Download or listen to The Third Sunday of Easter, “The Same Old Things” (John 21:1-14)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I must have been 12 or 13 the one summer my brothers and I discovered an old ping-pong table in the garage. We wheeled it out, set it up on the driveway, clipped the net to it, wiped the dust off. We probably had to go buy ping-pong balls and paddles. And then we must have played ping-pong for weeks, for hours at a time. But eventually the novelty wore off; we may have played a few more times after that, maybe even once or twice the next summer, but eventually that ping-pong table went back in the garage, and it could still be there collecting dust, for all I know. The novelty wore off, and we wanted something different and new. Maybe something like that’s happened to you. You go on vacation with your family or friends, maybe to a cabin somewhere, and someone brings a new game. You learn how to play it, and you enjoy it so much that you play it for hours, again and again and again, until someone says, “I’m tired of this game, let’s do something different.” The novelty wears off, and you want something different and new.
That’s how we are: we like new things, and the old things are never quite as good as the new things. And that’s okay. It doesn’t matter that I’ve rarely played a single game of ping-pong since that summer. It doesn’t matter if you never play that game again. What mattered was the time I spent with my brothers, or the time you spent with your family. Ping-pong doesn’t matter; board games don’t matter. But sometimes we bring those same habits of novelty into things that do matter. Sometimes we bring that idea into the Church, where we are not dealing with things that don’t matter, but with eternal things. Especially in our culture, where the novelty of a thing barely has time to wear off before we’re expecting the next, new thing. This can even seep into a culture like rural Minnesota, where the novelty takes a little longer to get here! I suspect it’s going to happen more and more. So we say that these old things don’t work anymore; we’re tired of the same old thing, and we need something new and different. Which is sort of strange, isn’t it? That we take something like the liturgy, which has been developed and refined over 2000 years, and we say that, all of a sudden, these words no longer work for our culture or context. But of course, we, with our decades of experience, we know how to fix it or how to replace it.
All of this thinking about novelty and change made me wonder, how many appearances, how many revelations, of the resurrected Jesus would it take for the disciples to get bored of it? John says, “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to His disciples after He was raised from the dead.” We heard about the first two times last week: how Jesus appeared to the ten disciples in that locked, upper room; and then, eight days later, He appeared to the ten and Thomas in that same, locked room. This is the third time, beside the Lake of Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. How many more times before the disciples say, “Okay, Jesus, we get it; you’re raised from the dead. Now can we do something different? Something other than this hide-and-seek game with the risen Jesus?” But the disciples weren’t modern people; they didn’t have nearly the number of distractions and preoccupations that we have. So maybe the better question is, how many appearances by the resurrected Jesus would it take us to be bored with Him? How many revelations for us to get tired of it? What’s wrong with us?! What’s wrong with me? How is it that sometimes I think I would rather be reading about the Scriptures than actually hearing the living voice of the Lord? How can I prefer some witty comment or incisive insight into the Scriptures rather than hearing the Scriptures themselves? Those things can be helpful, but there’s something wrong when I would rather read about the Bible than hear the Scriptures themselves. What’s wrong with us that we think we have exhausted the meaning of the liturgy? That we’ve heard all that before, and now we need something else? What’s wrong with us that we think we don’t need always to return to studying the Bible and hearing the simple summaries of the catechism? It would be different if these things didn’t matter, if they were just human words. But these are the words from the mouth of the living God! These things are living and active; we don’t make them, they make us. Apparently it takes about 2000 years for us to be bored with the words of God.
But how is it that the disciples know that the man on the shore is Jesus? At first they don’t. He says, “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you?” And they say, “No.” But they don’t know that it’s the Lord. So when do they see it? When do they figure it out? Why does John say to Peter, “That’s the Lord!” It’s not because Jesus does something new and different. It is precisely because He does the same thing that He had already done. They know it’s Him because they recognize His work. You have to go back to the beginning, when Jesus was first gathering His disciples. Jesus was teaching, and the crowd was large, so Jesus got into Peter’s boat. Peter’s probably tired from fishing all night, but Jesus nudges him awake and says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Peter says, “Lord, we’ve been fishing all night and we haven’t caught anything. But…because you say so, we will do it.” And they’ve no more than let their nets down when they are full of fish, so that their nets are breaking, so that they need another boat to help them. And Peter falls down and says, “Depart from me, Lord, because I’m a sinful man.” And Jesus says, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:1-11). That’s how John knows it’s the Lord; he’s seen this and heard this before. Not only that, but another time when they were on the shore of this same lake, Jesus was teaching and He said to Philip, “Where are we going to get food for all these thousands of people to eat?” And Philip said, “200 days’ wages would not be enough for all these people even to have a little.” Andrew comes with a boy’s lunch of a little bread and some fish, and Jesus has them all sit down on the green grass. And He feeds them all until they’re satisfied, and there are still twelve baskets left over, one for each of the disciples. He’s done this before, this bread and this fish, and there’s more than enough.
Jesus just keeps doing the same things and saying the same things, and that’s exactly how the disciples know it’s Him. He says, forgive sins, and the Church has been doing it ever since. He says, Make disciples by baptizing them into My Name, and teaching them to keep everything I’ve told you, and the Church has been doing it ever since. He says, Do this in remembrance of Me, eat and drink, this is My Body and My Blood, and the Church has been doing it ever since. If the Church always wants to do something new and different, it could be a sign that we don’t know where the Lord is. So when we come here, and it’s the same old words, we shouldn’t grumble about that and say, “Why do we always have to do the same thing over and over; we should hear these time-worn words, and say, “Yes! I know that Voice! I’ve heard these things before; I’ve seen these things done. I know who this is!” So we keep crying out, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy!” We sing with the angels, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men. We say, Amen, this is true. Thanks be to God for His Word! We hear it, and we believe it, and then we repeat back to Him His own promises. We say, this is what you’ve said, Lord. I recognize your voice. These are the things you’ve done. We sing with the fiery angels around the throne of God: Holy, holy, holy! Your glory fills heaven and earth! Blessed is the One who comes in this Name! Hosanna! Save us now! We hear Your Words, and we say, It’s the Lord! Look, here! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Have mercy on us and grant us Your peace. Now, Lord, I go through life and I go to death in peace, because I’ve seen Your salvation, I’ve heard Your salvation, I’ve tasted Your salvation. This is the light of Your revelation to the nations. This is the voice of Jesus, and when He returns, we will know Him because we’ve learned His words and His actions.
None of us needs to ask, “Who is this? Who are you?” Because we all know, from the least of us to the greatest, the youngest to the oldest: This is the Lord! He was dead, but He is alive forever. This is the Lord.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/13/13