(image: Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Raphael, 1483-1520)
What do you do when you don’t know what else to do? In those moments when you are confused or bored, depressed or distressed…what do you do when you don’t know what else to do?
After the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one. After a diagnosis or a cure, after the loss of a job or the start of a new one. When you are seemingly stuck in the doldrums of life, what do you do when you don’t know what else to do?
Well, apparently for Peter and the disciples, what to do when you don’t know what to do meant going fishing. In the wake of the death and mysterious appearances of Jesus, they resorted to what they knew best, that which was habitual and familiar. They returned to the sea, to their boats and nets.
While I am no avid angler, I can certainly understand the allure. Get outside, feel the wind and water splash on your face. Go stare at the water and wait for the excitement to come to you. When you don’t know what to do it can be comforting to do something that you do know how to do.
For Peter and several other of the disciples, fishing was what they knew best. Fishing had been their livelihood, their business, their life before they dropped their nets to follow Jesus.
And while this was not the first time they had seen the risen Lord, they still seem to be at a loss as to what this all means, they still don’t seem to register the implications of resurrected life.
And in this I find a great amount of solidarity with the disciples: Yes, I believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead, but damned if I can explain it. Yes, I believe that Jesus is still present with us, but what the dickens does that mean?
Reality is, these resurrection appearances often leave us with more questions than answers. It calls into question everything we thought possible, everything we thought impossible…it calls into existence a new reality that is, at times, disorientating. The fact of the matter is, no physical proofs of the resurrection can completely erase our doubts. If anything, an experience of the resurrected Christ causes us to doubt our doubts, and dares us to believe our beliefs.
What might it mean to follow Jesus in his resurrection? How does one follow a man who has risen from the dead; who strolls on water and walks through walls? What does the resurrection mean to us disoriented disciples?
These resurrection appearances are as confusing to us as they must have been to those first disciples. They defy explanation, yet mysteriously call out to us who long for it all to be true. When faced with resurrection, we simply cannot believe it, nor can we deny this new reality. There is nothing I can say or do that will make any more or less sense of what we have just read, but here we are, left to struggle to make sense of it all.
I find it telling that, according to Holy Scripture, the disciples first response to the resurrection is confusion, fear, and disbelief. They have no clue what to make of an empty tomb. Maybe you feel the same way…I know I sometimes do. Even as they saw Jesus, some doubted. Faith, we’d do well to remember, is not the absence of doubt. Just as eyesight does not ensure true vision, neither do facts ensure faith. Doubt is not the absence of faith, but, rather, an indicator of faith. The opposite of faith is apathy, not doubt. Apathy (literally, the lack of passion), the lack of concern, complete indifference is the opposite of faith.
Sometimes people are apologetic or embarrassed to admit to a priest that they (or their friend or family member) have lost their faith. I will tell you that I am never too concerned when someone describes themselves as atheist or agnostic. Show me an agnostic or atheist and I’ll show you someone who still cares about the pursuit of truth. No, what concerns me more are those who do not care at all, those who are narcissistic and apathetic. Show me someone who no longer even cares enough to doubt, and I’ll show you someone who has truly suffered a loss of faith.
The disciples and saints through the ages show us time and time again that doubt and faith go hand in hand – that doubt is the fertilizer of faith. Faith is not synonymous with certainty. Faith is a matter of trust.
So, you tell me: Peter and the disciples, as they return to their nets, have they lost their faith or are they simply doing what they do when they don’t know what to do?
They’re fishing (or at least they’re trying to). They’ve had no catch until the stranger on the shore calls to them (as he did once before), “Cast the net to the other side.” Try again. Trust me. Have faith. There are so many rich details to this story that yank our attention back and forth. 153 large fish? Breakfast on the beach over a charcoal fire? Peter was naked?
As I have read this story over again and again this week, the detail that has struck me most profoundly has been this: Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know it was Jesus. They see Jesus, but they do not perceive it is he.
We hear a similar lack of recognition in our story from Acts, where the oh-so-clever Saul, who had embarked on a mission of religious zeal, asks of the voice that struck him blind, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul, in all his certainty, despite all of his education and credentials had no idea who it was when God called out to him.
Peter and the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Saul did not know that it was Jesus. And sometimes we, too, are blind to the presence of Jesus in our midst.
I don’t know about you, but I have never seen Jesus calling to me on the shore. I have never been struck by lightening or had a Damascus road experience. I have never seen Jesus quite as clearly as I might like.
But I have broken bread together with friends. I have had words of undeserved forgiveness extended to me. I have had hope kindled within me in a word of kindness or listening ear.
If we are to pay attention to where Jesus is truly to be found, it is in such simple acts of incarnation. In sharing a meal. In sharing love, concern, and forgiveness. On the beach or on the road, in a locked tight room, or an empty tomb.
If we have not seen Jesus, perhaps it is because we have been looking in all the wrong places. As the angelic messengers told the women on Easter morning, “Why do you search for the living among the dead?” If we have not recognized him, perhaps it is because we’re looking for certainty rather than trust.
Saul was shocked to discover that God was not to be found in the rigor of religious purity or persecuting others as if to protect God; God was not to be found in debates about who to let in and who to keep out. God was revealed to him in Jesus, the one whom he was persecuting. Saul was shocked to find God in the voice of the persecuted and oppressed – in the very people he thought didn’t belong.
The truth is that in the body of Christ, in Jesus in you and me and in our neighbor, there is no one who doesn’t belong. If one doesn’t belong, no one belongs. The early church father, St. John Chrysostom said it so profoundly: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door you will not find him in the chalice.”
I think the same could be said of our baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being: if we cannot revere God in one another, we will find nothing to revere here at the altar.
I will be the first to admit how difficult it can be to recognize Jesus. People can be so very difficult and dangerous to love. God, who fills all things, can sometimes be so obvious as to seem absent.
If you have ever struggled to find God – know that the disciples too had a hard time recognizing Jesus right in front of them.
If you haven’t seen Jesus in some time, please hear this: you need to know that the story is not over. Jesus isn’t finished with us until we know him in the breaking of bread, in our brothers and sisters, hidden in plain view.
The ending of the Gospel of John (here just a few verses after our Gospel lesson today) concludes with this enormously hopeful saying, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
What do we do when we don’t know what else to do? Well, perhaps we can consider such uncertainties a pause in the conversation…a holy ellipsis… a narrative “to be continued” in a story still being written.
In the end none of the disciples had to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Easter 3c (2016)