As One Unknown
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Guffey
3 Easter: May 5, 2019
In the name of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
One of my favorite films to watch around St. Patrick’s Day, for no better reason, really, than that it’s set in Ireland, is Waking Ned Devine. It’s a lighthearted film about a couple of men of the small village of Tulaigh Mhor who discover someone in the small village has won the lottery. When they discover it was Ned Devine who won the lottery, but that Ned died of the shock, they decide to impersonate Ned to claim the lottery winnings, eventually convincing the entire village to fool the lottery officials and share in the jackpot. Well, antics ensue. One of the villagers is a young boy, of maybe twelve, Morris. In one scene Morris is visiting the priest who is filling in while the regular village priest is on pilgrimage.
They’re in the church and the priest is playing around on the organ and Morris asks, “What can you play?”
“Nothing, really,” the priest replies, “I just like messing around.”
“Can you play songs about Jesus?”
“No, I wish I could.”
Then Morris shifts subjects somewhat abruptly: “So, did he come to you, then?”
The priest stops to think. “Jesus. Well, he did in many ways, yes.”
“But did you see him?”
“Well, not exactly, no.”
“But you’re workin’ for him.”
“I am. Doin’ the best I can.”
“Do you get paid for it?”
“Well, it’s more a payment of the spiritual kind, Morris.”
“Do you think you could be drawn to the Church, Morris?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you never know.”
“I don’t think I could work for someone I’d never met, and not get paid for it.”
He really puts his finger on it, huh? I love it. Morris asks some powerful questions here: “So, did he come to you, then?” “Did you see him?” “You’re workin’ for him.” You know the punchline is approaching once you get to “Do you get paid for it?”
Has Jesus come to you? Notice how the Easter stories are full of Jesus coming to people. Two weeks ago it was Mary Magdalene. Last week it was Thomas. This week it is Paul on the one hand, and Peter and some other disciples on the other. Let’s look at the Gospel story first. Peter and a handful of other disciples are hanging out on the beach, and Peter says, “I’m goin’ fishin.’” His friends say, “we’ll grab the beer.”
Now, I sort of have to wonder what Peter and the others are doing going fishing. After all, this is the THIRD TIME they’ve seen Jesus since his resurrection. You’d think they’d be doing something a bit more productive. But Jesus shows up. And they don’t recognize him. Just as Mary didn’t recognize him. It’s almost as though Jesus can be hard to spot unless we’re paying attention. And Jesus helps them out with the fishing. But that’s just so they can recognize him. And when they do, almost nothing holds them back. Peter jumps into the water and starts swimming for shore!
And what does Jesus say when they get there: “Let’s eat.” “Come and have breakfast.” Because Jesus’s invitation is gentle. But once breakfast is finished, it’s down to business. Jesus questions Peter three times, and this side of Easter Peter doesn’t deny Jesus, but affirms his love for Jesus. But love for Jesus isn’t just a feeling or a nice thing to do on Sunday. It calls us to action: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Loving Jesus is not a spectator sport. Encountering Christ has a nasty way of shifting all our priorities and setting completely foreign agendas. As Christ says to Peter, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” And after that, he said, “Follow me.”
Kind of a hard sell. But that’s what it means to follow the Crucified and Risen One. It’s not about what we would like to do, but about the work Jesus has for us to do. And if we thought Peter had it bad, look what happened to Paul. He had it all figured out. He knew who were the right sort of people, the people in God’s favor, and who were the wrong sort. He knew it in his bones. He knew his Scriptures, and he knew that these Jesus followers could not possibly be God’s beloved children. They had to be stopped; they were corrupting others. So he set out to stop them, and something entirely unexpected happens. Jesus shows up and blasts all of Paul’s plans. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” (Paul isn’t paying attention, so he doesn’t recognize Jesus, either.) Paul got a lesson in what it means to get in the way of what God is doing, and he became one of the principal champions of the faith because of the encounter.
So what does all of this mean for us? Has Jesus come to you? I know, I know. What an inappropriate sort of question to ask! And in church of all places! I think we are frequently uncomfortable with such oogy boogy notions. And in part, I suppose that’s because we’ve often known people who have used language like this as a kind point of pride. We have known people who wear their Christianity like Saul wore his righteousness: as a way to keep others in line, to keep others in check, to assert their superiority. But that is the heart of the Easter message: Jesus is alive, and seeking you. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I have chosen you.” We do not come to Jesus, but Jesus comes to us, in many ways. Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, in prayer, in strangers and those in need. We should be ready to be surprised by how Jesus comes to us, in whom, by whom, and with whom. Jesus seldom hangs around with the right people, as Paul quickly learned.
And what does Jesus say to us? Follow me. Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, the stranger, the refugee, visit those in prison, comfort the sick and broken-hearted, bless the dying. This is what it means to follow Jesus.
But perhaps you are like Morris, and you don’t think you can work for someone you’ve never met and not get paid for it. In that case, take comfort in knowing that Jesus will sometimes meet us on the way, as the theologian Albert Schweitzer once wrote:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside he came to those men who did not know who he was. He speaks the same words, “Follow me!” and sets us to those tasks he must fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who hearken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labors, the conflicts, and the suffering that they may experience in his presence, and as an ineffable mystery they will learn who he is…