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Thanks for All the Fish
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
April 30, 2017
A Reading from the Gospel
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
The last time I was standing up here there was a tympani over there, and a trumpet on the other side, and the organ was on full blast and we were singing the Hallelujah Chorus as loudly as we possibly could. It felt amazing. It felt transcendent. But I just want to be honest with you: we can’t maintain that kind of theatricality. It’s not sustainable. It’s so big. It’s so overloaded. Eventually we just kind of fall back to earth. Eventually, Easter is over, and we all have to go back to our regular business. It doesn’t mean I’m not still hungry for it. I mean, if we could just pull out all those stops again I’d be first in line. It’s not like the world stopped needing resurrection just because Easter was over. I’m just as hungry for that Gospel now as I ever was, as I think anyone could possibly be. I feel starved for it. I feel ravenous for it. I feel like I could feast on an endless buffet of resurrection and keep going back for more. But with that moment of transcendence gone — without the tympani and the trumpet here to guide us along — this thing becomes harder and harder to believe. The first twelve hours of Eastertide are the easiest part. The rest of it is hard work.
Even for these disciples. If you came to church last week, I hope that one of these Gospel readings sounds familiar. Those of you who worshiped with us on the summit at Mo-Ranch last weekend heard the first half of this story from Luke, the story of the disciples who encounter Jesus along the road to Emmaus and don’t even recognize him, even though they’ve already heard the good news of the empty tomb. Those of you who were here at UPC heard in the liturgy and hymns the regular story for the second Sunday of Easter, of doubting Thomas told in John’s Gospel, the disciple who will not believe in the risen Christ until he sees the mark of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side, which the story that Luke takes up in shorter form in the second half of our reading from this morning. What all these pieces have in common, of course, is disciples who just can’t quite believe it. Disciples who have come back to earth after the transcendence of the morning, and they can’t quite hold the Gospel in their heads. It’s too unlikely. It’s too impossible. The percentage chance that he has in fact risen from the grave just like he promised he would is even then so remotely minuscule that Jesus’s own disciples can’t pay it a moment’s notice. This thing is too hard to believe.
Of course, Luke offers these Emmaus Road disciples one kind of answer. They don’t recognize him on the road, but when they come to the table, he takes bread, and breaks it and blesses it, and gives it to them. He feeds them in just the way that he had at the table of the Last Supper, and so this sacramental act opens their eyes, and they recognize him in the breaking of the bread. And so for those of us who likewise hunger for some sign of true resurrection Luke offers us this spiritual food, the bread we break at the table, the wine we share together, this feast by which the risen Christ is made known to us and revealed to us. This is bedrock theology. This is the very heart of what we believe about why we come to this table in the first place and why we eat and drink together. This is the story of the food that Jesus gives us to quench the spiritual hunger we have deep within, the promise that we can come again and again to this table and rekindle that Easter transcendence and sustain that Easter Gospel, and uncountable as the stars are the sermons that have been preached on meeting and knowing and recognizing the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.
The only problem is. Right after this story. If you keep reading. The disciples are still hungry.
The few who were on the road to Emmaus run back to Jerusalem. You guys are never gonna believe what happened. We met this guy on the road, he started talking to us all about the scripture, and then when we had dinner together he gave us bread and it was like, oh my gosh, it’s Jesus, just like the women said! And right then Jesus himself shows up in the room in Jerusalem, but even then, even with testimony from their friends and the stories from Mary and Mary Magdalene, even with Jesus himself now standing in their midst, Luke says that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. They still can’t believe it. And so he does the whole routine from the Thomas story — look at my hands and my feet; touch me and see me; would a ghost have flesh and bones as you see before you? But still they were disbelieving, Luke says. Even in their joy, disbelieving. And at this point in Luke’s story Jesus has basically bent over backwards to give the disciples whatever they need to quench this hunger — he’s interpreted the scriptures for, he’s broken bread with them, he’s showed them his wounds and his hands, look if you can’t believe in the Gospel now, if you’re still hungry for resurrection after everything I’ve given you I don’t know what else to do.
Except this one thing. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. And they were transformed. Only when they get a chance to feed him does their hunger finally go away.
For a short time in seminary I was involved in a casual Sunday afternoon worship service at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, just a few miles down the road from Princeton. Lawrenceville had built this service to have a kind of alternative, intimate feel to it — we’d worship in this small chapel, with chairs set up mostly in the round, we’d have jazz musicians, or a blues band, or a Taizé feel, we’d have very informal liturgy; the whole thing was designed to attract folks who wanted a different kind of worship feel but also to attract a bunch of college students who were a little more likely to come to an afternoon service than a morning one. But the highlight of the whole thing was Communion, because they had this very distinctive bread. I mean, it was delicious, but mostly it was huge. They had some custom arrangement with a little bakery in town, and every week that bakery would make for them this round communion loaf that was about as wide as the table itself. And admittedly, it gets wider every time I tell this story, but nonetheless. It was huge. And what I know now is that they would not pre-cut the bread in any way — sorry for the shop talk, but most of the time we score it a bit so that we can break it cleanly when the moment comes, but not here.
And so when we came to the time for the breaking of the bread, the Senior Pastor who claimed the privilege of this moment would stand in the center of this worship circle, maybe 50 people, and he would proclaim that on the night of his arrest Jesus took bread and broke it, and then with all of his forearm muscles very much at the ready he would rip this thing from pole to pole. It was a motion not unlike he was trying to start a hand-crank lawnmower. And of course when he did it bread crumbs would fly for twenty feet in every direction; the first three rows were almost guaranteed to get showered by the grace. And then he would come around the circle with the bread and we could take communion, and you could rip off a pretty sizable hunk of it, because there was so much bread, and so few of us. And when I imagine the abundance of God’s grace made manifest in the breaking of bread, this is what I imagine — so much bread, so few of us. It felt like all the bounty of the kingdom brought to life right there in that chapel.
But the worship wasn’t over. Even after we sang the benediction and started to leave, the worship wasn’t over. Because there was still so much fresh bread sitting on that table. And there were so many of us with late afternoon hunger pangs still sitting in that chapel, you know, a lot of seminary and college students who didn’t quite have enough lunch, and a few teenagers who could have eaten all day. So then, after the last hymn finished, and while the musicians were packing up, the pastor would invite us back, and we would descend like locusts. And he would just watch us devour it, like a pack of wild animals, and this loving smile would come across his face. And I have thought on that smile for years since. The more I get into ministry, the more I think about it. Because I imagine being in the committee meeting where somebody started talking about the communion bread for the new afternoon worship service. I imagine this committee staring at its budget and getting some astronomical quote from the bakery and nonetheless ordering a loaf that would have easily served communion to three hundred people and putting it in a service in a chapel that wouldn’t stand 75. And I would wonder why on earth you would go to such extravagant lengths. Except I think his smile said everything. Sometimes the only way to satisfy our own hunger is to feed somebody else.
“Have you anything here to eat,” Jesus asked the disciples. He’s been feeding them for so long. From that story of turning one picnic basket’s worth of bread and fish into a feast for thousands, through to the account of the Last Supper and then this meal on the Emmaus Road; Jesus has fed his disciples again and again and again. But not until this moment, when Jesus asks them for a bite, when they hand him this piece of fish — not until they feed him do they finally come into their own as the apostles who will carry this story forward. And forward it goes — from here we go straight to the ascension of Jesus and then straight to the Pentecostal morning, and the disciples who are here scared and grumbling in the upper room are about to become transformed into courageous and dedicated and occasionally overzealous stewards of this resurrection story, without a trace of disbelief among them. And not just because Jesus explained scripture to them on the road. And not just because he took bread and broke it and blessed it and gave it to them. And not just because he showed them the wounds on his side and on his hands. Finally, the disciples become who they are called to be, faithful children of resurrection hope, because they have to feed somebody else.
I have to admit to you that it feels strange to preach this Emmaus story on a Sunday when we don’t have Communion. In the long history of the uncountable number of sermons preached on knowing Jesus in the breaking of the bread, every single one of them has landed at Communion. But if the Gospel this morning isn’t about being fed, but rather about feeding — if the Gospel is about how the work of feeding others is the work that transforms us — then our worship this morning ought not to end at the table. Our worship this morning ought not even end when the last hymn finishes and the benediction wraps and we all get up to go home. Our worship this morning continues when we do the transformative work of ensuring that all have enough to eat. Which means that worship for this Sunday morning continues on Tuesday morning, when so many of the hands of this church work to make our UPLift homelessness response program come to life. That worship for this Sunday morning continues on Thursday evening and Saturday morning, when our basement transforms into the Micah 6 Food Pantry. Our worship this morning continues whenever we do the transformative work of ensuring that nobody goes without. Our worship this morning continues in all of the moments of the week ahead when are able to give of ourselves and of what we have so that we also might be filled.
So this is the Gospel here on the third Sunday of Easter, now that trumpet is gone and the tympani is put away, now that the Hallelujahs have begun to fade. (It’s so much easier to believe in this thing when we have the trumpet and the tympani.) But now that we go back to the real work, the is the Gospel: if you want to believe in this Easter and this resurrection, if you want to believe in this good news, if you need this Easter and this Resurrection as much as I do, if you are as hungry for this Easter and this Resurrection as I am, if you are as hungry as I am for something other than the reign of sin and death, if we together would be transformed into the faithful disciples who can go into this Eastertide with courage and dedication, if we would carry with us the chorus of Hallelujahs from this place into every place, then we ought to go and feed somebody else. Not just because it might quench their hunger. But because it will quench ours. Because there’s so much bread, and so few of us, and that smile is worth everything.
“Have you anything here to eat,” Jesus asked the disciples. And they gave him a piece of broiled fish.
And he was made known to them in the giving of the bread.