How Do We Know It's the Lord?
Easter III; May 5, 2019
When people see a patch of mold on the side of their refrigerator and claim that it is, miraculously, the face of Jesus, I wonder how they know. I mean, how do they know that it's Jesus and not Caesar Augustus or maybe Xena Warrior Princess? Jesus' closest associates – the Apostles – would see him and not recognize him. Even Saul, when Jesus appeared to him in a vision, replied, "Who are you, Lord?" (Acts 9:5) So how do we know that face on the piece of toast or in the clouds is the Lord?
I'm being a little silly, of course; sometimes seeing a face in a strange place and believing it's the Lord has changed people's lives. We had a county judge in Ohio who saw the face of Jesus in a stain on a pillar in the county courthouse and that motivated him to make some serious changes in his life. So I'm not trying to belittle what people see and the effect it has on them so much as ask, "How do we know it's the Lord?"
Those forty days after Jesus' Resurrection must have been very strange. When the Apostles and others encountered Jesus, they didn't recognize him right away. As in today's story and in others, it's not immediately obvious that the person they are seeing or talking to is Jesus, but then something happens and then they recognize him. Today I want to reflect on those stories and suggest, therefore, how you and I can recognize the Lord.
In today's story from the Gospel of John: they see a figure by the seaside, but they don't know who it is at first. What happens that the Beloved Disciple is inspired to say, "It is the Lord!"? Yes: the remarkable catch of fish. Why does that clue him in that the unrecognized figure is Jesus? There are at least two possibilities.
One is that they've seen Jesus do this before. When he called Peter and Andrew, and James and John, to follow him, he told them to cast their nets into the sea after they had worked all night and caught nothing. They did, and they hauled in a huge catch of fish, so much that it threatened to break their nets (Luke 5:1-11). So when the Beloved Disciples saw the huge catch of fish, he remembered when it had happened before, and said, "It's the Lord!"
This makes sense, given another Resurrection story. The evening of the Resurrection, two of Jesus' disciples are walking to a town called Emmaus. One of them is Cleopas; the other is not named, but could have been his wife or a friend: we don't know if the other disciple was male or female. Anyway, the two of them are walking to Emmaus, and Jesus joins them, but they don't know it's Jesus. They talk among themselves about what had happened in Jerusalem, about Jesus' death, about the news of his Resurrection (which Cleopas and the other didn't quite believe). When they arrive at Emmaus, the two disciples invite Jesus to stay with them for the night – remember, they still don't know it's Jesus – and he accepts. They sit down for supper, and Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. Suddenly they realize: It's the Lord! And then Jesus vanishes (Luke 24:13-31). Was it not the familiar gesture, what they had seen him do before, that gave them that Aha! moment? "It's the Lord!" They had seen him take bread, bless, break, and give it to 5,000 Galileans (Mark 6:30-44), do the same with 4,000 Gentiles (Mark 8:1-9), and then with the Apostles and however many other disciples were present in the upper room the night before his Crucifixion. These two recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread; the Beloved Disciple recognized him in the huge catch of fish.
Of course, those who study such things tell us that it's possible that although there are two different huge-catch-of-fish stories, they both may represent just one event. This would not be the only time John tells a story differently from the way the other Gospels tell it. So if it's not the familiarity of the huge catch of fish, there's another possibility: the extravagance, the abundance. It's a lot of fish – 153 of them – large fish that strain the nets.
Jesus has made it clear that he is the Lord of abundance; when he does things, he does them big. When he changed the water into wine, was it just a few bottles changed into three buck Chuck? No, it was gallons and gallons of the best wine at the party (John 2:1-11). When he fed the five thousand, were there leftovers? How much? How about the four thousand? Did Jesus say, "I came that they might have life, small, petty, and consumed by checklists"? No: "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).
No: this is not the prosperity gospel, the preaching that says "Believe in Jesus and give me a lot of your money and God will make you rich." Wealth is not always measured in dollars; sometimes it's measured in friendships, sometimes in a heart swelling with the joy of making a positive difference, sometimes in a happy, loving family. I am suggesting that a simple wonder-worker might have made it possible for Peter and his companions to catch a nice load of fish, enough to feed their families or to make some money at the market. But when it was a vision of abundance they knew they were seeing the Lord.
When we make plans in the Church are we driven by scarcity or by abundance? Are we fixated on what we can't do because we don't have the resources, or by what we can do because the Lord has provided so much? If there is anything that threatens to kill my spirit in the Church it's the whining of those who complain about what we don't have or what we can't do. Give me instead those with a vision of possibilities, who look around this room and see an amazing wealth of resources – physical resources and human resources – and say, "God has given us so much!" Imagine what we can do with it!
I'll mention as an aside that there are other factors that we in the Church weigh when we're trying to discern the presence of the Lord. What are the words that are being spoken? What are we hearing? "God will get you for that." "Well done, good and faithful servant." "Do whatever makes you happy." "Love one another as I have loved you." "Give the Church some money, just enough not to feel too guilty." "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Some of those are the sorts of things you hear people say; others are things Jesus did say. Can you tell the difference?
Another question: how do we feel? Consider the Gospels and how people feel in the presence of Jesus; how are we feeling? Loved? Welcomed? Challenged to do better? I often feel guilty in the presence of the Lord, and that is because I am guilty. As the prayer says: I have done those things I ought not to have done, and I have not done those things that I ought to have done. Whenever I look to Jesus, it's hard to look him in the eye, because I know that I am guilty. But I also know that I am loved. If I feel guilty, it's because I am guilty. People often try to make you and me feel ashamed, ashamed for not being what they want us to be, ashamed of being alive and taking up space on this planet. The Lord never makes us feel that way, never makes us feel ashamed; rather the presence of the Lord will make us feel loved, welcomed, guilty, and forgiven.
So back to the lakeshore: all of these things are wrapped up in that gathering by the charcoal fire. I feel a little silly admitting it, but to me some of the most beautiful words in the Gospels are these: "Come and have breakfast." Here we are at one of the most poignant, most significant moments in history, when the Risen Son of God is speaking with his closest associates, about to launch them on their apostolic career, and the important, stirring words he says to them are, "Come and have breakfast."
And that may be part of how we know it's the Lord: the simple invitation to eat with him. You have been working hard all night; come and have breakfast. You have been hiding from the authorities, afraid for your lives; come and have breakfast. You have been mourning my death and feeling my absence; come and have breakfast. You have a big task ahead of you; come and have breakfast. You are weary from working and weeping and worrying; come and have breakfast.
God grant that when Jesus calls us – to go deep and catch fish, to bring some of what we have caught, to come and have breakfast – we will have the insight of the Beloved Disciple: "It is the Lord!"
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master