Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Broiled Fish

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Third Sunday of Easter (April 15, 2018)
Luke 24:36-48 – “Broiled Fish”

While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost.

He said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of [broiled] fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them.

Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Imagine trying to convince someone that you’re alive.

Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor and the managing editor of the Christian Century magazine told this story:

Imagine trying to convince someone that you’re alive… Such was the predicament a few years ago for Charles Hubbard of Austin, Texas. This Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits. A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life. That’s when they would restore his pension benefits.

The risen Christ is in a much worse predicament here in this scene from Luke’s gospel. He’s having to convince his disciples that he has risen indeed. They, rightly so, don’t believe it’s him. How could they? He was not only dead, but brutally, publicly executed. Dead dead. It’s a really strange scene if you think about it. Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you” (there’s that phrase again) and they feel anything but peace. They’re terrified, actually. And they think they’re seeing a ghost. They’re spooked.

I’ve never really thought about what I would do in a situation like this, but what about you? How would you convince people that you’re not a ghost? What would you say? What would you do? Do you give a quiz like those security questions on websites when you’ve forgotten your password, “What was the name of my first dog?” kinds of questions. Do you share memories that only your friends could know about?

What does Jesus do? He eats. Not a bad tactic to prove you’re not a phantasm.

Please forgive me if this seems irreverent, but I can’t help but see the humor in this. Picture what happen next in the story. The way I see it in my head is that Jesus is on one side of the room and the disciples are huddled together, cowering in a corner. And Jesus is trying to assure them, “Hey y’all, it’s really me. See! Touch my scars.” But they’re not buying it, still quaking over there in the corner. So Jesus tries again. “Okay, okay… why don’t we try this? I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” They broil him some fish. They place it in front of him. He takes it. He chews on it with the disciples looking on, still skeptical, waiting to see if he swallows the bites. Jesus scarfs it down because, where else would he have found food? It had been a rough few days.

Maybe they let their guard down because then, Luke tells us, he “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” He helped them understand everything that had happened over that last gruelling, shocking, traumatic week. He helped them understand how everything that happened, that he himself was the fulfillment of all that God had promised before.

The risen Christ comes to them as he was before, all those other times: eating.

I’ve read this story before, but what stands out to me this go-around is the specificity of the menu. Luke doesn’t omit much detail. “Broiled fish.” Why so specific?

For several reasons. Broiled fish is what the disciples ate. That was a staple of their diet. Also, they were Galilean fisherfolk. Fishing was their livelihood. But on a deeper level—and this is my hunch here—the broiled fish kindled their memories of all the other eating and fishing stories. It sparked memories of the time spent with him on a boat, or on the shoreline, or mending nets. It reminded them of the time Peter almost drowned and of all those times Jesus made some metaphor out of fishing. It reminded them of those crowds—oh the crowds!—the people that were seeking Jesus out for teaching or healing or feeding.  Oh,the feeding…

There was that one time (remember?) when he was teaching about the Reign of God and they wanted him to send the hungry masses away but he just wouldn’t.

And he said, “You give them something to eat.” They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” The disciples did so, and everyone sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. (Luke 9:10-17)

And so, as they’re watching him eat this broiled fish, it’s all coming back to them. “It’s still me,” Jesus effectively says, “It’s still me, the one who taught and fed and healed. It’s still me, the one who hosted all those other parties—those raucous, festive tables where everybody gathered around. Those tables where everyone had a place, where no one was excluded. Those tables that use to tick off the Scribes and Pharisees so much, where the guest lists boasted tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes… and even Scribes and Pharisees.”

Jean Leclerc offers a thought-provoking summary of the gospel, “Jesus ate good food with bad people.”

Have you ever been flooded with memories by eating a particular food? Has some dish made you think of grandma’s thanksgiving table or your spouse’s favorite dessert? One of my favorite traditions here at St. Mark’s is our Dia de los Muertos celebration, when after sharing memories and praying together in the columbarium, we go over to Geneva and eat our deceased loved ones favorite foods. Sometimes it’s like they’re still there with us, still enjoying that food.

That’s one idea Luke is trying to convey to the reader: it is in the ordinary stuff of daily living where Jesus shows up, especially when people share a meal together. Jesus left the disciples with a charge: “You’re witnesses to these things.” Witnesses pay attention. So if we’re paying attention, the presence of the risen Christ will still show up around our tables, too:

  • When bread is broken and people who are estranged reconnect and begin the process of repairing their relationship;
  • When enemies realize one another’s common humanity through dining together;
  • When a parent learns how to feed her or his child for the first time and it seems as if there is nothing more beautiful and sacred in all the world than this exact moment;
  • When the same child, decades later, helps the parent swallow food in a hospital bed;
    When strangers become friends in the Knox Room at 4th Wednesday Supper and the haves and the have-nots are simply being people together;
  • When the very-full offer what they have to those with empty stomachs, whether at a cafeteria, or on the street, or for advocating for the just distribution of resources, the wounded-yet-risen Christ is powerfully, palpably present, doing what God has always done in him: providing, reconciling, healing, nourishing, and sustaining.

It’s hard for us to let the significance of Jesus eating broiled fish sink in. In our culture and in this time we’ve lost the importance of sharing table. We who are in a hurry and live at a distance from our food sources inhale fast-food in the privacy of our cars. We who are overworked seldom have time to gather around the dinner table with our friends or families. We who live in an increasingly isolated society seldom are in a position to eat with those who think, believe, or live differently than we do.

Maybe as disciples of the risen one, we are called to be more intentional about where, with whom, and how we eat. Two colleagues of mine, a married couple, served as co-pastors of a church in a small Montana town before moving back to the Phoenix area. The church was the oldest in town. 90% of the congregation had lived there all their lives. But one month these pastors decided to try an experiment with their Session. “We’ll give you $20,” they said, “To take someone in the surrounding community out for a meal.” So they did. Not with an agenda. Not for the purposes of inviting them to church. Just to listen and learn.

The next month, they reported back. An 80-something year old elder said, “I’ve been in this church since I was a baby. But I had no idea…” and he began to describe the challenges that a young person he had dined with had getting childcare. Another elder said, “I’ve lived in this town for decades. I never knew the ‘So-and-So’s’ down the street. And it went on and on. There’s something about church that makes people want to eat (Have you ever noticed how there’s food all around here?). But what happens when The Table moves outside the building?

As Leonard Sweet put it:

“If we were to make the table the most sacred object of furniture in every home, in every church, in every community, our faith would quickly regain its power, and our world would quickly become a better place. The table is the place where identity is born—the place where the story of our lives is retold, re-minded, and relived.” [2]

It’s at the table where the Risen One meets us again.

[1] Leonard Sweet, From Tablet to Table: Where Community is Found and Identity is Formed (2015), p. 5.

[2] From Tablet to Table, p.2-3.

Featured image: “Christ Appears to the Disciples at the Table after the Resurrection,” Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.