The accounts of the Resurrection all turn on the idea of how we come to know and show us that process of a dawning awareness in which we come to see things in a completely new way that illuminates the past and sets us in motion.
Here Christ appears to the disciples on the beach while they are fishing. It begins with the disciples not recognising Jesus, among them Peter, who it seems has returned to his former labor as a fisherman. But they had “caught nothing” until Jesus bids them cast their net on the other side of the boat wherein they enclose a great number of fishes, indeed, one hundred and fifty-three without the net breaking! Only then does Jesus say, “come and have breakfast!”
Why 153 and why the unbroken net? Simply another fish story? Exaggerating the size and number of the fish caught? Mathematicians might note that 153 is the triangular number of seventeen but its symbolic meaning is open to interpretation. The Early Church Fathers in various imaginative ways see the number and the broken net as symbolizing the totality of salvation, namely, all who are enclosed in the unbroken net of the Gospel. This leads to a barbecue breakfast on the beach with Jesus. Not so much the last supper as the first breakfast! A strong affirmation of the bodily reality of our spiritual lives, we might say. And another image of our being gathered to God out of our confusions and disappointments. But fish? Well, in the later Christian imaginary, Christians identified themselves by the sign of the fish. Fish in Greek forms an acrostic: ICTHUS (ιχθυς), meaning “Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour,” a prayer and an expression of faith.
All of this suggests how the accounts of the Resurrection bring out a feature common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as other religions and philosophies, a feature which we forget at our peril. It is about a sacramental understanding.
A sacramental understanding has very much to do with the relation between Word and Sacrament and with the way in which the things of the world belong and contribute to our life of faith and to the forms of our participation in the life of God in Christ. In the Christian sense, the sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. They are a critical feature of all religions. Something invisible and spiritual is made known through what is material and visible. This is the counter to our gnostic and technological flights from the world and the body as if it were evil.
For Judaism the world reveals the glory of the Lord. A sacramental understanding necessarily connects us to creation as good. To speak of creation is to speak about a relation to a Creator who by definition is not created. That connection between God and the world and between God and our humanity as created beings is essential to our thinking sacramentally. The things of the world become the vehicles and vessels of our spiritual life. As Paul wonderfully puts it in Romans, “the invisible things of God are made known through the visible things of creation.” The scriptural ground for what will be known as natural law also contributes to a sacramental understanding.
The beginnings of a sacramental understanding are found in the very idea of creation. The world and our humanity within the world are created by and for God. The sacraments right from the outset are a critique of the mistaken idea that in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic view the world is made for us, a view that has led to no end of destruction and abuse of nature and ourselves. To the contrary, we are inescapably part of the created order and exist in a knowing relation to the Creator. The sacraments are about honouring that relation explicitly. To speak of creation is to speak of the world not as a random accident but as an ordered whole, a cosmos, in which we, too, find our place. The sacraments remind us that the world exists for God.
And it changes us, too. The love of God reconstitutes us, recreates us in love. Thus, this scene is followed by Jesus asking Peter three times “do you love me?” and commanding him “to feed my sheep.” Peter, who had betrayed him three times, is reconstituted in love. Death and Resurrection. Such is redemption. It is new life. We are more than what happens to us; we are more than simply what we do. We are recalled to the truth of our being in Christ; to know even as we are known. Like the disciples we are transformed to become more fully ourselves.
In this way, our lives are profoundly sacramental which is to say that in every way our embodied lives in the world are connected to our life in God and to our participation in the divine life. To think sacramentally changes our whole orientation and way of thinking about nature and one another. It counters explicitly our manipulative and destructive relationship to the natural world in which we reduce the world and ourselves to just stuff which we presume to twist and contort to our own ends. To think sacramentally recalls us to God and to the world in God and to our lives in fellowship with one another, even at breakfast! I know, not everyone is a ‘morning person’.
To recover a sacramental understanding of the natural world is our challenge and our necessity. It has very much to do with how we see and think, how we know and how we act. It can take very simple forms like having breakfast with Jesus on the beach. We are opened out to his presence through his engagement with the things of the world. Nature becomes sacramental when we are alive to God as Creator and Redeemer.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy