May 5, 2019

Easter 3 May 5, 2019 (Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, Acts 9:1-6) John 21

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I still love this last chapter of John’s gospel… Even though over the years I’ve had to gradually, grudgingly, admit… it’s probably really not entirely about fishing.

Even so, it’s one of greatest-fishing-stories of all time… A story most fisher-folk can relate to. A story of fishing a long time without catching fish… Only to start catching fish like crazy… when we fish differently… And do what Jesus says…

Fish-less fishing doesn’t have to happen at night… I’ve fished all day without catching more times than I like to remember. But night fishing is normal in warm climates. Fish are harder to find in the heat of the day. And night fishing goes best with St John’s theology – with it’s frequent contrasts of dark and light, night and day… and…

Life imitates the gospel – as so often we see these same kinds of night- and-day contrasts in our every day life with Jesus… As he teaches us to recognize, usually gradually, occasionally suddenly… the presence of God…

Seeing – and believing – (with or without seeing) – the presence of God – has usually come only gradually for me, a slow learner…(better than not learning at all, I tell myself)… As I recall how, as a younger man I used to go where I wanted and do what I wanted to do. Fishing almost every day five days a week after work, and all weekend except for church Sunday mornings.

My fishing habits only changed when I was called into ministry and there was no longer time to fish more than once a week…But even then, still…

As a beginning preacher I tended to go pretty much wherever I wanted to go with any sermon touching on anything to do with fish (like today’s gospel story). I used to fasten my own metaphoric wader-belt-and-suspenders, as I vicariously revisited my old fishing haunts… Retelling many a fishing story set in the rivers and lakes of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and the Adirondacks (later including the salt water estuaries and beaches here on the Cape).

Now as a little bit older pastor I consider myself fortunate-fishing-wise if I get to choose when and where to fish even half a day a week in season – (once in awhile maybe a whole day) – when my wife and daughter say yes, you can buckle your waders and go fishing. Other times they buckle me now into the seat belt of the car and tell me where to drive…

(If I’m exaggerating a little… fishermen, by tradition, on occasion stretch a fish… or a fish story… just a little… to make a theological point…)

Did I mention – I’ve been gradually learning to hear this story as not entirely about fishing? On the other hand, I’m certainly not about to join the chorus of those who claim Peter and other disciples are sinning by going fishing. On the far-end of the anti-fishing theological spectrum, a few name-brand bible scholars (whose names I won’t mention) have actually called Peter and the other fishermen apostate – a church word meaning “denier of the faith.”

I’m with Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, who said the fishermen were the only disciples who could go back to their day job after the resurrection. Evangelical bible scholar D.A. Carson agrees (if less enthusiastically than Dorothy) – saying ‘Jesus has risen from the dead – but disciples still need to eat.’ And I would add – disciples also need time on the water…time in nature… for healing and processing all they’ve been through… Noticing – Jesus not only never scolds them for fishing – he fills their nets with the abundance of the seas…

Nonetheless, how I hear the story has kept changing over the years…

Once upon a time it was all about Jesus coaching disciples to cast from the right side of the boat and find fish… And by implication – how to think from the intuitive right-side of the brain and do church more intuitively… All of which I still believe.

But now along with all the wonderful catching of all those fish… I’m also thinking about the others out in the boat with Peter.

Starting with Nathanael and Thomas – disciples best known for their doubts.  Nathanael, who, when invited to come see Jesus back in chapter one, asks ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ – and Thomas, who we heard last week say, ‘I won’t believe he’s risen unless I touch where the nails pierced his hands and the spear pierced his side.’ Appropriate company, we may now be thinking, for Peter…

Who, not long ago we heard deny three times that he even knows Jesus, while Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate. (That same night we also heard Pilate proclaim three times ‘this Jesus guy is innocent.’Which didn’t stop Pilate from crucifying Jesus.) But does call attention to yet-another pattern in John’s gospel – a pattern of key things said and done in triplicate…(as…)

Last week we heard the risen Jesus say to disciples “Peace be with you” three times… and…

Today we’re told this is the third time Jesus appears to disciples…

And now we’re into triplicate within triplicate – as Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” “Peter, do you love me?” “Do you love me?” And…

Peter answers three times “I love you, Lord” – “I love you” – and – “Lord, you know everything, you know I love you…”

And Jesus says three more times – “Feed my lambs” – “Tend my sheep” – “Feed my sheep.”

And Jesus, who self-identifies as the Lord who is our shepherd, we shall not want, back in John chapter 10, now turns the conversation from fishing to shepherding. As he tells Peter – Feed and tend my sheep. Shepherd God’s people.

Which is the part of the story I’ve often tried to avoid. Since as a rule I’d rather be fishing than shepherding. Especially hearing this is how Peter’s going to die… And who really wants to hear ‘you’ll no longer be going wherever you want to go… From now on, you’ll be going where others take you, including places you don’t want to go…”

We could say these words are just for Peter. Jesus doesn’t say this to everyone. But Peter often does act as unofficial lead disciple. And the others with him also deserted Jesus when he was on the cross, after pledging to follow him always.

So I’m hearing what Jesus says as at least partly for all of us. Though – to be sure, usually the death we die for Jesus is not the martyr’s death on a cross Peter died… But ten thousand small daily deaths to ourselves and self-will…

And I’ve been appreciating this three-times-three call-and-response conversation between Jesus and Peter as it continues to sink in… How well this conversation builds on the symbolism of the charcoal fire – reminding us of the charcoal fire where Peter denies Jesus – a symbol Jesus now turns into a sign of welcome and blessing. Now I hear this conversation as a strong ‘welcome back to ministry’ word for Peter. A strong reaffirmation of his call to leadership… As, without scolding Peter or asking him to ask for forgiveness… Every time Jesus asks “do you love me?” he’s letting Peter, those with him, and all of us, know – it’s Jesus who has loved us first. Jesus alone, whose love is never in doubt.

And the more I stay with the story the more I’m thanking God for all of you, and your prayers… and the prayers of all the friends, family, and parishioners over the years…. who have been helping me  learn to love… whatever-I-need-to-do…and… wherever-I-need-to-go…

So even though I’m a slow learner… I’m learning –

All the story is all good all the time…

And there’s always more to learn…

As we remember… Along with Thomas, Nathanael and the sons of Zebedee, James and John – there’s also two more un-named disciples in the boat. Un-named so we can plug ourselves into their place in the story – and be those disciples – get our picture taken with Jesus by the lakeshore…

And one of the disciples in the boat and the breakfast on the beach… is the one known in the gospel as “the disciple Jesus loved” – the one many assume is John, the gospel writer, though he never names himself… Instead –

Encouraging us to put ourselves in his place…and –

Be the disciple Jesus loves…

As just as we reach what finally seems to be the end…

The gospel reminds us…

There are also many other things Jesus has done – and is still doing…

If all of them were written down the world wouldn’t be able to hold all the books that would be written… So –

With all the beloved disciples Jesus loves –

We’re invited to keep following…

Without being told…

Jesus, risen from the dead.

Jesus with us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.