This morning’s Scripture lesson is part of the twenty-first chapter sometimes referred to as the “Postscript” or the “Epilogue” of John’s Gospel. But the truth is that Chapter Twenty-one is as much a part of the Gospel as anything that came before it. And part of the reason why the chapter is so important is the fact that it addresses the fundamental question facing us this morning.
As we gather here on April 12th, the events of Holy Week are now behind us. The labyrinth we used on Maundy Thursday in the Community Room has been folded up and put away. The portable wooden cross in the middle of the labyrinth has been returned to storage. Most of last week’s bulletins have made their way to recycling bins or to notebooks for future reference. Many of the beautiful lilies and tulips that adorned this sanctuary last week have found new homes in people’s living and dining rooms. The sacred dancers have a little bit of time to catch their breath before they start rehearsing for the next occasion. The choir has retired copies of the “Hallelujah Chorus” for another year.
The one, remaining, pressing question left is what now? What are we supposed to do now that Easter is over? The disciple Simon Peter answered that question in John’s Gospel by returning to what he knew best. “I’m going fishing,” he said. And I suppose that’s not a bad answer in general. Especially people who love to fish would say that any day when the sun is shining or any day is a good day to go fishing.
If fishing isn’t your livelihood or your hobby, however, then Simon Peter’s answer doesn’t work as well. But I want to shift away from looking at the answer in order to look again at the question. What do we do now? Because the question reflects a yearning to either hold on to what we felt on Easter or to somehow recapture what we felt on Easter.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance around this sanctuary to figure out that there are fewer people here this morning than there were last Sunday. It’s also safe to assume that the same holds true for countless other Christian churches. Whether you are a regular churchgoer, an occasional churchgoer, or a reluctant, show up once or twice a year and get credit because you’re hedging your bets churchgoer, last week was a can’t miss Sunday of worship. This Sunday, despite the fact that it’s the first Sunday in Eastertide, is clearly a can miss Sunday.
I’ve heard stories, which sound true and fanciful, about churches that go out of their way to avoid a post-Easter slump in attendance. Maybe a celebrity comes in to speak during worship. Exotic animals are bused in from the circus. Well known musicians create a unique worship experience that draws people back. Then there are always those churches that use the platform of the Easter service to try and guilt people into returning the following week.
All these crowd pleasing methods meet with various degrees of success on this Sunday after Easter. But it still makes you wonder, particularly if you are a preacher or a regular church attender, what causes this phenomenon. Is the church nothing more than a shallow and fickle institution only capable of attracting people when the lights shine the brightest? Is this Sunday a commentary on human sinfulness and the way in which we pay attention to God only when it suits our fancy and our schedule?
Or is last Sunday and this Sunday simply a reflection of the way life works? It’s not realistic to expect that our daily existence will be full of high flying, high excitement, high energy moments. Proper balance allows plenty of time for rest and reflection. It’s about accommodating a rhythm of life that recognizes there will always be peaks and valleys…
So last week it was an empty tomb and angels dressed in white clothes and Mary running to tell the disciples the Good News…and it was flowers and music and communion and hundreds of people in this sanctuary. What now…?
The wedding was incredible. The dresses and the tuxedos matched impeccably and the photographer captured every vivid shot. The music was soaring and the flower arrangements were stunning. And how about those vows the bride and groom shared with each other…have you ever heard promises more heartfelt and touching?
Oh and the honeymoon…let’s not even go there. The food and the drinks. The beach. The honeymoon suite. Everybody telling the couple how relaxed and how tan and how in love they looked when they came home.
Yet a couple of months later, dirty clothes are scattered across the floor. Dishes are piled in the sink. And the boss says it’s time to put in extra hours at work. At days end, the dog still needs to be fed and walked. Finally, just before sleep, there’s a few moments to pull out the wedding album and take a look through the pictures trying to relive that special day. What now…?
The funeral was absolutely perfect. People came from near and far to tell stories and laugh and cry and give thanks for the one who died. Abiding by the loved ones wishes, the funeral service included favorite hymns and readings. Meanwhile the flower bouquets had all the right colors with caring messages that struck just the right chord.
Oh and the reception afterward…it was almost too much. People brought their favorite dishes and contributed to the feast. The toasts people offered. The notes people left behind. What a moving tribute to a life well lived…to a person everybody made the same comment.
Yet a couple of months later, the house is eerily quiet. It’s hard to sleep at night and hard to accomplish things on the list during the day. Two cups of coffee are brewed overnight to be ready in the morning because it’s been a routine for years. But now one cup gets thrown away. The phone rings less often and the cards slow down to a trickle in the mail. The picture stays near the bed and the phone number is saved in the phone and the voice remains on the voicemail so there’s no forgetting. What now…?
Simon Peter went fishing. Because it’s what he knew best. Because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. Because it was the only thing that made any sense.
Then Jesus showed up on the beach. None of the fishing disciples recognized him until they put their nets in the water one more time at his invitation and pulled out a hundred and fifty-three fish. Not a hundred and fifty-two fish. Not a hundred and fifty-four fish. No guesses or estimates here…one hundred and fifty-three on the button.
In an instant they knew it was the Risen Christ. After Jesus and his friends shared breakfast together, Jesus pulled Peter aside to ask him a few questions. The threefold series of questions sounded similar and straightforward. Not complicated. Seemingly innocuous. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
On the other hand, for Simon Peter on the receiving end, I imagine they felt like questions without sufficient wiggle room. Forget about muddling through gray areas…forget about responding with an essay when a fill in the blank was required instead. Jesus was looking for something concise and definitive. A clear “yes” or a clear “no.”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And there in Peter’s response is the theological essence of what Jesus wanted to hear. In the end, the quality of the relationship we have with Jesus is what makes the difference. It’s not enough to admire Jesus. It’s not enough to respect Jesus. It’s not enough to know Jesus. What matters is whether we love Jesus.
And how do we love Jesus? We love Jesus by feeding his lambs and tending his sheep. By reaching out to one another and to the many people in Christ’s wide circle offering concrete gifts of compassion and consolation and guidance and empowerment…
Today is the Sunday after Easter. If you came to church this morning hoping to hold onto Easter a little longer or to recapture the joy and the inspiration you felt last week, it’s possible you will leave church this day disappointed…
Then again, you might leave church this day with something you didn’t expect. Namely an answer to a question that will reassure you and stay with you and carry you long past Easter Sunday.
What are we supposed to do now that Easter is over? We’re supposed to take all the enthusiasm and all the excitement and all the beauty of last week and translate it into common, communal energy. The energy we need to tend the lambs and feed the sheep. The energy we need to do Christ’s work and love Christ’s people. In Christ’s name. Amen.