Sermon May 3 – John 21:1-19 Moving Forward Rev. Betsy Hogan
So I've been told it's May. This seems a little surreal to me right now... but at the same time I have daffodils up and my forsythia is juuuust starting to burst out and I've seen a few teacup magnolias right on the verge – so I guess it's true. It's May.
I've decided to find that rather hopeful and to be glad about it, considering April. I know these divisions between months are essentially arbitrary, but nevertheless -- we're people of order and time and seasons, and even if it's totally arbitrary to draw a line that says 'April is over' and 'now it's May'...
...it feels to me like a line worth drawing. And stepping over. Not like magic, but just like an extra breath.
I don't know how much Dr. Strang goes in for symbolism – I think I'd rather hope he's pretty much all about the science – but the idea of stepping over the line from April to May with Friday's announcement of the careful reopening of green spaces and trails for me had its own symbolic resonance in this regard: like that was April, this is May.
And hopefully we'll all behave ourselves, and hopefully we won't get silly about this, and hopefully, maybe, possibly – this restoration will just be the first of incremental steps forward.
It's a bit tempting, though, isn't it, to think instead of incremental steps BACK. As in 'back to normal'.
The reading today from John's gospel is actually one of my favourites from John's gospel – which admittedly is not saying much, since it's not my favourite gospel. I much prefer the gospel of Luke where Jesus tends to be more about the 'doing' and not so much about the talking and talking and talking –
But this passage from John's gospel, I've always really liked. Because it feels so very REAL and ordinary and human. All the disciples, sitting around in the Upper Room....
Easter’s over – Jesus rose, they saw him, they rejoiced – and now, after a couple of weeks of sort of limbo-time in the Upper Room, it’s like back to the old routine. Peter says “I guess I’ll go fishing." And the rest of them are like, “I guess we’ll go with you.”
And so out they go, back out to the waterfront, they haul out their boat, they haul out their nets, and they’re right back to where they were before any of it happened. Before Jesus had risen, before he was crucified, before they followed him, before they even MET him.
Back out in their boats to do what they’d always done for an entire lifetime – not just BEFORE any of it happened, but as though it never had. They’d always been fishermen, there’d been this sort of blip on the screen, so now they’re back to being fishermen.
It’s kind of like they sort of… pick up where’d they’d left off. Not that it’s easy for them to put aside what they’ve experienced in the last few years, in the following of Jesus on the road, in their time of discipleship, in his having risen – but what else are they supposed to do? It happened, it was meaningful, it’s done. Time to go back to fishing. Right?
Not so fast, Jesus says. I mean, obviously he doesn’t actually say that. What he DOES say, from the shore of the Sea of Tiberius – even though the disciples don’t realize it’s him when he’s saying it – is actually (if they’d happened to be thinking about it) quite familiar.
Because it’s the same thing he said way back when he first called them to be disciples. When they were also out fishing. “You’re not catching anything, are you,” he calls out to them from the shore. “Try the other side of the boat!”
So they do. And just like that first time, way back when, there’s this enormous catch. And just like that first time, they realize it’s him. And now they can’t get back to the shore fast enough. With the one hundred and fifty-three fish I have no idea why we're told they caught. And after Peter's stopped to put his clothes back on because I have no idea why he took them off in the first place. But at any rate, once they’ve all arrived?
“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus tells them. Risen in their midst, and no, I have no idea either about how, or what that looked like. But it's what they experienced. And so they sit down around the campfire he’s built, and they cook the fish, and he passes around a loaf of bread, and then he makes it absolutely clear.
They can’t just go back, like it never happened. Because “Do you love me?” he asks Peter. “Then feed my sheep.”
They can’t just go back, like it never happened. Back to fishing, back to the same old same old, like it never happened. It happened – the disciples have been changed by what they experienced. Now they have to move forward to live, changed. Because “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. “Then take care of my lambs.” They can’t go back to just fishing. There is no 'back to normal'.
I think we’re in a moment. Collectively, I mean, as a human family.
Because some of us, individually, may well be in our own moment. In which everything’s changed and we know we can’t go back and like the disciples we’re standing on the beach looking back at those nets without one sweet clue what we’re meant to do next –
But I think we’re in a moment collectively too, as a human family. And not for the first time. I've been rattling on about this every week, about this whole THING being kind of emblematic of the whole Thursday-to-Sunday Holy Week experience. From being confronted with our own essential vulnerability, to the loss and the fear and the rage and the falling apart of all the things, to the revelations about what CAN'T be lost and what DOESN'T get silenced and how new life DOES get pulled forcefully out of what looks like death.
Because that's been this experience. From the fears right through to the revelations. And if part of that has been this revelation, this sudden breaking-in awareness of stuff we maybe hadn't really thought about – like who's really essential, or the need for a room of one's own, or how many of us are immuno-compromised or disabled, or where does our food come from –
There's also been a sudden breaking-in awareness of what we, in our bones, can't do without – because we miss it so much. And an awareness of what we CAN do without, because it turns out we can.
And at the same time, there's also been a sudden breaking-in awareness of socially and politically the difference on the ground between accepting the limitation and gift of mutual responsibility for one another – and insisting on the individual 'freedom' of a survival of the fittest predicated largely on wealth and privilege. We're seeing what that difference looks like... on either side of a border.
And not only that, but there's also been a sudden breaking-in awareness of what polluted air and water look like when it's not so much with the fossil fuels. And doesn't that make this the moment. Because if it seems extraordinary to us that the disciples could just go back to fishing after the events of Easter, and didn’t they notice the majesty of what happened?, I think it must seem extraordinary to our children right now if we don't seize this time when we've experienced this revelation to make an enormous decisive shift in choosing a different set of resources – wind and sun – to fuel our living in this country.
One of our pastoral care team said this week that all of this, in a way, feels like Sunday used to feel back in the day. Like most stuff wasn't open, so there wasn't much traffic, you might go for a walk, kids out on their bikes.....
Which isn't to say that this is sustainable or even desirable. Sundays back in the day turned into Mondays, and even our formative stories recognize our human need for company and enterprise and production and interaction IN BETWEEN our days of rest. There is much to which we want and need to get back.
But for us as people of faith, this is also kind of our moment when Jesus is standing on the beach and shouting at us to stop already just thinking "I guess eventually we'll just go back to fishing" and instead pay attention to the revelations.
To the majesty of what's happened in all this. To what we're learning and experiencing and seeing about what really matters, and what doesn't. And what sustains a whole community, and what doesn't. And what's cleansing and healing and reparative to this creation we live within, and what isn't.
Because here we are on the beach with the disciples. And do you love me? Jesus asks the disciples, asks us. Then feed my sheep. And it's an imperative – it's a command.
Do you love me? Then show me. Take care of my lambs.
And is that just back to normal? Nope, it's really not.
Is it actually kind of a sea change? Yes it is. Take care of my lambs.
Is it even possible? Oh, it really is. Take care of my lambs.
It's an arbitrary line. But stepping over it is good. Even if it's just one step forward. Because there really can't just be 'back to normal'. There have been revelations. Easter happened just as surely for us as for the disciples. So "Do you love me," Jesus asks us. Show me.
And we will, God being our helper. Amen.