What’s The Story Of Your Easter? – A Sermon On John 21:1-19

Photograph of man with fishing net in boat
Photograph of man with fishing net in boat
Photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash

I want to begin by asking a couple of questions about the Easter story. Here’s my first question. It’s pretty simple. If I asked you tell the Easter story, what would you say? How would you tell it?

Most of us, I suspect, would talk about Jesus and his death and resurrection. We might offer some details about the crucifixion but we’d probably focus on the empty tomb. We might tell about the stone having been rolled away from the tomb, and the announcement, “He is not here, but has risen.” Some might add Jesus’ appearances to the disciples in the house, at the beach, on the road to Emmaus. The story we’d probably tell is at the heart of the Easter acclamation: “Alleluia. Christ is risen.” We know that story well.

Here’s my second question about the Easter story. How would you tell the Easter story without mentioning the name Jesus or talking about what happened to him? What would you say?

I think that second question is at the heart of today’s gospel (John 21:1-19) and that it just might be the more important and relevant question. After all, as I asked on Easter Sunday, “What good is it to us if the stone has been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb but not ours? What good is to us if Jesus is free of his grave clothes but we are not? What good is it to us if Jesus is raised from the dead but we are not?”

That’s why I said then that I did not want us to leave believing the Easter story. I wanted us to leave living the Easter story. So let me ask my second question again but a bit differently. How would you tell the Easter story if you could only talk about yourself and your life? What would you say?

How have you experienced Easter the last couple of weeks? What difference is Easter making in your life today? Is your life today different from what it was before Easter? If so, how? And if not, why not?

We celebrated Easter two weeks ago but are we participating in it? Are we “eastering?” It’s easy to celebrate Easter. The difficulty is participating in Easter. If we’re not participating in Easter then celebrating Easter doesn’t really mean much. It’s just a beautiful church service followed by a nice lunch with family and friends. 

The temptation or risk is that you and I celebrate Easter Sunday and then return to the same old life and do the same old things in the same old way. Isn’t that what Peter and the others do in today’s gospel? 

Peter has seen the empty tomb. He and most of the others have seen Jesus twice. Both times Jesus appeared to them in the house. And both times there were hiding behind locked doors, afraid.

Today Peter says to Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two other disciples, “I am going fishing.” And they say to Peter, “We will go with you.” They’ve gone back to what is known and familiar. They’ve gone back to what they did before. They’ve gone back to their old lives.

That is not a criticism or judgment of them. I don’t think the problem is that they went back to what is known and familiar, to what they did before, or to their old lives. That’s where Easter happens. That’s the very place Jesus, the divine life, shows up for them. And what if that’s true for you and me? What if Easter happens in the same old life we had before?

Easter is not an escape from ourselves or our life. Easter returns us to ourselves and our life but with the possibility of being different and doing life in a new way.

The problem is that Peter and the others went back to the same old life without changing. They are doing today the same old thing in the same old way as they’ve always done, and the nets of their lives are empty. “That night they caught nothing” (John 21:3).

You know what that’s like, right? I do. I know the craziness and futility of doing the same old thing in the same old way and expecting something to change but it never does. That’s what’s going on when we’re stuck, when patterns of thinking and behavior become ruts of conformity to another time or person, when the questions we are asking are too small for our life and the choices we are making diminish our life. 

What if participation in Easter means going back to our same old life and doing the same old things but in new ways. “Cast the net to the right side of the boat,” Jesus tells Peter and the others (John 21:6). It’s as if Jesus is telling them to keep doing what they are doing but do it differently. 

What would it mean for you to cast the nets of your life to the right side of the boat? Keep fishing but do it differently. Keep living your life but live it differently.

What would that look like in your marriage, relationships, parenting? How would that change your priorities and concerns? In what ways would that let you be more gentle and compassionate with yourself and others? What new opportunities would it set before you? How might that let you move out of the stuck places in your life? Imagine the ways it could deepen love and relationships. It would allow us to reclaim ourselves and the life we most deeply desire. It would free another to do the same. It would open the door to depth, meaning, and purpose. And the nets of our lives would be full (John 21:6).

But here’s the thing. Easter life will not happen for you or me without an effort on our part. Peter and the others have to move the net to the other side of the boat. Even if the stone gets rolled away from our tomb you and I have still got to make the effort to stand up and walk out. I recently came across a saying from the desert tradition that makes the point. 

Abba Helladius said, “I must make a little effort because of Easter. Therefore, since I eat sitting down all the other days, now that it is Easter, I will make this effort, and eat standing up.”

Translated by Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, “Helladius 2,” 62.

That doesn’t sound like much. And neither does moving the net from the left side of the boat to the right side. Maybe the Easter effort doesn’t have to be extraordinary, spectacular, out of this world amazing. Maybe the “eastering life” is a series of little efforts. Maybe it’s looking at a situation, a relationship, a need and asking ourselves what is being asked of me in this moment. 

What is the “little effort” you are making today “because of Easter?” “Now that it is Easter,” what is the effort you can or need to make? What effort is Easter asking of you today? 

I can’t tell you what that effort is or should be for you. That’s your work. This is your life and resurrection. But I can tell you this. Your answers to those questions are how you begin telling the Easter story without mentioning the name Jesus or talking about what happened to him. It’s how you begin to recognize and tell your Easter story.

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