A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter.
Sometimes Scripture is inspiring. We believe the Scripture to be inspired, and we believe Scripture can inspire us, blow wind into our sails. Sometimes scripture is inspiring. And sometimes the Gospel is about Jesus eating fish sticks.
These are not simple readings. It’s not always easy to come away inspired. In Acts and in Luke, the hearers are terrified, astonished, confused. I can’t really blame them.
The psalmist complains to God. His people say, “Oh that we might see better times!” For the past two weeks the first letter of John has been going on about sin and lawlessness. If in three years we have an associate rector, she or he will be assigned these readings. I’ll let someone else deal with Jesus eating the post-resurrection fish. But here we are, and this is the Gospel today. Let’s talk about the fish.
In an odd way, this Gospel may speak to a particular fascination in our culture today. For the past several years, my little brother Sam has sent me a text on Easter morning. It’s always the same text. Now, you have to understand, my little brother is way more hip than me. He watches more contemporary movies and tv shows. He plays video games. For the past several years my little brother has texted on Easter morning: Happy Zombie Jesus Day!
Happy Zombie Jesus day. If you’re like me, and you don’t play the latest video games or see all the latest TV shows and movies, you might have missed our cultural obsession with the undead. It’s staggering. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular TV shows. I was reading a New Yorker review of a horror flick that is coming out. (New Yorker reviews are about as close as usually I get to horror movies). The reviewer was SURPRISED it wasn’t about zombies. There are a lot of zombies out there in the cultural imagination.
This Gospel story was written to a similarly fascinated culture. First century Palestine had a fear of the undead. The Gospel says the disciples are afraid that Jesus is a ghost, a spirit. Maybe you’ve heard the other Arabic word: djinn. The desert can be a frightening place by night. The wind howls. The land is so desolate. At the time of Jesus, they were afraid of the spirits and ghosts, much like we have a cultural obsession with zombies and vampires.
In response Luke has Jesus eat a peace of fish. Luke emphasizes that Jesus is flesh and blood. He presents evidence. Ancient tradition taught that Luke the Evangelist was a medical doctor, and this is one of the passages they pointed to when making the case. Luke wants to emphasize Jesus’ physical body, his hunger, his digestion. Jesus is not a ghost. Yes he came back from the dead, but Jesus is not a zombie. Sorry Sam. Jesus is simply flesh and blood.
But, I have a spin on this odd Gospel. There’s a way I think we can move past all this first century ghost-disproving strangeness. The fish may prove Jesus’ flesh-and-blood resurrection, but it doesn’t stop or start with the fish. It seems so usual, and that is the point. In every single account of the resurrection, Jesus eats with his followers. He breaks bread. He shares the fish. He meets the disciples at the table. He is with them in the everyday meal.
The section of Luke’s Gospel just before this reading is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible. Until the most recent lectionary came out, we read that story every third Sunday of Easter. Now some committee decided we need some variety. Every second year, they decided we needed fish sticks. But Luke Chapter 24 vs 13 begins with a couple of disciples on the road. Cleopas and an unnamed follower are walking to Emmaus after the crucifixion. They’re disappointed. As the sun sets, and the shadows lengthen, and evening is at hand, a stranger joins them on the road. “What are you talking about?” he asks.
The disciples are stunned that this stranger hasn’t heard about Jesus’ death. “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel” they tell him. Then the stranger surprises them. He walks them through the Bible, and explains that the messiah must suffer and die. They’re amazed as he helps them understand. They approach the village, and they ask the stranger to stay with them. He joins them in the house for a meal. When he breaks the bread, they know he is Jesus.
Sometimes the scriptures seem a bit obscure. Sometimes the meaning is hidden. Sometimes our hopes are disappointed. Jesus comes back bodily, and sometimes bodies disappoint us. We all know a bit about how our bodies can be disappointing. Am I right? The human body is only rarely inspiring, rarely. Often the body can seem like a burden. We have aches, and pains, and bodily issues.
But Jesus shared our humanity. Jesus wasn’t some magical creature. Jesus shared our regular old body. Jesus shared our human suffering. Jesus shared our death. And we will share in Christ’s resurrection. I think part of our culture’s intrigue around fantasy, why we have so many zombie stories and vampire movies, is a desire that the world was a little more enchanted. We all want to believe in magic. So we make up stories, and put them on TV.
The desire for magic, for enchantment, is why I take some courage from this story from Luke. This story is too messy to be satisfying for that fantastic side of our humanity. If our fantasy writers were writing about Jesus, I bet it would be more magical. If those disciples on the road to Emmaus could have made up a story about Jesus’ return, they would have imagined him coming back with throngs of angels to topple Caesar and take Jerusalem by heavenly force. That’s what they wanted to see. Instead they got fish sticks.
But there’s hope, even in fish sticks. Zen Buddhists have a saying: “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” Don’t confuse the finger pointing and the moon. Scripture is not God. The Tradition is not God. Reason is not God. Priests are not God. The church is not God. Religion is not God. Thank God, at our best, we point to the moon. At its best, Scripture points us.
Jesus is not some magical being, reserved for fantastic stories of encounter. God is not available only on special mountaintops. Christ is with us in the messy bodily reality of our day to day lives. God is not only with us when life is good. Jesus is not about perfection. Jesus is with us in the fish sticks.
Christianity is a very ordinary religion. We look for God in the ordinary stuff. Our central symbols are water, bread, and wine. Sometimes we even look to fish. We put fish on the back of our cars. We believe that God is known to us in the breaking of bread, that simple everyday action. Christians see the supernatural in and through the natural.
Episcopalians dress it up. I stand here in fancy robes and we sing about the bread, but really, really, we could do this around your dinner table. It would count. We could use grape juice instead of wine. We could baptize a baby in the kitchen sink. We dress up the ordinary to point to the moon. But let’s try not to get stuck staring at the pointing finger.
Christians are ordinary people with an extraordinary assertion. God meets us in the everyday life. God meets us in human bodies. God meets us right where we are, fishsticks and all. So let’s break bread together. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll glimpse the Risen Lord.