By Ms. Barbara Mansfield
I suspect that most of us have experienced being outside walking or hiking or just driving around when we were suddenly struck breathless by the sheer beauty of nature. Especially in spring time around Easter. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when everything seemed to be at its peak. I was walking along Redland road, a major thoroughfare in Rockville.
It was early in the morning, and there was a line of blossoming trees. Now I only know two kinds of flowers— alive and dead. These weren’t cherry blossom trees, but whatever they were, they were in full, knock your eyes out, bloom.
They had softball sized bundles or clusters of flowers. When I got to the last tree, there was a branch within reach, and I stood on tiptoe and held it in my hands.
Honestly, I felt like I was holding the face, of something precious, and I couldn’t help but kiss it.
It was right after that, when I heard a horn honk.
I turned and realized it was morning rush hour and I was at an intersection where a string of cars was stopped at the red light.
And most of the drivers were looking at me. Thankfully, some of them were smiling and waving, but some looked, well, just kind of “concerned.”
I didn’t care! I was enjoying that wonderful nature high that spring and Easter can bring.
And I am determined to hold onto Easter this year with both hands.
You know how the joy of Christmas can get lost after the gifts are opened and winter kicks in to stay for a while? I think the same thing is true of the joy of Easter. The promise it gives of new life and the power of love to break through darkness can fade as we slide back into our routines.
So how do we keep the lifegiving message of Easter in our hearts long after Easter day? The passage from john that we heard today has a lot to say, but I want to start closer to home, with two things I experienced right here on Easter Sunday. One was from Javier’s sermon, and the other from nan’s reflection on the front page of the bulletin for that Sunday.
You may remember what Javier said at the end of his sermon. “I have seen the lord” (quoting the words of Mary Magdalene). Javier, I saw so much emotion in your face at that moment, and you seemed to gather yourself together. Then you said, “I have seen the lord in the faces of each of you! See him in the faces of each other!”
That was a really powerful moment. I felt surrounded by love and hope.
And then there was nan’s reflection in the bulletin for Easter Sunday. Her message was, “do not despair, we are Easter people, sing alleluia!” If there is anyone who radiates hope and joy, it’s nan!
I’m still absorbing these two messages, and I see them as an anchor that can keep us connected with the goof news of Easter.
But I also struggle with it.
I have talked before about the fact that my family was far from being Easter people. We were good Friday people, and we tended to get stuck there. Our default mode was darkness, and we were always turning out the light, hunkering down, and expecting the worst.
I got confirmation of that family tendency to lean toward disaster this Easter, when my sister sent me a text message with a series of photos from the 1870’s that she found in an old family bible. Among the photos there was a really old greeting card with a small picture of a farmhouse on the front. Under that, in large print, was the following message:
“behold! Thy days approach that thou must die!”
I mean, really, what kind of card was that? Obviously not a get-well card! A birthday cards? “you’re fifty! It’s almost over!”
How much better to drop the darkness and trust this anchoring thought instead: it’s a combination of what Javier and nan expressed:
Jesus is truly with us and in us and in one another. Therefore,
Despair doesn’t win, remember Easter, it’s time to sing alleluia!
Now let’s look at the gospel passage and see what it has to say about staying connected to the Easter message.
To put it in context, it’s the 4th time after his resurrection that Jesus has appeared to people who love him. And all 3 of the previous ones were filled with intense emotion. We have been reading about them the past few Sundays.
First, Mary Magdalene at the tomb goes from gut wrenching grief to great joy when she recognizes Jesus. Next, the disciples, huddled in a small room, afraid that they will be found by the authorities, are stunned to see Jesus come through the locked door.
Then, the disciples again, this time with Thomas present. Thomas, who must have felt so ashamed for having insisted on concrete evidence that Jesus was alive.
All of these were so filled with feeling!
And now we have Jesus appearing at seaside. I love this story! It has a softness, a sweetness to it, starting with Jesus calling out, “children, you have no fish, have you?” Like a loving parent who already knows that his children need and is ready to provide it. Such a caring intimacy!
But underneath the serenity, there is something else. If you wanted a brief synopsis of who Jesus was and is and what he did, this story of breakfast by the sea might do it.
It hints at earlier events without actually naming them. For instance, it takes place at the sea of Tiberias, which actually had several names. One of them was the sea of galilee.
We’ve been there in scripture with Jesus before. It was where he gathered the first of his disciples saying “follow me.” It was also where the story of the loaves and fishes too place and where Jesus calmed a stormy sea.
The fact that this breakfast is at that same place calls up those events for us. We are also reminded that this is not the first time that Jesus has told his empty-handed fishermen where to throw their nets to find a lot of fish.
In this story, he’s not only showing them where to find sustenance, but he’s actually feeding them. Jesus was always feeding people. Sometimes with actual food. Think of the loaves and fishes, and the bread and wine of the last supper. But he also fed people who were hungry for hope, for healing, for being included, and for being loved.
And when he tells peter, “feed my lambs,” “feed my sheep,” I think he’s urging peter and you and me as well, to provide more than food. We are to care for each other, and particularly for the most vulnerable among us.
Jesus the loving parent, the nourisher, the shepherd, is also the one who forgives.
When Jesus asks Simon peter three times “Simon, son of john, do you love me,” we can’t help but remember the agony of the crucifixion and the fact that peter denied Jesus three times. Somehow, it feels like Jesus, in asking peter these questions, gives him an opportunity to be redeemed, to turn his denial back into love.
So, we can see that this account of Jesus with his disciples at Tiberias is packed with subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, reminders that there is so much in the life of Jesus to sing alleluia about!
But the Easter message doesn’t claim that life is going to be without pain. The last part of this gospel account is very clear about that. Our lives are made up of both joy and sorrow, sin and redemption, crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus tells peter:
“when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will taste a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
There’s a lot of truth in that, isn’t there?
When we’re young, we feel like we are in charge, we have the car keys and can go anywhere. As we get older, we end up letting go of things—a lot of things. That sounds like bad news, but maybe it’s not.
When my 91-year old dad was no longer able to take care of himself in his Florida home, I felt like I was the one putting on his belt and taking him where he didn’t want to go, to come up here. But I knew he needed to here.
When we surrender to another hand and allow it to guide us, maybe where it takes us is where we need to be.
In fact, maybe that’s where we’ve always been. Totally dependent on the source of our being, the one who made us.
We have never been the one in control. We only thought we were.
But we can be the one willing to follow.
The reading today from acts also speaks to this. Paul who had been “breathing threats and murder” had to be knocked to the ground to get the message of how blind he had been in persecuting the followers of Jesus.
And both he and peter suffered painful deaths.
Jesus said, “follow me” to his first disciples, and they came with him into his ministry. When Jesus says “follow me” to peter at the end of this account, he is telling him to come to a very difficult place.
Let us hold on to the fact that we know that Jesus has already walked that path and that he is not only in front of us but with us and in us every step of the way.
As the psalm says: “weeping may spend the night, but there is joy in the morning.”