Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter

butterfly_goldApril 10, 2016

Last week our seminarian Joe reminded us that not everyone experiences the joy of the resurrection at the same time or in the same way. Thomas did not find faith in sync with his fellow disciples—neither his questions or experiences nor Jesus’ response to them were the same as those of his friends. But Jesus came to him anyway, in exactly the way and at the time Thomas needed, and brought him his own Easter message.

So if you did not have an alleluia in your heart two weeks ago, nor see the Lord last week when Thomas did, or really haven’t encountered God for decades now, it doesn’t mean the resurrection is not for you. Because this is an unalterable fact: Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!). The Good News is that Jesus will not stop trying to communicate that message to you in a way that will resonate for you just as you need it to do.

Two of our Scripture readings for today demonstrate that Jesus keeps on seeking out and bringing new life to the people he loves, no matter what they have done or left undone, no matter how far removed they are or think they might be from God or how hard they’ve been trying to hide.

In our first reading from Acts the central character is a deeply religious man, but he has not experienced the joy of new life in Jesus. Saul has not known Easter. His religious zeal does not spring from God’s willingness to be vulnerable and self-giving; it is not rooted in God’s abiding love, nor does it express God’s grace and mercy for all. Instead, Saul’s religious fervor is planted in rigid rules and score-keeping. If anyone threatens his beliefs—which, by his definition, are the only possible beliefs—he feels compelled to physically harm them. Sadly, the mix of violence and religion is not new—and it has always been toxic.

Anyway, Saul, who is trying his best to be faithful as he understands faith, is on his way to Damascus when his Easter encounter with Jesus happens, literally knocking him off his high horse. He has not been seeking Jesus to worship him. He has been continuing to attack people straying from the Scriptures as he understands them, when he hears God’s voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Now of course, Saul didn’t think he was persecuting God. He thought he was defending God’s honor! How would we feel if we heard God’s voice asking us this question: “Why are you persecuting me?”

This story may not sound much angels-and-alleluia-Easter to you. But Easter is that world-changing, earth-shaking event that dis-orients us, forever altering our world-view, and re-orienting us to walk in the light of Jesus. It just so happens that Saul needed a rather dramatic disorientation in order for his new life to begin. If you’ve ever heard an addict talk about hitting bottom, you know that sometimes the stories aren’t pretty, but the life-changes they provoke are always profound. Sometimes the stone is rolled away from the tomb when we hear God calling us to pay attention to how our misguided and sinful conduct hurts people. Might Easter knock us to the ground before it raises us up? Might resurrection pass through darkness first, so that we experience a kind of disorienting blindness as Saul did?

Perhaps. But if such steps are needed, know that God will not leave us alone in the darkness, nor will God let sin and pain have the last word. Ever. In his darkness, God sent Saul Ananias, someone who could help him see the next turn in the road, help him bid goodbye to his old self and become re-oriented to a new way of living. Saul picks a new name and a new direction. Easter has come to him.

That is not at all how Peter becomes re-oriented in today’s reading from John. His story and Saul’s were not the same. Saul had been actively faithful to his beliefs, however misguided they were. Peter, hand-picked to be one of Jesus closest 12 disciples had been unfaithful to his professed religion, in a public and poignant way. When Jesus needed him most he announced, repeatedly, “Jesus? Nope. Don’t know him.”

Frankly, it isn’t only Peter, but all of the disciples, who are doing that exact same thing again in this morning’s text. Remember how last week, all of them saw Jesus come to them in a locked room? He showed them his wounds, and he breathed the power of the Holy Spirit on them. He sent them out to share his peace with all the world. So what are they doing this week? Fishing. Exactly what they were doing before they even met Jesus. They aren’t witnessing to the crowds, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, or strategizing for effective evangelism. They are fishing because that is something they know how to do, rather than witnessing to the resurrection, because that, apparently, is something they do not know how to do.

And Jesus comes to them, again. He brings Easter to them again, because that is what Jesus does and who Jesus is. One resurrection is not enough for any of us. So Jesus calls out, “Hey, come and have breakfast!” When the disciples complain that they haven’t caught anything all night, Jesus suggests they try doing something differently from the way they’ve always done it. “Throw the net out on the other side of the boat!” Bear in mind these are tiny little boats, so it only a little shift, a distance of inches to the other side of the boat, but Jesus’ point is made. Sometimes the old way needs to give for new life to happen; the disorientation required to provoke resurrection may be slight, but it is necessary.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t even need the all the fish the disciples caught to serve them breakfast. He’s already got breakfast cooking on the grill. Jesus has more than enough, as always. The trick is teaching the disciples to trust this, and to live it out. After breakfast, Jesus singles out Peter for some questions—or really, just one question, three times. Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter responds, as would any of us, I’m guessing, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus says to his old fishing buddy, “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” The image he picks of what Peter is to be about is not one of fish, mind you. Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep. Just a little twist, as if Jesus were trying to alert Peter to a different part of his soul. Live differently. Start now.

Jesus’ message to Saul was STOP what you are doing. His message to Peter was START doing something else. And what is his message for us? In a world filled with tormented, violent, terrified, grieving, heart-sick people, what is God asking of us? What needs to change for new life to begin and flourish? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to start doing?

Of course, whatever we imagine the “correct” answers are to those questions, Jesus may well have completely different ideas, as either Saul or Peter could tell you. But I have no doubt that God’s longing is that we would all experience new life, and have it abundantly.

The really Good News is that Jesus brings Easter to all of us, not just the ones who get the answers right. He never picked perfect people to complete his mission. He chose violent, self-righteous Saul, who becomes Paul, to nurture the church into being. Paul, who spent a lot of time in jail, who suffered from a mysterious ailment he called a “thorn in his side,” which never went away no matter how much he prayed about it. And Jesus chose Peter, who repeatedly made a fool of himself.

Not only that, but after Jesus commissioned both Paul and Peter to build the church, they clashed again and again about how that was to be done. They actually started the ugly trend of church infighting before the church was even a year old—before there were even Lutherans! THAT’s the foundation on which our community of faith is built. Arrogant, disobedient, dense, and unreliable leadership.

Well, if God can use those guys, then how can we doubt that God can use us? If God calls such losers, then why not Trinity? Why not the ELCA? To me, the really good news is that no matter how individually problematic any of God’s followers might be, no matter how distressing or compromising the situations in which we find ourselves might be, Jesus will find us there and bring Easter to us.

Jesus leads us into communities who understand that we are messed up but that God loves us anyway. God surrounds us with other sinners who will support us and reorient us. Saul’s healing happens when Ananias leads him into relationship with the people he has been persecuting. Peter’s healing happens when he actively feeds and serves others.

Easter happens whenever we heed Jesus’ calling to work, eat, and get stronger together. It isn’t just that this is the most effective way to complete a task, it also satisfies a deep need that we have for community, for people who get us, who can hold us accountable, and who can say out loud the words we need to hear, “You are forgiven. You are loved. You can try again, differently.” Jesus asks us to be Ananias to each other.

And because even with the gifts of community we are likely to go fishing again when we can’t figure out how to be disciples, or to persecute people who don’t believe as we do, Jesus doesn’t stop at one Easter. Or even one a year. Nope. Jesus provides resurrection to us over and over and over again, inviting us to come and have breakfast, to eat at this table, to remember again that Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!) Alleluia!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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