Disorientation (Third Sunday of Easter)

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In spite of what many people may think by having looked at my Facebook posts during my sabbatical, I actually was doing more than skiing!  I used much of the time (mostly at night when the slopes were closed!) to do a lot of reading.  And I was focusing my reading on books that reflected on the deep and systemic changes that both our society and the church have been going through in the last couple of decades.

I read several helpful and interesting books.  But the final book I read was a book entitled, “Canoeing the Mountains” by Todd Bolsinger.  He’s a Presbyterian minister, who wrote the book because he also realized that the context in which we live today is radically different than even just a few years ago.

He titled the book “Canoeing the Mountains” because his central analogy for our situation was the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 19th century.  If you remember your American history, Lewis and Clark were explorers sent out by Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Purchase, and find a water route through it to the Pacific Ocean.

And so Lewis and Clark gathered up their team, loaded their supplies into canoes, and began paddling up the Missouri River.  They paddled a long way, and everything went fine until they reached the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.  It was then that they realized canoeing wasn’t going to work anymore, because the river had stopped, and they faced an entirely new set of conditions ahead of them.

But facing a new reality is hard.  It’s disorienting, because it’s so unlike what we’ve been through before.  And one of the author’s central observations is that “when we get to moments of deep disorientation, we often try to reorient around old ways of doing things.  We go back to what we know how to do.  We keep canoeing even though there is no river.”

It’s just natural to want to return to what we know how to do.  And it struck me that that’s exactly what the first disciples of Jesus did in today’s Gospel reading.  They, too, had been through weeks of disorientation.  They had experienced the sudden and violent death of their leader.  That would have been disorienting enough.  But then, in the week that followed, Jesus had appeared to them alive again.  What were they to make of that?

But Jesus apparently didn’t just stick around like in the old days.  He appeared, and then he was gone.  And they were still in Jerusalem, far from their homes.  And so they went home to Galilee.  But now what?

Now what?  Well, Peter decides to do what he had always done.  “I’m going fishing”, says Peter.  “Yeah, we know how to do that.  We’ll come with you”, say the rest.  And so the disciples basically return to what they knew before they met Jesus.  They go fishing…

And it’s in the midst of their old ways of doing things that Jesus appears again and meets them.  He calls to them from the shore.  He does something miraculous even in the midst of their disorientation and old ways of doing things.  And he prods them forward to follow him in new ways.

I think this is an important thing to remember when we consider the Resurrection of Jesus.  For most of us, the Resurrection is the predictable end of the Gospel story.  And we’ve so domesticated it, that we assume the disciples began happily running around proclaiming, “Christ is Risen!”

But in fact, even when they believed, they didn’t know what to do with that news.  Even when they knew it would change their lives, they didn’t how.  And even though Jesus being alive was incredibly good news, it was still deeply disorienting, because they didn’t know what the next steps would involve.

And so today’s story is a really important piece of the Resurrection story, because it reminds us that Jesus’ Resurrection changes our lives as well as Jesus’ life.  And it’s also important because it reminds us of how Jesus is working in our lives when we face times of deep disorientation.

And those times of disorientation happen to us all the time.  They can be times of great pain, or even times of great joy and possibility.  They can happen to us personally or communally.  And like the Resurrection or the Rocky Mountains, they make us face a new and different reality moving forward.

And so it’s good to take a look at exactly what Jesus did for his first disciples, so that we can be alert to what Jesus may be doing now in our lives. 

So what did Jesus do in this third time that he appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead? Well, there are many things going on here, but it seems to me that Jesus:

  • Met the disciples where they were – even in the midst of their deep disorientation, and even when they were trying to go back to the way things used to be.  Jesus didn’t berate them for this.  He didn’t ask them why they were fishing, or what they were doing back home in Galilee.  Instead, he called them ashore and the first thing he did was feed them breakfast.  He knew they were confused.  He knew they needed both physical and spiritual nourishment.  And he was with them in the midst of their disorientation…
  • Called them to focus – one of the problems with disorienting times of our lives is that we don’t know which end is up.  That’s the way it was for the first disciples, too.  And Jesus’ call to follow is at least partly a call to focus on the things Jesus had taught them, and the ways that Jesus had called them to live.  In transforming their haul of fish from zero to 153, Jesus was showing them that there was something more he had in store for them and for the world, and he called them to look for, and focus on, those things …
  • Promised them that he was going to be with them in the future – the thing about John’s Gospel is that Jesus just shows up and vanishes without warning.  Jesus doesn’t ascend the way he does in Luke’s Gospel.  And the last scene we have of Jesus is of him on the beach with the disciples saying, “follow me.”  And yet, “follow me” also means that Jesus will be with them as they trek forward into the unknown future.  It won’t always be fun and exciting (as John makes clear with the ominous words about how Peter will die), but Jesus will be with them, even when they can’t see him …

I’m pretty sure that the disciples would have liked Jesus to give them a blueprint of what the future looked like.  They probably would have liked a template to follow in figuring out how to live and act in new ways.  And at least they seem to have wanted a timeline for how long it would take to live into this new reality. 

Those are all the things I’d like to have when I face deep disorientation in my life.  And maybe that’s the way it is for you, too.

Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t give any of those things to his first disciples.  Instead, he showed them that he’d be with them in the midst of the disorientation.  He called them to stay focused on what he had taught and shown them so that they could live boldly into the future. And he promised them that he’d be with them wherever the future took them.

And those are the same things Jesus promises us as well, especially when we face times of deep disorientation personally or communally. Jesus promises us that we’re never alone in our disorientation.  Jesus continually is working to show us his presence in our lives so that we can focus and live boldly into the future.  And Jesus promises us that ultimately the future is in God’s hands, so that we can trust in God’s new life, no matter where the future leads us.