April 18, 2010
The Second Sunday after Easter
Millions of Americans used to spend every Sunday night glued to their television sets, watching a Fox Television series called The X-Files. It used to inspire a kind of devotion usually reserved for Sunday morning worship, and for many people the show was an hour of sacred viewing.
This show tells the story of two FBI agents who investigate "X-Files" -- cases involving paranormal or unexplained phenomena. The pair probes evidence of alien visitors, genetically mutated serial killers, unseen violent forces and even religious miracles. Agent Fox Mulder, preoccupied with paranormal activity, is the character convinced that "the truth is out there." His partner, Agent Dana Scully, is a medical doctor who balances Mulder's belief in the unknown with her own scientific skepticism.
As the two work to solve these mysterious cases, they encounter an increasing number of occurrences that defy scientific explanation. Agent Scully discovers that not everything fits her rational world view, and she is led to probe ever deeper into the Christian faith of her childhood. One episode ends with her asking the question, "What if God is speaking . . . and no one is listening?"
If Mulder and Scully were to take their work to first-century Galilee, they would encounter a number of occurrences that could be classified as "X-Files." In John 21 alone, the resurrected Jesus is involved in three odd happenings: He stands unrecognized in front of his closest friends, he causes 153 large fish to rush suddenly into the disciples' net, and he engages in a mysterious dialogue with Peter. These occurrences are clearly paranormal, outside the range of normal experience or scientifically explainable phenomena.
Let’s look at those three happenings individually. For today, we will take our cue from the “X-Files”, and we shall call ours the “Christ-Files”.
Christ-File #1: Jesus Unrecognized.
We struggle to see Jesus in times of exhaustion and confusion. Easter is over, the celebrations have passed, and now we are back on the job, working long hours to try to put food on our tables. Although we are aware that Jesus is risen, we do not know where in the world he is. He certainly does not seem to be close to people like us, or the disciples on the Sea of Tiberias, hard-working men who fish all night and catch absolutely nothing.
It is difficult to see Christ when we are burning with frustration. It is hard to sense his nearness when we are overwhelmed by anxiety, grief or fear. Our feelings can consume us and cut us off from the world around us, a world that is full of signs of the presence of God. We stare blankly over the sides of our isolated boats, like the exhausted and confused fishermen who cannot even recognize their close friend Jesus waiting for them on the beach. How so very often, when life seems to not be going right, that we sometimes forget to call upon Christ.
"Children, you have no fish, have you?" Jesus asks. They answer him, "No," probably with tremendous irritation in their voices. If you have gone a week without sales, or a night without fish, you don't want someone asking you how it's going.
At a time like this, it is best to rethink the task at hand, the one that is causing us such frustration. We should take a break; look at something beautiful, get fresh insights, or best of all: focus on people besides ourselves. The most dependable way to lift our own spirits is to do something good for a person in need. This is also the best place to recognize Jesus once again.
"Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor," said Dorothy Day, "are atheists indeed." The Catholic Worker movement grew out of this woman's desire to live the gospel with directness and simplicity, and it came to include 175 houses of hospitality that feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. "How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things?" she would ask her atheist friends. From age 15 until her death, she found beauty in places and faces that most people are glad to avoid, says author Jim Forest. Dorothy Day would not let exhaustion or confusion prevent her from recognizing Christ in the faces of the people she served. That is a good lesson for us as well. I frequently think of this as I look at the blighted buildings the neighborhood kids live in, right here on this block.
Christ-File #2: 153 Large Fish.
Men are notorious for resisting guidance and direction. As an example, why did the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years? Because Moses refused to ask for directions.
With this history, it is likely that the disciples are not terribly receptive when the stranger on the beach suggests, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some fish." Yeah, sure, they think.
The disciples cast the net, and they are not able to haul it in because there are so many fish: 153 large fish, to be exact. This number is intriguing, and would probably inspire Agent Scully to run a mathematical analysis on her computer. The theologian Augustine figured out that the number 153 is obtained when all of the whole numbers from 1 to 17 are added together, a mathematical fact that suggests the completeness of the number 153 itself. Others have suggested that the number is a symbol of the Trinity, or a sign of the totality of the church. At the very least, it describes an enormous catch, one that points to the abundance of Jesus' gifts.
This miracle allows the disciples to recognize Jesus, and Peter, with characteristic passion, with leaps out of the boat and into the sea. It reminds us of when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed the 5,000, and when he opened the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in the sharing of a meal. In our own lives, we think of how Christ meets us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and of how he comes to us with gifts of forgiveness, healing and strength. In times of spiritual emptiness, Jesus surprises us with life-sustaining nourishment.
This phenomenon is not miraculous because 153 fish appear. It is a miracle because it strengthens the faith of the followers of Christ. We should all open our hearts, minds and souls to the miracle that takes place at the Eucharist as we receive our Lord.
Christ-File #3: Dialogue with Peter.
Philip Pare, author of God Made the Devil, writes that miracles tend to mean not less work for their beneficiaries, but more. Such is the case with Peter. After finishing a breakfast of bread and fish, Jesus asks Peter a question three times, a reminder of the three times that Peter denied Jesus on the night of his arrest and betrayal. Three separate times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and three times Peter says, "Yes, Lord." Each of these questions and answers cancels out one of Peter's shameful denials. In this way, Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to change his ways, and receive forgiveness.
Forgiveness is central to this dialogue, although the word itself is never used. Theologian L. Gregory Jones believes that forgiveness is an innovative gesture: one that offers a hope for the future that we do not have to be defined by the sin of the past. Jesus makes this innovative gesture to Peter in order to free him from his cowardly denials, and he does this so that Peter will be able to feed and care for God's sheep. Peter is not forgiven simply so that he can feel good about himself again, but so that he can serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. The miracle of forgiveness certainly makes work for Peter, but it is work that makes his life worth living.
This same is true for us: We are freed from sin so that we will be free to serve. If we truly love the Lord who gives us forgiveness, we will feed his sheep. By helping people around us in ways we all know how and can do. By baking a casserole for a grieving widow. By committing to tutoring disadvantaged schoolchildren. By sharing of our personal faith with a friend. By giving a disadvantaged child free piano lessons. By teaching a class. By providing transportation to those who can't get around. As you can see, it doesn’t have to be in ways most of us think of when we think of helping others or strangers. It can be in different and unusual ways.
The crucial thing is to translate love and gratitude into action; to do what we can to care for the sheep that our Lord has left us. These "Christ-Files" are outside the range of scientifically explainable phenomena, but they are central to the life of faith. Recognizing Jesus, receiving his miraculous nourishment, and serving others in his name are steps we are called to take if we are going to follow our resurrected Lord.
Agent Scully asked, "What if God is speaking, and no one is listening?" The question we should be prepared to answer is: "What if Christ is calling, and no one is following?" In today’s Gospel, the risen Lord calls the Disciples to a new future. Lost and uncertain about what to do and where to go, they decide to return to what they did before they met their Lord; fishing. But Christ comes to them during this fishing and asks them to renew their vocation as Disciples. They return to following Christ. And so should we!
God Love You +
+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.