The Preacher’s Study
Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
D. Jay Koyle
Acts of the Apostles 9.1-20
Preaching plays a pivotal role in raising the church’s sights and summoning it to the place where it might be caught up in God’s renewing activity. Since the first Christian generation, heralds of the good news have given testimony to the risen Savior set loose from the tomb and raised up as Sovereign of the universe. They have declared where he is to be found so that others might know his presence and see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with new voices and step into the new order instigated by his risen life.
Of course, there is a paradox in this proclamation. For the need to announce where Christ is present arises in large part from the stark experience of his absence. As one song sings, “We walk by faith, and not by sight…We may not touch his hands and side.” Thus, the privileged task belonging to today’s preachers is also our great challenge. Thankfully, we do not grapple with it alone. Those who penned the pages of our New Testament faced it, too, and they engage it head on in today’s lections.
One of the great aims of the Gospel first addressed to the beloved disciple’s community, the biblical tome popularly called John, is to fuel the belief of those who have not encountered Christ “in the flesh.” So the Evangelist claims to describe what he has seen and heard. What is more striking, however, is how the beloved disciple is portrayed in the account. This disciple comes to believe not because he hears his name spoken or is given the opportunity to lay eyes and hands on the crucified One who lives. Rather, he first believes simply on the basis of peering into an empty tomb. Gazing upon an absence, he believes. “Blessed are those,” Jesus later announces, “who have not seen and yet believe.”
Chapter 21 is the coda in which this theme is sounded again. The setting echoes characters, images and incidents found elsewhere in Scripture. There are members of the Twelve who have been featured before: impulsive Peter, concrete Thomas, guileless Nathanael, and the passionate boys of Zebedee. The scene is cast in the recurrent Johannine interplay of darkness and light. There is a miraculous catch of fish resembling the initial calling of the disciples as described in Luke. The Eucharistic overtones of a bread and fish breakfast on the beach resonate with the earlier feedings of multitudes. As happens in other post-Resurrection scenes, we observe devout individuals who are slow to recognize the risen Christ. Again, it is the beloved disciple, without seeing him, who first identifies the Lord; he perceives the risen One on the basis of the haul of fish. It is this and other familiar signs which bring about the perception that the Christ is in their midst.
This story about the original witnesses of the Resurrection is complemented by the dramatic account of Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road. Paul does not see the risen Christ in the flesh. Rather, he comes to recognize him in the very people he has been persecuting. He is embraced by Christ, too, through a man who engages in risky hospitality and confident witness. As a result, the ministry of one of the gospel’s most insightful and effective advocates is launched.
The passage from Revelation provides another vantage point from which to perceive the risen Christ. This song of praise to the Lamb is a political act announcing that it is Jesus who reigns, not Caesar, nor any ruler or system of this world. The hymns of Revelation most likely occur in the middle of oppression. Though they were part of God’s heavenly kingdom, our first ancestors in the faith lived, too, in the earthly kingdom of the Roman Empire, which demanded ultimate allegiance. Thus, they are given a glimpse of all nations, all powers, all creation joining in their liturgical doxology. Christ remains present and, through his Passion and Resurrection, now reigns over all things. Revelation provides a lens, then, through which the tribulations faced by the ancient church could be seen through the sure and certain promises of God.
Today’s stories, like all those of Easter, reveal what happens to people when encountering the risen Christ. They are icons of the ways he may be recognized and responded to today.
The preacher has a number of options for exclaiming “Look! See!” in the pulpit this Sunday. The most promising, it seems to me, will be shaped by not only the Scriptures, but also our experience of the liturgy over the paschal cycle – particularly the Triduum – and the changed lives within our midst evidenced in the testimony and celebration of baptism/baptismal renewal and Eucharist.
I will point to Peter who, upon hearing the announcement of his Lord’s presence, is immersed in the waters that lead him to the shore of feeding, forgiveness and commissioning.
I will lift up Paul, for whom a radical welcome led to illumination, baptism, feeding, fellowship, and fruitful ministry.
I will also name, however, the young man who, sitting in the back pew at a previous year’s Maundy Thursday, watches wide-eyed as the members of the congregation slip off shoes and socks to share in footwashing. Tears flowing down his cheeks, it strikes him that the reality of the risen Christ is known profoundly when one lives a life of service. He begins working with those living on the streets, his ministry reflected as he is washed and washes feet at the start of each year’s Triduum since.
I will name the woman who, as a catechumen, is formed in Christian service by volunteering with her sponsors and mentors in a long-term care facility. Witnessing the deplorable conditions there, she takes seriously the prophetic witness of the scriptures over which she prays and reflects with others week after week. She rallies her church in a successful initiative lobbying the state legislature to pass laws requiring better funding and care for the elderly housed in such institutions. As she emerges from the baptismal waters after promising to work for justice and to respect the dignity of every person, the whole congregation knows it has realized its own baptismal identity in a new and deeper way.
I will name the heightened joy and courage of the congregation itself, emerging as it has celebrated its liturgy with the lavish use of symbol and unbridled voice of praise.
“The post-resurrection accounts of Jesus are hardly a spiritualized set of epiphanies, ghost stories, as it were, séances with dim visions into the future or past,” Peter Gomes once observed. “They are told in the most tangible, fleshly fashion possible. They are told around food and drink, breakfast on the beach, supper in the upper room. They…remind us that this other side [of Easter] is tangible and real, not a ghostly metaphor but something that lives in living people here and now…” (Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 84)
The sermons of the Great Fifty Days should be no less tangible as we preachers declare where he is to be found so others might recognize signs of Christ’s presence and step into the new order instigated by his risen life.
Jay Koyle is a presbyter serving as Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada). He is President of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.
“The Miraculous Catch Of Fish” by Erik Tanghe
Photo of D. Jay Koyle, by Jesse Dymond