Think about the times in our lives when we get stuck because we are so focused on the empty nets that we miss the possibilities if we would look in a different direction. What if we shifted our focus? What if we looked to the other side?
Today’s texts: Psalm 30 and John 21: 1-19
It’s getting dark out there on the Sea of Galilee – or the Sea of Tiberius, as it is called in today’s Gospel story.
There were still clouds hanging over the lives of Jesus’ followers as well. Sure, they had glimpses of him in the days after his execution. A couple of people on the road to Emmaus recognized him when he broke bread at their table. His closest followers saw him twice in the secure room where they were hiding from the authorities who had killed him and may well want to kill them as well.
But despite these moments of hope, there was still plenty of uncertainty in their lives. So apparently a few of them decided to do what many of do in times of stress. They decide to go back to something familiar.
Peter and Thomas, Nathanial and the sons of Zebedee named James and John along with a couple more of Jesus’ followers all went north from Jerusalem to their home region in Galilee where they had once earned their living fishing. Maybe they were giving up on the whole Jesus thing, despite those post-resurrection experiences. Discouragement seemed to be winning out.
On this night, Peter announced, “I’m going fishing.”
We’re not sure if he was envisioning a solitary night on the lake. The kind of fishing these guys did was not with a rod and reel alone in a boat. This was a group effort with nets and large catches that could be sold back on the shore.
But Peter seemed oblivious about everyone else. “I’m going fishing.”
But then that was Peter – always a tad narcissistic, impulsive, focused more on action than on reflection.
“We’ll go with you,” his companions said. And they all piled into the boat and went out in the dark onto the waters of the Sea of Galilee.
It was not a good night on the lake. They were dragging their nets off the left side of the boat, watching, hoping for some sign of fish. Nothing.
Had they lost their touch? Was this one more thing to go wrong in a series of disappointments and disasters?
They had seen one of their close colleagues betray Jesus. Peter lived with the shame of denying Jesus three times. The rest knew they had fled as Jesus was killed on a cross. Now even being back home, they could not set things right. And then there were unsettling experiences of having Jesus back in their midst for a few moments, only to have him gone again.
As the sun was rising over the lake, as they were heading back in, they saw a man standing on the shore. His words to them must have been like fingernails on a blackboard.
“Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
“Children” sounds condescending, but it actually is a sort of intimate, familial kind of greeting. But, still.
“Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
The answer from the boat was short. Probably not all that appreciative.
Who was this jerk on the shore anyway?
And then he had more to say.
“Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
Maybe those words struck a familiar chord in their memories.
Three years earlier, the way Luke tells the story in his version of the Gospel, Simon and James and John were having trouble catching fish in the Sea of Galilee. A stranger went back out in the boat with them and told them to throw their nets in the water again. They did and they caught so many fish that their nets started to break.
Here, in the light of the sunrise, a stranger on the shore was telling them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. And they did.
Let’s pause the story here for a moment.
“Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” the stranger said.
Think about the times in our lives when we get stuck because we are so focused on the empty nets that we miss the possibilities if we would look in a different direction. Think about how we get overwhelmed and we feel like we are spinning our wheels on shiny Wisconsin ice or the thick mud on a dirt road.
What if we shifted our focus? What if we looked to the other side?
Hold that thought.
We know what happened next to the disciples. Just like that time three years ago, the net filled up with fish, so many fish they could not haul it in and would have to drag it to the shore. And then everything clicked.
“It’s the Lord!” shouted one of the men in the boat.
And now here’s a wonderful detail. Peter, who was naked in the boat, grabs a coat and wraps himself in it and jumps into the water to swim, wade, slosh towards Jesus.
OK – let’s pause again. He was naked in the boat. So maybe that’s the way they fished on a warm night in Galilee. But then he put clothes on before jumping into the water. Shouldn’t the order of those things been reversed?
One of the best sermons I have ever heard preached on this passage was by Anna Carter Florence, a Presbyterian minister who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. She calls this her “Skinny Dip Sermon.”
Anna suggests that this is not a story about whether skinny dipping is a good idea or a bad idea. It’s a story about how vulnerable we feel when we are naked. It’s a story about how vulnerable Peter felt when he realized this was Jesus on the shore.
He surely remembered that morning only a few weeks before when he stood by a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest where he denied ever knowing Jesus … again … and again…and again.
And now here’s Jesus on the beach with a charcoal fire, recreating the scene of that awful night for Peter. Dawn is breaking again. Peter feels so vulnerable.
Anna Carter Florence says the night of Peter’s worst nakedness is being replayed. He does not want his life to be exposed. So he puts on clothes and jumps into the lake.
If you want to reach even farther back in our scriptures, go back to the very beginning in the Book of Genesis when Adam and Eve had eaten the apple of the tree of knowledge. They knew they had done wrong and suddenly they realized they were naked – naked before each other, naked before God.
And what was Jesus’ response to all this floundering around, to these incompetent fishermen and this embarrassed, impulsive disciple?
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
Jesus’ response was grace. Just like it was earlier with Thomas. Just like it was with the woman at the well seeking water or with the crowds on the hill getting hungry or with the women crying as he carried his cross toward his death or with the very people who executed him.
Jesus’ response, God’s response, is always grace.
Jesus’ response was grace, but it was also an invitation.
At the beginning of Jesus’ story, particularly as John tells it, when Jesus first starts gathering his followers, he invites them to “come and see.”
When the Samaritan woman encountered Jesus at a well, she went back into the town and invited her neighbors to “come and see.”
When Mary Magdalene discovered that Jesus had moved beyond death on the early Sunday morning, she invited his followers to “come and see.”
When Thomas doubted that Jesus had returned, Jesus invited him to “come and see.”
And now on the shore, he invites his followers to “come and…eat.”
And an invitation.
And one more thing.
He had a little business to settle yet with Peter, the one who had denied him three times.
“Do you love me?”
“Then feed my lambs.
“Do you love me?”
“Then take care of my sheep.”
“Do you love me?
“Then feed my sheep.”
Jesus offered grace and nourishment, but it was not for his followers to hold for themselves. If they loved him, then they would reach out to others.
Here at Memorial, our mission statement captures the spirit of that invitation. Listen to the words that have helped shape the identity of this community:
We are a community of faith called by God,
to gather for worship and reach out in ever-widening circles
as a witness to God’s all-inclusive love in Jesus Christ,
and to act out God’s grace and mercy in deeds of
feeding those who are hungry in body
or in spirit.
If you love me, feed my sheep.
To mix the metaphor here, if we are to feed the sheep, first we have to catch the fish, bake the bread, give the fish to those who need it, break the bread with those who need to experience God’s presence through our openness.
And to do that, we need to be willing to look on the other side of the boat.
Sometimes that is an invitation to be creative in the ways we think about our future as a community of people who follow Jesus.
This community has done that many times over its almost century of existence, dramatically in moments like moving to Fitchburg, boldly in becoming an open and affirming congregation in the early stages of that movement of including all, generously in responding to new needs in our community whether at an essentials pantry or in tackling racial disparities.
We do have an unofficial motto around here after all, one put in place by the pioneers who led us to start over from downtown to our new home in Fitchburg. “We’ll never say we’ve always done it that way.”
Or, maybe another way to put it, “we’ll always be willing to look on the other side of the boat.”
That’s part of our vibrancy as a congregation, but it is also an important dimension in our lives as individuals. We all know changes in life can be difficult, but we also know that when we are stuck in place, the way out is not to spin the tires faster but to turn the wheel a bit, to look to the other side.
There are surely days we feel like those early disciples, uncertain about what is to come, confused by what is happening around us, just wanting to go back to the way things were, fishing on the familiar lake with our friends.
That’s OK. But at some point, we know we need more. We need God’s grace, we need that invitation to breakfast with others, we need that challenge to keep widening the circles of those in our care.
Jesus had one more invitation at the end of today’s story. The words were familiar to those he had met along the way. They are familiar to us.
There was that final phrase, echoing from the earlier stories of call – “follow me.”
Take a look to the left. Take a look to the right. Break the bread. And let’s follow in the way of Jesus.
And then let’s join together in a hymn that reflects some of the imagery in this story. It’s #172 “Jesus Calls Us, O’re the Tumult.” Let’s sing verses 1, 3 and 4.