I think the world can probably be divided into two groups of people. The kind of people who love going to reunions. And the kind of people who avoid going to reunions at all costs.
I went to a family reunion last summer and actually had a pretty good time, although I prepared myself ahead of time for the opposite. As in most families, there were some people in my extended family I was happy to spend the day with. And then there were others who made me glad I had internet access on my smartphone.
I’m sure you know some version of the family members I’m talking about. The aunt who is so overly invested in etiquette and rules that you never know how or when or what you might do to offend her and incur her wrath. Or the uncle who tells the same stories over and over again and doesn’t shut up. Or the cousin who never has the right boundaries but always has the right gossip and can’t wait to spill juicy family secrets.
Then there are class reunions and I confess I have never been to one. Maybe someday when I’m older and feeling more nostalgic and sentimental, I’ll decide to go. But for now it’s not a priority. Going to California for a college reunion is a complicated and expensive endeavor. If I’m going to go down and spend a day in New York, there are other things I’d rather do in Manhattan than go back to my seminary. And the idea of returning for a high school reunion. Once I walked out of my high school doors for the last time with a diploma in hand, I haven’t looked back on those days very often.
It’s not that I have anything against reunions. And maybe I should give them a fair shot. I know people who happily go to reunions every year and tell me they’d never miss one. Arguably reunions are no different than most other human activities. You take the bad with the good and hope for the best…
Well just like family reunions or class reunions or any kind of reunion between people, there are also reunions between God and human beings. And those divine-human reunions can similarly be bittersweet. Sometimes you and I want reunion with God and sometimes we absolutely don’t.
Rev. Dr. Will Willimon tells the story of a Duke University student who confronted him at the end of one of his weekly chapel services. In no uncertain terms, she described Willimon’s sermon that day as “insensitive, disconcerting, and utterly inappropriate.” As the intensity and the volume of the student’s disapproval rose, a crowd gathered at the back door of the chapel sanctuary. And they all listened and watched as the young woman made her final point and stormed off in a huff.
At that point, one of the student witnesses offered the following opinion. “Well, I guess somebody didn’t want to be as close to Jesus as she first thought.” I’ll have to keep that one in my back pocket in case I ever need to use it down the road…
In this morning’s Gospel lesson from the end of John, the disciples are busy doing what they did before Jesus called them and basically turned their lives upside down. They were back to fishing. It was a predictable choice and one many of us have made in our own lives. When something traumatic happens, in this case the crucifixion, doubt and shock and disbelief were accompanied by a relentless determination to try and reclaim some semblance of life before the upheaval.
I imagine the disciples were having a hard time moving on, however. And fishing naturally lends itself to storytelling and laughter and sharing memories as a way to pass the time.
The disciples bantered back and forth. “Well we tried our hardest to get Jesus to become the Messiah but we fell a little short.”
“The road trips and the meals and the time we spent listening to Jesus…that was all good. But the exorcisms and the healings and trying to deal with the Roman authorities. We could have done without that stuff.”
Maybe after Easter when they went back to fishing, the disciples kicked around the idea of a reunion at some later date. Judas Iscariot was gone, but it wasn’t out of the question that the remaining eleven would gather again to remember the good old days with Jesus. For the time being, though, fishing was a welcome anesthetic for the disciples who couldn’t think of anyplace they’d rather have been than in a boat out on the Sea of Tiberias…
As the sun rose to mark the dawn of a new day, a stranger called out to the disciples from the beach. “Have you caught any fish?”
For the disciples, who were clearly not much better at fishing than they were at discipling, the answer was “no.” Nevertheless, the stranger on the shore offered a little fishing advice and then he gathered some driftwood to kindle a fire for breakfast.
Peter was the first fishmerman to figure out the stranger was Jesus. Why he was fishing with no clothes on and decided to get dressed so he could jump into the water and swim to shore is a mystery. But soon there was no doubt among any of the disciples that Jesus had returned. Jesus had returned to the same lovable, ever so wishy-washy, group of friends who had disappointed him in the first place.
Yes, Jesus was back. Doing what he had done so often during the three+ years of ministry they shared together. Inviting the disciples to the table. Taking, breaking, offering bread. Eating a meal. Sharing communion. For the disciples who were on the shore of Tiberias that day, they had seen this script before.
By the same token, as one might expect, the Risen Jesus didn’t simply appear on the shore to fix breakfast. He had bigger fish to fry…if you pardon the expression. The Risen Jesus was there to enlist the disciples. To summon them to action. To give them a command. Three times he instructed them to show their love for him by loving others. Three times he repeated himself because Jesus knew the disciples well enough to know that one time or two times were not enough. Three times and it might sink in…
This impromptu Monday morning reunion was unexpected, unanticipated and perhaps even unwelcome…at least on the part of the disciples. But that’s how Jesus does it. Jesus shows up whenever and wherever he pleases. And in the case of Easter, the Risen Jesus immediately sought out a reunion. He came back to the very same friends who abandoned him and failed him and he asked them to carry out his unfinished work anyway…
While the reunion of the Risen Jesus with his closest friends was noteworthy, the truth is that the Bible can be read as a series of reunions between God and human beings going all the way back to the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis. Sometimes those reunions were welcome and sometimes unwelcome.
The same goes for you and me. Sometimes we look forward to reunions with God. And sometimes we go out of our way to avoid them. Mainly because we know reunions can be good or bad. But one of the points of the Easter story is that it’s not up to you or to me. Reunions are what Jesus does. And people who are Christians are people who have been met by Jesus in some way. You and I are recipients of reunion.
In the end, here’s the good news if you are the kind of person who likes reunions. The Christian faith is not about how we think or feel about Jesus. It’s about what Jesus does to us. In other words, it’s not up to us to use Jesus but rather for Jesus to use us. Which should enable us to relax and go with it and let Jesus seek us out.
On the other hand, here’s the bad news if you’re not a fan of reunions. You cannot escape. No matter how hard you try to sidestep him, deny him, pay no attention to him, Jesus will still show up. In church or around the breakfast table or while you are sitting at your desk at work or when you’re driving in your car. He’s waiting for you and me to give up and to give in. He’s patiently holding out for a reunion.
Richard Niebuhr once defined “conversion” as the moment you discover that the God whom you feared as an enemy is in truth your long, lost friend. It is all about reunions.
Finally, God has a vision of what lays in store for God’s people one day. In the last days, God promises to get what God wants. One day all of God’s frightened, divided, misguided, far-flung people will be summoned to a reunion around one table. And Jesus, whom human beings tried to push out of our world on a cross, will be the host. Gathering every man, woman, youth, and child together and reuniting us…the lost and the found, the living and the dead.
When that one day comes, you and I and all of God’s children will know for certain that we are not fated for separation and loneliness and exile. We are made for meeting and we are saved by reunion. Amen.