We meet the disciples just after daybreak. They have fished through the night on steel grey waters and come up empty. Under the shroud of a sunless sky, absolutely nothing has happened.
When the gospel story begins, a crack of daylight is appearing on the horizon. (I believe that’s where we are too). In the language of a previous resurrection story, the night in the tomb is over and the new dawn is being unveiled. This threshold between night and day, between what is hidden and what is exposed, what is obvious and what is missed, is where all our living takes place.
The gospel writer is fully convinced that the shroud of night has lifted on a new day. What he is not sure about is our capacity to notice the dawn. John has no doubt that in Christ the light of God has come into the world but he remains unsure about whether our antennae are picking up the signal. So he tells this story – a story about the light, about how it’s already dawned and about how even the disciples need to be flagged down turned toward the crack of light ushering in the new day.
The story John tells begins sometime following Jesus’ death, after he has appeared to Mary in the garden and to Thomas in the upper room. It takes place the night the disciples returned to their former life, to their pre-Jesus, pre-Easter existence. After a series of resurrection appearances, signs of which there were too many to name, the gospel writer assures us, you’d think that disciples would be convinced that the world would never be the same again. And yet what do we find them doing on that brand new, fresh start, first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life morning? They are picking up exactly where they left off before they met Jesus in the first place. They’re getting back to normal. Acting as if nothing had happened. I am the Light of the world, Jesus had told them – a light within, among and around you. But as close as the disciples had been to that Light of the World for the past three years, they apparently missed it; they went back to their nets because fishing was something they could do even in the dark.
If it happened this way, it would be entirely understandable. The greater the loss or disruption in our lives, the more likely we are to grasp for the familiar. In fact, in the early stages of grief, that’s exactly what we’re counselled to do: to pick up a thread of the familiar, try to manage the laundry or make our way back to book club. But there’s a difference between routine as a lifeline and acting as if nothing has changed. Acting as if nothing’s changed is like fishing in the dark. You may be able to do it from memory, but you’ll evidently find no life there. The disciples were apparently hovering above a teaming school of tilapia but they caught no fish. Sometimes, we need routine for relief but as painful as it appears at first, new life is found in the new reality, not in the comforting fragments of the old one.
We don’t know exactly why the disciples were back in the boat with their empty nets but that’s where we find them. And that’s where Jesus finds them, calls to them with some fishing tips and then invites them for breakfast. He’s stepped right into their world. That’s where the resurrection always happens, in the midst of our reality, whether we look up and take notice or not.
Our reality has changed so much in the past 26 months that we’ll spend the rest of our lives talking and hearing about it. There have been personal losses that no one can calculate – loss of livelihood, loss of relationship, and loss of life. So much we will never get back. Lost embraces, lost touch, lost tenderness. These are not simply comforts of our former routines; these are necessities of life we long to return to.
Yet, even though we are keen to get back to the normal life we’ve missed, we have also pledged not to go back to what turns out to have been the furthest thing from what normal should look like: suffering from immoral economic inequality, racial violence, a dire climate emergency, and institutionalized systems of prejudice and privilege, including in our own church, is far from normal.
Perhaps pulling back the veil to further expose that reality is like deciding to stop fishing in the dark. The kingdom of God is with you, the Light of the World said to his disciples – the risen life is within, among and around you. That part is done. Your part is to see it, or at the VERY least to trust that it’s there, he said. You do trust that it’s there, don’t you, Jesus asked by suggesting they move their nets from port to starboard, just to make the point about what’s been there all along. The Abundant life. We do trust that it’s there, don’t we? All that was and is intended for this world – all the compassion, wisdom, justice, and mercy, all the flourishing, thriving, wellness and wholeness which was blown into the dust at creation’s dawn – all this is here – the dignity of all persons, the healing of the planet, the deepening of compassion, the victory of grace. That part is done. Sometimes obscured beneath the steel grey surface of what we fail to see. But sometimes revealed in cracks of light – the life of the world, the love of God, wrapped in gestures of risen life among us.
In a beautiful podcast interview I heard, the American author, Ocean Vuong was speaking about the way the Vietnamese language forgoes certain words that exist in English. He said, we carry the meaning in our bodies, in what we notice and what we do for each other. For example, he said, the Vietnamese language doesn’t form a sentence like, “I love you” instead, people express this by how they pay attention to those they love; he said, “we cook for them or give them a back massage.”
I think that’s how Christ’s risen life lives in ours. Not in words – such strange words anyway, aren’t they? – but leaking out like cracks of light, in gestures of love that pledge to mend what we have seen for the torn reality that it is. The new day breaks every time we pay honest attention to where life is struggling to flourish.
The truth about the kingdom of God is that it doesn’t come one day after the kingdom of something else is over. It comes in little cracks of light. It flickers in the dim morning of all that we’ve become used to, all that we can do from memory without the aid of any light. That Jesus appears on the beach and calls the disciples for a second time out of the boat and into his company isn’t so much about the fact that there’s no going back for the disciples. This is a story that takes place when there’s just enough light to notice that things aren’t going back at all. It’s about what is dawning on the disciples, and what might dawn on us in the cracks of light on the horizon of what has already changed.
The truth about the way things are is not easy to face, whether it is the truth about ourselves or about planet. But the truth turns out to be precisely where new life is already dawning. The sunrise over the lake is merely illuminating what has been here all along. The only thing that hides it is pretense.
It seems counter-intuitive that hope needs truth, but it does. We begin to find our way forward the minute we know we can’t go back. We discover the cure when we face the disease. We learn how to save the planet when admit that it’s perishing. Can you see it yet, Jesus is asking?
We often look for hope in the corners that hold a little less than the full measure of reality. Wishful thinking, we call that. Wishing for things based on our favourite version of the circumstances. But hope belongs to the truth about how things are so to find hope in difficult times requires honesty about reality. Hope is another name for confidence in the risen life – and the risen life isn’t conjured out of nowhere or made of dreams; it emerges from what is real.
My home congregation of St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church produced a Lenten booklet this year of personal reflections from members of the congregation called Survival Stories of Resilience and Hope. Not one of those stories was about surviving the pandemic. They were about the realities of harm, neglect, tragedy and accident that shape ordinary lives. Our proximity to suffering didn’t begin in 2020 but that year made everyone just a little more honest about the world and that honesty creates a little more room for hope to dawn. You don’t have to create the kin-dom of God, Jesus is insisting. It’s already here. You just have to stop fishing in the dark and come and eat with me. You just have to orient yourselves toward the dawn. Whether in poetry, prayer, or protest, there are always a way to get caught up in the dawn. Such a beautiful, hopeful story for our time – that the dawn breaks over an honest horizon, that light and truth belong together. The pandemic may have left us just as fearful as we ever were, but unless we go back to fishing in the dark, it has made us more honest, called us closer to the truth.
It’s a curious thing that we kept the term “sunrise” even when we discovered that the sun wasn’t rising at all. You’d think we might have eventually called it “earthturn” though it’s distinctly less poetic. But in truth, it is the earth that creates the daybreak, not the sun. The sun is constant. It’s true of what we call the resurrection as well. The Risen reality of God’s siding with life, creating, raising, and sustaining life – is as constant as the sun. Sitting there at the centre of all things, the power to draw new life, to pull a new dawn from every apparent sunless sky, every dead end and lifeless routine. The rising of life is always there. It is we who notice it, or not, we who turn toward it, the way the earth turns each morning to the sun.
The risen life we are called into – called to turn toward the way the earth turns toward the sun – is simple and extraordinary. It begins with seeing things the way they are, or perhaps more accurately, facing things the way they are. We know that the risen life is tucked inside our reality, as constant as the sun, whether or not we turn to face it.
Jesus is on the beach one last time to flag us down and remind us: the risen life is within you; it is around and among you. The risen life will dawn among and between you. It will rise with the sure knowledge that another way is possible. The risen life, Jesus seems to be saying, as he stokes the coals and breaks the bread, has been here all along, as sure as there are fish in the sea, it has been here, it breaks like the dawn over the way things really are, and you beloved disciples, have seen its rising.