Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 18 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
It is a familiar shape for one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances – hiding, frightened disciples, all too aware of how greatly they had failed in the greatest crisis, are welcomed suddenly into peace, into forgiveness, and into love. And then, in this version, another thing happens—which could be almost comic, read in a particular way, but which is also more deeply symbolic than we may realize. The risen Jesus, having miraculously appeared in a locked room, asks them if they’ve got something to eat, and is given a piece of fish.
In part, this is an insistence on the materiality, the physicality, of this risen body, no ghost but a fully embodied person who gets hungry, who eats like any one of them, who is still part of that sharing of meals which was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. But it is a piece of fish, very specifically, which he eats, and this is not incidental.
The people huddled in this room were mostly the Galilee group, those who had followed Jesus from the small backwaters of empire to this terrifying tumultuous city, and who were now, in all probability, preoccupied above all with trying to figure out how they could get home. And to the Galilee group, of course, fish was extremely important; important even to those who had not been fishers themselves, for it was a central part of the region’s economy. But it was not, as we might imagine, subsistence fishing. Most of the fish netted on the Sea of Galilee were immediately sold on to processing plants, where the fish were smoked or salted or, in particular, fermented down into the highly-flavoured fish sauce which was a favoured condiment of the Roman elite. It took a lot of fish to produce a supply of this luxury commodity which was sufficient for the desires of the wealthy. Like most primary producers around the world today, Galilean fishermen probably did not have access to the product of their labour, and did not eat much fish themselves; it was too valuable, too expensive, it had to go into the commercial market. They were among the invisible, neglected workers, the people whose often dangerous labour on the water went unrecognized. So when Jesus, in his final resurrection appearance in John’s gospel, cooks up a breakfast of fresh fish on the shore for the disciples, he is doing something revolutionary, presenting them with a vision of a life outside the relentless machinery of industrial production and elite consumption, a basic, good, human life.
The piece of fish in this story is a bit different, though; for we are in Jerusalem, a long way from the fishing towns of Galilee, and it could not have been fresh fish; the technology for that just didn’t exist. It was dried and salted, most likely, and it must have been acquired from the market somehow. Though it may very well, like the disciples themselves, have come from Galilee in the first place, the fish is by now a product which has been processed, commercialized, sold and purchased. It is an ambiguous sign, complex and compromised. Like the disciples themselves. And like us. Impure, compromised, far from home, bought and sold by the powers, and yet still with that goodness of the water from which creation rose.
And the fish is given into the wounded hands of the dead and risen Son of Man, and the gift is accepted. Our whole lives, in all their complex reality, are accepted. It is the completion of the peace he speaks, in his first words to them; the assurance of the unconditional divine forgiveness, inclusion and love.
But there is another detail. Yes, he gives them back Galilee, the lake, their lives, as a good and accepted part of the story. But then he tells them that they must not, at least not now, go back to those lives. They must, at least for now, stay here in this dangerous unfamiliar city, in this city where the most terrible of all things has happened. They must stay here, and they must redeem this place. It is not what they would have hoped to hear; and it might have been otherwise. In fact, in Mark and Matthew and even in John it seems to be otherwise; they either choose or are directed to go back to Galilee, back to where the story began, and begin to create it new from there. But the story told in Luke and Acts, which is the closest thing we have to something like a history of the very beginning of the church, is a story of remaining in exile. They will stay in the city, and learn to speak the languages of the multitude. They will learn to heal, they will learn – not without many errors and failures — to be a new community of the forgiven, a community of forgiveness.
It is like the summons of Jeremiah, to seek the welfare of the city in which you find yourself, not by your own choice. Stay in the city of failure and catastrophe, of strangers and killers, the city in which we must build love. Stay in the city because this is where we have all, for some reason, been brought by God’s plan and the random events of time, and so this is where we must be, at least for now; this is where we must begin, and keep beginning.
Of course, it is not only about the city as such. The direction to stay in Jerusalem – the direction to the disciples to stay in the place where their greatest weaknesses had been displayed, and their worst fears realized – is the call to stay in the place of pain, the place of our bad bleeding histories, the place of vulnerability; the hard knowledge that it is only here where we can begin to know ourselves and our God. It is that exile within us, that knowledge of our weakness, our sharing in the weakness of humankind. From this exile which God has chosen to share, and from the common humanity to which it brings us, we must seek such healing, for our compromised selves or for others, as we may know.
None of this invalidates the return to Galilee, the breakfast on the shore at dawn. These are stories of a homecoming which is the foreshadowing of a greater homecoming, the return of all things to their own good being, the return which we are promised, for which we hope and pray and work. Beloved, we are God’s children now; and we are not abandoned. We do not know what we may be; we can barely start to imagine. But we are given, at least, these lovely images, a warming fire by the side of a cold lake after a long night’s work, a shared meal at sunrise. The final vision of Revelation, the city of exile remade, by God’s gift, into the garden of healing. And we have our homecomings now, in moments, in some places, in some people; we know something of what it means to be wholly ourselves, and wholly accepted, to rest in a good green place. It is from these glimpses of the great return that we draw what strength we have to continue; we cannot live in Jerusalem without the experience of resurrection in Galilee. We are in exile and we are home; both these things are true. Both are true at the same time, and we live them both, mostly simultaneously, mostly confused. But the peace which Jesus spoke to the disciples, the peace which passes all our understandings, surrounds us and leads us onwards.