John 21: 1-19
In today’s gospel reading John tells his third story of the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, the first being Easter morning and the second the appearance to Thomas, which we heard last Sunday.
Now the disciples have left Jerusalem, returning home to where they lived as fishermen before they met Jesus. There we hear about his appearance by the side of Lake Tiberias – also known as Lake Galilee.
It is a colourful story, full of practical detail – if it wasn’t by the waterside one might call it “earthy.” Imagine for a moment you are there, with all the sounds and smells. Jesus shouting out to the boat, his voice echoing across the still water. The fishermen dragging the net, pleading with each other for help amidst whoops of delight at the catch. Perhaps Jesus continued to shout, berating them for having gone soft, laughing.
Then Peter furiously splashing through the water, to arrive, dripping, on the shore. And the fish. The men gutting them expertly, with bloodied knives. Jesus spreading the glowing coals and laying the fish on the fire – perhaps on an iron grill. The sizzling of the fish as they cook. By the way, did you know that if you grill really fresh fish hot enough, the eyes pop out? Sorry, I digress. Then each man taking a cooked fish in his hands, peeling white flakes off the bones. Noises of satisfaction while they eat. The licking of fingers and picking of teeth.
OK, maybe I am getting a bit carried away. But the point I want to make is the sheer physicality of this story.
It is hard for us to get inside the minds of those contemporaries who witnessed the resurrection, how they understood it, the ways it affected them. But what we can say is that the stories they told emphasised that this was a physical resurrection, that the person they met, in his appearance, clothing, the way he moved, was just like anyone else. Jesus is first mistaken for a gardener, then on the Emmaus road for an ordinary, dusty traveller, Thomas touches his side, and now here he is sharing a fish breakfast.
If we want to find a more ethereal image of Jesus we must go back to the Transfiguration on the mountain top. But the resurrected Jesus is nothing like that.
What I think this teaches us is that the resurrection life is woven into the physical world. Christianity stands apart from the Greek tradition of mind being the seat of the spiritual, and body the passions, which must be controlled. In the gospels, and especially John, arguably the most rarified of the four, Christ is present in the stuff of his creation: every created thing is innately holy.
The church reflects this understanding in its teaching on the sacraments. In the Eucharist, we not only reflect on Christ’s giving of himself for us, we chew and swallow. Each of the sacraments ordained by the church has a physical component: Water in baptism, oil in anointing of the sick, sex in marriage.
And yet what I am calling the Greek understanding of God lives on, both in our English culture and in the church of England. My upbringing is a product of this culture, exemplified in the UK boarding school tradition, based on a love of all things Greek and Latin, with its emphasis on intellectual excellence and physical discipline. I knew that if I wanted to earn the love of my family and the approval of teachers and other adults, this was the path. I followed it dutifully but saw its harsh narrowness when my younger brother fell short in the required obedience and was thrown out of his school – pitching him into many years of anger and rebellion.
The Church of England has drawn on these traditions and mirrored them closely in its own culture, persisting today. We respect book learning as its highest form – we are uptight and anxious about most things bodily. Not that book learning is not good – but it all seems to me now as so unbalanced.
I can’t help thinking that the undervalued carer, who spends an hour each morning with a house-bound old lady, changing and washing her, dressing her, giving her breakfast, getting her meals ready for the rest of the day, all the while chatting, listening, paying attention as well as care, leaving the old lady with that warm feeling, however she may describe it, that she has been visited by an angel – that she understands as much, through her hands, about the innate sanctity of all creation, as the learned cleric.
If every living thing is holy, indwelt by the living Christ, all connected as part of Christ’s body, then we need a new way of seeing: a wonder at the natural world, a reverence for the value, however hidden, of every person, a joy in physical pleasures.
I wonder how those fishermen remembered that breakfast many years later, after they had shared Christ’s good news across many peoples and cultures, had travelled to distant cities. In my imagination it stood for them as a cameo from the years they spent with Jesus, that somehow in their memory they treasured the breakfast alongside the teaching and healing, each significant in its own way.
Richard Young (Rector)