Disruptive Presence

Sometimes you wonder what it is we affirm when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Sometimes you wonder if you can be a Christian if you have trouble grasping the resurrection. If you have talked with me about it, I probably told you not to worry. Christians aren’t the people who have grasped the resurrection, but rather the community of those who have been grasped by it and are being drawn by Christ into fullness of life.

We like to think that we are the ones who find Jesus, but the Gospel tells us it’s the other way round. The Risen One finds us. The Risen One shows up, breaks in, intrudes, interrupts, no one knows when or where.

We just heard again about Paul’s famous encounter on the road (Acts 9:1-19). He was a man with a mission, a man of unshakable certainty and unquestionable authority, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, when suddenly he found himself thrown to the ground, surrounded by blinding light, and questioned. He was helpless and blind, had to be led by hand like a toddler into the city, and after three days – his eyes were opened and he realized he had a very different mission in the world.

The Risen One finds us, shows up unexpectedly, breaks into locked rooms, intrudes the party, disrupts the deadly routines, no one knows when or where or how. Peter was fishing with his friends when Jesus found him. How much more everyday could it possibly be for a bunch of fishermen? He found them at work.

What these stories tell us is that Jesus is neither safely buried in the grave nor safely gone to heaven never to be heard of again. They tell us that we live in a world perpetually disrupted by the presence of the risen Christ. They tell us that he used to be somewhere, somewhere in Nazareth or Capernaum, Bethany or Jerusalem, somewhere on the lake or on a mountain or in somebody’s house. You could have tracked him with GPS and traced his movements on a map. But now, the stories tell us, now his astounding intrusions can be and must be expected anywhere and anytime.

We know lots of stories, of course, and we love listening to, reading, or watching them. They all begin when something interrupts the ordinary flow of things. Say, a jogger finds a body floating in the river and a crime novel begins. Or a young man on his way to work decides to take the train going North instead of the one going South he’s taken every morning for the last three years, and we have the beginning of a romantic comedy. Then there are clues and unexpected twists and turns, a smart inspector, mistaken identities, conflict and confusion, until in the end the crime is solved and the young couple finally realize that they are meant for each other. All is well. Nothing else needs to happen. Roll the credits.

The question is, is the Gospel a story like that? The world’s in trouble. Jesus descends from the Father and reveals God’s glory in wondrous ways; there’s conflict and rejection, and Jesus dies. He goes back to where he came from, ascending to the Father. Mary has seen him, the disciples have seen him, even reluctant Thomas has finally confessed, “My Lord and my God!” Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Nothing else needs to happen. Roll the credits. No, no, no says John. Not so fast. You may be done watching, but this story doesn’t end until you’re in it.

The resurrection of Christ is not just something radically new God did with Jesus – and it is that, something as radically new as creation itself. But the resurrection is not a just a moment, say the instant when God overruled the verdict of death; the resurrection is this new reality of the continuing, disruptive presence of Christ. Yes, chapter 20 of John’s Gospel wraps things up nicely in a house in Jerusalem, but then chapter 21 opens with a view across the Sea of Tiberias: we’re in Galilee, where it all began. Peter is here and Thomas, the sons of Zebedee and two others of Jesus’ disciples, and Nathanael – Nathanael who hasn’t been mentioned again since Jesus promised him in chapter 1 that he would see greater things. And now he sees them, along with the other disciples, after a long night of hard work for nothing.

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” the stranger said before telling them to cast the net to the right side of the boat – and then they hauled it in, or rather tried to haul it in and stopped because they couldn’t manage the abundance of fish that filled their heavy nets. Wow! Enough fish to feed the whole town and then some! How many of the seven do you think were remembering that wedding day in Cana at the beginning of their journey with Jesus when the guests had finished the last drop of wine and then the surprise on the chief steward’s face when he tasted the good stuff and then the size of his eyes when he realized how much of it there was? Wow! Talk about joy in the presence of Jesus!

The beloved disciple was the first one in the boat to recognize what he saw. “It is the Lord!” he said and Peter responded with now familiar eagerness: he was caught between his desire to greet the Lord with proper respect, that is with his clothes on, and his unbridled excitement to do so immediately – and jumping into the lake while putting on his clothes he ended up providing plenty of comic relief!

Coming ashore they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread, it smelled delicious, and Jesus said – and they knew it was him – “Come and have breakfast.” Bread and fish in abundance – how many of them do you think were remembering that day by the lake when a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish fed a crowd of five thousand? Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.The world in which Jesus has been raised from the dead is a world where the feeding of the multitudes is not a one-time miracle but an economy of grace rooted in divine generosity.

When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” it brought back memories of another charcoal fire where Peter had come to warm himself and before the cock crowed, he denied Jesus three times. Three times the risen Christ asked Peter, “Do you love me?” – but not because accounts had to be settled properly. The Lord didn’t come to tie up loose ends. The risen Christ found Peter in the hour of need and lifted the heavy weight of guilt and shame. Three times he asked him, “Do you love me?” – not because only three heartfelt affirmations of love could make up for the three-fold denial, but because Jesus wanted Peter to continue to live in the generous and merciful love of God by feeding the sheep and lambs of the Good Shepherd.

The risen Christ finds us and feeds us and sends us to feed others in his name. The risen Christ sends us as he has been sent. He commands us to love one another as he loves us, and through him we participate in God’s mission.

On Monday morning some fifteen of us, mostly clergy met in a downtown office building. We filled small baskets with loaves of bread and fish, and carefully tied a name tag on each basket. Then we each carried a dozen or so baskets down to Legislative Plaza to give them to our legislators. We were concerned about a couple of bills in the House and Senate having to do with healthcare for the uninsured and financial assistance for needy families. And so we took a basket of loaves and fishes to every member of the House and Senate and to Governor Haslam, encouraging them to approach debates and decisions about the wellbeing of our communities with a spirit of gratitude for the abundant gifts of God. In halls and offices, stairwells and elevators we gave testimony to the economy of grace rooted in divine generosity. It was a beautiful Monday morning Easter sermon. We heard echoes of the Lord’s words, “Children, you have no fish, have you? Cast the net to the other side of the boat, and you will find some.”

This afternoon, many of us will participate in the Nashville CROP Walk, and it will be another beautiful Easter sermon: we live in the world in which Jesus has been raised from the dead, in an economy of grace rooted in generosity and mutual love, and so we do what we can to end hunger and poverty.

Sometimes you wonder what it is we affirm when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We affirm the faithfulness of God. We affirm that Christ is alive and present. We affirm the power of forgiveness. We affirm the wells of hope Christ has opened for us in the desert. We affirm that love drives out fear. We affirm that God loves the world and all who live in it. We affirm that the living Christ has found us again and again and continues to draw us into fullness of life in communion with him and each other. Thanks be to God.