Who’s up for a (socially distanced) BBQ!
Reading: John 21
It won’t surprise you to hear that one of the ways that I’m filling the many free evenings that we’ve recently acquired is through the viewing a number of films. Last week I re-watched one of my favourites – Cinema Paradiso. It is a beautiful tale about a young boy called Salvatore who is obsessed with his local cinema and its projectionist, Alfredo. We follow Salvatore through childhood and adolescence into late adulthood as his worldview widens and passion for cinema deepens. The Italian drama won a slew of awards between 1989 and 1991, is consistently voted one of the best 100 movies of all time…and all this after it first flopped at the domestic box office. You see, there are two versions of the film with very different endings. In the award-winning edit, the shorter film has a third act which is soaked with nostalgia and pathos, focusing upon the death of a main character and closure of the cinema so when combined with Ennio Morricone’s stunning score, it can make the most hardened individual blub. The other edit is longer, baggier and gets muddied by an unnecessary resurgence of a romantic side-track. I mean, come on, which is more heart-breaking – the end of some old relationship or the tearing down of a cinema?! You can see why I prefer the shorter edit!
Well, similar criticism has been levied against chapter twenty-one of the gospel according to John. Chapter twenty of John’s gospel is a rollercoaster of emotions and seems to provide a more natural ending to the life of Jesus as Peter and the beloved disciple rush to the empty tomb where Mary later encounters the risen Jesus, who then appears in the locked room when the Holy Spirit makes an appearance before Thomas doubts and believes and we finally reach the crescendo of the gospel with those two stirring final verses;
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Jesus has risen. The Spirit has come. The disciples believe and the reader is directly encouraged to follow in their footsteps, receiving life in Jesus’ name. What a good place for the story to stop; for the curtain to come down and the adventure to begin. Only it doesn’t. Instead we get a longer, baggier ending offered to us. Suddenly the disciples are out fishing again, Jesus cooks breakfast, Peter gets quizzed, there’s some confusing stuff about the beloved disciple and another acknowledgement that there’s more to say about Jesus. Over the years many Biblical commentators have questioned this longer ending and have debated its origin with many scholars suggesting that it was a later addition. In other words, if the original gospel was the award-winning version, the edit that includes chapter twenty-one is the domestic flop!
Perhaps, of course, you couldn’t care less when or who wrote the longer ending. Perhaps you even think the final chapter contains some gems without which the gospel would be the poorer. Perhaps you’re a fan of the beach BBQ or night time fishing; perhaps you are moved by Peter’s encounter with Jesus or can currently identify with the latter’s warning about the social restrictions of old age!
Well, in either case, whoever wrote the final chapter of John’s gospel and for whatever reason, it’s there in our Biblical canon and so, when illuminated by the Spirit and grappled by us, the light of God’s love might shine through it. And I wonder where the light shines brightest for you? Was your interest piqued by the miraculous catch of fish and the intriguing detail of the numbers caught (there’s a plethora of fascinating theories about this if you are!). Was your imagination shaken and stirred by Jesus’ conversation with Peter and it’s mirroring of his denial of Jesus on the day of crucifixion? Were you perhaps looking out for those Genesis allusions we’ve talked about…possibly spotting one in the naked-then-clothed man who rushes towards the God-man in this passage, in comparison to the naked-then-clothed man who walks away from God in the creation account? If, like Ray, you’re excited by the many mysteries and puzzles of scripture, then this passage is perfect for you!
However, given that I’m writing this during Christian Aid Week, in which we’ve already raised hundreds of pounds through our Covid Coping Cook Book, I thought that today I’d focus on food!
Though different in style to his fellow writers, John’s gospel shares the general understanding that Jesus gave much of teaching around the dinner table. Just remember, according to John, Jesus’ first miracle is a party-pleasing water into wine surprise and his last one, here, turns a failed fishing trip into a bountiful beach BBQ and in between these two significant meals, we witness the miraculous feeding of thousands; get taken to public feasts and private dinners; and hear Jesus refer to himself as the bread of life and true vine. Truly, Jesus was a foodie…and the final chapter of John, whoever wrote it, says no different. So, what’s the order of dining we encounter here –
- Jesus turns up when unexpected.
- Jesus invites his friends for dinner.
- Jesus then tells them to feed others.
For me, the order of dining we see in the John’s final chapter is the whole gospel in summary. Let’s take those three points one by one.
First, then, Jesus turns up when unexpected. After the momentous events of chapter twenty – empty tomb, garden encounter, locked room appearance – the opening of chapter twenty-one feels a little tame. Back in Galilee the disciples don’t seem to know what to do next so they return to their old ways and go fishing. When, early in the morning, they’re losing hope at catching anything, a stranger turns up on the shore, engages them in conversation and enables them to haul in a net-full. The reader knows this man is the risen Jesus and the disciples get there eventually too. So, a stranger appears, a blessing is shared and God is revealed. This is the pattern we see in our scriptures time and time again. Right back at the poetic beginning, we read how our ancestors left the garden they shared with God because of a game and hide and seek that went wrong. But God could even redeem that spoiled game and so began God’s eternal game of hide and seek with us…and I’m not one to criticize, but God is much better at seeking than hiding!
First, there’s the game at Mamre where God tries to sneak past Abraham and Sarah disguised as three strangers, but then God just can’t resist giving a blessing and revealing who it really is. Then God tries a different tactic with Abraham’s grandson, hiding as a gruff wrestler to Jacob…but again God gives a blessing and ruins the disguise! So, God tries to hide within dreams, behind people, even in the wind…but we still glimpse God so he really goes for it –
How about I hide as some…what…baby born in poverty? To a teenage girl. In suspicious circumstances! Yeah, they’ll never expect that. And to add extra camouflage, I’ll grow up to be a refugee, a curious kid, a small town carpenter, a rabble-rouser, a friend to drunkards, a table-turner, criminal, a crucified failure…and then…just when they think they’ve lost the game forever, I’ll tiptoe back in as a gardener, an unknown traveller, a stranger on the shore and give them another chance to find me. I’ll veil my glory in carers and nurses, in the poor and starving, in children and the dying and see if they catch sight of me there. I’ll be with them all the time, until the end of the age, hiding and seeking, calling and finding, appearing and disappearing, in the most unexpected of people and places until eventually I’ll have to give myself up and let them see me face to face!
This is our God. Playful, loving, often hiding, always seeking, turning up as strangers, just daring us to welcome God in. Which the disciples do. They engage in conversation, they fish, they swim, and they get invited to breakfast. It’s no real surprise that they’re convinced that it’s Jesus once food is involved, is it? They’ve come to know who Jesus is and what the kingdom of God is all about. First, you are invited, then you invite. First God serves you, then you serve. First, God loves you, forgives you, enjoys you, then you might love, forgive, enjoy others. This is how it’s always been. Just think for a second, what was the first thing God had to do in the very beginning, when creating the cosmos? God had to make space for the creation. It’s a tricky theological idea and not without it’s controversy but I kind of like it and it comes with a terrific term so what’s not to like? The word is Zimzum. Say it with me…ZIM-ZUM. Isn’t that a great word? It’s from the Hebrew for contraction or constriction and is a term some theologians have used for centuries to describe the idea that God willingly gave up space for the other; that God made room for us to move in! It’s not so very different from the idea of kenosis – as found in Philippians chapter 2…as well as on my wrist – the idea that God emptied Godself, shedding power and might and taking on vulnerability and humility in becoming part of creation…in incarnating as Jesus. Am I losing you? I feel like I might be so let’s just say this…God does the inviting. God makes space for us. God doesn’t compel us to sit and eat; doesn’t force hit us on the head with manipulation or guilt or force but instead gets the fire going, lays out the food before us and say, ‘if you’re hungry, come and eat – come sit with me, be with me, eat with me – then you’ll be nourished. And when you are, I’ll invite you to go out and do the same’.
Which leads us to the third and final part of Jesus’ foodie formula. Turn up unexpected, invite others to dine, then encourage them to go and feed others. The restoration of Peter, as it’s often called, at the end of the chapter involves forgiveness, transformation, grace, hope, warning, faith and food…and those of us lucky enough to have visited the beach where this is said to have happened, will attest to its inherent peace and ‘thin’ quality. Jesus’ call for Peter to ‘feed his sheep’ is, of course, a metaphor for his leadership in the emerging church and yet, given Jesus’ focus on food, it can also be understood as a literal encouragement. Feed the hungry. Invite the lonely for dinner. Make space for the stranger. Literal space around the table, of course, but metaphorical space too. Don’t force, don’t arm-twist, don’t try to manipulate others to fulfil your needs but make space for them to come, eat, be. Meet them, feed them, love them as they are – not as you want them to be but as they are. Perhaps transformation will follow. Perhaps not. That is not our concern. Ours is to listen to that final instruction of Jesus in John’s gospel – verse 19 – ‘follow me’. Follow me in turning up in unexpected places. Follow me in inviting others to dinner. Follow me in inviting the served to serve. Follow me.
This week, as you served me with cakes, trifles, and party bags; a 5 course Birthday meal and many giftbags that clang; as St David’s donated meat to Mill Street and chocolates to care homes; as Castle Square, St David’s and friends near and far have raised hundreds of pounds through a kingdom cookbook, we’ve joined in with Jesus’ joyful jamboree. Even in lockdown, may that continue – in the world-shaking, cake-baking, boundary-breaking knowledge that we serve because first we have been served; we welcome because we have first been welcomed; we love because first, and forever, we are loved. Thanks be to God.
Above – ‘The Restoration of Peter’ sculpture.
Left- The Mensa Christi (‘Table of Christ’) Church.
Below – Phil, Lynda and some distant fishermen.
All these were taken on the beach where the risen Jesus said to have cooked breakfast for the disciples.
 ‘Thin place’ is a term probably first coined by Celtic Christians which refers to a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world seems thin.