Sermon May 1, 2022


by Rev. James Rausch

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!   How do we know it’s real?  How do we know that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just some wild story dreamed up by some fanatic disciples trying to make a name for themselves?

Well, I’d like us to think for a moment, if the earliest followers of Jesus were simply making up stories trying to convince the world that Jesus was raised up from the dead, how do you think they would they have presented his resurrection and their own response to it?

What we might have expected would have been a grand presentation of God’s triumph, with trumpet blasts and angel choirs and the crowning of the loyal followers, each being installed in a position of authority and respect.

What we have instead in these holy writings is the disciples’ admission that they themselves didn’t even recognize him at first.  Over and over again it happens.   At the tomb, Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Christ for the gardener.   Luke presents two followers walking several miles with him on Easter day – on their way to a place called Emmaus.  They talked as they went, and finally this stranger was invited to stay with them.  Yet only later did they realize it was Jesus, after he broke bread with them.  

And again, on Easter day, the disciples were not fully convinced that the one standing among them was the risen Jesus until they saw the very wounds from his crucifixion.   Thomas famously refused to believe until he saw for himself.

Now, Thomas Troeger, a preaching professor whom I was privileged to meet at a Synod School event, wrote a beautiful hymn about his namesake, Thomas, the doubting disciple.  It’s number 256 in our hymnal.  I just learned that Professor Troeger passed away earlier this month.  So, I guess it’s especially fitting that I had already planned to include his poetic lyrics in my sermon today.

These things did Thomas count as real:

the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,

the grain of wood, the heft of stone,

the last frail twitch of blood and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind

was keen enough to make him blind

to any unexpected act

too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied

that one could live when one had died,

until his fingers read like Braille

the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe

and thus, the risen Christ receive,

whose raw imprinted hands reached out

and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

So, the gospels and Acts report to us that Jesus’ closest followers were anything but triumphant, perceptive, and heroic.  Thomas would be forever known as “Doubting Thomas,” hardly the kind of legacy one would choose if one were making up a story to pass on for posterity.  The starkly honest portrayal admits that Jesus’ followers were all slow to perceive and even slower to believe.

No flattering self-portrait from the disciples on their discernment, and no spectacular portrayals of Jesus as the triumphant returning hero.  Instead, we have a risen Christ who looked like a gardener, a dusty traveler on a country road, and a man asking for fish, cooking breakfast on a charcoal fire on the beach.

The disciples had learned that there was nothing to be gained by pretending that they were ultra-competent, worthy of authority, highly successful and in control.  Many times, during their lives prior to Jesus’ resurrection, flattering self-portrayals were precisely the kinds of images they fought to present to the world, just as we often do.  Heaven forbid it in this day and age that we risk honestly showing anything of ourselves that isn’t part of an image of having it all together.

Surely you have noticed that it seems no salesperson can admit their product has weaknesses, or isn’t performing up to the level of its competition the way it should. They have a way to spin everything into reasons that we must buy what they’re selling  It seems no one can risk accepting responsibility for accidents they cause or crimes they commit.   It seems no student could ever admit that there are many ways to cover, by grades or by achievements, the things that are really lacking in their lives.  It seems that those who are trained and even experienced in their professions can never let on that there are times of great uncertainty and moments of utter incompetence that cause shame and fear and great doubt. That’s the way of the world.

If our lives were to be portrayed in anything like the Bible, which is the best-selling, most-read collection of writings in history, we would all hope to be shown in a favorable light, I think.  No one would relish having their errors and flaws placed before billions of eyes.  So, it’s human to want to tell our story in ways that flatter us, while we almost automatically cover our failings.  However, the masks that we hold up to hide behind do grow to be very heavy indeed.

The honest, self-portrayal of the early followers of Jesus as scared, confused, lost, doubting, and ready to give up and go back to their old jobs, is but one of many reasons we can point to which show that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are trustworthy.  The accounts do nothing to portray the disciples and the early church in a flattering way.  They ring true because of their utter honesty.

Fortunately for us, and everyone who’s willing to pay attention, today’s reading confirms that the gospel is for those who don’t have it all together all the time.  It’s for those who stumble and fall, and are, at times, aghast at their own inability or lack of will to even give it their best shot.  The gospel is for those who were supposed to know better, who could have done better, and who don’t understand where their motivation, enthusiasm and courage have gone.

Fishing on the sea of Galilee is best at night, I am told.  And those who fish for a hobby know that to return from a whole night’s efforts with no fish is terribly disappointing.  Those who fish for a living, however, know that it is utterly demoralizing.  Expert fishermen who spend the whole night with nothing to show for it might not be such experts after all.

By our standards, a fisherman who brings in no fish after working all night, a salesperson who brings in no sales after a hard week pounding the pavement, a farmer who brings in no crops after a tough season of fighting the weather, a doctor who loses a patient, a teacher who can’t reach a child, a waiter who forgets an order, a runner who drops the baton, a soloist who blows a note … these are listed as failures among humans.    Effort or no effort – what humans demand are results.

But what the disciples learned – and admitted wholeheartedly – is that the results are really not in our control at all.

So, I say count me in with the “expert” fishermen who here admitted that all their efforts and knowledge led them to a big zero on their own – when the nets kept coming back empty.  A night spent dreaming of fish for breakfast, and not only dreaming but working diligently for it, was looking like a hungry and tired morning instead.

Then there was this stranger on the beach who called out, and the next thing you knew he had fish on the grill, cooking up the very thing they had wanted so desperately to provide for themselves.

They say this story is also meant as a metaphor for God’s Kingdom.  And those of us who dream of the day when evil and death and mourning are no more – feeling frustrated and discouraged when our best efforts to move us closer to that day seem ineffective at best, and sometimes even contributing to the very things we are fighting against – this story is the assurance that when we stop relying on ourselves and start relying on God, then the dream will be realized.

The net full of fish represents the church and the multitudes who will be brought together, and yet the net is not torn.  It means that God’s church will hold together even with a catch of people so abundant and so diverse that no human imagination can fathom it, and no human effort can achieve it. 

So, if we don’t have it all together – if we are not in control, what are we to do?  Like Peter and the other disciples, we can be honest about ourselves and tell the story of how Jesus came back for us, for everyone who hungers for God’s presence and God’s peace.  We can tell our story truthfully and gratefully to anyone who will listen, and let the results be up to God.

I am guilty of being repetitive with certain things I have learned about the Bible and wish to pass along.  Today’s passage contains one of those lessons you will hear me repeat over and over again.  This story we have read today takes on an extra dimension of meaning when you discover that the English language is not capable of conveying an important feature of the original Greek.

When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter answers, we only have the English word “love” to translate two different Greek words in the story.  Jesus asks, “Do you agape-love me?”  But Peter’s answer, which in English is, “You know I love you,” is actually different in the Greek.  “You know I phileo-love you.”

You see, in Greek, agape-love is the kind of love God gives, selfless and eternally steadfast.  Phileo-love is strong, brotherly or sisterly affection; high love, indeed, but still short of agape-love commitment.   A second time, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?”  And Peter again answers, “You know I phileo you.”   Then, in a third question, Jesus changes the word he uses: “Peter, do you Phileo me?”  Peter, saddened, but honest and humble, gave his answer again.  “Jesus, I phileo you.”

Each time, Jesus charged Peter to “Feed my sheep.”  In this threefold exchange, Jesus forgave Peter’s three-fold denial of knowing him when Jesus was arrested and tried.  And, in forgiving him, they both acknowledged that Peter had grown tremendously in self-awareness.  He no longer was brazenly over-confident in himself and his abilities.  He was no longer willing to promise more than he could deliver.  With this hard-won wisdom, Peter had grown into readiness for leadership.

Are you willing to grow through trials and challenges and hardship?  Are you willing to walk with Jesus into an awakening of self-awareness?  What it requires is a determination to hang in there, and keep showing up.  A mentor of mine once encouraged me after he had listened to me on many occasions confess my worst failures – failures that I thought absolutely disqualified me from being a Christian, let alone a pastor.  He said, “You’re like Peter, then.”  He had every reason to condemn himself over his failures, yet he hung in there and kept showing up.

“Look at the end of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 28, verse 16,” he said, “What does it say?”  So, I read it: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”  “How many disciples showed up?” he asked.  Eleven.  “That’s right.  Eleven.  Not ten.  We know that, tragically, Judas couldn’t bring himself to believe that grace was big enough to redeem him.  But though Peter’s failure was also devastating, for some reason he again showed up, and that’s why there were eleven.

I don’t guess there are many of us who typically eat fish for breakfast, but perhaps we can at least remember this account of our risen Lord who greets those who have come through a long night of sadness and struggle with just what they were searching for, and then some!  Go.  Be on the lookout for the risen Jesus in those around you.  Show them in love how the story of redemption continues in you and everyone else who tries, fails, and falls – but always keeps showing up for what’s next.  I pray Jesus blesses you with growing faith, deepening trust, and tenacious persistence.