchange in which the man who would be the guest at the fisherman’s table, becomes the one to provide the meal, Christ is revealed. John knows how to read the signs; and the signs are not meant to be particularly mysterious. The rest of the apostles, after John’s exclamation, were also able to recognise the signs and indeed, once they got to land, once they “hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn,” once Jesus invited them to table saying, “come and have breakfast,” they knew, they didn’t have to ask Jesus, “who are you?”
At that beach-side meal that followed the miraculous haul, Jesus “took bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.” He showed them that was indeed the living bread of which he spoke, “the bread which comes down from heaven ... if anyone eats [of which]... he will live for ever.” In this bread and fish, in this meal they saw the fulfilment of the promise of resurrection Jesus made them when he fed the five thousand with only five barley loaves and two fish.
The signs that helped them recognise the Risen Lord were those they saw when travelling with Jesus in his ministry. They are the signs of healing and health, love and inclusion, hospitality and generosity. They are the signs of light illuminating the darkness, bread feeding the hungry, wine quenching thirst, living water flowing freely. Each of these characteristics, each of these signs shows Jesus present, God incarnate, the Word made flesh. These are the signs we train ourselves to see in order to recognise Jesus’ sacramental, risen presence with is in the here and now. Recognising the signs, seeing Jesus at work in these patterns of redeeming activity, this is the life to which we, too, are called.
Maybe we don’t get the vision of the “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Maybe we won’t be blinded by a light from heaven that makes us fall down and go blind and take up a new ministry; and we certainly won’t have the chance to meet Jesus risen in flesh in the same way as the disciples, for that was their special privilege. We are, however, able to see those other signs—bread, wine, water, light—and then we know the risen Christ is at work and present.
Today, for example, as we are every Sunday (daily in fact in a City like ours), we are invited to partake of a meal in which God in Christ becomes known to us in the breaking of bread. We are trained week in and week out to see Jesus present with us in the meal of bread and wine we share at this altar. This meal embodies generosity and abundance, all the baptised are fed and there is always more than enough. We are asked—indeed I ask us regularly—to see in this meal all the other meals we might share out in the world. Every time we sit down at table, every time we partake of nourishment, quite frankly, every time we go down to coffee hour, we are invited to recognise the signs and know that Christ is present with us. Let us never forget that the signs of Christ’s risen presence are there for us all to see and experience so that we might share that vision—as did the beloved disciple on that day out fishing—with all the world and invite them into the risen life of Christ.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Monica, 4 May 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume