The reading I chose was for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C (next year!) in the Revised Common Lectionary: John 21:1-19.
You know when you finish a really good book and you’ve made a connection with some of the characters. You want to know what happens next. You sometimes find yourself dragging the last few chapters out, to avoid coming to the end of the book â€” to make it last a bit longer â€” delay the moment before you say goodbye.
That’s a bit of what we’ve got here: John’s account of the Gospel looks like it finishes at the end of chapter 20. Jesus rises from the dead. He appears to the disciples in the upper room. A week later he appears again, but this time Thomas is with them.
And then it says “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20: 30-31) It rounds the book off quite nicely.
And then … then we get chapter 21 stuck on the end, rather awkwardly. It’s presumably there for a reason â€” possibly written to counter some dispute in the early Church. But whatever its purpose, it does delay the end of the book and we get a bonus chapter. We get another final glimpse at the main characters.
And it is a glimpse of them at rest. In that period between the resurrection â€” when their despair was turned to joy â€” and Pentecost, when they were charged with the Holy Spirit and empowered for ministry.
In the rest of the Gospel according to St John we’ve followed them around Galilee and Palestine like some high-profile documentary. It’s been a big production with fast-paced action. And now we find them returning to their everyday lives, doing everyday things.
And it is there, in the midst of the nitty-gritty of everyday that Jesus appears to them. And I think that says something important to us.
I keep coming back to this, and that is: what is our impression of the Apostles? Do we see them as superheroes? Strong leaders? Fearless witnesses of the Gospel? Well, if you are anything like me, then I suppose it is easier to think of them in this way.
We want them to be strong and decisive. We want them to have a clear idea of where they were going, of seeing ahead to where God was leading them. Perhaps because we’re not strong and decisive? Because we don’t know where God is leading us? I suspect, on the other hand, that they were very much like us. (And that’s why Jesus chose them.) And that can give us encouragement.
So John’s account of the Gospel originally ends at chapter 20. Jesus has risen. He has appeared to the Apostles on a number of occasions and we are told that he did many other signs which are not recorded here. End of book.
Turn the page. The Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 1 … Dynamic, decisive Apostles zapped by the Holy Spirit. Bang!
The Church explodes into life. Thousands are converted. Thousands!! The Apostles scatter themselves across the Roman Empire and preach and teach and heal and …
Hang on a minute! That doesn’t sound terribly much like us? Gareth! You promised us that they were very much like us.
Okay. So let’s go back and insert Chapter 21 into that sequence and see what difference it makes.
Jesus has risen â€” he’s appeared to the Apostles on a number of occasions and we are told that He did many other signs not recorded by John.
It’s like A Question of Sport: what happened next?
We all suspect from our reading of Acts, just over the page, that they waited around for Pentecost and then suddenly they were crystal clear about their new career path. … But here we find them … fishing?!
We find Peter and Thomas, and Nathanael, and James and John returning to their own professions: they were fishermen. After all this â€” all the travel, the crowds, the miracles, the teaching, the healings, and Jesus being arrested, tried, crucified and raised from the dead, after all this they returned to what they knew best: fishing. Seems like a bit of an anti-climax
You want them to get out there and be dynamic. To teach and preach and heal and make disciples of all nations. But here we find them doing everyday things. It’s a bit of a disappointment really.
It’s a bit like meeting your favourite Hollywood Star in the supermarket buying toilet paper. You want to think of them being exciting and star-like and mysterious. Not trying to choose between Andrex Aloe Vera and Quilted Velvet!
Waiting for God
But it brings us back to the reality of faith. That our faith is emersed in the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and that that is exactly where Jesus meets us. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to be dynamic and all fired up before He comes to us. Jesus comes to us exactly where we are.
The other side of that, of course, is that we do need to wait on God. To get on with the everyday things â€” just as we see the disciples doing here. And in our waiting Jesus comes to us and leads us and directs us.
In the context of waiting in prayer, Kenneth Leech writes,
“through discipline and silent waiting, prayer happens. We do not create prayer, but merely prepare the ground and clear away obstacles. Prayer is always a gift, a grace, the flame which ignites the wood; the Holy Spirit gives prayer.” (True Prayer, p.59)
In our waiting God gifts Himself to us. We do not do it of our own accord. We cannot do God’s work without Him. We cannot do it on our own.
There is a hint towards that in the passage when we find these 7 disciples have been out fishing all night and caught nothing. They’ve tried themselves, and unsuccessfully. And it is only when Jesus comes to them and guides them from his perspective on the shore, that they manage to fulfil their task.
William Barclay in his commentary on John says that this was no miracle, that it was quite common for fishermen to have someone stand on the shore and call directions to the fishermen moored a couple of hundred yards off the coast. He describes how he saw it once himself, while visiting the Holy Land.
This doesn’t detract from its significance or symbolism. That we need to wait on God. To create the ground for his coming â€” to be ready and expectant of His coming so that we recognise Him when He does come. Remember it was John in the boat who recognised that it was Jesus calling from the shore, and Peter who grabbed his tunic and leapt out of the boat to greet Him.
They could have been so caught up in what they were doing, and their own self-importance and the busyness of dragging in the catch to not recognise that it was Jesus who was directing them. We too need to be aware that Jesus can come to us in our everyday lives and tasks. And to greet Him when he does.
It shows us that Jesus wills to direct us, and guide us in all we do â€” even (perhaps especially?) in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. The most mundane of tasks Jesus is also interested in. Which brings us nicely to breakfast.
The Big Breakfast
When they’d finished breakfast Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter replies, “Yes of course I love you!” And Jesus charges him to feed His lambs; tend His sheep; feed His sheep. Now of course, we can see this as Jesus reinstating Peter, if you like. As Peter had denied Jesus three times, Jesus welcomes Peter back three times and charges Him to care for those whom Jesus gives him.
I wonder though if we can look at it from another angle. Would Peter have said yes to Jesus had he known what was to happen to him in the future? Tradition has it that Peter was crucified in Rome, and chose to be crucified upside-down because he felt that was not worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. Would Peter have said yes had he known that this was what his commitment to the Gospel and to preaching about Jesus Christ would lead him to?
We can ask the same about us too. Do we say yes to Jesus â€” to following Him, in the way of the cross, in the way of self-denial, of losing our lives and finding new life in Him â€” only if we can see the way ahead, and are assured that it will be pain-free and comfortable? That it will not make demands on us? That it will not change? That we will not be challenged? That we will not be asked to give up all that is dear to us?
Where is God leading us?
I have felt challenged during this last year certainly, about my future path, and I can probably trace it back further than twelve months ago. I have felt challenged when I sensed that God was asking me to give up all of this: the relative security of living out my life of faith in a faith community, of my familiar role as a stipendiary priest.
I have felt challenged when I sensed that God was asking me step out of this role and embrace a new form of ministry “out there” in the world. It took me a long time to finally say Yes to God. There was a lot of heart-ache, and very many tears. But I believe this to be right. If people are not coming to Church, then the Church needs to go to the people. Just as Jesus went out to the people.
The question around this, that comes back to me again and again, is where is God calling us to? Where is God leading us as individuals in our own lives, in the lives of our families? Where is God leading us as a congregation? as a Church? as a denomination? as a faith community here in Scotland? And are we willing to say a whole-hearted yes to God? To trust that God will lead us step-by-step, meeting us where we are and guiding us to where He wants us to be?
There seems to me to be a great fear of change in the Church at the moment; a fear to take risks; where decisions appear to be made more by accountants and lawyers than theologians. And in some ways that is understandable. Society around us seems to be changing so dramatically and with such pace that it is reassuring to hold onto something familiar.
But change in the Church doesn’t mean that all that we hold dear about the Church is going to be swept away overnight and replaced with things we find distasteful. It doesn’t mean that overnight the choir will be replaced by a rock band, and that we will all be forced to wave our hands in the air during the worship â€” though you are very free to do so should you be so led.
However, that said, allowing God to direct us, means that we will change. Life, growth necessarily involves change.
It is the kind of change that we see in the Apostles. It begins with our simply recognising Jesus â€” far off on the shore, in the dim morning mist â€” and leads us to embracing Him. It begins with Jesus meeting us where we are, and embracing us.
It begins with Jesus reinstating us: forgiving us for the times that we have denied Him. And it continues with our willingness to wait on God, to be directed and led by God. And trusting that God’s ways are indeed greater than our ways, and to not worry about where He is leading us, but to know that where God is leading us is good, and that He will equip us for every small step of the way.
I’m sure at the beginning of his journey with Jesus, Peter would have thought you were mad if you’d said that he was to be the Rock on which the Church was built â€” that he would preach to the nations the Good News about Jesus. And if you’d told him that it would eventually lead to his death in Rome, thousands of miles from Galilee, he may well have turned around and gone straight home and locked the door behind him. God is willing to lead us to new places, individually and as a Church. And we need to be open to Him. To say Yes to Jesus as Peter said Yes to Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius that morning.
God is leading me to new places: to a new job at the University of St Andrews, to a new house in Cellardyke. I have no doubt that this is where God wants me to be. I have, as yet, no idea why!
Why has God called me to help manage websites at this Scottish university?! I have no idea. But I can tell you something: it will be exciting finding out.
(* Not my last sermon ever! But certainly my last sermon within the ministry team at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Murrayfield and St Salvador’s, Stenhouse.)