If we had to answer why we are here, we would likely say that worship is important. While there is no guarantee that worship will bring us close to God, it is ahead of whatever is in second place. We are here because we expect to make contact with God in scripture, sermon, praying, singing, in the fellowship of like-minded fellow Christians, affirming our baptism, breaking bread together.
These are essential for congregational life. We renew our certainty of God’s love for us in baptism. We feed on the eternal food of the Lord’s Supper. Still, some may ask, “Is that all there is?” That is, even practicing, church-attending Christians who want to cultivate their faith may hunger for more contact with God.
Where should we look? The answer is in the Gospel where John tells us how God makes himself known to people in every age. The story is connected with the total life of Christ so that no one may appeal to this story alone and say, “See, I don’t need the church after all.” In his first post-resurrection appearance, Jesus came to the upper room to most of his disciples on the evening of Easter Day.
His second appearance came a week later, when Thomas was with them where the disciples had their last ceremonial meal with Jesus. They gathered where he gave himself, body and blood. This room where we meet is the upper room for us. Jesus brings himself forward in time to be present in bread and wine. He is with us now.
But after his resurrection, he made a third appearance that was vastly different from the first two times, and therein lies a story for us if we want to know his presence today or any other day.
This is a story for insiders, those in the upper room, those who saw the scars on his hands and feet, those who believed in him, and those of us in this age who ask if he is present here also. Jesus told his disciples – that’s us — how and where he can be located or identified in the incident by the sea of Tiberias.
Here is what happened. Seven of the disciples fled back to Galilee after that second appearance when Jesus satisfied Thomas’s questions. They were confused. They had no clear plan of action. They were not yet launched into that great missionary passion of going to the far corners of the world, Peter did the only thing he knew how. He was going back to work. The dream was over. He could not understand the resurrection. Three years spent with Jesus would have to be set aside as a separate chapter of life, and now the book was closed. What would they do next?
“I’m going fishing.” That was Peter’s work, and he knew how to do it. “I’m not going to try to make sense of things that don’t make sense. I know what fishing is all about and that’s what I’m going to do.” Their fishing ground was the Sea of Tiberias, about sixty miles from Jerusalem. They walked. They got their boats and nets — and caught nothing.
Like all fishermen, they didn’t want to quit. They had made their living at it, but their nets were empty. So here they are, exhausted from being in Jerusalem too long, afraid of the mob that had taken Jesus, overcome by his death.
They did not understand his resurrection. Nothing made sense, and now they couldn’t catch fish, either. Maybe you have been where everything that can go wrong, does, and then gets worse. There are plenty of times in this old world when bad things happen to good people, when things go sour for ordinary, even sweet people.
At this point of everything gone wrong, Jesus made his third appearance at the Sea of Tiberius. Will he – can he — appear to us in about the same way? Just as day was breaking a voice called out, “Little ones, have you caught anything?” “No? Then put your nets on the other side of the boat and you will.” Suddenly they had so many fish they couldn’t haul the net in over the side of the boat. All they could do was head for the beach and drag the net ashore.
Then somebody recognized Jesus. Peter grabbed the clothes he had taken off for work, jumped in the water and waded ashore. Jesus had a fire going with bread and fish already cooking. The disciples hung back, uncertain all over again. After the fish were taken care of, Jesus said, “Come and have breakfast.” Finally, when he broke the bread – those are key words — and gave it to them, they knew who he was. They were in the presence of God. But they were not in the upper room.
When, in the hills of Galilee, he broke bread and fed the 5000, they saw him as the bread from heaven. When, in the upper room, he broke bread and gave them the cup, they saw him as a bridge from heaven to earth. After appearing from out of nowhere at Emmaus to walk with two disciples, he accepted their invitation for supper. Then, as he broke bread with them, they knew he was the Son of God.
And when at Tiberias, he broke bread for them at work, they knew him as the risen Christ reigning over daily life, ordinary people doing their ordinary work. Do we need to see him there? He ordered the net moved from one side to the other not because he knew more about fishing, but to show them that routine daily work done at his direction may be filled with his presence.
The disciples thought they were finished with Jesus. But here smack in the middle of their escape from all their frustrations, they heard him giving them direction. No matter how long we run, we can never run from God. No matter where we hide, we cannot hide from God. No matter what we do, God still has more unlikely things for us to do. The risen Christ deals with the ordinary stuff of everyday life, and it is in the midst of the ordinary circumstances of life that he appears again to believers who have known him first in the upper room. He didn’t enthrone himself and send word for the disciples to come and worship him. He didn’t put himself on display and say, “See me now. I have come back from the dead.” He found his friends, built a fire going, and cooked their breakfast. His wounds were barely healed. He cleaned a fish — we don’t know how because that’s not the point of the story. — and turned it over the coals so it would bake. He even served the disciples their breakfast with his own hands. And in the midst of his serving them, they recognized him.
A certain medical doctor, a dedicated Christian and church member, was interviewed about his faith. The reporter made the observation later that every time he tried to ask about the doctor’s faith, he talked about his work. The reporter was not being critical, but rather he observed that the surgeon was one of those rare people who saw God at work in daily activity. When he was asked about his faith, he talked about his work and life. So it is with us.
Now, if we were to put ourselves through certain religious activities, we could get goose bumps and funny feelings. Psychology textbooks explain in detail how such feelings can be produced on cue. We could go to a great religious meeting, hear stirring music, dynamic speakers, beautiful prayers, and then say we had got the spirit. Maybe we did and maybe we didn’t. Rather, the Risen Christ made himself known to his disciples in the context of their most familiar activity, fishing all night and coming ashore at dawn for breakfast.
There seems to be nothing specifically religious here, just the ordinary drudge of another day’s normal activities — which applies to every child, every student, every adult employed or unemployed, working or retired, or one who has never had any kind of paying job outside the home. In the most unlikely circumstances, fixing a fish, Jesus came the third time to his disciples. The circumstances of our own lives are no more unlikely. Our needs are as great, and the power of the risen Christ is as great as it ever was.
And in the quietest ways of ordinary living, as Christian disciples, we will not have to ask when we discern him there, “Who are you?” We will know. We will know that the Lord is reaching out to touch our lives.
Albert Schweitzer discovered him and then wrote, “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, and he came to those who knew him not. “He sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands, and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the suffering which they will pass through in his fellowship. And as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”
When we first receive him in bread and wine, then we can meet the Risen Christ in daily living. There also, the Risen Christ, the resurrected son of God, comes to each one of us.