Recognizing Jesus: breakfast on the beach and Saul’s conversion

Scripture: Acts 9: 1-20 and John 21: 1-14

Encounters with the resurrected Jesus

Today’s Scriptures about recognizing Jesus link Saul’s dramatic conversion experience and the disciples’ meal of bread and fish with Jesus on the beach. I note that the conversion of Saul took place after Pentecost, much later than the Gospel story.  Both events involve encounters with a post-resurrection Jesus who seems to be a stranger.

They fished all night but caught nothing

In the Gospel reading, the disciples must have thought that their lives as disciples had ended without the physical Jesus to lead them. So they went back to fishing.. The story looks like a variation of the one we read back in February. In that account, these same fishermen were Jesus’s first recruits.  In both stories, the fishermen had fished all night without success.  Both stories also involve recognizing Jesus: someone unexpected to the fishermen.

He told the fishermen to put down their nets again.  Lo and behold, they caught a miraculous yield of fish.  In Luke’s version, the experience caused the fishermen to leave their trade.  They became the stranger’s disciples. Today’s story is about recognizing Jesus in a different context.

These Gospel stories are very similar, even though different authors wrote them. It reminded me of the old hymn, “Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear.” My guess is that the various early Christian communities received slightly different forms of the “stories they loved to hear” from the oral story-telling tradition.

The “barbecue on the beach”

The enormous catch of fish led the disciples to recognize the stranger. Jesus cemented their realization when they all sat down to eat breakfast.  He broke bread and shared it with them.  Then he did the same thing with the fish. This was a Eucharistic experience. However, it reflects the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand, rather than our familiar bread-and-wine Eucharists. The catacombs under the city of Rome recollect this passage of Scripture with wall drawings that depict bread-and-fish Eucharists.

Like the Last Supper, the breakfast on the beach was a real meal. Jesus did not break off tiny fragments of bread and fish to share. In the early days, bread-and-wine Eucharists were also sit-down, full meals. Everyone brought food and drink, rather like church pot-lucks. In fact, St. Paul criticized some of his converts in Corinth because they drank so much that they got drunk at the Eucharist [1 Corinthians 11: 17-22].

John’s account has some really curious details. Why was Simon Peter naked?  Why did he need to dress before he jumped into the sea? What about those 153 fish? In his book The Gospel and Letters of John, R.A. Culpepper describes several theories for their significance, but none seem very convincing. Especially curious is verse 12.  “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.” Yet the Beloved Disciple had already told them who it was when he saw the miraculous catch of fish.

Saul’s conversion: recognizing Jesus on the road to Damascus

Saul never met Jesus in person. Jesus appeared to him in a vision as he travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus. Saul was a fervent Pharisee. He intended to round up and arrest anyone who “belonged to the Way”.  This was the name for followers of Jesus before the term Christian came into use.

In his awesome encounter, Saul heard a voice. “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul asked who had spoken. The voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” Saul was struck blind. God commanded Ananias, a disciple, to look after Saul. Ananias was very leery of the idea of hosting this known persecutor of Christians. Ananias told Saul that he would regain his sight and receive the Holy Spirit. That convinced Saul to become a disciple. He became just as enthusiastic for Jesus as he was previously against him.

As last week, blindness is a kind of metaphor for not recognizing Jesus. A person receives or regains sight when they acknowledge Jesus or become his follower. This pattern occurs in the healing miracles where Jesus restores sight to blind people. Usually, a physical healing combines with a spiritual revelation.

Communion and Community are essentially the same word

To return to the Gospel story, every time we eat together as a community is a sort of Communion.  That includes the refreshments that we enjoy before and after our Sunday worship. Eating and drinking together is just as Eucharistic as what we do at the holy table.

Eating together is not a trivial matter – or shouldn’t be. Many modern families have so many different activities that they have few opportunities to eat supper together. Or we see people who eat together physically, but not emotionally because they spend their mealtimes looking at tablets or cell phones. Sitting down to eat together is in a sense Eucharistic, whether or not you are Christian, and whether or not you see it that way. It emphasizes the community of the group.

We mark major events in life by eating together

Think of all the examples – Christmas and Thanksgiving family dinners, birthday parties, wedding receptions, even funeral lunches. Christian or not, we are in community when we eat together. But for us as Christians, who follow Jesus’ direction, “Do this to remember me,” these rituals have extra significance.

The introduction to Morning Prayer in the old Prayer Book (page 4) asks God to “provide those things that are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.” When I first came to St George’s, I immediately noticed two related things.  The first was hospitality offered in the narthex.  The second was the friendliness of the community.  It seemed to be enjoyment of being together and not just a show. This is a genuine treasure, something that we should hold onto tightly. I doubt that it will ever make us into a mega church.  Perhaps we shouldn’t aspire to be one. I have spent almost all my church life in small churches. I value greatly the sense of community that one finds there.

Requisite and necessary

So let’s take a final look at the little community of fisher-friends that gathered together on the beach. Jesus has a charcoal fire going. There is bread and plenty of fish, including the ones that Simon Peter and company just caught. The bread and the broiled fish are on platters. Jesus offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the blessings of those things that are requisite and necessary for the body. Then he breaks the bread, probably slices up the fish, and shares the bread and the fish with everyone.

Through sharing and eating, the disciples, and we, also receive those things that are requisite and necessary for both the body and the soul.  We experience this sort of contentment whenever the whole family is gathered together for an event such as Christmas dinner. It is similar whenever the parish family breaks bread together.  This is true not only at Communion, but also at parish brunches, Bryden’s evenings, or pot-luck suppers.