Texts: Acts 9:1-19a; John 21:1-14
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to have a genuine encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, who seems so remote twenty centuries after his death and resurrection? The three readings this morning give us some clues about how this happens.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles recounts St. Paul’s dramatic meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road. The lesson from the Gospel according to St. John describes the unexpected rendezvous of the disciples with their risen Lord on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. The reading from the Book of Revelation is an ecstatic oracle of John the Seer, who envisions Jesus the Lamb victorious and regnant in his glorious kingdom.
I want to draw our attention specifically this morning to the selections from Acts and the Gospel of John. I do so because they depict personal experiences, rooted in historical events, which make contact with the yearnings of those of us who seek to meet the risen Christ, either for the first time or in new and deeper ways.
Some Christians have encountered Jesus Christ in overwhelming ways, like Paul’s experience during his journey to Damascus. These people are able to describe the events that transpired in detail, including the precise place, day, time and circumstance. Such experiences may mark a conversion from another faith (or no faith) to Christianity. Or they may signal a radical change in the life of one who has hitherto been a rather lukewarm Christian. There are individuals who have had several such dramatic occurrences in the course of a lifetime.
In forty-five years of pastoral ministry I have known a number of people who have had experiences like that. They have honored me by sharing their stories, often with diffidence and humility. I have been moved by what I have heard.
I have also known thousands of other Christians whose faithful lives have been devoid of anything close to a Damascus Road encounter. Some among this larger group feel that they are defective Christians because they don’t have a dramatic story to tell. In certain instances they have been intimidated or turned off by those who speak of their engagement with Christ too glibly, too proudly and too often.
Pauline-style encounters with Christ are not given to many. Although they carry great weight for those who have them, they are relatively rare events. They neither prove a favored relationship with Jesus nor indicate a higher level of Christian commitment on the part of the believer.
There are two recurring themes in many of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples during the fifty days following the first Easter. One has to do with his seemingly altered appearance. The other is the extraordinary emphasis on food. Both themes are present in today’s Gospel reading. They offer us a couple of additional ways of meeting the risen Christ.
It is odd that those who knew him best didn’t recognize him at first after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene, standing at the tomb, thought he was the gardener until he spoke her name. The two disciples, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, thought he was just another traveler until he shared the evening meal with them. Peter and a handful of other disciples went fishing and were having no luck at all until a stranger on the shore told them where to cast their nets. Only later did they realize that the stranger was Jesus.
What’s going on here? Why couldn’t they see him for who he was? Despite all the predictions of his rising on the third day, did they really not believe it would happen? Were they just not expecting him? Or was the risen Jesus in a physical state that was somehow different?
In his epistles, St. Paul takes great pains to explain how this is so. At our death, he declares, we die completely. Then, by the grace of God, we are resurrected in a new bodily form that is distinct from what existed before. In this death and resurrection transaction—pioneered by Jesus—there is a liberating discontinuity, Paul contends, which leaves behind forever the old unbearable burdens of sin, degradation and suffering.
Be that as it may, it seems to me that the resurrection appearances of Jesus are highly suggestive for contemporary seekers and believers alike. As the risen Christ came incognito to the first disciples, so he comes into our lives very often as a stranger. He comes at unexpected times and in unforeseen ways.
Frequently he meets us when we are not looking for him at all. Often he approaches us in what we would call the non-religious sectors of our lives. Mary was getting ready for burial duties. The two Emmaus-bound disciples were slogging it out on the highway. Peter and his fellow fishermen had gone back to work.
Those who are baptized in the Episcopal Church make a promise to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving their neighbor as they love themselves. That commitment, if taken seriously, prepares one’s heart and mind to the possibility of encountering Christ in the widest range of circumstances.
Last week the press reported an incident that took place on Interstate 395. A woman was thrown from her car during a morning rush-hour collision. While other commuters skirted her prostrate body on the pavement, some shouting angry words at the delay, an army officer on his way to work at the Pentagon stopped his car and stood guard over the woman until professional help arrived. News accounts didn’t indicate what, if anything, transpired between the injured woman and the helpful soldier. Nor did they note the religious identity of either person. Yet, I believe that the suffering of the crucified Jesus was present in the agony of the woman and that the saving grace of the risen Christ was operative in the kindness of the soldier. The spirit of Christ was clearly at work on that crowded highway last Wednesday morning, probably incognito at the moment, but surely recognizable now.
The centrality of food in Jesus’ resurrection appearances is highly intriguing. In Mark’s gospel, the eleven were having a meal in Jerusalem when Jesus joined them. At the inn in Emmaus he broke bread with Cleopas and his companion. Luke reports that he ate a piece of cooked fish with the disciples to allay their fears. Ghosts, after all, don’t need to eat! And in today’s passage from John, he had breakfast with them on the beach. What are we to make of this gustatory preoccupation?
Before his death Jesus gave new meaning to a traditional Jewish ritual meal, with which all of his disciples were fully familiar. From now on, he told them, whenever you break bread and share the cup, do it with me in mind. His continued presence would be assured forever in this new holy meal, this supper of the Lord. The presence of food in so many of the encounters between the risen Christ and his followers seems to be an early reminder to them of how they would continue to meet him.
The Book of Acts tells us that the earliest Christian communities “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:4). In their communal gatherings, Christ continued to make himself known to them as they told and retold his story (later written down in the Gospels), as they prayed together in his name and as they broke bread in the sacramental meal of the Lord’s Supper. You and I, of course, recognize the same basic first-century pattern in what we are doing here this morning.
The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg published a book a few years ago called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. The book makes an interesting contribution to the current debates about the Jesus of history. But it’s the title itself that resonates this morning, for it underscores the nature of this third way of encountering the risen Christ. In the Holy Eucharist believers continue to meet the Lord week after week, year in, year out, deepening our understanding of him, inviting him to enter our evolving lives in ways that strengthen and renew us. This way of meeting Christ is summed up in the collect of the day, the prayer that served as an introduction to the readings from Scripture. We prayed that as Jesus made himself known to the disciples in the breaking of bread, so may we behold him in all his redeeming work. The sharpening of our vision to behold Christ at work is exactly what we are engaged in here and now.
The Scripture this morning suggests three ways that people encounter the risen Christ. Dramatic interventions are a possibility for all of us, but in fact they seem to occur only in extraordinary situations. On a day-to-day basis in the ordinary world where most of us live, we have endless opportunities to see Christ at work among us, often as a stranger, when we sharpen our spiritual sensitivity to recognize him. He comes to us also in regular eucharistic worship where we are fed in the sacrament of his body and blood. That feeding is marvelously reflexive, giving us sustenance for the moment at hand and at the same time honing our powers of recognition to meet Christ again and again after we leave this holy space.</P