Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said this a few years ago: “I sometimes feel that… our theology has lost that extraordinarily vivid… sense of the world penetrated by divine energy…” Now, why would those words capture our attention? Why are they compelling? It’s because they speak to something for which we hunger… and something we seek in our lives, whether consciously or not.
John tells us that, “afterward, Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee,” also known by the Roman name, Lake Tiberius. As we discern from hearing this story, Jesus appears before a group of people who have forgotten, or who perhaps despair of, this experience of divine energy. It will help us seek greater clarity about John’s story to ask a question: why would anyone, who had known and remembered Jesus in his earthly ministry, and who had then seen him after his resurrection, seem to forget all that came before? Because we remember all kinds of things, and we tend to remember things we have known longest. What Peter and at least three other disciples had known longest was fishing.
The fruit of their decision to return to their old life is beautifully captured in Tissot’s painting. Let’s remember how, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he had called them from fishing in the lake at night to fishing for people during the day. But now, they have gone back to dropping nets for fish in the sea at night. This may be deeply symbolic, especially in John’s Gospel, where the contrast between light and darkness is so significant. The disciples are looking for comfort from what they had before, out there on the lake at night. At the end of that night, Jesus appears to them on the shore. Along with the growing light, he reveals himself at the dawn of a new day.
Still unrecognized, he calls out to them, and puts them in the position of having to admit the fruitlessness of their own endeavor to go back to what was before. For he is present now. He beckons them to attend to what through him they still have ~ and to what they will still have as they live forward.
Tissot’s depiction of Jesus at this moment says it all. The Lord’s posture in the painting communicates an invitation to return. With his hands, he says, “Come ~ return to me!” And, just as he once before shared bread and fish with them near this same place, he invites them to partake of these things once again. Whereas their own efforts to fish have yielded nothing, from him and through him they receive gifts of abundance. And from this abundance, he invites them to make an offering.
Many of these details in John’s story, and as depicted by Tissot, should ‘speak’ to us. For, when we feel challenged by our own experience of the apparent absence of our Risen Lord, we so often do what the disciples did ~ we go back. We go back to what was for us the ever-compelling ‘known and familiar…’ precisely because we are always more comfortable with what what we know, and with what is familiar. That is why we are so often in storm-tossed boats, on uncertain seas, with no idea of where we are going.
But then once again, there he is… saying “Come… come back!’
The image above is James Tissot’s painting, Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberius. This post is based on my homily for Easter 3, May 5, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.