The Gospel of John is a bit quirky; it doesn’t just end once. It has two endings. The first ending is chapter 20 – which we read last week – with the final scene describing a resurrected Jesus appearing to Thomas and company in a locked room. The story then ends with a perfectly respectable, textbook example of a literary conclusion, the sort of passage you could still teach to writing students.
`Yes,’ says the Evangelist, `Jesus did these and many other miracles (which I’m not going to go into here).’ “But these are written,” John concludes, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
As one religious scholar puts it, “It is a wonderful epitome of the whole gospel, and arguably, the whole New Testament itself, and any more words would be superfluous. We are reading the work of a master literary craftsman. That effect is ruined, though, if you have a whole text of John’s Gospel, which then proceeds into chapter 21, with its opening, “Afterwards,” or “After these things.” It is meta tauta in Greek.[i]
After what, John?
After heartbreaking tragedy? After overwhelming trauma? After the finality of death? After mind blowing Resurrection?
John the Evangelist discovers that he’s not quite finished yet. He hasn’t completed his task. There are still unresolved matters to address.
It’s like a play when the curtain comes down and an actor steps out onto the front of the stage to deliver an epilogue; a postscript to the drama that has unfolded before us.
You know, fifty years ago, when I was in high school, any drama club worth its salt did a class production of Thornton Wilder’s sobering play Our Town. And it’s a powerful three act drama about the futility of life, quiet desperation of people, enduring regret. The kind of story that can have quite an impact on a young heart and mind.
The final act of the play, opens with a scene where the character Emily Webb, who has recently died at the young age of twenty-six, is given the option – as are all those who die according to Wilder’s play – to return to earth for one day, whatever day she chooses, as long as she is willing to watch herself living it.
Even though she is fervently advised by others in the cemetery near her not to do it. “It’s not what you think it’s going to be” they caution. “You’ll see things much differently now.” Still Emily wants to go back. She chooses the day of her twelfth birthday. “Surely, that would be a happy day to remember,” she says to the others. The scene begins at breakfast time:
“Good morning, Mama,” says twelve-year-old Emily.
Her mother crosses to embrace and kiss her without showing her any real affection. She says, “Well, now, dear, a very happy birthday to my girl and many happy returns.”
Her mother returns to the stove, slipping out of Emily’s arms which were about to embrace her. “There are some surprises waiting for you on the kitchen table.”
Emily, who is terribly hurt at the lack of her mother’s emotion, finally forces herself to speak a banality: “Oh Mama, you shouldn’t have.”
Her mother says, over her shoulder, dryly as usual: “But birthday or no birthday, I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow. I want you to grow up and be a good, strong girl.”
Twelve-year-old Emily looks over the gifts on the table. Then the Emily who has come back from the dead [and is watching all of this unfold] is unable to stand her mother’s aloofness any longer. She says passionately, “Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me!”
Of course her mother can’t hear her and continues her routine, stirring the oatmeal on the stove. Emily moves close to her.
“Mama! Fourteen years have gone by! I’m dead! You’re a grandmother Mama! (then more and more desperately) “I married George Gibbs, Mama! Wally’s dead, too, Mama! His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it, don’t you remember? (now more gently and appealing) “But just for a moment now,we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment, let’s be happy.” (In greatest desperation) “Let’s look at one another!”
Of course, Emily’s plea goes unheard, the scene continues, and nothing changes. Finally Emily says to the Stage Manager who has accompanied her back to earth,
“I can’t! I can’t go on!” (sobs) “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” (She sobs again) “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed! Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: wait! One more look! (gently) “Good-bye! Good-bye, world! (then lovingly) “Good-bye Grover’s Corners—Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and my butternut tree! And Mama’s sunflowers—and food and coffee—and new ironed dresses and hot baths—(with increasing fervor)—and sleeping and waking up! (She flings her arms in an ecstasy of realization) “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Then Emily turns to the Stage Manager and asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” The Stage Manager replies quietly, “No. Saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”[i]
“I’m ready to go back,” Emily resigns. “I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are. Just blind people.”
Then Emily goes back up the hill to the cemetery to take her place with the others. And the scene fades to black.
`Oh no, no, no,’ says John the Evangelist. `For heaven’s sake, we can’t let this story end like that.’ Because meta tauta—Afterwards . . .
And then John launches into his own epilogue. `After [all] these things’ had happened – and presumably after some time has passed, maybe days, maybe weeks – since Jesus had told them to love one another, since he had commissioned them to go out into the world with compassion and mercy, the disciples had turned right around and gone back to business as usual. Back to fishing. As if nothing had happened. As if nothing in their lives had changed. As if it all made no difference. No difference at all.
Back to the daily grind: “. . . all their wild, joyful expectation reduced to grim resignation as they go back to their nets.[i]
Drawn back into the banality of the routine by their leader, Simon Peter.
But then, it’s easy to understand, isn’t it? With everything that’d happened. The tension-filled, emotional high of their entry into Jerusalem; followed by the extraordinary events in the temple, a Passover meal unlike any other, an intense experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, and unexpected betrayal, an armed arrest, a series of denials, a mock trial, a jeering mob, and bloody execution.
Surely in the hours following Jesus’ death, the disciples were crushed and numb. The human spirit can only take so much. Then came the events that brought an emotional overload of another sort altogether—news of the empty tomb and resurrection appearances that had to be seen to be believed. These events would not only overwhelm and change the lives of the disciples forever; they would change the entire world forever.[ii]
In the aftermath of all these events, surely the disciples needed some time and emotional space to decompress and assimilate what they had experienced. It’s what humans do—after trauma and tragedy, or perhaps even after unimaginable hopes are realized—we look for a way to normalize life again.
I mean, it’s only been two weeks since Easter. And it already seems like a distant memory, doesn’t it? Two weeks since we had that wonderful worship service with such glorious music; a sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers, joyous people, and resounding laughter.
But meta tauta. What difference did it all make?
Since that glorious day we’ve had ten more mass shootings. Ten! Resulting in the loss of nine more innocent lives, and injuring forty-two others. Our nation’s leaders are at each other throats with increasing fervor. Worldwide conflict and terrorism and hunger and suffering continue unabated.
Meta tauta. After Easter . . . what?
It’s so easy to simply write it all off as just one more religious banality.
tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in the petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Or so said Macbeth in Shakespeare’s great drama.
Into such banality of life and the desperation of the moment strode the Risen Lord; watching the futility of the disciples’ efforts to get back to `normal.’
Unsuccessfully. With empty nets and empty hearts.
“Children, you have no fish, have you?” says Jesus.
“No,” was their blunted reply.
“Cast your nets to the right side of the boat; there you will find some.”
Meta tauta. After this there is . . .
hope after despair,
potential after dismal failure,
possibility for new life even after the worst kind of death,
the capacity for loving restoration of relationship even after thrice denial.
The `Restoration of Peter’ it has been called by the church. And it is why Jesus appeared once more to the disciples: to restore Peter to fellowship with Jesus and to recommission him as the foundation upon which Jesus would build his church. Jesus gives Peter three chances to reaffirm his love for his Lord; one for each denial. And recommissions Peter three times to care for those whom Christ loves:
“Do you love me? Feed my lambs.”
“Do you love me? Tend my sheep.”
“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
The Risen Lord appeared to remind Peter that he was forgiven; and to reaffirm their mutual love and devotion to each other.
But, Jesus reappeared not just for the sake of Peter and those first disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; he did so also for the sake of his disciples right here at First Presbyterian Church.
And so we are here this morning, in the presence of the same Risen Lord, to also be restored, reaffirmed, and recommissioned.
The first Sunday of every month, we here at First Presbyterian Church – as do Christians around the world – gather to commemorate the Last Supper: that night Jesus was betrayed, which then began a cascade of travesty and tragedy ultimately leading to Jesus’ death.
But maybe today we should reframe this meal to view it also as the First Breakfast. Because it reminds us that the Last Supper was not the final act of this drama, nor the last time Jesus would sup with his disciples. Indeed, he still does so each time his beloved children come together like this around the Table to break bread.
Meta tauta. After pomp and circumstance has faded to black. After yet another act of violence has brutalized. After all these things have come to pass—the Risen Lord will yet appear to embrace and restore and strengthen and send forth once more in mercy and compassion.
“We just came from Passover at the Sedar table,” said Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of the Chabad Synagogue; “we sang a song . . . that God has protected us, that in every generation they rise up against us. But God will protect us.”
Since Easter morning people of faith – people of all faiths – have been joining hearts and hands to lift up victims of violence—in Sri Lanka; in Poway, California; in Charlotte, North Carolina; in West Chester Township, Ohio—in all those places where hatred seems to have the upper hand.
But it only seems that way. For meta tauta . . .
After the final scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the actor who plays the Stage Manager comes out onto the stage to deliver his epilogue:
(Looking up) “There are the stars—doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings out there. Just chalk . . . or fire. Only this one is straining away, staining away all the time to make something of itself. Strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.”
“Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness.”
Come, you people of the resurrection, and take your rest.
Come now, and join me at Table. Come,
let us have breakfast with our Risen Lord.
[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown, The First Breakfast, Bread of Angels: Feeding on the Word, Canterbury Press, 2015.
[ii] Jones, Gary D., Pastoral Perspective on John 21:1-19, Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 2.
[i] Curtiss, Victoria G. (recounted) “Taking Nothing for Granted,” April 10, 2016.