By Rev. Dr. Elmo D. Familiaran
Eastertide is the season after Easter in the Christian liturgical calendar. But in my experience serving many pastors and their respective congregations across many years, the season is akin to a low tide in terms of spiritual energy and vitality to many. With all the excitement and the joy of Easter, there is a tendency for the church to lie back as if exhausted. There might even be a sense of letdown after all that celebration. It’s like, “what now? What’s next?”
I have always found the post-resurrection narratives in the gospels profoundly revealing, yet quite extraordinary in their simplicity. This is where I turn to contemplate the answer to my own question. In John 21 for example, we find a group of disciples were with Peter in Galilee by Lake Tiberias. We can assume that one of the meanings of how the narrative starts is that they were hanging out just shooting the breeze, not doing anything really, maybe even raising the question, “What’s next?” Then Peter suddenly says, “You know what? I’m going fishing.” The other disciples decided to go along and went into their boat. They were out all-night fishing but got nothing. They headed back. And just as they were about a hundred yards from shore, they saw a man standing at the beach. They didn’t recognize him because it was just after daybreak.
Some of you who have been on the beach at the break of dawn can relate to this. Just as dawn breaks, that brief moment between darkness and light, it is still difficult to make out the details on people’s faces unless you really are close enough. This perhaps is the reason that the disciples in the boat did not recognize at first the figure of Jesus standing on the shore. Then they heard him yell out, “Hey boys…catch anything?” “Nope. Nada. Zip!” they said. Then the unknown figure on the beach asked them to do something that sounded uncannily familiar to them, when the voice said: “Cast your nets on the starboard side of the boat.” Just as soon as they cast the nets, it filled with fish, so heavy that they had a hard time hauling it in.
The story tells us that it was because of this that the disciples recognized Jesus. Peter’s response was quick and characteristic of his strong and sometimes impulsive personality. He puts on his clothes out of respect for Jesus, jumps into the water fully clothed, and moves towards the figure on the beach he now knew was Jesus. The others were of course left dragging the net full of fish. When they all got to shore, they saw that Jesus had already started a barbecue going on the beach - the charcoal was lit, and fish and bread were cooking.
There was not much conversation going on around that barbecue, just Jesus sharing and eating the bread and fish with them just as he did miraculously on the hilltop a while back. The disciples, it seemed, were quite uncomfortable in the presence of the risen Lord. There was something so very familiar having a meal with him by the water, but at the same time something so surreal - being in the company of someone you knew who just returned from the dead. They knew him but they also were keenly aware that he was some kind of a stranger, one who belonged to another existence. But the bread and the fish, the harvest of the earth and the sea, the breakfast he had prepared for them, reminded them of the intimate fellowship that they always shared. It must have been a wonderful and deeply tender communion on that beach.
As a narrative counterpoint, it was at dawn when roosters usually crow, which shed light and exposed Peter’s cowardice and fear. We can only surmise that the crowing of the rooster was still echoing in the ears of Peter’s soul, sounding off his three denials as he and Jesus talked along the shore. Jesus took Peter on a walk and spoke to him privately. As if to recapitulate the three denials of Peter, the gospel writer reports that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And for each affirmative answer of Peter, Jesus recommissions Peter with the words, “Tend my sheep!”
From the recommissioning of Peter, we learn that responsible Christians are required to reflect upon the teachings of Jesus, especially as to how these teachings speak to the very ministry of Jesus himself. Following Jesus means striving to follow the way he worked, the way he acted, the way he loved. We will not measure up some of the time, perhaps a lot of times. But strive we must. The gentle scene that the gospel of John portrays at the beach with Jesus and the first disciples, reenacts the severity and the costliness of love. It helps us to understand that there is a difference between “liking” Jesus, and “loving” Jesus.
It is not difficult to presume that this time Peter understood. This time he knew that he was willing to go to his own death to keep the faith. And perhaps we can say that Jesus knew that as well. The resurrection of Jesus did not eliminate the reality of suffering and death as part of life.
This is why when the risen Jesus recommissioned Peter, he recommissioned him for the world and not apart from the world, “Tend my sheep!” This time the commission comes with new power, revealed in a radically new way through the appearance of the risen Lord himself.
Jesus’ commission is a call to an active journey and participation - now through the power of the Holy Spirit - in the work of love that remains unfinished in the world. Not in another world. This world.
The post-resurrection narratives in the gospels report that the risen Jesus came to the defeated disciples several times. In another notable account in John 20, he appears to the disciples who were gathered in a room, behind a closed door. He gave them peace, but peace that was identified with his wounds, “Peace be with you.” Then the disciple Thomas arrived later, and when he was told by the other disciples that they have seen the Lord, Thomas demanded proof: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas’ desire for proof in the narrative brings us to a very important theme of the Easter message. Thomas did not want to forget the violence and the brutality that Jesus went through leading up to his crucifixion. He saw Jesus die in that way, and he wanted to see the marks of his death as a condition of his belief. My Jesus, Thomas must have thought, had the marks of violence, hate, and brutality on him: a crown of thorns, lacerations and bruises of torture, stab wounds and nail marks.
In Thomas’ insistence for proof, we learn that we cannot uncouple the inseparable link between the Bible and the wounds of the world. The passion of Jesus is eternally connected to the passion of the world. The saving divinity of Jesus is inseparably linked to his humanity, his wounds. To follow the way of Jesus is to follow his suffering in the world.
The current horrific war in Ukraine has exposed the deep wounds of the world, and has laid bare the other evils and atrocities happening elsewhere in the world that have lain relatively unnoticed: the famine in South Sudan, northern Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Yemen, where children and infants are literally dying of hunger every day; the continuing genocidal repression of the Rohingyas and the Uyghurs - all remind us of our capacity to inflict cruelty and death on fellow human beings. In the unspeakable suffering of these innocents, we can feel the nail marks on their hands, and the stab wounds on their sides. It was the violence of the world that killed Jesus. But it also exposed the futility of violence and hate, that their ultimate end is death and destruction.
In the words of St. Paul, the world is still groaning, yearning for completion. Each time we participate in acts of Jesus, each time we respond like Jesus, each time we love like Jesus - in each of these moments we will see appearances of Jesus in our lives, flashes of resurrection and glimpses of heaven. We live in the resurrected life in participation with God’s continuing work of love in the world through the risen Lord precisely because we still see the urgent need for resurrection everywhere: “Tend my sheep.” The risen Lord wanted Thomas to be assured not only that he is the same Jesus crucified on the cross. But Jesus also wanted Thomas to now fully understand that God’s kingdom of love is a kingdom that is inextricably bound to his wounds. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Last month, my wife and I were finally able to scratch off a long-hoped-for item on our travel bucket list. We visited Portugal and stayed in Lisbon for 8 days. As an observant Catholic, my wife wanted to visit Fátima, a town in central Portugal, and one of the largest pilgrimage sites in the world for the Catholic faithful. It was in Fátima where many Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to three little shepherds in 1917. In the vast sanctuary square of the shrine, three major structures stand out: the original and main sanctuary, the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary; the larger and more modern Basilica of the Holy Trinity constructed after 1953 to provide more room for large-scale pilgrimages; and the Chapel of Apparitions, which marks the exact location of the Marian apparitions. Between the Basilica of the Holy Trinity and the Chapel of Apparitions is a 182-meter path where devotees walk on their knees, beginning in the modern Basilica to the Chapel, as an act of penance or sorrow, or as a fervent plea for healing and restoration - all to offer up a sacrifice for the favor of God, in theological imitation of God’s own ultimate sacrifice through Jesus.
I have read about Fátima, and have seen a few documentaries, but to experience and witness in person the power of faith at work in these devotees made me reflect once again on one of the great mysteries of our faith - that the unspeakable love of God is mediated in the suffering and passion of Jesus.
God chose to come in suffering love through Jesus, that God may enter the reality of humanity’s existence in all of its dimensions, its heights and depths, including death, that our redemption and transformation in Christ may also be complete. Jesus went to the grave, and rose from the grave, so that when we finally get there ourselves, the grave is no longer a tomb, but the doorway to life everlasting with the Lord. That is the Easter hope.
We live in the power of the resurrection and in its hope that in the end love and life are more powerful than death. And we are called to live the resurrected life in the kingdom of love here on earth. What does this mean? It means that we fiercely hope in the midst of despair. We act with generosity and hospitality to the outsider in the midst of prejudice and greed. We defiantly do justice for the poor and the powerless because God’s love becomes visible only through justice and compassion. We resist unjust authority without fear, and we love, we hope, and we forgive extravagantly in the midst of hatred. And we untiringly work for peace in the midst of the idolatrous worship of war.
Like Thomas, may we be reminded that the kingdom of love is built on Jesus’ stab wounds, his nail marks. When we continue to rage against the darkness of the world and the nihilistic ideologies of death, we also proclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Death is defeated, we are set free from fear. Resurrection Day is to commemorate for the follower of Jesus the power that now resides in their witness and journey in the world. Far from being a spiritual letdown, Eastertide is a liturgical redeployment to continue in our mission to “Tend his sheep” in their flesh and blood realities.
Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer, and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross-cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash