Sermon May 9 – John 21:1-19 Moving Forward Rev. Betsy Hogan
It's a strange time for preaching, the season after Easter.
The lectionary readings assigned for these weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, they sort of swing back and forth between stories of the disciples immediately after the Resurrection – trying to negotiate both the immediate joy and the immediate confusion of what comes next –
And stories from the book of Acts, which happen a little later on. Once some structure's been restored. Once the the disciples have sort of gotten themselves organized.
It makes the preaching a little convoluted! There's no week-on-week narrative arc! Instead it's all a bit of a jumble.
The disciples are rejoicing! But still locked down. They're preaching confidently on street corners! And also not really sure what's safe. They're baptizing random Ethiopian Eunuchs! And sharing all things in common! And they're trying to avoid going out.
I think I've never appreciated just how convoluted and jumbled preaching in the Easter season really is, for all these three decades I've been doing it, until this year.
When I am professionally and pastorally furious with a narrative arc that was unfolding positively, and could have continued so – even despite blips on the screen – but instead has become so unnecessarily convoluted and jumbled that it pretty much leaves the convoluted and jumbled Easter season lectionary in the dust.
But here we are. And where are the disciples? They're in the upper room. Still. Or... again. It's not 100% clear, in the reading we heard just now.
Certainly Easter’s over – Jesus rose, they saw him, they rejoiced – but if they're no longer still mostly terrified, they're obviously still not feeling on top of things. Whatever's coming next, they're obviously still not certain how or when it's going to unfold. And in the meantime, they're obviously still not doing great.
Because what does Peter finally say? “I guess I’ll go fishing.” And the rest of them? “I guess we’ll go with you.”
And oh look. Here we are again. Back in the same boat.
Back to the Sea of Galilee: 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 in the same boat. To do what they’d always done for an entire lifetime – not just BEFORE any of it happened, but like 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 don't know what to do other than 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?
Back in the same boat. Again.
But not so fast, Jesus says. Which obviously he doesn’t actually say that. What he DOES say, from the shore of the Sea of Galilee – 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 the first time, there’s an enormous catch, and just like the first time they realize it’s him. And they can’t get to the shore fast enough. Although Peter at least stops to put his clothes back on because he was inexplicably naked. But once they’ve all arrived?
“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus tells them. And 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.
This isn't just going back, like it never happened. It's not just back in same boat, like it never happened.
It happened – the disciples have been changed by what they experienced. It may look like the same boat, it may feel like the same boat, but they are not the same.
Jesus presents them no plan for getting out of the Upper Room and moving on to where we see them building the church in the book of Acts. He unfolds for them no process. He denies for not one moment the fact that yep, it looks like same boat and it feels like the same boat. He doesn't even pretend there's some kind of other boat that's the shape of the successful early Church, ready made and waiting for them.
But notwithstanding the boat they're in right now -- THEY are not the same.
All that teaching, all that preaching, all those parables, all those questions, all that learning, all that capacity that was built in them --
All Jesus has to say to these disciples who think they're back in the same boat is “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” All he has to say to these disciples who think they're back in the same boat is "Do you love me? Then take care of my lambs.”
It's not back in the same boat. Because they're not the same.
They're people now who don't just feel love but who know that the point of it is to pour it out in care. Feed my sheep. Take care of my lambs.
And that's what lifts them forward.
We know where they get. They get to the restoration and the strength and the solidness we see in the book of Acts. And it doesn't just come in a magical parcel labelled the good news of the resurrection.
It's a convoluted jumble, and it includes "well, I guess we'll go fishing" like they're back in the same boat.
But they're not the same. They know. Love isn't a feeling, it's a verb. Do you love? Feed. Do you love? Take care. Do you love? Watch over. Because these, Jesus reminds them, these lift you forward.
And these keep you from getting stuck. Or discouraged. Or uselessly angry and fruitlessly frustrated.
I keep getting brought to tears by the simplest acts of loving care. It matters to do them – it even matters to hear about them.
So just in case it's only the clergy that have come across this story in the past few days, I want to tell you about one.
About a Canadian woman, and possibly based on her last name maybe even a Nova Scotian woman, who had computer issues this week and called a tech line. And in the course of the usual chit chat, asked the tech guy where he lives. And he said "New Delhi" and she said "Oh, oh, I'm so sorry about how things are India right now."
And he broke down, because he's lost someone close to him every day for weeks and he's barely keeping it together and it was such a relief to talk about it. And she sat on the phone with him while he just wept.
It's not just a heartwarming story of loving care. That's who's in this boat. That's the capacity in this boat. It's the strength in this boat, and it's what lifts us forward in this boat. God being our helper. Amen.