Doing Ordinary Things When Everything Else is Not Normal
Most of the time, when we wake up in the morning, we have a pretty good idea what kinds of things will happen during any particular day. We get up, dress, have breakfast, and get started on the day’s activities – school, work, social gatherings, and so forth. But once in a while, something unusual happens that upsets the entire normal reality. These can be happy things or sad things. Getting news of the birth of a long-awaited child, for example, starts a chain of joyful activities to support the parents and child through the first challenging days and weeks of life. Getting news that a loved one has passed away, on the other hand, starts of chain of difficult tasks, grief, and disruption of daily schedules and activities.
Having come through a year in which multiple loved ones have passed away, I find the reaction of Jesus’ closest friends during the days following his death and burial very understandable. On this Third Sunday of Easter, Jesus’ friends are bewildered and trying to sort out what has just happened. They know he has died. They are hoping against hope that there really is some way that Jesus has risen from death, but are they just imagining things? Can it really be true?
As all this swirls around them, Peter declares, “I’m going fishing.” Fishing is something normal, ordinary, everyday, easy to understand. Either you catch fish or you don’t. It was the work he and most of Jesus’ other closest friends had done for years before they met him. They can always go back to fishing.
We too go back to doing things that are comfortable. We go to the office and sit doing routine things that don’t require us to be brilliant. We go to school. We go to the kitchen and bake cupcakes. We wash the car, or pull weeds, or change the bedding so guests will have clean sheets when they come. Peter and the others went fishing.
St. John (21:1-19) tells us that they fished all night and didn’t catch a thing. At dawn, they saw someone standing on the shore who called out and asked if they had gotten anything. They responded that they hadn’t. The stranger told them to toss the nets out on the other side of the boat and they would find something. This had happened once before, when Jesus first called them to follow him. They did as he instructed without arguing this time. The nets were filled to bursting with fish. It was at this point that something changed. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” (tradition says this was John) recognized the Lord and told Peter. Peter tucked his robe into his belt and jumped into the sea, swimming for shore. The other disciples brought the boat into shore and pulled in the net full of fish.
Jesus had a fire ready and invited them to bring some fish to cook for breakfast. They selected some as they counted their catch – 153 fish and the nets hadn’t broken! Why does it matter how many fish there were? Some writers in the early church noted that there were 153 peoples in the Roman Empire – thus the number reflected the entire world. Another theory suggests that 153,000 men worked to build the temple in Jerusalem, therefore these 153 fish might symbolize the construction of a new temple, not made of bricks, that would become the community of followers of the Lord. Remember, when Jesus first called Peter, he promised to make Peter a “Fisher of men” of humans.
After a breakfast of bread and fish, served to them around a fire by Jesus, there was still something that needed to be addressed – Peter’s denial of Jesus three times on the night of his trial. So Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon… do you love me?” He uses Peter’s original name, Simon. Each time, with increasing intensity, Simon Peter responds that he does love Jesus. Jesus tells him first, “Feed my lambs.” The next time it’s,”Tend my sheep.” The final time it’s, “Feed my sheep.” The word love used by John to tell of this exchange has two different meanings in the original Greek. One is friendship. The other is deeply committed love. The first two times Jesus posed the question, he used the term for deeply committed love and Peter responded with the love of friendship. The third time, Jesus used the term for friendship and Peter used the word for deeply committed love. Peter’s commitment had become deeply personal and committed to Jesus.
Finally, Jesus mentions the type of death that will come to Peter. Peter is not going to die peacefully in his bed surrounded by his children and grandchildren in old age. Peter will die when he is older at the hands of others, in a way he would rather not die. Jesus then said, “Follow me.”
Peter and the others did follow Jesus. In taking a step into something familiar when they were in great distress and confusion, they met the Lord again and in a way that they could recognize him and again hear the call to follow. They returned to Jerusalem, they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and they witnessed to what they had seen and heard – the great deeds of the Lord in reconciling humanity with God.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (5:27-32,40b-41) describes an event from some of the earliest days of the church. The apostles had been teaching and healing people daily in the city. The community was growing dramatically. The leaders of the Sanhedrin had told Peter and the others to stop teaching and causing such disruption of everyday life in the city. But Peter and his companions did not stop. They were arrested and ordered to stop speaking in Jesus’ name. Peter and the others declined to do so, saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” A section of the story not included in the ready tells that they were flogged and released with a warning not to continue teaching. But as they left the Sanhedrin, they rejoiced to have “been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
The story of the early church continued for many years and is told in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s well worth reading. Many triumphs, many defeats, much joy and much suffering. Ultimately, the preaching of the Good News throughout the Roman Empire to Jews and Gentiles alike continued and spread. There’s more to the story of early Christianity in this book than can be included in the Sunday liturgies.
The story culminates symbolically in the Book of Revelation (5:11-14), as John describes what he saw in his visions on the Island of Patmos over 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection. The reading today describes all creatures in heaven and earth, creatures under the earth, and the entire universe giving praise to God. This is the reality of the work of all of creation, the praise of God.
In this one day’s readings, we see the transition of a group of discouraged men who just needed to do something ordinary, to go fishing, when everything was crashing around them around them. In this transition they became a group of men unafraid to speak out before religious and political authorities in witness of what they had seen and heard. They took this word out to their community and it spread through the known world. All the earth can now join in praising God for this reconciliation of human and divine.
How do we participate in this great mystery? Do we find the Lord in the ordinary things of life? Do we meet Him in each other and in strangers along the way? Are we open to hearing new things, to receiving new insights from the events and people in our lives? Do our lives reflect the joy of the resurrection? Will people find us and our lives appealing enough to want to learn the source of our joy?
Easter and its wonders continue this week. May we be open at this time to see the Lord in new ways and in new places as we move through our daily activities, as the Apostles did on the seashore long ago.