United Church of Jaffrey
May 5th, 2019
The Liminal Moment
One of the vocabulary words that I like to introduce to my students, is the word “liminal”
“Liminal” sounds, at first, like one of those 64 thousand-dollar academic words that are designed to confuse…
…but it’s not really.
There are more familiar words, like “preliminary” and “subliminal” contain this word.
“Liminal” comes from the Latin root “limen” which means “threshold.”
“Preliminary” means, “before the threshold” and “Subliminal” means, “below the threshold.”
Looked at in this way, “liminal” becomes rather simple – it refers, basically, to being “at the threshold.”
A liminal moment, then, is the precise moment when you transition from one thing to the next.
This could be understood as simply as stepping through a doorway and moving from one room to another.
Or, it could be understood in a more profound, existential sense – as in, for example, the moment a mother gives birth…
The moment an infant stands up and takes those first wobbly steps…
the moment a couple says “I do.”
Or the moment a loved one dies…
You see what I mean?
This idea of the “liminal moment” is a deeply human one – each of us can easily identify the moments in our lives when everything changed. Your life was going along, and you understood it pretty well, and then, suddenly, something happened, and nothing was ever the same again.
We have been talking about the liminal as a threshold in time – a moment when things change.
We can also look at the liminal as it relates to other kinds of thresholds – such as, for example, the threshold between being asleep and being awake.
The threshold between innocence and experience.
The threshold between safety and danger.
The threshold between the conscious and the unconscious.
And the threshold, of course, between life and death.
Each of these thresholds is an inevitable part of the human transformation.
Each threshold has within it some element of fear – some deep mystery that makes us uneasy.
And where there is mystery,
Where there is transformation.
There is God.
God meets us at the threshold.
This morning’s reading from John’s Gospel begins with these words:
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias;
Immediately, we find ourselves on two thresholds –
Jesus cannot simply come to meet the disciples as he normally would if he was alive… in this story he must “show himself” because at this moment, in some mysterious way, Jesus himself is not quite alive and not quite dead. He is resurrected. He is on the threshold between life and death.
And where does he “show himself”?
“…by the sea of Tiberias.” Standing on shore, Jesus meets the disciples on the threshold between land and sea.
And when does Jesus “show himself?” The text goes on to say that…
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach
So do you see how this interpretive key works?
Jesus, who is, by nature, at the threshold of human and divine, appears to his disciples standing on a spot between the land and the sea, just at the moment that night is turning to day.
At first, the disciples, who are out in a boat fishing, do not see that the man on shore is Jesus, but then, at length he is recognized…
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
This must be one of the oddest verses in the New Testament!
Why was Peter naked?
And why, if he was naked, would he put on clothes before jumping in the water?
I just had to do some research about this.
Some scholars speculate that poor people in Judea at that time may have only had one set of clothes, and so fishermen might take off their clothes while doing hard and possibly nasty work, like pulling nets and gutting fish. This explanation might account for his Peter’s nakedness.
But that doesn’t explain why he would put on clothes to go swimming!
Another scholar – the famous New Testament interpreter Raymond Brown, suggests that Peter was naked underneath an outer garment and it was that outer garment that he had to tie up and tuck in before leaping into the water…
This sounds a little more plausible.
But as usual, these solutions, for all their ingenuity and plausibility, miss the far more interesting line of inquiry. Instead of solving the problem, why not consider its implications?
Peter was naked before God.
This has a great deal more spiritual energy, then any explanation about habits of attire during antiquity.
Naked before God!
Nakedness suggests that you cannot hide.
Nakedness is a kind of vulnerability.
Nakedness before God is a spiritual vulnerability.
This is a fearful position to be in. There is no wonder Peter wanted to put clothes on.
Many of you know that I have chickens.
Kathleen, who runs the food pantry downstairs, knows about my chickens.
Sometimes when I go out to my car, I’ll find a big bag full of stale bread that Kathleen has left for me.
This is bread for my chickens. Chicken bread.
Why, you may ask, are we suddenly talking about chickens?
It’s a good question.
It’s because I have seventeen of them
Occasionally I want to count them to make sure they are all in one place.
But it’s not easy. Chickens move around.
They move around, and you end up counting one twice.
I get all mixed up.
And there are only 17 of them!
Now I want you to imagine a huge net full of fish.
The net is so full of fish that the net itself is threatening to break.
Now imagine hauling that net full of fish onto the beach and letting the fish come sprawling out of that net.
What you have before you is a huge pile of slithering, slimy, squirming fish, all writhing around on the beach.
How are you going to accurately count them?
It’s going to be hard.
I imagine the only way to accurately count them is to move them one by one from one container into another.
And yet, the scripture passage says nothing of any of this.
It simply states that there are 153 fish.
The text does not say “a lot of fish.” It does not say “Approximately 150 fish.”
The text gives an exact number.
I am suspicious of this number. Or let me put it a different way – I am not suspicious of the number 153 – I am suspicious that this number is the result of a careful inventory of fish.
The number is too precise, and it appears too flippantly to be the result of a careful enumeration.
I think the number, like Peter’s nakedness, is evidence of the liminal character of this story.
The only circumstance in which I can look at a pile of fish and know with absolute certainty that there are 153 of them there, is if I am in a dream.
The only time I find myself unaccountably naked in front of all of my peers and, especially, in front of someone I revere and respect – thankfully — is in a dream.
This whole story has a dream-like quality to it.
Indeed, most of the post-resurrection stories have this same quality.
Reality seems somehow peculiar
Jesus is not recognized, and then, something will happen to lift the veil.
Things are off…
You are suddenly, unaccountably naked.
You jump into the sea with your clothes on.
Or maybe you find yourself eating a fish sandwich on a beach with a man you saw die three days before…
It’s like…. It’s like a…
But wait, Reverend Mark. What are you saying? Are you saying that the resurrection of Jesus was just a dream? Wouldn’t that undermine our belief in Christ’s divinity?
No, I’m not saying it’s a just a dream. I am saying it is liminal – it is dream-like.
I am saying that the stories that we tell about the risen Christ do not simply speak to our rational mind, but reverberate throughout our bodies and spirits, making use of the symbols and urgencies of the unconscious as well as the conscious mind.
And this, after all, is what Christ instructed us to do – ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’;