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Where’s Waldo?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson bullock

at Sat. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 1 May 20-22 [Easter 3]:

Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19


In the pre-pandemic era (but not so much lately), there was a much-publicized cartoon character by the name of “Waldo”. He seemed to be everywhere but, nonetheless, was still hard to find. Presented in what was always a colorful drawing or print, the viewer confronted a scene that was chock-full of faces, all scrunched together as in a facial recognition jig-saw puzzle; and (of course) the scene’s probing question was always: “Where’s Waldo?” Those of us who took the question’s bait were challenged to find “Waldo” amidst the distracting mess of figures and faces. It was always a bit of a trial on one’s patience to succeed in this discovery, but it could be done. And when the search` was done, it also turned out that “Waldo’s” benignly smiling face had always been hiding -- in plain sight.


In their depiction of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, all the Easter gospels strike me as being like a “Where’s Waldo?” experience. In every one of the accounts of Jesus revealing himself as resurrected, his followers have a hard time “recognizing” the Risen Lord, who is (after all) right in their midst. Now in their defense, the Risen Jesus’ reality is quite different. For one disturbing thing, he is not confined by space or time. He moves through locked doors (as in last Sunday’s Thomas appearance); and in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus moves seamlessly and unaccountably from scene to scene, moment to moment. Which is to say that initially, the resurrected Jesus is not recognized – by anyone. Again, this is so because his living Easter reality is different. The limitations of life that we know no longer define his larger life. Yet, while Jesus’ resurrected life is startlingly different, it is also the same. This is the reason in last week’s “Doubting Thomas” episode that Jesus reveals the reality of his familiar crucifixion wounds and in this week’s gospel installment he prepares a regular breakfast on the beach for the disciples. Who is this guy? Moreover, what is this guy? “Where’s Waldo?”


There is an alluring mystery about the Risen Christ, who combines a most emphatic discontinuity/continuity experience with a radically new yet quite familiar life. This is the reason that in my Eastertide preaching and teaching I will continue to focus on how you and I can take resurrection and the Easter life seriously.


In terms of Jesus’ resurrection manifesting new life, God’s life, several questions arise. The most basic is: How do we trust this life? That is, how do we give ourselves to what we see in Jesus risen from the dead? What does it take to grasp this Easter life for ourselves? In this life of schedules and bottom lines, how do we see the buds of eternity in our midst, the signs in this time that speak of what is to come – for us and for all of creation?


In today’s gospel story, John tells us that once again the resurrected Jesus showed himself to his perplexed disciples, this time by the Sea of Galilee. (By the way, John ends today’s account with a great test question, when he says that this beach appearance was the third of Jesus’ post-resurrection showings. What were the first two?). But beyond Jeopardy question material, what is most telling about this scene can in fact be easily overlooked by the drama of Jesus’ appearance.


In a quick piece of background information, before Jesus’ beach appearance, John reports on what seems to be a very ordinary chat between Peter and six of Jesus’ disciples. On their old stomping grounds, these Galilean disciples decide to go fishing and to do so at night when professional fishermen know that the swarms of fish come to feed. But why are they back in the Galilee; and what is the reason they choose to go fishing on the Sea of Tiberius, the Sea of Galilee?


The first question is easy to answer; it also provides a response concerning the first two resurrection appearances. The Risen Jesus told Mary Magdalene on that first morning to tell the male disciples to go to Galilee, where he would meet them. This is the shared account from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. What we have in this morning’s gospel scene from John seems to have the men languishing in a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” setting. I can imagine them following instructions and returning to the Galilee, but perhaps when they got there, they couldn’t find Jesus. Or maybe Jesus didn’t show up when they were expecting him. Perhaps the Galilean disciples got antsy waiting for Jesus (someone who was raised from the dead, mind you!) to show up. Perhaps they lost their nerve in staying with all that happened in the last two weeks (empty tomb; resurrection appearances; new life promises; confusion); and in such flummoxed humanness (and here is the point) they understandably went back to what they knew best. They were fishermen after all, and they not only knew how to do that work well; the familiarity of it all must have offered some solace to their harried minds. So, off they went fishing, returning at least to something they knew about.


Be that as it may, as John relates, they caught nothing. All the old spots where they had previously plied their trade proved fruitless. So as the dawn was breaking on a frustrating night, these fishermen/disciples began to head back to the dock, when they saw a solitary figure standing at the water’s edge, watching them with more than a casual interest. “Good morning!” the man yelled to them through his cupped hands. “Did you catch anything for breakfast?” [1] The terse “No” from the boat could belie some editorial sanitation by St. John. I can imagine what I might have said in their depleted situations; but the point remains: no fish; no breakfast; what was familiar is no longer enough.


What happened next is as strange as it is telling. The beach figure, stepping beyond normal sympathetic bounds and without any evident credentials, explanation, told the fishermen to drop their nets on the starboard side of the boat, where they would catch what they were looking for. The stranger’s advice was spot on, and the resulting catch almost tore the nets apart. The six disciples strained to get ashore, but Peter (working in his skivvies) heard the Beloved Disciple identify the beach comber as the Risen One. Typical of his impulsive nature, Peter got dressed and then jumped fully clothed into the water to swim to meet Jesus on the shore. “Where’s Waldo?” Found Him! Moreover, he has already cooked breakfast on the beach for us!


The shared meal was familiar enough, just like the old days – especially that last meal in the Upper Room. But how did all this beach meal happen? Where did the Risen One get the food? – a question they had all asked before at two other surprise feedings hosted by Jesus. Is it all part of the reality of resurrection life? Now what?!


In last Wednesday night’s zoom meeting, where a dozen members of St. Philip’s continue to gather (beyond the original Lenten timetable) to discuss the book, Simply Christian [2], we had a lively discussion about resurrection and the questions of what it takes to believe Easter (that is, to take it to heart) and what we need to do to be clothed in this new life now. We boiled our rich and diverse reflections down to two items. In terms of what it takes to believe in Easter (to give one’s heart to what the risen Jesus reveals), it became startlingly clear that, as with all relationships, trusting resurrection as reality’s reality requires just that: Trust. Easter, to be real and consequential for us, requires that bald leap of faith. Either resurrection is true; or it is not: the proverbial “road less taken”. No in-between. There is no proof to Easter, just as there is no proof to love. No proof; just invitation; just opportunity to discover not only something that is larger than our own concoctions or even imaginations but also to risk – trust always entails risk – to risk participating in a relationship that is stronger than death.


In terms of what it takes to be clothed in resurrection’s reality, again it’s a lot like dealing with the game of “Where’s Waldo?” If you don’t know what you are looking for or if you’re unwilling to look, you won’t see it. “Where’s Waldo?” Where’s resurrection?


As with Waldo’s face in the vast, blended crowd, Easter life -- God’s life -- is in front of us, hiding in plain sight. That’s the constant experience of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He is there, in his new, startling body, his new, startling God-life, hiding in plain sight for us to recognize and pay attention to.


Resurrection is not about going to heaven when we die. Easter is not about there being life after death. The tomb is empty because fear and death cannot hold what God gives – plain and simple. And this God-life has been given and continues to be given by God-in-Christ to us all -- now.


“Where’s Waldo?” More to the point: Where’s Resurrection? Are you looking for it? Are we prepared to recognize this new Easter life and live it now? Undoubtedly, we need help in seeing this new and eternal reality in our midst. Perhaps that is what it truly means to be the church. We help one another to see and to live what God sees. Amen.



[1] The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. John 21:5

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.


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