We all feel you, fish.
When I just need a break from all that is real in the world, I usually go for children’s movies. My favorite among these is probably Finding Nemo.
My favorite scene in the movie actually comes after the credits. I’m going to assume here that the statute of limitations on giving people spoilers is ten years, and since Finding Nemo was released in 2003, I don’t need to worry about any of you postponing your viewing of it for any reason.
In case you are one of the four people in the United States who has not already seenFinding Nemo, a brief synopsis of the story is that a young clownfish by the name of Nemo who lives in the sea off of Australia is captured by a scuba diver and taken to live in a salt water aquarium in a dentist’s office. Nemo’s father, ironically named Marlin, is accompanied on a mission to save his son Nemo by an absent-minded fish named Dory who happens to be voiced by Ellen Degeneres. While Marlin is attempting to rescue Nemo from the aquarium, Nemo himself has made friends with the fish in the aquarium who, not surprisingly, all want to escape to the big blue ocean.
They hatch a plan to make the tank so dirty that it needs to be cleaned. Then, while it’s being cleaned, the fish, who have been put in plastic bags for safekeeping while the tank is being cleaned, plan to roll themselves out a window, across the street, and into the very nearby ocean.
Mind you, by the end of the movie, Nemo has been rescued alone by his father, and the audience has all but forgotten the other fish and this brilliant plan of theirs. But the credits go away for a moment while the other fish roll across the road together in their plastic bags, with one of them screaming, “That was the shortest red light I’ve ever seen!” Then, one by one, each of them plops into the ocean, still contained in their plastic bags.
They float there for a long moment, salt water fish suspended in now-floating saltwater-filled plastic bags. Finally, one of them speaks up as they bob up and down with the waves, stuck: now what?
Now, you may be wondering what animated fish have to do with Jesus. And the answer is usually, very little.
But reading through these texts for the second Sunday of Easter one more time, it occurs to me that the disciples both in the Gospel passage and in the Acts passage are in the same boat — or plastic bags, maybe — that the fish in Finding Nemo were. And it’s a really common place for not just animated fish, but humans, to be.
You see it in the Gospel reading, for sure. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Mary has seen him, and Peter and one other disciple have seen the empty tomb. There’s some joy and some confusion and some fear and a whole lot of now what. By the Acts passage, it’s a few years later, but you can still feel Peter figuring out how to explain this whole Jesus thing to people. He references Jesus being hanged on a tree for a very specific reason: the Hebrew Bible explicitly says cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23). To the religious leaders, this was proof positive that Jesus was not God, but one cursed, individual crazy person. Peter latches onto the phrase and owns it as he attempts to make the case for his newfound faith. Paul will do the same thing in Galatians.
But you know — they were just trying to figure this thing out. They had witnessed a miracle that could change the world and… now what?
Though none of us has started a new religion at least since our college years, we understand this “now what” sentiment. Liturgically, we’re told that Easter is fifty days, but after the holy joyful mystery that is Easter Vigil in this place, and after the grand fanfare of Easter Day, what is left to do or to celebrate for the next 49 days of Easter?
We get it even more closely as individuals. Maybe that’s because you’ve made a big decision, or you’ve weathered a death, or the loss of a relationship, or a job. Maybe you’ve finally decided that you need to go into recovery or get help for your mental or physical illness.
Whether you’ve done a new thing or a new thing has happened, the question tends to be the same: now what?
Obvious statement of the day: transition is turbulent. It is also unavoidable.
Over and over again, we have to figure out who we are in light of new facts, new decisions. And we have to figure out who we’re going to be in light of those new facts and new decisions.
This is what the disciples are doing when they meet in a house and lock the doors behind them. John says that they lock them “for fear of the Jews,” but let’s not make the error of our ancestors in Christian faith by assuming that this was about Jews. No. The disciples locked the doors not because Jewish people are scary, but because they believed something that the majority group thought was ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst. If you’ve ever made an unpopular decision or held an unpopular belief, you get it. So they locked the doors.
The majority group had killed Jesus, and he was apparently back from the dead, but no promises could be made about what would happen to the disciples if they were caught and killed. To this point, only Mary had even seen Jesus alive.
So they’re there, scared, alone, confused. And they close the doors and throw the locks and ponder:
Jesus is just showing off at this point: he comes in through the locked doors and you have to imagine the disciples being so startled that they jumped a full foot in the air each and Peter yells out “Jesus Christ!” in a way that is very understandable and not at all blasphemous.
As the disciples were wondering what to do next behind locked doors, Jesus comes in and breathes the Holy Spirit on them and sends them out to be just what Jesus was: God’s embodied love, given to and for the world. Thomas, of course, famously isn’t there, and much ink has been spilled over whether he doubted or whether he was just reasonable. Personally, I feel it was the latter: when someone says that a dead person has come back to life and visited them, it’s generally accepted that it’s okay to feel skeptical and not believe the person immediately. You could even be forgiven for seeking help for that person.
The point is that Jesus doesn’t cut Thomas out of the kingdom for not taking the disciples’ word for it. No. Jesus offers himself to Thomas as proof that it’s all real. While we may have gotten the idea that Jesus is a ghost because he came through a locked door, Thomas offers Jesus the chance to prove that he’s a living, breathing human body, still bearing the wounds of his execution. Jesus offers the totally understandably skeptical Thomas his body as proof that he’s alive, just as Jesus offers us his very body and blood every time we gather at the table.
So if you’re sitting there wondering “now what” for any reason at all — know that that’s completely normal. Know that God is with you. Know that even if you’re so anxious about the future that you’re locking the doors of your heart and mind in doubt, that’s no obstacle to the Jesus who comes through locked doors. Know that even if you’re not sure where this road is leading or whether you’re on the right path, the risen Jesus is there to embrace you and your fear and your doubt and offer you his very self.
And if you are wondering “now what,” as most of us are nearly always in one way or another from the time we become conscious until the time we die, know that you’re in good company, and not just the company of cartoon fish. You’re in the company of the disciples in the locked house, and the apostles who had to figure out a way forward. You’re in the company of this church, as it meets on Saturday do discuss its way forward.
Change is as inevitable as it is tumultuous. So embrace it. If you’re asking “now what,” you’re in good company.
I close with a poem posted by a dear friend this week. It’s by Pat Schneider, 84-year old poet, born in Missouri. Though we often think of transitions and uncertainty as being only for the young, Pat, by age 84, knows better.
I leave you with her words.
“The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
after a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
And if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.”
So beloved, come to the table where all are welcome, and where Jesus comes through any doors we might lock in his way. In the tumult of life, and in all our “now whats,” Christ is there, offering his body so that we might be fed, and so that we might believe.
Thank God. Amen.