Sunday, April 19, 2015

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24
41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Some people collect hockey cards, but I like to collect stories of obscure Anglo-Saxon saints.

Take, for example, Egwin of Evesham, third bishop of Worcester. Born a prince of the Mercian royal house, he was a well-known monk who was elevated to bishop by popular acclaim. He was a disaster. He thought that the former pagans he ministered to should act less like pagans and more like Christians, and he thought the priests that he supervised should act like priests.

Soon everyone was angry with Egwin. So he resolved to do what every angry bishop did in the 700’s, he went to Rome. Surely the pope would support him, constrained as we was by the poor examples that surrounded him. And just to reinforce his position, he shackled his legs with chains, and threw the key into the River Avon.

Fast forward a few months (shackles tend to slow you down) and Egwin is praying quietly as he is about to meet the pope and plead his case against his disappointing flock. Just as he is set to enter, one of his servants bursts in with the key to the shackles, found that morning inside a fish caught in the Tiber. Unshackled, and with a great story, his mission is a success.

Back in Worcester, the combination of a great fish story, a note from the pope that likely read “listen to Egwin, even the fish have his back,” he begins again. He founds one of the great monastic houses at Evesham and seems to learn how to make nice with his flock. After his death the abbey becomes a moderately popular pilgrimage site, until Henry VIII knocks it down.

It seems every time something important is about to happen, a fish appears. Jonah gets tossed overboard, and a fish appears. A crown of five thousand shows up for lunch, and suddenly a couple of fish appear. Jesus told the disciples to fish from the other side of the boat and suddenly 153 fish appear—so many they can barely pull in the net. And when Jesus appears to them in our passage this morning, he asks ‘do you have anything to eat?’ and suddenly a fish appears.

Fish appear throughout the the Bible, with the greatest concentration during that time a group of fishermen follow Jesus. There are so many fish stories, we even omit some from our three-year cycle of readings. Case in point, Matthew 17.24ff:

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

This passage makes no sense and so we’ll never speak of it again. Actually, I think the point of the passage is something is happening, then something else, and then suddenly a fish appears and everything is better.

And the greatest fish story, the one that trumps all others is found in the concluding chapter of John:

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

Notice how incredibly close we came to having communion made up of bread and fish. Between the final meal recorded in John and the feeding of the five thousand, I’m sure someone in the early church made a pitch for bread and fish. ‘Wine is expensive,’ they might have said, ‘and Welch’s grape juice even more,’ so lets make it fish shared instead of wine poured.’ But it was not to be.

So why is the Risen Christ suddenly hungry and why did they offer him broiled fish? What is the connection between something important happening and sudden fish appearing? I have a couple of theories, but first, why is he hungry?

Somehow, the disciples need to navigate the transition from dying Savior to empty tomb to risen Christ and see that there is some continuity. These final resurrection appearances happen in the mysterious space between dwelling with God and returning to God. They demonstrate that he is still present to the church, but the shape of this presence is changing, and will likely change again. In the meantime, taking a bit of fish will mark a spot in the transition, somehow here but not really here.

In the earliest complete communion liturgy we have we pray ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Somehow the disciples need to understand that these appearances are a foretaste, and a confirmation, and a tender parting. Yet even now, we struggle to understand what all this means, except to say ‘he lives.’

So back to the fish. The first theory is fish as comfort food, fish as the thing people longed for when they felt dislocation or discomfort. One of the clues for this is found in one Numbers 11, as the Israelites resume their complaining:

4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

We have lost the sense of how ubiquitous fish was in the ancient world. Of all the odours you would encounter if you managed to time-travel back to the Mediterranean world, fish would be about the strongest—and likely one of the most pleasant, as hard as that is to believe. If they were not eating fish they were covering everything with fish sauce (garum) much in the way we use ketchup. So that scene in the upper room was perhaps about comfort food, something to connect them to Jesus.

The other possibility is that the appearance of fish marks their return to the old life. We recall from the last couple of weeks that Jesus is busy appearing to the disciples—breathing on them the Holy Spirit, casting off doubt by showing his hands and side, but then something happens. First, we get this editorial from John:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

So there was even more! And now we’re primed to see where this will go next, what great acts of faith the disciples will undertake, what miracles will be performed in the name of the risen Christ—and so we turn the page, and we read this: the Sea of Galilee...Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

That’s it? The greatest two weeks in the history of the world have just unfolded, Jesus died on the cross, God and humanity were reconciled, Christ appeared and said “as God has sent me, so I send you” and they went fishing? Fishing? Of course, they went fishing, because they didn’t know where to start.

But Jesus gives them the answer. Jesus eats the grilled fish, and tells them to reread their Bibles, reminds them that the whole story is there along with what they must do next: take the message of God’s forgiveness to all the nations. Put your nets aside, and do that thing I invited you to do way back at the beginning: follow me, fish for people, forgive in my name, Amen.


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