Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 10, 2016
The Third Sunday of Easter – Year C
Acts 9: 1-6
Revelation 5: 11-14
John 21: 1-19
Every year, I marvel at the genius of the Church’s liturgical calendar, with its amazing gift of extensive readings from the Gospel according to Saint John throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter. This Gospel in particular has been rightly called the “spiritual Gospel” because it is the key to the deepest meaning and significance of God’s unique and definitive self-revelation in Jesus the Christ. Very often, it is this Gospel that illuminates the true significance of events related in a more prosaic way in the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Rich in symbols and symbolic prophetic-acts, Saint John’s Gospel continually relates the “signs and wonders” inherent in the Incarnation, Ministry, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ taken as a seamless whole. And this morning’s Gospel lection is no exception.
Today, we hear about another of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his apostles, this time, in his glorified body at the edge of the Sea of Galilee following the apostles’ return to their familiar lives and occupation as fishermen. And that life is not going very well for these once savvy businessmen who had given up everything to follow the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth in whom they had placed their messianic hope. They are unable to catch much fish, and they are clearly depressed, confused, and still quite guilty over having abandoned Jesus to his cruel death at the end. This guilty hangover is especially evident in Peter, always the leader and spokesman for the group, who dives fully clothed into the water to avoid Jesus as soon as he senses intuitively that this stranger among them is indeed their Risen Lord. Yet, as he did so often during their time together as a rabbi with his circle of disciples, Jesus, now fully revealed by his Death and Resurrection as the “hesed,” the “steadfast love” and mercy of his Father, meets their struggle and sterility with abundance and forgiveness in another illustration of the very deepest meaning of the Cross: that the suffering love and justice of God is perfected in forgiveness and prodigal mercy toward those who turn to God in a spirit of repentance and faithfulness. In another foretaste of the great “Messianic Banquet” at the end of the ages, and reminiscent of the Last Supper, the apostles eat with Jesus once again, this time, a simple breakfast of bread and fish that Jesus himself has prepared for them on a charcoal fire by the shore. And now, that same Peter—who had denied any knowledge of Jesus at another charcoal fire outside the High Priest’s house on the fateful night of Jesus’ trial—is fed and forgiven by his Risen Lord at another such fire in the midst of the disciples’ ordinary lives. Already, the sacramental life of the Church has begun by the Sea of Galilee’s shore: the Reconciliation of A Penitent, followed by a Eucharistic meal in the “Real Presence” of the Risen Lord, unrestricted now by the limits of time and space in his glorified “soma pneumatikon,” his “spiritual body,”—to use the words of Saint Paul—and still bearing the wounds of his sacred Passion and Death.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of today’s story, however, is that Jesus is not instantly recognized by his disciples. It’s only through the actions of this very embodied stranger, who eats and drinks with them, that the apostles intuitively recognize Jesus. And here, St. John is following the testimony of the other canonical Gospels as well: Jesus is only recognized through his saving actions in the midst of his followers as they go about the ordinary business of their lives, with all of their predictable trials and tribulations, in the corrupted currents of this world. Their “spiritual eyes” are opened to the “Light of the World” only after their own lives have been touched by the Divine mercy and forgiveness in Christ. And these effective graces and gifts of a prodigal God of love and forgiveness will subsequently take their most focused and intense form in the sacramental life of the Church catholic. But, as Jesus himself taught, we must be “alert,” “awake,” and “watching” at every moment and in every circumstances of our own lives—like the bridesmaids in Jesus’ famous parable—for “the tokens of our salvation” during these still very early days of the of the “life of the world to come,” inaugurated a mere two-thousand years ago by the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus the Christ. And yet, through all these years of salvation history, God’s redeeming presence always finds and seizes occasion for redemption. Recall that when Moses asks for God’s personal name at the burning bush before the great Exodus from Egypt, God identifies himself as “Ehyeh-asher-Ehyeh,” “I-will-be-there-howsoever-I-will-be-there…this shall be My name forever.”
I only became fully and powerfully aware of this indispensable spiritual insight at the very spot where the events of this morning’s Gospel happened over two millennia ago in Galilee, a place in which I always feel the palpable presence of Christ most acutely in that “Land of the Holy One.” And this land is rightly called by many who travel there as pilgrims as “the fifth Gospel.” Twice, I have been privileged to celebrate the Holy Eucharist for a pilgrim group by the edge of the Sea of Galilee: once, at an outdoor, stone altar adjacent to the simple church erected over the place that very early Christian tradition designated as the location of Jesus’ shared early-morning meal with his apostles; the other, at Tabgha, where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. Both opportunities were very powerful experiences, but, on the second occasion during the summer of 2005, a truly extraordinary thing happened that I can only now describe as a true “sign and wonder,” to use the Gospels’ term for what we mistakenly call “miracles.”
We were a small group of ten that day, standing around the altar at the edge of Galilee’s lake for Mass. Since I was the celebrant, I had my back to the water and could only hear, but not see, the still water gently lapping against the shore. When we came to the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, and I bid my fellow pilgrims to “Lift up your hearts,” the water suddenly roared as if the gentle waves had just been stirred by the wake of a very large, passing boat. The sudden sound of the waves was so loud, in fact, that I had to raise my voice to be heard above the din. In the moment, I noticed that my fellow pilgrims looked a bit startled by the sudden noise, but I didn’t pay it much mind as the roar continued through the Words of Institution over the bread and the wine. When the Holy Eucharist was over, and I rejoined the group, I commented that I was sorry for the distraction of the sounding waves at such a crucial and solemn moment in the liturgy. I think that I even made a mordant remark concerning what I assumed to have been a boat’s interruption of a very intimate and profound moment in the Mass. It was only then that I realized something extraordinary must have happened, because my fellow pilgrims looked at me with complete astonishment and related that they, too, had not only heard the sound, but had actually seen the sudden movement of the waters. However, there had been no boat visible anywhere within the lake’s broad vista from our vantage point. The waves appeared to have suddenly risen and sounded without any apparent cause, and they had stopped just as suddenly and inexplicably as they had started. Well, I was speechless (itself a very rare phenomenon, I assure you) at their testimony, and I knew and felt immediately in my heart that the “Real Presence” of the Risen Christ had palpably graced us during our gathering—just as he had graced the apostles in this morning’s Gospel—feeding us at his Holy Table in this sacrament of Divine mercy, forgiveness, and steadfast love. “I will be there howsoever I will be there…this shall be My name forever” indeed!
My friends, there was nothing “supernatural” or “miraculous” about my experience at the Sea of Galilee: it was simply a gracious intensification, “a sign and a wonder” in the Gospel’s words, concerning what always happens when “two or three gather together” in Jesus’ name to “proclaim his Death and Resurrection,” with praise and thanksgiving, “until he comes again”; just as we are doing here at this Holy Eucharist right now. Didn’t Jesus promise us that “I will be with you always, even to the close of the age”? Isn’t he really and truly present in his “spiritual body” at every single celebration of the Holy Eucharist? Doesn’t he long, like a beggar of love at the door of our hearts, never presuming to push it open, for our invitation to find him in the midst of the joys and the sorrows, the blessings and the tribulations, of our daily lives? He himself told us that we have only to “knock, and the door will be opened; to seek, and we will find; to ask, and it will be given to us.” Jesus is here, right now, in our very midst, on this very morning, in this very church, at this very Holy Eucharist, and we have only to glance at the unceasing light of the Paschal Candle to remind ourselves that God has vindicated his Christ and, through him, each one of us, by his glorious resurrection from the dead and his eternal victory at the last over evil, sin, and death. We have only to say the four simple words of the Church’s “Jesus Prayer”—“Lord Jesus, have mercy”—to invite the palpable and real presence, the steadfast love, and the mercy of God in Christ into our lives; and to proclaim by word and by deed, together with the whole Church—especially throughout these Great Fifty Days—the ancient Easter anthem that “Christ is risen from the dead! By death has he trampled down death. And, on those in the graves, has he given new life! My friends, Christ is risen. Truly, he is risen! And he is here among us right now in his “Real Presence” of Word and Sacrament because God has promised that “I will be there howsoever I will be there…this shall be My name forever”!