Monday, April 15, 2013

The Power of Sacrament

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

There’s a whole lot of sacramental stuff going on in that Gospel. Not in a sanctuary, but out on the shore by the Sea of Tiberias.

Twice, the crucified and risen Jesus has appeared to the disciples in that famous upper room (a kind of sanctuary, in its own way), leaving them to figure out what he expects of them. Do they make their lives revolve around that holy space where he had washed their feet and fed them bread and wine? Do they hunker-down and wait for a master plan to be revealed, or do they go about their lives and their livelihood as best they can?

“I am going fishing,” announces Simon Peter, who appears to think that such questions aren’t meant to be decided by a committee. Like a case study in the benefits of self-differentiated leadership, Peter’s decision is met by a chorus of “Me, too… Right… Only sensible thing to do… Got to keep body and soul together…”

While you and I know that this story has a brighter ending, their first night back at the fishing nets did not go well. That night, they caught nothing. This was a dark night of the soul. Try to imagine it. As they bobbed-about on the waves only a rhythmic lapping at the bow could be heard as each man thought his thoughts and had his feelings reliving the losses of the past two or three weeks. These men were ready for daybreak. Exhausted, but relieved to see the sun’s first rays crown the horizon.

Our readings today give us another story featuring a dark night—three such nights, in fact—in the experience of Saul the zealous persecutor of Jews who dared hope in Jesus. We know him better as St. Paul, upbuilder and theologian of the Jesus movement—a conversion so total as to earn him a new name.

But today’s slice of his story catches the stuff of sacrament as those three dark nights end with the laying-on of hands for healing. This happened not in a temple or sanctuary, but in the rooms of a home belonging to someone named Judas, a common name, on Straight Street in Damascus, where a Christian believer named Ananias heard the call of God to lay down his terror at meeting dreaded Saul the hit man, the summons from God to open Saul’s eyes, to restore to him his sight. And to baptize him, perhaps in the nearest river, the Euphrates.

The dark night on the Sea of Tiberias gave those disciples time to revisit their grief, remember their Lord’s post-resurrection appearances, and imagine what he might be expecting of them in the future.

Saul’s dark nights must have had some of the same traits: these were the very first nights and days after his blinding vision on the road. He had never met Jesus before this, had only the reputation (and likely distorted impressions) of the mystic-healer-teacher-firebrand-mover-shaker-itinerant preacher whose death had not stopped the groundswell movement attracting so many who were ready to call him Messiah. Saul’s collision with the risen Christ flooded him with light, and this searing vision—intense and blinding him to all else—was all Saul had to go on, those three days and perpetual nights, the same stretch of time Jesus died and rose within. Time enough, time enough for Saul to dare imagine and then know how mistaken he had been, time enough to grieve, to grieve his lost sight, to grieve the lives he had damaged. Time enough to begin imagining what God might expect of him in the future.

Back on the shore of Lake Tiberias, sacrament lies cooking in a charcoal fire. Confirming who he is, Jesus does his trademark actions: he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, gives it… and he did the same with the fish.

With the fish? Imagine the development of Christian worship if it revolved around not bread and wine, but bread and fish! Picture the work of altar guilds over the centuries! Imagine what sacristies would smell like!

But no, this wasn’t a sunrise service with symbols of a meal: this was breakfast hosted by the Christ for whom (as for his people) all of life is sacrament, outward and visible form of inward and spiritual grace, love, care. Those are the powers that insist on showing themselves, the priorities that believers insist matter most: grace, love, care.

So the talk around this campfire was not an ordering of words about the past. The Word himself pierced the present moment and yoked it to the future: though singling-out Simon Peter because this disciple was such a case study in getting things frightfully wrong and backwards, our Lord’s message is to them all, to us all, the message at the heart of all sacrament: Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.

“Take care of one another, for heaven’s sake,” he’s saying. Every moment has capacity for sacrament, from when we swing our feet out of bed in the morning until we drag them back to bed that night—and all the night long.

Notice that he names these expectations in an intimate circle of friends who hear him asking them to love their neighbors. But this is also a vocational circle of workers, fishermen, who hear him asking them to help God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven by how they do business, price their fish, share with the poor, treat their competitors, respect the common good of their village.

We may think of apostles as people who know what to say, but it appears that Jesus wants apostles who know what to do, offering their relationships and their careers for the exercise of those sacramental powers of grace, love, care.

Both of today’s stories teach us to expect Jesus to be at home and at work (both, simultaneously) outside sanctuaries made with hands. Which is not to say that he absents himself from churchly sanctuaries, but it is to say that he can set his camp stool, his workshop, his charcoal fire, anywhere he wishes. He does fine work on busy roads like the one to Damascus, and on seashores; anywhere where his people are, anywhere where his creatures are, for it is they, not just we, whom he claims as his own.

In fact, as Earth Day approaches, the reading we heard from Revelation today ought to get us thinking about where Jesus is to be found, and what he is up to. The Seer in Revelation reports that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, knows how to sing the love song of Jesus.

These great fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, the queen of seasons, train us to understand our Lord’s resurrection and ascension as a filling of all things, all life, with his presence.

How are you called—today, tomorrow—to sing his love song and carry his presence with you into your relationships, your vocations, the campfires you sit at?

Or is it a truer question to ask how you will let him carry you—today, tomorrow—into the heart of those same frontiers where he is already well at work?

For unlimited is his sanctuary, his workplace, his throne room, his home front, the tables and resting places at which the powers of sacrament are found and served and delighted-in.