Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Risen Christ and the Forgiven Church

Simon Peter, the sons of Zebedee, and some others are fishing in a boat. Jesus approaches. He calls out to them. Directs them to let down their nets. So doing, they land a big catch. Jesus promises these fishermen that they will become fishers of people. The disciples leave everything and follow him.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

In Luke’s gospel, it’s how the story starts, how Jesus calls his band together at the very beginning. Here, in John’s gospel, however, it’s how the story ends. Like deja vu all over again. That pattern: fishing, approaching, directing, and calling. John’s gospel ends where Luke’s gospel begins.

Imagine John’s gospel as a movie. To end with a beginning produces the kind of ending that tells the attentive viewer, tells you, a sequel is already in the works, like when Doc Brown shows up in a tricked out get-up and tells a young Michael J. Fox to hurry, to get into the DeLorean and go back with him, the future(!), and the credits roll. It’s an ending meant to leave us on the edge of our seats, left to imagine what comes next. It’s the kind of ending that names a new and unpredictable - as in, all bets are off - beginning.

[Parenthetically, Rebekah tells me you won’t know Back to the Future, which, if true, I regard as a tragedy, and, if true, is nobody’s fault but your own. A preacher can only do so much.]

“Follow me,” Jesus says to Peter, and it’s an ending that announces that the adventure is just begun.

Reading this text in the late 4th/early 5th century, Augustine found it noteworthy that, at the first calling of the disciples in Luke’s gospel, the nets that catch the fish are filled to breaking, but here in John’s gospel, by contrast, the risen Jesus before his friends, the nets are filled but are not broken. And the nets not broken are the disciples themselves, the ones Jesus called fishers of people, in that Jesus’ death that had threatened to undo them, to break them, that had thoroughly exposed them, will not, finally, break them; will not, finally, break God’s Church; because the Church is not the community of the polished and powerful; the Church is the communion of the risen Christ.

The Church to which the risen Christ returns is the forgiven Church.

They had denied him, abandoned him, left him for dead. But here he is, and here they are, re-enacting, re-claiming, that first vocation. Fishers of people. And like fishermen’s nets, Jesus mends them, makes them whole, and restores them to God, themselves, and the mission of God in this world.

I wonder if you have ever longed for this kind of mending.

This mending is what Peter is learning from Jesus just now in the question that won’t go away: “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?” The question repeats three times in order to knit, mend, and heal Peter’s three earlier denials. Jesus, finally accepting what Peter can offer - “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” - now spelling out clearly for Peter how love for Jesus and love for his sheep, from this moment on, must go together. In other words, reconciliation and mission go together because, as the disciples are learning, the mission is reconciliation. And reconciliation is friendship restored: the disciples restored to their Savior; the fish of the sea gathered together in one, unbroken net.

God’s mission is reconciliation. It’s true. You can look it up. Reconciliation is the mission the Church has been given: St. Paul, to the Church in Corinth writes, “...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

But if God’s mission is reconciliation and reconciliation is made possible by the risen Christ, it follows that God’s mission requires of the Church today conversations like Peter’s with Jesus. Real salvation from real sins, real mending of real denials... If reconciliation and mission go together, mission begins with self-emptying before the risen Christ, naming our need of the forgiveness we find him speaking to us. “Drink this, all of you,” he says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

In an interview, an African bishop observed some years ago that North American Christianity takes a particular shape in part because it assumes a position at the center, a position of power. He suggested that this position of power is what makes the so-called “Great Commission” of Matthew’s gospel - “Go and make disciples of all nations...” - so attractive to North American Christians. Said the bishop, “Americans have been preoccupied with the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission: ‘Go and make.’ I call them go-and-make missionaries. These are the go-and-fix-it people. The go-and-make people are those who act like it's all in our power, and all we have to do is ‘finish the task.’ They love that passage! But when read from the center of power, that passage simply reinforces the illusion that it's about us, that we are in charge.”

The bishop suggested instead what he called the “Great Invitation” of this gospel: Jesus, meeting Peter and the others, mending the broken nets. Jesus, alive and at the center, re-issuing the invitation that began the whole adventure in the first place: “Follow me.”

“Can we,” the bishop asked, “begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness?”

“When I am weak, then I am strong,” Paul says. Familiar words, and in them the invitation of reconciliation: to go against everything we’ve been taught to believe, survival of the fittest, all the rest – every value of a society steeped in the waters of post-enlightenment western might and individualism. As a mission, as a calling, as a beginning, Paul's words are nonsense.

Nonsense. Except that we have been steeped in other waters; we have been steeped in the waters of baptism; we have seen our Savior claim his kingship from a cross. And long after we and the crowds had gathered, lost hope, and gone home, there, on that beach, around that charcoal fire, he finds them. There, the disciples restored to their Savior; there, bitter tears turn to joy; there, God’s own dream: the fish of the sea gathered together in one, unbroken net.

“Follow me,” Jesus says, and it’s an ending that announces that the adventure is just begun.

St. Francis House. 4.14.2013

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