After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias.John 21:1
One of the (many) things that I like about the Easter stories in the gospels is that there are a lot of them. After Jesus is raised from the dead, he keeps appearing to the disciples, in all sorts of different ways.
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Upper Room (John 20:19-31). He came through locked doors, offered them peace, showed them the scars on his hands and side, and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. By the end of the story last week, it seemed as though John’s Gospel was concluded. But today, we get another Easter story. Another story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, this time by the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. A story that almost seems like a postscript to John’s Gospel.
There are some biblical scholars who argue that this whole chapter is a later addition to John’s gospel. Not even written by John. But I prefer to think that John, a brilliant writer, guided by the Holy Spirit, did this very intentionally. And I think he did so to teach us something important about the resurrection. Because this surprise additional ending to John’s gospel shows us, in a very powerful way, that the resurrection is not just about an empty tomb – it is about a risen Jesus. A risen Jesus who surprises us, and appears to us, in many and various ways, when we have the eyes of faith to see him.
Learning from the Post-Easter Appearances
The gospels teach us that Easter is not a one-time event, but something that keeps happening. Jesus is alive, and he continues to appear to us, in many and various ways. His many post-Easter appearances recorded in Scripture are evidence of that. But if there is one thing that is surprisingly consistent in all the resurrection appearances, it is that people did not recognize him. Not right away. Something had to happen before they recognized him. It’s not always the same thing that happens. But something must happen. And that teaches us something important, too, doesn’t it?
Even after he is raised from the dead, Jesus can be hard to recognize. If that was true then, it is just as true now. But I think that we can learn how to recognize Jesus in our lives, by paying attention to how the disciples come to recognize the risen Christ in theirs.
So, this morning I want to take us through five different ways that the disciples recognize Jesus after he is raised from the dead. All recorded in the gospels. Because I believe that these are also five different ways that we can recognize Jesus in our lives and in our world today.
By a Miracle
The first way is maybe the most obvious, and we see it in today’s gospel reading (John 21:1-19). The disciples have gone back to their ordinary, everyday lives, when Jesus appears and performs a miracle. They are out fishing, which is their job. They’re not having much luck. And Jesus appears on the beach, but they didn’t know it was him. They don’t recognize him. Not yet. He suggests they try casting their net on the other side of the boat. They do and they caught so many fish they couldn’t even haul in their net.
That is when the beloved disciple, John, recognized Jesus: When he performed a miracle. Now, on the one hand, we might think that it would be terrific if Jesus would perform a miracle for us – that would make it real easy to recognize him. But on the other hand, isn’t this miracle like any other, in the sense that it is a miracle only when we believe that it is? Isn’t it possible that Jesus saw fish swimming around the other side of the boat? Couldn’t there be some other “reasonable” explanation? We can recognize the risen Christ in our midst through a miracle, but to see the miracle requires the eyes of faith. Faith, you might just say, is the real miracle.
But let’s go on, because there are four other ways that the disciples recognize the risen Jesus after Easter.
Being Called by Name
The next is one that is recorded in John 20, and is the first Easter story recorded by John. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early that morning, and found it empty. She spoke to two angels, and then turned around to see Jesus standing there, except she didn’t know it was Jesus. She thought it was the gardener. It was only when Jesus spoke her name that she recognized him.
There is something very powerful about knowing someone’s name, and speaking it, isn’t there? Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd who calls his own sheep by name. It is amazing to think about – that the Creator of the universe knows our name. That he calls us by name. And he does it, most obviously, when we are baptized.
When we are baptized, we are given our Christian name. And we are named and claimed as a child of God. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We begin to recognize Jesus at work in our life. When God calls us by name. In Holy Baptism. Every baptism is a miracle, as great as birth itself. And is the second way that we recognize the risen Jesus in our midst.
A third way shouldn’t be a surprise, and that is through the breaking of the bread. In Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:13-35), we have the story of two disciples recognizing Jesus when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” They had been walking back from Jerusalem, to Emmaus. It was that first Easter evening, and while they were walking, Jesus joined them and began walking with them. But they did not recognize him. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” the story tells us.
Well, when they got to their house, they invited this stranger in for dinner. And when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. It was in the breaking of the bread that they recognized Jesus. And so, too, for us. In Holy Communion, our risen Lord and Savior joins us on our journey. In the breaking of the bread, here in worship. And blessed are we when we see him in our midst.
By His Scars
Returning to John’s gospel (John 20:19-31), we find a fourth way that the disciples recognize the risen Jesus. Mary Magdalene has recognized Jesus already, and gone to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord. And then later that day, in a story we heard last Sunday, Jesus came to the upper room and stood among the disciples. He showed them his hands and his side, his wounds from the cross. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord – after they saw his hands and his side.
Thomas, of course, wasn’t there, and famously said: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And a week later, Jesus came again, and invited Thomas to put his finger in the mark of the nails, and his hand in Jesus’ side. Thomas didn’t need to do that – he recognized Jesus by his scars, and confessed Jesus to be his Lord and his God. Jesus didn’t speak Thomas’ name. He showed them his scars. That’s how Thomas recognized the risen Jesus. And that’s how the other apostles recognized him, too. Through his scars.
Sometimes we recognize Jesus through the cross. Through our suffering and pain, we see his suffering and pain. We see him on the cross, and we see the God who loves us enough to let his son die for us. The cross can be a sad reminder of our sin. But it can also be an incredibly powerful reminder of God’s love. And when we see God’s love on that cross, we recognize Jesus in the midst of our own suffering and pain.
With the Help of a Friend
A miracle, being called by name, the breaking of the bread, and through his scars – these are all ways the disciples recognized Jesus after he was raised from the dead. But there is one final way that I want to offer here. And it is found in today’s gospel reading (John 21:1-19). John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, recognized Jesus when he performed a miracle, and they found their net full of fish. But what about Peter? The way he recognized Jesus is different, and is again very important to us today. Peter, of course, is the head disciple, the acknowledged leader of the apostles. Who Jesus will ask to feed his sheep, later in this reading. But Peter did not recognize Jesus even after the miraculous catch of fish. It is only when John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” that Peter recognized Jesus.
When Peter heard from John that it was the Lord, he “jumped into the sea.” He trusted that what his friend said was true, that it was truly the Lord there on the shore. And Peter eagerly swam ahead to greet him.
And I think that there is an important message in this detail for us today. Because there are times we will clearly recognize Jesus in our lives. Perhaps in a baptism, or at communion. Perhaps when something difficult is happening in our lives, and we are reminded of Jesus’ suffering for us. Or perhaps when a miracle takes place in our lives.
But there are still other times when we won’t recognize Jesus at all. When we will need someone else to point him out to us. Isn’t that one of the blessings of being in a church community? So that others can point Jesus out to us when we have difficulty seeing him? Maybe that is why Jesus tells us that it is when two or three gather in his name that he is among us.
And, finally, aren’t there times in our life when we need to be the one to point Jesus out to someone else? As they are dealing with a difficult situation, or perhaps are in the midst of a miracle, but cannot see Jesus? Isn’t that when we need to play the part of John, and say: “It is the Lord!”?
Jesus is risen, and he promises to be with us always. He appears to us, just as he appeared to those disciples, in many and various ways. The ending is never the ending with God. Easter reminds us that there are always more surprises. And blessed are all who believe this. Amen.