“The Ordinary-ness of Jesus”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 10, 2016: The Third Sunday of Easter
Psalm 30 & John 21:1-18
Peter Enns is an American biblical scholar who was asked recently to list ten things he wishes everyone understood about the Bible. The first of the ten is this: the Bible doesn’t answer all—or even most—of our questions. Instead, he says, the Bible is a story of how Jesus answers for us the biggest question of all: what is God like? Next, Enns says that the Bible isn't like God’s version of Apple’s software agreements; if you fail to adhere to one clause in the middle of page 87 you will not be banished from God’s graces. That is good news!
But of the ten things that Enns wishes everyone understood about the Bible, this one stands out to me the most: the Bible doesn’t record history, it interprets it. Enns points out that the Biblical writers were not interested in writing an academic textbook, but rather a story that interpreted their past, the experiences of their community, and their questions of faith. This is why there are two different stories about the creation of the world and four gospels that recount Jesus’ life differently. Each writer that contributed to the Bible—and there were many—had a different idea of what was important, what was meaningful, what would point others to God. The folks who put all these writings together into what we call the Bible knew that multiple perspectives, multiple points of view, multiple interpretations of the same God, would be beneficial to those who would read it over the millennia.
Think about it this way. You and I go to an art museum because we both enjoy art. You gravitate more towards classical art, and I towards modern. You enjoy the work of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and I enjoy the work of Takashi Murakami and Vik Muniz. You are drawn in by graceful figures and rich, deep color; I’m intrigued by sharp lines and how art can be made with metal or glass or everyday items. In the classical wing of the museum you find what you enjoy, and I find what I enjoy in the modern wing. As we leave the museum together, someone on the street asks you and me about what we have seen, and our responses are quite different. However, even though what we saw and experienced was different, one thing binds us together: art. And even though we looked at two genres of art that are very different from each other, we saw the same things: beauty, pain, struggle, joy, and honesty. If that person were to put our responses down on paper, then use that as marketing material for the museum, the richness of the museum’s art collection would be front and center, not our differences.
This is true for the men and women who wrote the Bible. They were bound by one thing: God. But their experiences of God, the ways they encountered God in every day life, the things they learned by meeting God in Jesus Christ—each one was different. It bears repeating: the Bible is not a history textbook…it is a record, a journal, of people just like you and me trying to make sense of their God. So what we get in the Bible is not a ‘how-to,’ not an owners manual, and certainly not step-by-step instruction on how to get to heaven. What we get in the Bible is holy marketing material that pushes us into direct contact with God. What we get are stories to help us along the journey of faith from those who have been there before. Some parts of the Bible will speak to you more than they speak to me, and vice versa. Some stories and characters seem out of place in a sacred story, while others just drip holiness. The facts might not always agreed, the timelines might be hard to follow, there are certainly discrepancies that cannot be smoothed over. No matter what, it all points our faith and attention to one thing: God.
I start today with this little foray into biblical scholarship because there are events recorded in John's gospel that cannot be found anywhere else in the New Testament. And we have to wonder why. Why does John’s account of Jesus’ life differ so much from Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Why does John talk about appearances of Jesus and interactions between the disciples that the others do not? Remember what I just said, though: each biblical writer had their own interpretation of the great big story of God interacting with humanity. What John includes in his gospel is meant to tell us something—about his faith, about his questions, of what he believed about God and Jesus Christ. So what is John trying to tell us today?
It is now about eighteen days after the resurrection and Peter says to the other disciples, “I’m going fishing.” Thomas, Nathaniel, James and John, and two other disciples go with him. It was what they were familiar with and I imagine that being in a boat out on the sea was a safe place for them. Their whole world had just been turned upside down. It started when they first met Jesus three years earlier, but recently things had gotten really weird. There was the secretive meal in the upper room, during which Judas got up and left. There was the mysterious trip to the garden in the middle of the night, where they watched Jesus suffer under the weight of his mission. There was the crowd that arrived and hauled Jesus to prison and then to court the next morning. They were there when Jesus was condemned to death and the robber, Barabas, was set free. They watched Jesus as he took a cross on his shoulders and walked to the place of execution. In fear, they ran when Jesus died. They hid for several days from the authorities who executed Jesus, certain that they would meet the same fate.
Then they heard a wild story from Mary Magdalene that she had been to the tomb, and it was empty! Peter and a few others ran to the tomb and saw first-hand that Jesus’ body was not there. They hid away again, afraid of what the crowds might do to them, afraid that maybe, just maybe, Jesus had risen as he said he would. But there was no door, no lock, that could keep Jesus from making himself known to them. Jesus appeared in the room where they were hiding and breathed peace into their anxious hearts. Thomas couldn’t believed it, and he didn’t believe it until Jesus beckoned him to come and feel where the nails and spear had pierced him. Totally flipped upside down was the world of the disciples: their teacher and friend had led and taught them, been taking away from them in death, and was now back among them in a form that they simply could explain.
So they go fishing. Have you ever had an experience like this? Have you ever had an experience that was so strange, so confusing, so beyond the power of your mortal mind that you just had go away and do something familiar just so that you could process it? That is what the disciples are doing. Fishing was their livelihood, but also something they enjoyed. Fishing was predictable for them, at least more predictable than Jesus who would just suddenly appear even when the doors were locked. Fishing was peaceful. I retreat to music or quiet prayer when the world all around has me perplexed or uneasy; maybe you find this peace in your garden or at the library or by cooking.
Except the fish aren’t biting this time. A stranger on the beach tells the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and lo and behold, they catch so many fish the net is impossible to pull in. One of the disciples recognizes the stranger on the beach and turns to Peter in astonishment: “It is the Lord!” Peter immediately puts on some clothes, jumps into the sea and swims to the beach to meet Jesus; the other disciples struggle and wrestle to bring the net full of fish ashore.
Now, when everyone gets to the beach they see a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus invites them to cook some of the fish they have just caught and together—the disciples with their Lord—they eat breakfast. No one says anything because they know that the stranger is Jesus. When the meal is over Jesus and Peter take a walk. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks Peter this question three times. Each time Peter answers with an exuberant ‘yes’! Each question and answer wipes away Peter’s sin on the night Jesus was arrested: three times Peter denied Jesus, three times Jesus asks for Peter’s love, three times Peter confirms his love for the Lord. Peter has now been restored to his place as the disciple who will build Christ’s church. The last thing Jesus says, according to John, is this: “Follow me.”
Fishing, eating, walking, talking…how very ordinary. John’s gospel is showing us today that this Jesus at the center of our faith—the one who lived, died, and rose again—is present to all of us in the ordinary-ness of everyday life. By including details different from the other gospels, John is asking us to be attentive to this reality of Jesus. Jesus is anything but ordinary, and yet he is with us, in us, through us and all things, in the ordinary events of our lives. This is exceedingly good news!
Think with me for a moment about how we imagine and depict Jesus on this side of the resurrection. Take, for example, the image of Jesus that adorns the front of this pulpit. This Jesus is powerful, robed in white and gold, triumphantly risen from the dead. This is a Jesus who is absolutely beyond this world, beyond the capability of our minds to comprehend. In fact, the Jesus of Easter, in image and in reality, is beyond this world and beyond the capability of our minds to comprehend. And we’re really good at imagining Jesus like this and putting him in high and secluded places. Whether it is in concrete statues or beautiful mosaics or graceful paintings, the resurrected Jesus is something to behold, but totally out of our realm. The resurrected Jesus is extra-ordinary, someone to be put on a shelf where there is no danger of being broken, left there to be admired and adored but never touched.
But then the Jesus of John’s gospel gets all tangled up in the lives of the disciples, he is real to them, so much so that they can reach out and touch him. This is good news—for the disciples and for us. The power of Jesus, risen from the dead, comes not in our ability to respect or protect his extra-ordinariness, but in his ability to infuse and be present in our ordinary-ness. Talking and eating and fishing with the disciples, Jesus was entirely human, ordinary; walking with Peter, giving him space and courage to accept God’s grace, Jesus was entirely human, ordinary. It is true that the resurrection of Jesus opens to us the gates of heaven and eternity in God’s presence when our time on earth comes to an end. But it is also true that Christ’s resurrection is not just about what happens when we die…it is about what happens while we are alive. While we are alive, doing the ordinary things that we all do, Christ is here, present in our everyday living.
This is good news because when we experience a world of confusion and anxiety, fear and complexity, Christ is there, beckoning us to come away to a quiet place and rest for a while—maybe to fish, maybe to make music, maybe to garden. This is good news because sometimes these places of quiet and rest are anything but, like a group of fishermen who went out to fish and could not catch any fish; still, Christ is there. This is good news because when we can’t find what we are looking for, Christ is there to point us in the right, or different, direction. This is good news because so often we see and hear strangers, and Christ promises that we will see him in those strangers. This is good news because Christ is not only concerned with our spiritual well-being, but also with our physical health and wholeness—he feeds us with bread from heaven and bread from an oven. This is good news because like Peter we have denied Jesus, in front of others in our own hearts. Yet, Christ is there, walking and talking with us, accompanying us as God welcomes us back with grace and forgiveness.
Do we listen to him when he invites us to find a place to rest for a while? Can we admit when we're wrong and follow him when he points us to go a different way? Can we put aside fear and start to look for Christ on the faces of those we meet, those we know and those we don't? Will we dine with him and then share the abundance of our table with others? Will you accept his invitation to walk and talk back into the grace of God? If you can, if I will, if we do, we will see Christ who is really with us every moment, always.
Wherever you go today, tomorrow, and the rest of your life, Christ is there. Easter made it so. Easter proves that God will not be kept down by evil or insults or even death, but will always be alive and roaming around. Easter shows to us the great length to which God was willing to go to bring you and me back into the kingdom of light. Easter confirms that faith always conquers unbelief, forgiveness always transcends sin, that grace is given regardless of the worthiness of the recipient, that love always wins over hatred. Easter proclaims that the light shines in the darkness and no darkness will every overcome it. That light, Jesus Christ, is risen from the dead and he is with us: when we feel it and when we can’t, when we believe it and when we don’t, in the moments beyond explanation and in the ordinary-ness—in fishing, in walking, in eating, in talking, at our tables, in our homes, in our places of business and school. Christ is there. As the psalmist says, “This is God’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.” Amen.