Have you ever wondered why Easter is a season and not simply a single day? Sometimes it’s lost on us that Easter continues—for 49 more days—after the first Sunday of Easter. In the Christian liturgical calendar, major celebratory events like Christmas and Easter aren’t reduced to a single date on the calendar. Their significance is so impactful that we need many days—a season—to celebrate appropriately. But beyond celebration, I think one reason why Easter lasts 50 days is that it gives us time to reflect on the deep mystery of Jesus’ resurrection.  

What does it mean for us to confess, in the words of the Creed, “on the third day he rose again”? Several years ago when I was at Christ Church Brampton, a young person asked me, “How can Jesus be alive if he died?” That’s the question that Easter compels us to consider. The Gospels tell us that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was found empty. Even some of the most skeptical historians grant that point. But what happened to Jesus? Did his corpse literally come back to life? What is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body?  

These are not questions with easy, straightforward answers. That’s because the resurrection of Jesus is ultimately a mystery. But if we want to probe that mystery, we need to consider the post-resurrection appearances in the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospel writers might not answer all our questions, but they do contain clues about how we can understand the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  

Today we’re given a fascinating story from John’s Gospel. It’s the fourth post-resurrection appearance that John records. In the three previous appearances, Jesus is not recognized when he’s first seen. He appears as a stranger. Only when he speaks and acts directly is his identity known. He also seems to appear abruptly and suddenly, and to disappear in the same manner. But his appearances are tangible; he can be touched. And he doesn’t show up randomly. He appears in times of pathos and struggle. He comes to Mary Magdalene while she grieves by the empty tomb; he comes to the disciples when they fear their own execution might be imminent; and he addresses Thomas to alleviate his confusion and doubt.  

While these first three post-resurrection appearances happen in or around Jerusalem, the fourth, which we encounter today, takes place in the north at the Sea of Galilee. The disciples have managed to escape from Jerusalem; they’ve headed back home to get on with their lives. At night they head out fishing but catch nothing. Meeting them in the morning at the shore is a stranger who suggests that they cast their net on the right side of the boat—and they end up with a haul of exactly 153 large fish. At this point they recognize that the stranger is Jesus. He invites them to a breakfast that he’s prepared right there on the beach.  

One lesson of the story—and the same can be said for the other three post-resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel—is that the risen Jesus is known and recognized by what he does. He displays empathy, concern, hospitality and friendship. Which is why he invites the disciples to a meal. And if you look closely, Jesus doesn’t even bother to inform the disciples who he is. They’ve already recognized him by what he does, not by vivid memories of his physical appearance—those don’t matter much anymore because Jesus now appears differently each time, as a stranger. I think that holds true for us as well. We’re 2,000 years removed from when Jesus wandered throughout Israel, proclaiming and embodying Good News. We have no photographs of him, so we don’t know what he looked like exactly. But the resurrected Jesus hasn’t vanished. He’s as alive in 2022 as in the first century. He comes to us as a stranger, as one we don’t expect, irrespective of gender—doing acts of mercy and justice that awaken us to the reality of resurrection life. And he also speaks to us.  

This is where the story in today’s Gospel takes a bit of a turn. After breakfast Jesus has a heart-to-heart with Peter. You’ll remember that Peter was the one disciple who followed at a distance behind Jesus as he was arrested and led away to stand trial. But when Peter is questioned about his association with Jesus, he denies he has anything to do with him—three times! So now Jesus wants to make certain that Peter is his true friend and committed to the Good News. He doesn’t point the finger at Peter and demand an apology for disloyalty. Rather, Jesus asks a simple question, three times over: Do you love me?  

That same question is posed to each one of us. If we do love Jesus, like Peter insists he does, then Jesus invites us to feed his sheep. What does it mean exactly to love Jesus and feed his sheep? At the very least, it means following the Way of Jesus at all costs and caring for those who matter to him in particular—those on the margins, those who struggle to keep themselves going, those who suffer. When we keep our lives oriented to the margins, not to the status quo or what is comfortable, that is when we open ourselves to the stranger and allow the resurrected Jesus to meet us. Yes, Jesus comes to us in the faces of those we know, who comfort us, support us, defend us, and help us not to fear. But Jesus also surprises us in the faces and bodies of strangers on the margins. And each time, if we listen carefully enough, we hear his voice: “Do you care? Do you love? Follow me. Care for my sheep.”