That Moment When You’ve Got Nothing Left

apostles-fishing-boat-night-1426884-galleryThe Text

John 21.1-14

Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.

So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish. When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.

Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples
after being raised from the dead.

Y’all Better Recognize

We are still in the territory of post-resurrection appearances to the disciples today. It’s interesting that John, just like Luke, reports that the resurrected Jesus is not immediately recognizable to the disciples. (And this time they have already seen him twice!) They “get” who he is only after he directs them to cast their nets on the other side and they catch a boatload of fish (see what I did there?). Even then he is different enough that “they realized” it was him, but they also wanted to ask to make sure. In both this story and the Emmaus road story from two days ago, there is what Pope Benedict calls a “dialectic of recognition and non-recognition.” They know in their hearts it is Jesus, even though his physical appearance is changed.

On the literal level, this tells us something about the nature of the resurrected body.  Matthew, Luke, and John all recount stories of Jesus eating and the disciples seeing that he has “flesh and bones.” Jesus remains embodied in resurrection. We will remain embodied in resurrection. We will not be spirits or angels or “ghosts.” We will have physical bodies.That should help us value and appreciate our bodies now. We are not going to escape them some day. Sure, they will be transformed, perfected, but apparently always capable of eating a little fish.

On the figurative level, this “dialectic” means we might not always recognize that Jesus is speaking to us right away. We may have to pay attention to the way he’s speaking to us in order to realize it’s him. Or maybe, we will need a trusted disciple like John, to nudge us and say, “It’s the Lord.”

The Love of a Parent

And what exactly is the way Jesus speaks to them? There is so much tenderness and affection in this passage. He calls them “children.” The Greek word is the word for a small child, it can even refer to an infant, but is very rarely used to refer to an adult son or daughter. It is clearly a term of endearment here. “Hey, my little guys…” And notice that he doesn’t ask them if they caught anything to take to market. He asks if they’ve caught anything to eat. Like a parent, he’s concerned his children get a good breakfast. He even says to them later, “Come, have breakfast,” as he offers them the fish and bread he’s cooked.

You may be able to relate to that feeling of fishing all night long, to the point of exhaustion, and coming up empty-handed. Whether it’s work or parenting or some difficult relationship. That sense of pouring yourself out till you are empty and having nothing to show for it. I, for one, am prone to despair in those moments, or even anger. But these are precisely the moments we need to hear the Lord’s voice. Listen in those moments, listen with the faith that Jesus wants to feed you, that he cares about your needs, that he wants to be present to you. His voice may not come in a way that you expect or can immediately recognize, but it will come.

Getting Opened By Jesus

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The Text

Luke 24.35-48

The disciples of Jesus recounted what had taken place along the way,
and how they had come to recognize him in the breaking of bread.

While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”

And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish;  he took it and ate it in front of them.

He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

I hate to go all ‘meta’ on you straight out of the gate, but today’s reading is another Scripture about Scripture. Two things (at least) the story teaches us about Scripture:

He’s Got Us Open

It’s interesting, the disciples say that Jesus “opened the Scriptures” to them (see yesterday’s reading), but the narrator says just the opposite: that Jesus opened them to the Scriptures. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 

The Greek word Luke chooses for ‘open’ in both instances is not the simple word for open as in like, “Open up the window, ’cause it’s hot in here.” Rather, it’s a word that connotes a severe or dramatic opening, a rending in two. It’s an almost violent kind of opening. In fact, Luke uses the same Greek word to translate the Hebrew idiom for first-born child, which is literally ‘womb-opening one.’

If we come to the Scriptures really expecting to encounter and understand God, we’d better be ready for what Oscar Romero calls the violence of love. If we really want the Scriptures opened up to us, we better be ready for Jesus to open up something in us–and it might be painful. But of course birth, and rebirth, almost always are. As St. Augustine put it: “A mother cannot give life to a child without suffering. Each birth requires suffering, is suffering, and becoming a Christian is a birth. Let us say this once again in the words of the Lord: The Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence (Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16), but the violence of God is suffering, it is the cross.”

We Aren’t Supposed to Interpret Scripture on Our Own

Luke is hammering on one of the points from yesterday’s reading, so I have no choice but to hammer myself. Luke wants us to know that Jesus himself taught his disciples how to read the Scriptures. Not metaphorically, not merely through the subjective guidance of the Holy Spirit, but that there was an actual historical event (or series of events) where Jesus gave his disciples the right interpretation of the Scriptures.

The reading of the (Old Testament) Scriptures Jesus gives them is by no means a face-value reading of those Scriptures. The ideas that the Messiah would suffer and die and then rise again “after three days” and that forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations in his name are not exactly leaping off the pages of the Old Testament. And even for these guys who had lived through the life and death of Jesus, it was not transparent. They had to be given an authoritative interpretation, and it came from Jesus himself.

That authoritative interpretation, when it is transmitted from one generation of believers to the next, is what the Church calls Tradition. And that Tradition is, in the words of Dei Verbum, “the means [by which] the holy Scriptures are more thoroughly understood and constantly actualized in the Church.” In other words, Church Tradition is how we come to better understand Scripture and to better live it out.

Of course, anyone who knows about texts and interpretation knows that everyone is reading from some tradition all the time–no text simply yields up its meaning in a vacuum–the question is: Which tradition are you interpreting from? Is it the one that started with Jesus?

When Jesus is Unrecognizable

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The Text

Luke 24.13-35

That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?”

They said to him,  “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his Body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.

As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the Eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

 

Looking Downcast

The context here is the first Easter morning. I.e., less than three days after these two disciples have seen their Messiah-the one they “were hoping would be the one to redeem Israel”-executed and buried. They are discouraged, distraught, confused, despairing. Something they have invested three years of their lives in, walked away from family and careers for, and pinned all their hopes on, is apparently not going to happen after all. If you have known a moment of crushing disappointment or disorienting confusion, this is an excellent passage to reflect on. Here are three things to notice:

He’s Not Always Recognizable

Long before they recognized him, Jesus “drew near them and walked alongside them.” What a powerful image. He is there, with them, in the midst of their moment of grief and confusion. He is even steering their conversation, helping them process. (Apparently, hoping to lead them to realize what has happened! His leading question essentially prompts Cleopas to proclaim the gospel. Comically, Cleopas even ends with, “Yeah, and some angels said he is alive. Weird, huh?”)

What’s interesting is it doesn’t say that they didn’t recognize him because they were too stupid or too faithless. It says, “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” Jesus intentionally kept himself hidden, even though he was right there with them. In his wisdom, he knew they needed that moment of NOT seeing him. Perhaps he knew they wouldn’t be able to receive the teaching he was about to give them if they were distracted by his presence. For whatever reason, there are times when God can only do what he needs to do for us or to us through his seeming absence. They are the most difficult times to endure as a disciple, but those who have done this for a while will tell you that after they tough them out, they can almost always look back and see that the Lord was actually near them as they walked that desolate road.

He’s Got to Open the Scriptures to Us

Incredibly, Jesus was not recognizable to the disciples in the Scriptures (the Old Testament) that they loved and knew inside and out either. Again, we can’t blame them for not connecting the dots (though Jesus does call them “slow of heart” this time). The narrative of Jesus’ life and death that Cleopas recounts is hardly jumping off the pages of the Old Testament. In fact, the idea of a suffering redeemer is only explicit in a few passages, and the idea of a King who would be glorified by getting killed is not something anyone would come up without help. Jesus had to show them how to read the Scriptures. The deepest meaning of the biblical texts, the “inner meaning” as Pope Ratzinger often calls it, had to be revealed to us by Jesus himself. That lesson was the first lesson in Christian hermeneutics, the first time the Church learned how to read the Scriptures through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Interestingly, Luke chooses not to give us any of the content of that lesson AT ALL. He just tells us that it happened. It seems like if your newly resurrected Messiah is giving a clinic on how to interpret Scripture, somebody might want to right that stuff down. And of course, we see the fruit of that “clinic” in all the writings of the New Testament, including Luke’s, which are richly steeped in OT references and echoes. But the absence of a how-to manual on biblical interpretation is striking. (Luke will tell us again in Acts that Jesus spent 40 days “teaching them about the kingdom of God” and give us none of the content of that teaching).

But it makes sense that if the inner meaning of Scripture is a person, and the interpretive key to unlocking that inner meaning is that person’s life, then a manual wouldn’t cut it. You would need the people who knew that person, and who experienced his life firsthand, to teach the clinic. The lesson they received that day could only be handed on through a lived relationship with a living community who had a lived relationship with that person. You would need a Church, and that Church would need a Tradition.

He’s Always Recognizable in the Broken Bread

The final thing for the downcast to note in this passage is that the disciples finally recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Even though their “hearts were burning within” them as he opened the Scriptures to them, they still did not recognize Jesus! They weren’t able to put the pieces together until he broke bread with them in the same manner he had done a few night earlier at the Last Supper. There are times when Jesus feels absent in our lives, and even prayer and Scripture don’t seem to make him “visible,” and we need to lean on his presence in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.

I’m not saying he will always feel present to us in the meal, but we always have at least the tangible and visible elements in which we can recognize Jesus. We can see, literally, our savior broken for us, his blood poured out for us. We can, with the psalmist, taste that the Lord is good. It may take time for hope and joy to well up in us again, but even in the midst of our pain we can recognize that Jesus is drawing near us.