Looking for Jesus
SERMON:3 Easter C 5 5 19
Acts 9:1-20; Rev5:11-14; Ps30; Jn21:1-19
How many of you remember Easter? It was two weeks ago. Do you recall? The church was pretty full. There were lots of flowers. We were all there, right? Us and a few people we see only rarely. Sadly.
The reality of Christmas and Easter Only Christians is difficult to digest, hard to comprehend. Christmas and Easter Only Christians --known as CEO Christians--miss out on the regular and reliable delights of faith. Sure, they get the fireworks, the special instruments, decorations, the full church. But does that memory satisfy as well as regular attendance, weekly return to the Communion rail, not to mention the communion of the congregation in church and afterward?
In case you have been sleeping through church for a few decades, let me tell you: the jury is still out. People still seem to get what they need on the two most special days in the church. We'll see them again at Christmas. Or a baptism or a funeral.
I understand fully people looking for Jesus who come to church on Christmas and Easter. I do not understand their being satisfied with that and not wanting to know Jesus the other 50 Sundays of the year. We're all looking for Jesus. It's just that some of us want to find him and be with him more of the time than others. Like most of the time. Maybe it's as if they're looking for someone like you look for a doctor or an auto mechanic: on the rare occasion when you need one. For me it's more like looking for a loved one, a family member, someone who I depend on day by day.
If you were in church last Sunday, famously known as low Sunday, you heard the wonderful story of Doubting Thomas, to whom we owe a significant debt of gratitude. Thomas was able to ask questions and not get punished for it, thereby freeing us to ask our own questions. Thomas wanted to know Jesus better. He wanted to be convinced, too.
Molly and I heard a quite lovely sermon on the subject at the church we attended in Maryland. We were grateful, once again, for Thomas' curiosity and his desire to have his issues addressed. That was just a foretaste, however, of all the new effort Jesus is going to have to go to in order to convince people he's still with them.
Does it occur to you that Jesus, now that he is risen again from the dead, has to go around convincing people he is what he says he is and he is what he has been saying all along he will be, that is, risen from the dead? Didn't they notice? In both our Gospel and in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we see Jesus manifesting himself in ways to really get people's attention.
But the odd thing is that people struggle with manifestations of Jesus. They did then. They do now.
If we observe Christ-like behavior from people who are self-proclaimed Christians, aren't we by definition seeing Christ in the world around us? This question has been in front of believers for two thousand years. We still struggle with it, of course, in part because we are those self-proclaimed Christians, and are therefore ourselves the body of Christ in this time.
Today we take special interest in the conversion of St. Paul, partly because of the name of our parish and partly because we have the story in stained glass over the choir loft. When we explore Paul's conversion we appreciate that this is a story that belongs to all of us. It isn't only Paul's. Every one of us at one time or another came to the realization that Jesus had become for us more than a name in a book, a point of reference, a member of God's family, God's son. Jesus becomes for us at some point a presence in our lives, a reality we cannot deny, to quote from the Bible, "the Word of God made flesh."
For Paul the experience was a most radical conversion, mostly because of his record as an oppressor of Christians. Having fallen on the ground he hears Jesus ask him why he is persecuting the Christians. When Jesus identifies himself he tells Paul what to do. And so we have the former Jewish persecutor of Christians now joining their ranks with a fervor that startles us to this day. No one can match Paul's conversion narrative for drama.
For the fishermen it is another story entirely. I have spent a fair amount of time--not as much as many, but more than a little--fishing. I've fished from docks, from small boats, from the shallows, from knee-deep waters, from commercial boats. I think I know the mind of the fisherman. It's like this: deep in the water there are fish. There are two ways to find them: keep trying or get lucky. So most fishermen keep trying.
Another thing about fishing is that no matter what method is being used--hooks, lures, flies, nets--by the time a fisherman has dropped a line or cast a lure or set a net and drawn it bask in, well, it's all ready to go again, so why not? So fishermen are by nature optimists. Some are cockeyed optimists.
Anyone who has caught a fish knows it's pretty exciting. So the prospect of the excitement of a catch keeps a serious fisherman fishing. Sometimes for a long time. Sometimes with no luck at all. So the fishermen in our Gospel reading are ready to catch some fish.
They have been fishing all night and they have caught nothing. And suddenly this character appears suggesting they try fishing off the other side of the boat. They comply and bring in a huge haul. Then they notice the person who told them to try fishing off the other side of the boat is already on the beach with a charcoal fire and is roasting fish.
The Gospel says they knew it was Jesus but they were afraid to ask who he was. Yes, that might be a little awkward for those who don't believe, for those who don't yet believe. How do you explain that?
"Oh, hello. Nice to see you again..."
"Uhh...how did you get here?"
"Say, where did you get those fish? How did you light that fire without our seeing it?"
At least Paul got to ask questions.
But what's in these stories for you and for me? What do we take from them that informs our faith?
One good starting point is that it might be a good idea to be on the lookout for Jesus and the influence of the risen Christ. The influence of the risen Christ would include those acts by people who make up the body of Christ in this day and age. Lots of people do lots of good, you know. We need to keep our eyes open for manifestations of the Risen Christ. Sometimes it might just be someone performing a kind act, kind of out of the blue, at other times it might be a vision of beauty or other natural splendor that leaves us feeling we were visited by the Almighty.
Here's another prospect: when we are called to recognize God in the course of our lives. When we are disposed to say "Thank God," such as when we avoid a fall or an accident or something bad narrowly is averted.
Molly and I observed a lengthy encounter with Jesus Tuesday night in Woodstock. We went to see "Amazing Grace," the full length feature film of Aretha Franklin singing Gospel not long after her soul music career was in full swing. In song after song Aretha would get started with deep concentration, then slowly as she sang of Jesus, as she shouted Jesus, as she whispered Jesus, her eyes would drift closed and her face would become peaceful and it appeared she had been transported to another place where she could rest with her savior. She moaned his name singing "Amazing Grace," remembering, as did many others in the band, the choir and the audience, past problems and misfortune. She smiled his name when she sang "What a Friend we Have in Jesus," a cheerful reminder of how we need not forfeit our peace if we remember our savior.
Jesus is not far from those who love him. He also is not hard to find for those who regularly engage in prayerful communion with him. And this is why I find it hard to understand why someone would accept the limitations of being a Christmas and Easter Only Christian when an ongoing connection is possible and so clearly preferable
Look for Jesus in the hearts of your friends and in the actions of strangers. Imagine what it would be like to be the one who manifested Jesus' teaching among your friends, not just one of them manifesting it for you.
Jesus is all around us. He has inserted himself into the minds and hearts of humanity, sometimes with the name we recognize, sometimes with other names. It is the spirit of God, our loving God, who came to live among us and teach us God's ways. Once again, he is risen. Hallelujah!
A sermon preached May 5, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones