We have begun a tradition at the Easter sunrise service. We use the gospel reading for this morning because we meet around a fire by the water in the early morning. Since so much of the setting feels like this reading, we cook a salmon over the fire. Water lapping, birds singing, the warmth of the fire and smell of salmon—our senses full at the first light of morning. And, I tell you, I can feel Jesus’ presence. It is a powerful experience. When we leave that place, the smell of the wood fire lingers in our hair and our clothes. This year I forgot which sweater I wore to the sunrise service and put it on the following Friday as I was walking out the door to catch a ferry. It was heavy with the fragrance of the Easter fire. There was no time to change, thank heavens, because all day long the memories of Easter clung to me.
The last chapter of John’s gospel reminds me of that lingering fragrance. Some scholars believe that it is an addition to the original work. It’s constructed of a series of images from the disciple’s life with Jesus:
· Jesus calls to them across the water, similar to the time he walked out across the water just before dawn.
· He instructs them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and their catch is almost too large for the nets to hold, just as he did once before when he first called the disciples to follow him.
· The disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes Jesus by his voice, so similar to the story of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb.
· Peter impulsively jumps into the water—like the time he tried to walk on the water.
· Jesus has prepared a breakfast of bread and fish, the same food that fed 5,000 in the miracle of loaves and fishes.
· Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them just as he did that night in the upper room.
And then this line, “None of them dared ask him ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.” Apparently it didn’t look like Jesus, but they recognized him through his actions. That’s an interesting revelation following Jesus’ statement only a few verses back, “Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who believe and have not seen.” These déjà vu moments of remembering together allow the disciples to experience Jesus’ presence in another way. They used to experience the real presence of God through being with Jesus. They, and all disciples who would come later, including you and me, would have to learn to recognize the presence of God through the ways that Jesus taught: the abundance and cycles of nature, in the voice of one who loves us just the way we are, through table fellowship, and through actions that bring us closer to God. This little chapter is like an album of snapshots that reminded the disciples of Jesus’s presence along the journey. You and I share these snapshots from scripture, and we each have our own experiences of God’s palpable presence to add to them.
I think it works this way. I can’t always say that I’ve felt God’s presence today or this week. I may have been busy with my own agenda, or I may have felt overwhelmed by problems, or I may have felt alone and depressed. And then the rain comes—in sheets and torrents, with hail, splattering the windows and making me pause in awe. Someone I love speaks my name with tenderness. I break bread with a friend or I come to God’s table with you and I feel God’s presence again. Theresa said to me on the first Easter she was here, “A little boy with bunny ears served me communion. That’s the Kingdom of God!” I heard a seminary student say this week that she used to imagine herself working in a nice cozy non-profit and maybe occasionally leading a retreat, but after an internship working with street people she wonders if that will be enough for her now? She has fallen in love with God.
Perhaps the conversation between Jesus and Peter will explain it better. Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed during Jesus’ trial. In this déjà vu moment, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than these. Remember that the disciple who is described in John’s gospel as the one that Jesus loved is present. “Do you love me, more than these, Peter?” In the Greek, the word that Jesus uses is agape. In Greek there are three words that we translate as love: eros, which is romantic love; agape, which is familial love or the love of God for humanity, a deep, self-sacrificing love; and philia, friendship. Jesus uses the word agape. Peter answers with the word philia, “Yes, Lord, you know that I am friends with you.” Again Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” using the word agape. Again Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I’m your buddy.” Finally Jesus meets Peter where he is and uses the word philia, “Peter, do you love me as a friend.” There is real sorrow for Peter here. Perhaps it is in remembering his denial, perhaps it is in hearing the change in Jesus’ question. I wonder if Peter was having trouble traveling the distance between his head and his heart. Each time Peter responds to Jesus, Jesus gives him the task of feeding his sheep. Jesus passes the role of shepherd to Peter. Peter is called to the work of God’s Kingdom before he’s ready.
I know that I don’t answer Jesus’ question honestly everyday with the word agape. I wish that I could. But I get in my way. My sense of inadequacy, my intellectualizations, my selfishness, my spiritual laziness are all signs that I love me way more than I love God. That’s why I’m here. That’s not the way I want it to be. Too often, like Peter, I want to just go back to the comfort of my other life. But the deepest part of me wants to be able to say “Yes” to God with my whole heart every day. I yearn to learn to see God in every person and to feel God’s presence in a powerful way most of the time, if not all the time. The Church learned through the years how to practice the presence of God through spiritual disciplines. Those spiritual disciplines help each of us create our own snapshots of God’s presence as reminders to keep us on the journey of agape love.
Jesus asks each of us, “Do you love me?” How will you answer from your heart?