Old habits die hard. That is certainly one way to view the scene in this morning’s passage from John’s gospel. Old habits—like fishing for a living or fishing for a chance just to be busy with something—die hard. Jesus has just risen from the dead, which is the first time in history that had ever occurred. He has shown himself to the disciples two times already, bursting through locked doors and bestowing upon them the Holy Spirit. He grants them something the world cannot give—his other-worldly peace—and sends them into the world just as his Father had sent him. They are sent out to forgive sins of others and, like Jesus, to bring glory to God through lives of service and abundant love. This is what they are to do, and they turn around and…go fishing. Morning may have broken, but certainly not the patterns of the old life.
Do they still have a grip on you, too? I know they do for me. How often do we still open the newspaper, the web browser, the front door and greet the barrage of each day’s bad news with the same old cynical attitude? How often do we still struggle to believe in the power of God’s peace? How frequently do we really give forgiveness and reconciliation a chance? Yes, we revert to the old ways, too, tossing in yet another net on the same old side of the boat. Easy come, easy go…Easter come, Easter go.
Well, if the disciples are just going to fish, then what will Jesus do but show up and proceed to demonstrate how his Father would send them into the world to fish! They put their net on the “right” side and haul in so many they have to leave the boat to bring them in. When they come to the shore they are fed with a new meal of bread and fish. And in Peter’s conversation with the risen Jesus, the disciple receives a new direction and a new vocation. When he was younger, he could fasten his own belt and go wherever he wished. But now he will go where he is led, into places he doesn’t wish to go.
You see, old habits may die hard, but when they die to the Lord, they rise to all kinds of new life.
In this gospel account alone, which comes right at the end of John’s gospel, we see that Jesus’ resurrection is the powerful beginning to a new world, a new road, a new purpose. It is a world where desperate cases find hope, where bread for the journey shows up in the most unlikely of places. It is a road where the Sauls of hatred and persecution can see the light and become the Pauls of nurture and compassion. It is a purpose that gives shape to the ministry of this very congregation and the lives of the people in it—not just as you perform hours of service to the community and to each other, but also as you begin to dream about and envision the next big mission where the Lord may be sending you.
To live in the world brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection is to live knowing that everything is redeemed. It means realizing that what we often think is the end is actually not the end. An unproductive night of fishing, for example, can still be salvaged. There is an old cliché that says something like, “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma.” I don’t often find clichés to be helpful theologically, but there is something about that one that seems to makes sense with this morning’s text. Maybe somehow the disciples have placed a period at the end of everything that has happened. They’ve mulled over the events of Good Friday and the cross and even the appearances of the risen Jesus and come to the conclusion that it all amounts to a big period, an end. Perhaps, racked by fright or confusion, they just don’t know how to go forward, they don’t know how to imagine a new future where even death no longer has a period after it.
This meal of bread and fish beside the sea is an eye-opening experience, one where they fully realize that Jesus—yes, the one who was crucified—is yet with them in bodily form, so much so that no one even needs to ask him “Who are you?” They just know it. The first miraculous meal of bread and fish beside the sea—the one that had happened before he had died, the one where he fed five-thousand—there wasn’t a period at the end of that day, either. Here he takes bread once more and gives it to the disciples so that they may be fed for this new future. And here, at our table each week, the Lord summons us to another meal, feeds us with his life, and places yet another comma. That which looks like his last supper becomes a meal that may be celebrated again and again.
|Peter's Denial of Jesus|
However, out of all the things that die and rise to new life in the presence of the risen Lord, our denials and our betrayals are perhaps the most amazing. It is not just old patterns or old paradigms that fall away in the light of Christ’s resurrection. Our own shortcomings and failures, our tendencies to turn our backs on faith—yes, all that, thank God, dies too, to give way to new affirmations.
It’s hard to get inside Peter’s head, but I imagine that he thought his denials of Jesus on the night of the crucifixion amounted to a period made in permanent ink. Three separate times Peter had been confronted and questioned about his association with Jesus and three times—which, in the understanding of numbers back then, symbolizes a done deal—he had denied even knowing Jesus. And, what’s worse, this had come after Peter had put himself out there as the disciple that would never desert or abandon Jesus. He had posed as the disciple that loved Jesus more than the others, but when the going had gotten tough, that had all been thrown into question.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [other disciples love me]?” Here, on the beach, after the breakfast, Jesus uses Peter’s own words to confront him once more, and graciously enlists him to service. Peter’s own denials will not be enough to hold Jesus’ love back. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks three times in the early morning light nicely mirroring the three denials Peter had offered by that other charcoal fire on that dark afternoon. The old denials die and rise to new life in the form of the charge to feed Jesus’ sheep, to follow the Lord.
It is hard not to get obsessed with the failures, with the denials, with the lack of fish in the net and the long hours laboring empty-handed. It is challenging to work out on the lake of life and avoid discouragement with what we didn’t get accomplished, how we fell short. It is so difficult to think of wasted opportunities, to mistakes we’ve made and think there could be another future where wounds are healed and where wrong things are made right.
In her recent blogpost about sharing the gospel with others, author Rachel Held Evans expresses her guilt about ignoring one preacher’s suggestion she witness to the people who sit next to her on the airplane. After all, it’s a captive audience. It’s the perfect chance, says the preacher, to make the gospel pitch and watch them give it a thumbs up or thumbs down. However, Evans writes, such a one-and-done offer, however well-intentioned, just does not work for her. “At the end of the day,” Evans says, “the gospel doesn’t really fit on a billboard or a Facebook status or an elevator pitch; it has to be experienced, in community, through the day-in-and-day-out work of following Jesus.
I know that I, for one, have been guilty of stressing out far too much over the never-ending stream of data that tells us the church in our culture is in some sort of decline, that our young people are leaving in droves and seeking spiritual nourishment elsewhere, if they even seek spiritual nourishment at all. But I wonder if my worry can somehow come across as sanctimoniousness, as if I believe the whole world will be lost if it doesn’t get its hiney back in church. Then again, perhaps we’ve gone and done what the resurrection has told us not to do: put a period where God clearly puts a comma, that silly old cliché. We’ve declared an ending where God still has plans to enlist people in his service, even people we may think have deserted.
That’s my old habit, I suppose. It's not just the act of deserting Jesus, myself, but forgetting that God still has plans to draw people, often slowly and surely, to the gospel promise through a community that realizes it never completely has it completely right, a community that hasn't fully arrived but is nevertheless on the Way, a community that can deny Jesus just as many times as it professes its love. The world, you see, can never be lost because God doesn’t, in fact, lose things that are his, whether that is you, me, or the person next to us on the airplane. God keeps after them--one time, two times, three times…whatever it takes for us to be a done deal and wrapped up to feed the sheep and follow the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.