Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Breakfast Is Served

The Gospel appointed for the 3rd Sunday of Easter is John 21:1-19

It’s not every candidate for holy baptism who can say she has played the part of Jesus onstage, and the part of Caiaphas, and in the same play. Nor is it common in my experience that someone, prior to her baptism, has wrestled with the Book of Job bravely enough to write a play about his story.

But such are the distinctions that Chloe can claim. Though the Chloe I’ve come to know isn’t likely to make such claims.

Not that she’s shy. In fact, I will have lasting memories of the Williams Class of 2010 because Chloe is its third member to extend me a hand in self-introduction and add, “I’d like to be baptized,” (or confirmed, as in the case of the other two). That’s a record, at least in my time here.

And I have one more thing to say about Chloe, hoping it will give you a sense of the young woman I have been coming to know, and expecting that this may help pave the way for her later in this service. I met with her on Wednesday, to walk through the rite of baptism, and when we came to a moment when the Prayer Book directs me to ask her, “Do you desire to be baptized?” I found I had an urge (I resisted it at first, but decided to trust it) to follow her affirmative answer with another question: “Why?” When I shared that fragment of fantasy with her, she pretty much replied, “Okay.” And so, at the time when announcements usually happen, Chloe will tell us why.

Someone else is working today on the question Why, and that is Simon Peter. The portion of Luke’s Gospel appointed for Easter Day showed him walking away from the ebullient Mary Magdalene, shaking his head in puzzlement over all these things that had taken place. The disciple Mary was already an apostle, witnessing to those eleven men what she had experienced at the empty tomb. Not one of them was willing to believe her. Peter was the one who ran to the tomb to confirm her story, but he could make no sense of what he saw.

He deals with what he cannot figure out by returning to what he knows so well. “I am going fishing,” he announces to a little gaggle of his buddies. They all agree: that’s the thing to do. Perhaps this little fishing expedition is an exercise in avoidance, a trip down the river Denial. They get nowhere, catch nothing, and, when last seen, spent that long night, well, in the dark. Heaven knows what they talked about, whether they expressed their heartsick grief, or, in their empty boat, just quietly bobbed on the water, waiting, inwardly sinking under a sense that life would forever feel half empty, never again full.

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” comes the pointed words that waken their hearing just as sunlight touches their eyes.

“No.” That’s it, these are men of few words. But doesn’t something stir? Some synapses fire as they try to make out the figure on the shore against the light of dawn, and strain to hear what’s familiar in the cadences of that voice? This moment is like an icon of the soul seeking God: on this side of death, it will often be like seeing in a mirror dimly, a familiar phrase of St. Paul which Eugene Peterson in “The Message” paraphrases, “squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.”

Who beyond their own parents would call these grown men “children?” They slowly put two and two together, but he doesn’t wait: sharp advice comes next, feeding their hope, convincing them how close they are to the mother-lode that they will claim, a boatload of fish and an apostolate of faith.

Abundance triggers Peter’s recognition. Their three short years with Jesus taught them what the poet Richard Wilbur sees to be the point of another abundance-miracle, the water turned to wine at Cana:

“…It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you…”

Then comes a moment of quick change: flustered Peter covers his nakedness, and jumps into the sea! An image of baptism, they say. In the early Church, each candidate for baptism was dressed in a plain white tunic, symbol of transformation and new life: into water over the head, but clothed in Christ whose abundant love holds us in life and raises us from death.

Then is heard an invitation that could make us laugh and cry. We have heard a lot made of “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” and “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” But what do we make of “Come and have breakfast”? By the nature of the Gospel, that invitation, like those other better-known invitations, is made not only to first-century disciples, but to us as well.

Jesus Christ invites you to breakfast! Is that both wonderful and weird? So try it this way: Jesus Christ invites you to break bread with him. That’s more familiar.

And what he does with this circle of apostles-in-the-making is to do with bread and fish what in the other Gospels he does with bread and wine: he takes, he blesses, he breaks, he gives. While not all these verbs are present, what is suggested is the familiar action of eucharist, communion.

Then he confronts Peter with a grilling, not of fish, but of an apostle who had shown promise for leading the others, but had in short order betrayed his master when the going got rough, betrayed him three times. Three times now, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”, tearing open Peter’s heart. Which is just what Peter needs.

Conversion, said C. G. Jung, often involves a collapse of the ego, a discovery that one’s ego is not sufficient for life. Or, to borrow an image from Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, if one has made for oneself a life raft, it can be hard to give that craft a graceful hull.

Will the change that comes upon Peter in his boat carry into his soul? Will that flurry of baptismal dunking turn around Peter’s heart to belong to God, make whole the heart that betrayed, convert Peter to whole-hearted commitment and service?

This will be shown, says Jesus, not by Peter’s words but in Peter’s life. A converted life, he says, will show itself in feeding my lambs, tending my sheep, feeding my sheep.

The order here matters. First Jesus feeds us, then he asks us to feed others. What God expects, God enables. Grace is given before responsibility. God’s abundance inspires our gratitude and releases our generosity. We love because God first loves us.

The order here matters. “After this,” we are told, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

“First, know me enough… know your heart enough… and follow me. You will find the rest.”

First, he makes himself known, shows his mercy and his love, reveals enough of his nature that one desires to follow him, and follow him as he is, not a distorted image of him. First, he gives himself, then he asks of us.

What Chloe desires, she already has, by his self-giving. In the action of her baptism, Christ’s people seal and celebrate his promise’s fulfillment, well underway even before she claims it, his promise to be with her always, to the end of time and beyond.

In the action of her baptism, Chloe will claim his promise and respond with promises of her own. It is for us to encourage her—and each other—to keep claiming his promise, and, by grace, to keep the vows we make.

(Richard Wilbur’s verse is excerpted from his poem “A Wedding Toast”, found in his “New and Collected Poems”, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, p. 61.)