Gathered at the Table.
Family Festival Communion Service for Easter Sunday, led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Luke 24, verses 1-9; 36-43
Eating Together: The Table Restored
What happened to the fish?
During the course of my theology degree, I remember one very passionate lecturer, discussing the resurrection of Jesus. How could this possibly have happened? OK. Most people ask that question and with good reason. It is a question we must be prepared to respond to.
But I am ashamed to say that the one question which has remained in my mind through the years was the one he asked, “what happened to the fish?”
Jesus, our reading said, after his resurrection, sat down at table with his disciples and ate a piece of cooked fish. “So,” said our lecturer, “Jesus apparently had a resurrected body which could somehow pass through locked doors. This body was not like our physical bodies. But Jesus ate a piece of fish and the fish had presumably not been resurrected. It had been killed, cooked and eaten. So, when Jesus’ resurrected body passed through the locked door again on his way out, what happened to that fish?”
I had this sudden vision of the risen Christ passing through the locked door, leaving a small heap of semi-digested fish behind him on the doormat……. This gave me a fit of the giggles for the rest of the lecture.
That lecturer went on to have a long and illustrious academic career, which he richly deserved. Sadly, I never quite succeeded in getting rid of my frivolous streak……
It is not that I have no time for scientific arguments. They are vitally important to our wellbeing and understanding of life. Nor is it that I take what is called a “fundamentalist” view of the Bible- every single word is historically and scientifically true. (A lot of it does not even pretend to be history or science). It is just that, reading that story again in the light of the Holy Habit of Eating Together, I have found what, to me, is a far more important and life changing message than asking, “what happened to the fish?”
Eating Together, in the time of Jesus, was a most Holy Habit. It was not just about food but about solemn bonds of friendship. If you invited someone to share your food, it showed that you trusted them and that you were asking them to become your friend and comrade. And if you accepted that invitation to share food, then you were offering your love and loyalty to your host. To turn against someone with whom you had shared food was an unforgiveable sin, a breach of sacred trust.
On Maundy Thursday we shared supper together and repeated the story of Jesus sharing his Last Supper with his closest friends. In bread and in wine they pledged allegiance to each other. A few hours later, Jesus was arrested, having been betrayed by his friend Judas, abandoned by the rest and before dawn Peter, who had protested his loyalty the loudest had denied three times in public that he had ever known Jesus.
The table is empty. The fellowship is broken. The community is scattered. It is the End.
Except that it is not, is it? Jesus returns. And more than once, we are told, he sits down and shares food with his disciples. This story is not about fish but about reconciliation. And I believe it is more important to think about reconciliation than to worry about the fish.
Arianna Stassinopoulos wrote of her year as President of the Cambridge Student Union (a very powerful body) and of the various mistakes she made, one of which was to host a dinner to which both Israelis and Arabs were invited. The Arabs, she reported, refused to sit at the table with the Israelis and sat in the billiard room eating Mars bars instead.
That again made me giggle when I read it, but it is not funny is it? It borders on obscene. That particular quarrel has been going on for thousands of years. Sometimes it has been more vicious than others, but the deep-rooted suspicion and prejudice have always been there, fuelled both by politics and religions. Thousands, if not millions of innocent lives have been lost; generations of children have grown up being taught to hate the other side; money, resources, homes, civilisations, human blood have been poured out as one side tries to gain the upper hand over the other. And without reconciliation, this will continue for thousands more years, for each side has suffered so much pain at the hands of the other.
But reconciliation demands sacrifice. There is a certain justice in the old laws of “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” “You have blacked my eye, so I have the right to black yours. That is fair. You have killed my child, so I have the right to kill yours. That is justice.”
Reconciliation requires that one side relinquishes their “right” to revenge. They sacrifice their vengeance in the cause of reconciliation. And the greater the wrong that has been done to you, the greater the sacrifice in relinquishing your revenge.
We have come to understand, have we not, that revenge does not actually ease very much of our pain. It may give us a grim sense of satisfaction to pay someone back for the wrong they have done us, but it does not do us -the person we are- any good in the long run.
And when the other side promptly retaliates again, the tit for tat reprisals can continue indefinitely. They will be passed down from one generation to another. They will end up involving whole communities. Revenge does not stop the pain, and nor does it put an end to the evil. We know this. But it still takes a huge personal sacrifice to set aside revenge in the cause of reconciliation; to give up your “right” to hit back where you have been hit for the sake and the hope of achieving the greater good.
Jesus had every right to turn his back on his friends as they had turned their backs on him.
And, if he were the Son of God, then he had every right to abandon a world which had abandoned him. But he chose not to. He was prepared to sacrifice himself in the cause of reconciling the human race to God. And he was prepared to sacrifice his own disappointment at his friends’ frailty in the cause of reconciliation. He came back to sit down and eat with them, to restore the table fellowship. Communion was more important to Christ than retaliation. He loved his friends more than he loved himself. He loved the world so much that he quite literally poured out his life rather than fight back against the soldiers who had been brutalised by their work; the religious leaders who had become trapped in their fear; and the people who had been brainwashed by crowd mentality. By sitting down and eating again with his friends, he was breaking the vicious cycle of hurt and vengeance. And in doing so he was setting them free to proclaim a Gospel of reconciliation.
This explains why some of the songs we sing refer to Jesus as the “lamb” and why he is depicted in our huge stained-glass window as a lamb. In the Jewish tradition of his time, lambs were regularly sacrificed in the Temple as a sin-offering made by guilty people, hoping that their sacrifice would pacify a vengeful God.
But in Jesus’ sacrifice of himself we learn that the God we worship is a God of reconciliation and not of vengeance. God will pour himself out over and over again in love, in suffering, in renewing grace in the hope that the human race will become reconciled to Him. As Shakespeare famously wrote, the quality of mercy is “an attribute of God himself.”
Jesus returning from death, sitting at table eating with his friends, sends out the powerful and life-giving message that God remains on our side. Unlike the Greek tragedies, in which life and the gods were depicted as being “out to get you;” no matter how happy or successful you thought you were, something terrible was bound to happen because life was like that; the Christian faith is one of hope. Life is not out to get us but out to restore us because we can believe in a God of reconciliation.
Despite the terrible examples of long running and bitter divisions we have seen, we have also seen the difference made by people of hope and reconciliation. We heard inspiring accounts from our own church members who went on pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine last year of communities working for peace and living by a belief in reconciliation. We have heard of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, set up in the hope of reconciling both sides in that long drawn out conflict known as the “troubles.” We read of Corrie ten Boom, imprisoned with her sister in a Concentration Camp for helping Jews escape from occupied Holland and who, despite having had to watch her beloved sister suffer and die in that Camp, came back to her home in Amsterdam and opened it up not only to destitute allied survivors of the war but, in time, to destitute Germans as well because she believed in reconciliation more than in revenge.
When we learn of the pain, the personal pain people like this have suffered, we get some idea of the deep personal sacrifice required of them to put aside their hatred and longing for revenge in order to work for reconciliation. It is not all sweetness and light and “fluffy bunny” religion. It takes blood, sweat and tears in abundance.
But because they believe that Christ has died, Christ is risen and in Christ all may be made alive, they keep on building new communities of hope and even when these new communities fall apart (as they often do) these people just get down there and start rebuilding. Because they believe in a God of reconciliation. And because the world needs a God of reconciliation.
On Sunday evenings through Lent a group of us have been exploring the famous book/ film/musical Les Miserables. It has been a great course but Les Miserables shows a world of terrible injustice, brutality, poverty and degradation. It is set in nineteenth century Paris, where the divide between rich and poor, powerful and powerless has become wide indeed. There are many sad and tragic figures in the story but perhaps the saddest and most tragic of all is Inspector Javert. Javert is not living in poverty and degradation. He has had a very successful career in the Police Force. He is smartly and warmly dressed; he has plenty to eat, a roof over his head and a position of respect. But, despite his encounters with people displaying love, loyalty, heroism, self-sacrifice even under the worst possible conditions, Javert has a rigid moral code, which might be summed up as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He cannot believe in redemption. He has no hope that people who have done wrong can ever come to do right. And as a man without hope for the world he inhabits, he alone of all the characters in the story, ends up taking his own life.
Today we are called to celebrate resurrection; to worship God who makes all things new; God who invites us back time and time again to eat and drink at his table no matter how often we have betrayed him, abandoned him and denied knowing anything about him. As the hymn says, we are “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” We celebrate as people of hope and God calls us to go out into the world as people of hope and reconciliation. We may not be asked to do anything that hits the headlines. But people living ordinary lives with an extraordinary capacity to forgive, even to forgive themselves; to show kindness even when it is not apparently deserved; to take the first and possibly the second and third steps towards reconciliation when they have been hurt; to believe that there is a world worth saving and human race worth loving- these are the children of God, the followers of the risen Christ, seated around his table once again, and opening the table to all who choose to come.
If you are still wondering about the fish, it is worth pointing out that the sign of the fish became the original symbol of Christianity. The symbol of the food which Jesus shared with those who loved him and with those who would, down the centuries come to follow him.
And that, I think, is enough for me.