Third Sunday of Easter | John 21:1-19
Communion with the Divine
“The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me…”
Habits are powerful things, and habits of thought are among the most powerful.
Take the simple notion that it is good to get up each day and get going, to do the work at hand — it is one of the simplest ideas we can have in our lives, but in the end it is the thought that helps get us through our most difficult days.
Sometimes our thought habits get in the way. We misremember events, tilting them in one direction or another, embellishing our worth or exaggerating an injury done to us. Conversely, we seldom revise our opinions of other people, even when they deserve a downgrade or have earned better.
Our habits of thought are wickedly pernicious in matters of faith. We believe what we believe, and that is that. Of course, such devotion to a set of ideas is not faith at all: it is idolatry. Little by little, we trade faith for certainty until we leave off worshipping God and begin worshipping our own ideas about God. Once we get there, our ideas seldom change.
Closed-mindedness is the death knell of spirituality. It’s the death knell of decency, of warmth, of humanity. God may not change, but our understanding of God must — or did we think we understood everything, right from the beginning? Perceiving the divine depends upon our willingness to be surprised. Nothing gets into a closed mind, not even God.
In John’s gospel, a few tired, disillusioned disciples nearly give up. Thinking their journey with the miraculous over, they return to fishing, a way of life some of them knew before Jesus’ arrest and the fiasco of his death. Even at that point, they were still willing to be surprised, willing to experience the divine in a meal of fish and bread, served by a person they thought never to see again.
When they expected never to hear the living voice of Jesus, he called to them across the water. Having watched him die, they opened their minds to the divine reality of seeing him alive.
God may be in the explosions of stars, the expanse of space. John’s gospel says that we may also find God in the smallness of a loaf of bread, if our minds are open to the possibility.
Imagine, communion with the divine.
Here is another version of the story from John’s Gospel, as I retold it for the opening chapter of I,John. Sometimes just hearing a story told differently can change the way we think about it. I hope you enjoy it.
The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me.
I see angels, and I see other things that are not angels. At least I see and hear beings who are not like us but who think and act and move, without bodies like ours. A few of them are brilliant and astonishing. Some are dark and fearful. I think that they are different beings, but they might be differing versions of the same kind of thing. And there is Adriel, whom I have heard and seen every day since we found that empty tomb.
Seeing creatures and hearing voices doesn’t mean they are real. A great many people have seen things that did not exist outside their minds. Of course, even if I couldn’t see these beings, couldn’t hear their voices, it wouldn’t mean that they weren’t there.
In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.
Look where it got us. Look where it got him.
My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.
So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that day that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.
Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.
I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.
And he was certainly dead.
I am left remembering all of it, at least I am left remembering those days. They are in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it is the same. Some moments stand out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. You would think that the crucifixion might be my most vivid memory, but it is not. Oh, I remember that day, certainly, but it is not what haunts my dreams or creeps into my waking thoughts. I remember blind men, and Mary. I remember Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remember the bread that Jesus gave us.
Most of all, I dream of that morning at the shore.
Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.
No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.
Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.
“Friends, have you got any fish?”
I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.
No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.
“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”
All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.
The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.
“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.
There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.
Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed, the women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.
“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.
In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.