I’ve always wondered what happened after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I’ve imagined that there was a little socializing with everybody asking him what it was like to be dead and to be alive again. Long after people left for their homes, Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters, are there, cleaning up in the kitchen. Martha looks around and realizes that Lazarus isn’t in the house.
“Hey Mary, where’s Lazarus?”
“I don’t know” comes the reply; “Maybe he went off with some of the men.
But then, hours pass by; no Lazarus. It’s not quite like Lazarus to stay out this late leaving his sisters alone and unprotected. Finally, it gets late enough that the concerned sisters round up a group of people to search for Lazarus, because they now believe the man is missing.
Somewhere around 2:00 AM, Mary has a hunch – a ridiculous hunch. But it’s too nagging to let go. She goes back to the tomb where Lazarus was buried. She sees a little light in there, and, casting inhibitions aside, she peeps inside.
And sure enough, there is Lazarus, comfortably lying down in the tomb, reading the Sunday Gleaner by candlelight.
“Lazarus!” Mary exclaims! “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Well, Mary, I was here for four days and I kinda got to like it here; I think I’ll just stay here.”
“Lazarus!” Mary responds, “Don’t you understand that going back to the dead life is inconsistent with the resurrection Jesus gave you?”
If you know your Bibles, you’ll know that somewhere along the way, that story departed from the truth. I’m certain that when Jesus said to the men, “Loose him and let him go,” Lazarus must have dashed away from that tomb faster than Usain Bolt, never to return again.
And yet, an incident of a similar nature happened – for real – with Jesus’s disciples. We hear of it in John’s gospel, chapter 21, verses 1 through 6, and 15 through 17. I read:
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.
"I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We'll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered.
He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
(Verse 15) When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.
By now, you’ll have discovered that living the life of faith is a roller-coaster – not a rocket! You’ll have discovered that neither you nor your Christian neighbor are the consistent or consistently holy and good person you thought them or yourself to be. And yet, we just celebrated the Resurrection – that event that is supposed to change everything: change the world; change you and me. So what happened?
Why does a nation, which loves to say it is Christian, expand its military at the cost of the food and medicine of its poorest people even while some of its most so-called evangelical people stand up and cheer? Why is a nation, which boasts the largest number of churches per square mile, so fraught with rampant crime and corruption? Why does the world not show a decrease in wickedness, or the churches of the world not show an increase in blessedness, in the days following Easter?
The answers to these questions might be enshrined within an observation we can make about this episode we read in John’s gospel. And the observation is this:
Despite the resurrection
There is a stubborn regression that threatens us
After serving Jesus for three years, Peter attempts to return to fishing! It seems like Peter was lost – functioning more on a whim than on a plan. He’s still under a cloud of despair and emptiness, even though the Resurrection had come and gone! My friends, I put it to you today that this selfsame emptiness is always a near and present danger and a threat to the faithful. It’s a dark night of the soul, when you’ve hit a wall. In that vulnerable time, regression – some call it backsliding – is rife. Beware of regression.
There is futility in regression. Peter returned to fishing and caught nothing. It was futile. You can never return successfully to that from which God has called you away. Don’t do it.
Often, there is fraternity in regression. Peter had this brilliantly dumb idea to go fishing and it caught on like wildfire. Nobody in that crowd chose to be the conscience of the group. None questioned the regression; all joined in. This is a challenge to watch the company you keep; they could drag you down; and it is an invitation to maintain your influence, always careful to protect it from dissolution by the regression of others.
And then there is a fragility that leads to regression, in which the outer limits of our spiritual stamina are tested. Look at the crowd that regressed:
Peter the doubleminded denier;
Thomas the doubter, who preferred to walk by sight more than by faith;
The Zebedee brothers – the dealers – who tried to cut a selfish deal for power over service; and then
Nathanel the devaluator – the one who had asked, in reference to Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Look: it could have been any of the disciples; hadn’t they all fled and remained in hiding more than a week after the resurrection? It could be you or me, because we all are stricken with the fragility that can lead to regression. It is Christ who holds us in the palm of his hand – not our own staying power that keeps us there! Yes, despite the Resurrection, there is a stubborn regression that threatens us!
But secondly, Because of the Resurrection
There is a steady Redeemer who treasures us.
A redeemer sees something in the garbage that he considers treasure and then reclaims it and puts it to good use. As Redeemer, Jesus sees Peter and his crew -- treasures of his -- headed for the garbage heap of life, and he reclaims them for the higher purpose for which they were intended.
Am I speaking to someone this morning, disillusioned with life, disappointed with God, done with the Church, drying up in your faith, and therefore, headed, for the dump heap of life or already well ensconced therein? DO you not hear the call of Christ this morning – the call of the steady Redeemer, who treasures you?
As with Peter and his crew that morning, he recognizes you, this morning, even when you do not, could not or would not recognize him.
As with Peter and his crew that morning, he honors you, this morning, even as your life right now may not honor him.
He blesses you, not from your merit, but from his mercy. He draws you back to him, even though you have strayed.
He is patient with us when we are slow to respond. This was now the third time Jesus was appearing to the disciples since his resurrection, and until now, none of them had yet returned to his side to rejoin him in life and ministry!
Of course the warning is, they didn’t have all the time in the world to do that before it was too late! We should not be slow so that Christ’s patience might abound!
In verses 7 through 14, which we did not read, Jesus prepares breakfast for the men and invites them to sit and eat. This steady Redeemer so treasures us that he serves and feeds us even when we come up empty and have nothing to offer him in return.
Look, the point is made: because of the Resurrection, there is a steady Redeemer who treasures you
There’s one more thing: in the wake of the Resurrection, there is a searching question meant to transform us
At the end of this episode, Jesus turns his attention to Peter and, in what Peter turns into a remarkable cat and mouse exchange, Jesus asks him, “Peter, do you love me more than your agenda”? Essentially, Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, I like you.” If I might paraphrase, for dramatic effect, what Jesus finally asks, on his third attempt to get an answer from Peter, this is what Jesus says: “Peter, do you even really like me at all?”
And that is where Peter finally became aware that something transformative – painful as it was – was happening to him.
Sometimes the things that offend us, or hurt us, or challenge us, especially when it is some form of divine reprimand for some misstep or some misbehavior on our part, are meant to reform and transform us. And the truth is, we, in the church, may not be asking the right questions of people who misbehave, or even of one another, by way of keeping ourselves honest and faithful.
Sometimes those questions need to be put to those in high office – whether in the church or in government or in civic life. Jesus singled out Peter, even though there was a team of them who just attempted to regress from their place of responsibility.
Why Peter? Well wasn’t he the ringleader? Wasn’t he the one who wielded his influence and power over the others, for leading them into temptation and dysfunction, rather than towards faithful responsibility? We who live the resurrected life in Jesus Christ should understand power, in part, as the inspiration to ask the right questions of those who misbehave in power; for it is Jesus’s persistence in questioning that brings Peter back to the call, and back to his responsibilities: serve; feed; care for others.
Several years ago, there was an advertisement encouraging people to spend money at Caymanas. It was of a talking horse that said, “Get back to the track, Jack”! Well, look! Christ’s resurrection calls us all back to the track. It calls us away from the stubborn regression that threatens us. It calls us to the steady Redeemer who treasures us. And it calls us, through a searching question, meant to transform us. Do you really even like Jesus, let alone, love him? Then get back to the track, Jack. Return to Jesus. Serve him now. Serve him lavishly.
(Christ For Today – April 23 2017 - Michael P. Friday)