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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Going Fishing

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)  •  Psalm 30  •  Revelation 5:11-14  •  John 21:1-19

 

The long gospel reading begins with Peter's announcement: I'm going fishing. All six of the other disciples gathered that night decided to follow him, and out they went. Fishing, after all, was what they were doing when Jesus first called them, back in the day. Now Jesus was gone, but they still knew how to fish. All night long they labored, catching nothing, presumably becoming increasingly despondent and frustrated, when someone on shore asks them if they've caught anything good to eat. With his coaching, they drop their nets in a different spot, catching plenty, and someone recognizes that it's Jesus who is talking to them.

 

Many beautiful moments in life begin with recognition, whether it's picking out a loved one at a crowded airport or finding the open arms of a child who has recognized you. What is more difficult is to recognize what one is supposed to do every day, or with the rest of one's life, as it is more comfortable to keep doing what one already knows how to do. As the story continues, Jesus and Peter take a walk, where conversations on important subjects often seem to happen.

 

Jesus may have selected Peter for this walk after considering his leadership qualities, which boiled down to a simple ability to decide to do something, even if it was only going fishing. Whatever the reasoning, Jesus' method in their conversation seems to be something along the lines of an if-then sequence. If you love me, then feed my sheep. Jesus does not begin with an analysis of Peter's personality traits, nor an assessment of his gifts and talents, as part of the discernment process. Jesus begins by asking Peter to clarify what's important to him, taking time to establish that he – Jesus and what Jesus stood for – matters more than anything else. Once this is established, Jesus gives commands rather than asking more questions, telling Peter to feed and tend to his sheep.

 

In a sense, what he is telling Peter to do is an expansion of the fisherman's role. Once again, the story has returned to food, although this time it is the sustaining bread of life that Peter is to work to provide. With this new vision, Peter and the other disciples can begin to think through next steps for their work. The vision begins with clarifying what is important to oneself, which provides the energy for the work ahead. Recognizing and working from one's principles creates joy in living.

 

This week's reflection:

Psalm 30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

Morning reflection: What are my operating principles? How can I live into my principles in the day ahead? Where might doing what I've always done get in the way?  

Evening reflection: Where was the joy in my day?

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The Second Sunday of Easter: Saving the best for last

Acts 5:27-32  •  Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150  •  Revelation 1:4-8  •  John 20:19-31

 

I guess most of us dislike both too much togetherness and also the feeling of being left out. In today's reading, Thomas had purposefully left the disciples for a short while. Possibly he was somewhere managing some responsibility for the group, finding food or lodging as they continued to hide from the Romans. Possibly he had just grown tired of their being together, hiding in fear and despair, and wanted some time away. For whatever reason, he missed Jesus' first post-resurrection appearance to the disciples. When Thomas returns to the others, he is skeptical of their wild tale of seeing Jesus and having none of it. Possibly he thought that the sense of despair was getting to everyone's ability to think rationally, and that they should each go take a walk. Later, Jesus makes what seems to be an extra appearance specifically designed to include Thomas.

 

In both trips, Jesus brings a message of peace to the group. During times of anxiety, a group's ability to remain at peace is reduced. If people can remember to stay calm, the capacity for a group to manage different ideas – he is risen, for example – is increased. The capacity for individuals to stay calm without having to agree allows everyone more freedom to think clearly. It allows one to welcome the outsider, the one left out, the one with a different view. It allows one to have a different view without having to leave the group to maintain the idea or having to insist that others agree. Peace begins through individuals, families, and other groups who can accept differences while remaining together, who welcome the one who has been left out.

 

This week's reflection:

John 20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Morning reflection: How can I present my own views without insisting that others agree or caving to pressure to agree with others?

Evening reflection: Where in my day did I seek or find peace?

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Slow Dawning

Isaiah 65:17-25  •  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  •  1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43  •  Luke 24:1-12

 

The women in today's reading face a series of unfortunate events. The death of a loved one occurred right before the Sabbath, so that they had spent the day of rest thinking of him and his horrible death, which they had just witnessed. Additionally, the rules of the Sabbath required them to postpone attending to his body an entire 24-hour period: a long time for a decomposing body which would begin to smell soon. Although grieving and sleep-deprived, they were already at the tomb early the following morning with their oils and spices, before the heat of the day.

 

    As soon as they get there, they are confused. The stone in front of the tomb is rolled back. Gathering up their courage – is a robber inside? – they go in. But no one is inside, dead or alive. Jesus' body is not there. While chattering to each other and trying to figure out what is going on, two men in shining clothes appear and (apologies to the angels) mansplain to them what has happened. They return home, telling the disciples about it, and are dismissed outright as foolish women. Peter gets curious, though, and going out to take a look, returns perplexed and wondering about what has happened.

 

    The story reminds me of an inverse optical illusion, where a picture can be seen as one thing, but also as its opposite, if one can train one's eyes to look at it differently. It's hard to do – what the eye is expecting, apparently, is what the eye sees. Only with time and refocusing can one see what is really there.

 

    Easter is an invitation to see life differently, instead of continuing to operate from automatic responses. One may first need to put oneself in the position of being challenged. One might first have to lose something held as important, before finding that it has been found and brought back ten-fold, in a way one had not even imagined.

 

    While Easter is indeed an invitation to see life differently, to refuse to continue to operate out of anxiety and thoughtlessness, it is not an invitation to be glib. There is suffering, pain, and death. Jesus did not avoid it; neither can we. What we can avoid is the temptation to blame life for suffering. Somehow, evolution was the chosen mechanism through which we and all living things are created. Within that understanding, life is a package deal, containing both pain and joy, particularly in exactly those creatures which have evolved with a capacity for self-awareness. Increased self-awareness, when tied to responsibility for self, promotes growth and maturity. As with the women on Easter morning, Easter is about finding a way out of automatic fears and confusion into an increasing recognition of a much larger reality of life.

 

    This week's reflection:

    Psalm 118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

    Morning: How do I see the day ahead? What is a different way of looking at it?

    Evening: When did I keep a larger perspective? When did I lose it?

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How Does Growth Happen?

Isaiah 50:4-9a  •  Psalm 31:9-16  •  Philippians 2:5-11  •  Luke 19:21-46, 22:14-23:56

 

A lot can happen between a Sunday and a Thursday. Palm Sunday, where this week's story begins, is a festive parade-like affair. Everyone (except a few grumbling Pharisees, worried as always about what the Romans would think) is enjoying the day. Jesus is riding a donkey, and the crowds are celebrating while they follow him into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

 

By Thursday, Jesus and his small group of loyal disciples are in hiding to observe the Passover. Gone are the crowds and gone are the accolades. Jesus remains firm, however, in his loyalty both to God and to his disciples. He says that he has been looking forward to sharing this meal with them, ending the meal by telling them to remember him whenever they eat together.

 

All of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one may know the feeling of loss that can come at the holidays, and particularly at a holiday meal. All of us may also know the feeling of gratitude and closeness that one may feel at these times, towards the person who has died, and also towards everyone gathered in the room. In some way, it is almost as though the loved one, or his or her spirit, is somehow captured in the room, and is still part of the group.

 

These two days, the one involving crowds at a parade and the other involving an intimate group of friends gathered for a holiday meal, are two different sides of what happens when human beings get together. The parade is somewhat like spectators at a sporting event, with everyone joining in the fun and chaos of cheering for their team and jeering at the opposing side, without having to be there in any way for each other after the event is over. The groupthink of a parade or a sporting event does little to stir individual growth.  The holiday meal is very different: an intimate setting of people who know each other well and are responsible to one another.

 

In an intimate setting, each person has a chance to know the others and to be known by the others. It is in this setting that Jesus remains calm and clear about who he is, and what he is going to do. For any of us, it is only in relationships that we can come to know ourselves and what we stand for.  The one constant in the story from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday is Jesus, firm in his resolve to be true to himself and his beliefs, come what may.

 

Jesus died for being himself. He died for his loyalty to God, which led him to taking a principled stand on many issues. He would not keep silent when religious leaders put heavy loads on the people, claiming it to be God's rule. He would heal on the Sabbath. He would not condone an armed insurrection against the civil authorities, instead preaching a message of peace on earth. He insisted on love for God and for one's neighbor – a radical idea, then and now.

 

Peter, on the other hand, while declaring his loyalty to Jesus, is unable to act on the idea, denying him three times. It is hard to fault him, with the chance of his own crucifixion possibly on his mind. Under the smallest of pressures to conform to the group, it is easy to lose one's supposed principles. Consistently taking a position within one's family or community can help to deeply and thoroughly embed one's best thinking into one's self.

 

This week's reflection:

 

Luke 22:26-27 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

 

Morning: What are the principles I wish to live out today? How are they different from the world's expectations? From the way the world, or my friends, family, and colleagues, may see things? How can I stay connected to them while operating from my own principles?

 

Evening: How did my principles show up in my life today? What difficulties did I have in staying true to myself?

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