Sunday, 10 April 2016

More Life (John 21:1-19)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Apr 10, 2016, Easter III)


Life at a Standstill

We’ve all been there, where Peter and the disciples are at the beginning of today’s story. It’s a familiar setting, one that the children among us—and the child within each of us—know all too well. So rewind with me, if you will, back to the days of your childhood. (For some of us, this may take an awful lot of rewinding!) And revisit, if you can, the hazy days of summer vacation: No school. Few responsibilities. Just a whole lot of free time in front of you. And yet, it’s not very long before time comes to a stagnant standstill. It’s not very long before you and your friends are sitting on the curb, bored to death, trying to figure out what to do.

In my own experience, it would go like this. One friend would halfheartedly say, “Well, I’m gonna go play whiffleball.” And with nothing better to suggest, the rest of us would say like the disciples, “We’ll go with you.” Or someone would say, “Let’s play Monopoly.” And with no better alternative, we’d waste the next 72 hours of our life buying and selling hotels.

If those summer days are too long gone, then perhaps you can make it as far back as another era of freedom: college. Perhaps you can remember the dorm life, when time would commonly come to a standstill. Everyone would put off assignments until the last minute and in the meantime would mill about like sloths with nothing to do. Until someone would speak up, “I’m going to the 7/11.” Shrugs all around. What else is there to do? So there’s that familiar refrain again, “We’ll go with you,” and the whole dorm traipses like zombies to a half-stocked convenience store.

If the heady days of college are too long gone to remember, then I’m guessing that you might be in another celebrated era of freedom right now: retirement. I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve seen enough of my own parents to know that from time to time life comes to a standstill in retirement. Having both accomplished their self-determined tasks for the day, they’ll sit absently at the kitchen table, idly playing Words with Friends on their phones. And then my mom will voice an idea, as though she’s trying it on: “Well, I haven’t gone for a walk today.” To which my dad will reply, with that familiar refrain, “I’ll go with you.”

Whichever of these experiences resonates most with you, I’m nearly certain that we’ve all been with Peter by the Sea of Tiberias. Because as I imagine it, when Peter says, “I am going fishing,” he says it absently, idly. And I imagine that when the others respond, “We’ll go with you,” they say it with a shrug. What else is there to do? For Peter and the disciples, life has come to a standstill that mirrors the gently lapping sea in front of them. The disciples are some seventy miles away from Jerusalem, where Jesus had last appeared to them, and so I can only guess that they hadn’t seen Jesus for some time and had resigned themselves to the possibility that he would not appear again. In my imagination, they’re a bit unmotivated, as we all are from time to time. They’re just killing time, doing what they know, all the while, asking: What now? What next?

The Promise of More Life

After a night of fishing, they’re still at a standstill. Not a single fish caught in the night. But as the sun rises, there’s a stranger on the beach—ever notice how God nearly always steals onto the scene as a stranger? (I wonder sometimes if the new life of the resurrected Christ isn’t right under my nose, but I don’t recognize it, because all I can see is a stranger.) Anyway, this stranger tells them to try the other side of the boat. And then, suddenly, all heaven breaks loose. A massive catch. An exclamation, “It’s the Lord!” And then my favorite bit of the story, the kind of detail that could only come from an intensely personal memory, a picture engraved on the mind of the storyteller: Peter, we’re told, is naked. We’re not told why—that’s not important. What’s important is his eagerness to see Jesus, his sudden energy, the sudden feeling that life is not at a standstill, that there is more life. What’s important is the comical image of Peter “throwing himself” into the water with abandon, like a dog on a hot summer day—but not before he throws on a robe—and in my mind’s eye, he gets his arms confused as he fumbles for the right sleeves. He reminds me a bit of Scrooge on Christmas morning, throwing clothes on as quickly as possible so he can rush into the promise of more life.

I’m nearly certain that we’ve all felt what Peter felt, that sudden rush of more life, that sudden sensation of something new and wonderful on the horizon, that sense of joyful abandon. Anyone who’s had a tumor or a serious health concern has felt this, I’d guess. You expect the worst. And you wait and wait, while time stands still. And finally word comes back, and it’s nothing serious. And the good prognosis feels like a new lease on life. You want to throw yourself into life once more. Or anyone who’s been on either side of a favorable marriage proposal has felt this rush of new life, I’d imagine. The engagement is not only a promise of marriage but the promise of more life—or as Aladdin and Jasmine memorably put it, “a whole new world.”

From Casting Nets to Casting Ourselves

If Peter’s experience is anything to go by, then to receive the promise of more life is to see a stranger on the horizon. And to receive the gift of more life is to leap into the sea with joyful abandon, to cannonball into the chaotic currents of the world. Literally, in the Greek, Peter “casts” himself into the sea. His whole life he has been “casting” nets, but now he “casts” himself into the water. What a curious, revolutionary change.

I must confess that before today I never liked the image that Jesus used earlier in his ministry, when he told the disciples they would be fishers of people (Matt 4:19).[1] Taken uncritically, it suggested to me an imperialistic and presumptuous approach to faith, one that turns relationships into conquests and the love of God into a business of souls. It suggested to me that we are in the unassailable position of power and knowledge, while others are simply mindless fish we trap in our nets.

But I think today’s story enhances this metaphor of fishing, for the example of faith here is not someone in control of the nets but someone whose new lease on life leads him to renounce control, to “cast” not the nets but himself into the sea. According to this image, being “fishers” of people means being not the fisher controlling the nets, but the nets themselves. It means renouncing control, throwing ourselves into the uncontrollable, unforeseeable currents of life.

“Feed My Sheep”:
From Nets to Worms?

When Peter gets to the shore, there’s a charcoal fire. The last time there was a charcoal fire in the book of John, Peter was beside it, denying Jesus. At that point, he was afraid of the tides of life, not yet ready to cast himself into the chancy currents of what other people would think and do. But now he has “cast” himself into the chaotic tides of more life. And Jesus lets him know just what this means. Three times—once for each denial—Jesus urges Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Which, if we are to take Jesus’ example seriously when he says he is the bread of life, means perhaps not simply to hand the sheep their food but to be their food. In other words, maybe casting ourselves into the sea doesn’t mean simply that we are the nets. Maybe, if we can allow the image of fishing to metamorphose from nets to hooks and worms, maybe we are the worms.

What would this even mean? What would it look like? I think it looks like what we see here at church each Sunday, when in and around these buildings we welcome a host of children, some of whom see and understand and process the world differently than we do. We do not reel them into our way of thinking, into our formulation of faith. We let them be who they are. We cast ourselves with joyful abandon into their tides, doing our best to share God’s love with them, inviting them to step into that love in their own, unique way. We give ourselves to them as food, as nourishment. We throw ourselves into the unknowable currents of their lives, and we hope that in us they may taste the bread of life.

And this example is just the tip of the iceberg, just one fish among a haul of 153. For there are always new ways to feed others, new others to feed; Jesus is always calling us as he called Peter to cast ourselves out into the unpredictable currents of the world,[2] hoping against hope that somehow others may taste in us the love of God, the joy of life.

The gospel of more life is the good news that fills us with the same joy that filled Peter on that morning—not a selfish joy that tries to impose itself on others, that aims to preserve itself, but an uncontainable joy, a joy that cannonballs with abandon into the chaos of life. The gospel of more life is the kind of news that hits us when life is at a standstill, that fills us with the future, that overcomes us so that we cannot help but cast ourselves into the currents of life, making ourselves food for others, allowing ourselves to become the life of the world. To truly receive more life is also to become more life for others. It is to inspire them with the same joyful abandon we feel, to fill them with the laughter of resurrection, so that they too want to cast themselves into the water, to cannonball into life.

More life. It is never something we have or possess. It is something that happens to us, something that becomes us, something that we become for others.


God who interrupts our standstill lives with more life,
Cast us into the world
Where we might be food for others,
Where we might become more life for them. Amen.


[1] This story does not appear in the gospel of John. Nevertheless, its resonance with the scene at the end of John suggests the worth of comparing the two scenes: one a commissioning, the other a recommissioning.

[2] Jesus’ foreshadowing of Peter’s death in 21:18 indicates just how dangerous and unforeseeable the currents of this world are.

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