Sunday, April 22, 2007

(Easter 3) Following Jesus When the Fog Is Thick

Revelation is the Lord’s Doing
John 21:1-19

If I asked this morning, how many of you are followers of Jesus,
most of your hands would go up.
If we are Christians, we have no trouble identifying ourselves that way.
At least in Christian company.
Of course we follow Jesus.
That’s what brought us here today.
We identify with Jesus,
we have gathered today with the Jesus community,
to be with each other in fellowship and worship.

But it’s so easy, 2000 years this side of Easter,
to say it, to mean it, but not fully grasp it.
We take it for granted, that we “follow Jesus.”
You know, if we believe in Jesus,
if we respect his life and teachings,
if we seek—to the best of our ability—
to model our life and values after what Jesus represented,
then we should be able to say, “I follow Jesus.”
We should be able to count ourselves a disciple.

Well, that’s just one of many reasons why it’s good for us
to stay rooted in scripture, especially in the Gospel stories.
Because here we see what a complex thing it is to follow Jesus.
And that was in a time and culture
so much more simple and uncluttered than ours.
If these folks struggled to follow Jesus
when he was right there with them,
without all the trappings and entanglements
of 21st-century Western culture,
wouldn’t it make sense that we struggle sometimes
to figure out how to follow?

This season of Easter is a prime time to remind ourselves
of what we need as disciples of Jesus,
and to rejoice in the good news that our Risen Lord Jesus
is not far from us,
is living and active and present with us,
provides whatever we need to meet him, and follow him.
Even when we’re in a thick fog.

That’s what’s happening in these post-resurrection stories
in the Gospel of John.
It’s Jesus making one appearance after another
to his confused and fearful followers,
and trying to get through to them
that they need not fear,
they are not alone and bereft,
that they have all they need to continue to follow,
to pick up where Jesus left off,
and keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Last Sunday we looked at the story of Jesus’ appearance
in the upper room—first to all the disciples except Thomas,
and then to Thomas—
pronouncing peace, forgiveness, open-armed acceptance,
despite their shame and failure.

So now we come to the very next story in John.
And of course, one would think,
that after those appearances in the house,
after his reassuring words of love and peace and forgiveness,
after breathing on them the gift of the Holy Spirit,
after leaving them with a mission—
“as the Father has sent me, so I send you”—
that the disciples would be ready to roll.
What more do they need,
than full and free forgiveness,
and the breath of the Holy Spirit to empower them.
So we flip the page from chapter 20 to 21 of John,
and are fully prepared to see a story of how they left that house,
and proclaimed the kingdom of God with power and passion,
and how the Jesus movement flourished
under the bold leadership of these disciples
transformed by the spirit of the risen Christ.

Let’s look. Chapter 21, scene one.
Seven disciples in Tiberias, by the sea of Galilee.
Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”
The other six say, “We’ll go with you.”
On the face of it, that might sound reasonable.
They were fisherman, after all.
They had just been through quite a lot,
and it probably wasn’t entirely clear what they should do next.
And they knew how to fish.

But if you think about for a moment, you realize,
this isn’t the kind of fishing that you or I do.
It wasn’t a sport.
It wasn’t a way to relax after a hard day at the office.
It was a way to make a living.
And a mighty hard way, at that.
It was all-night work.
Demanding physical labor that required a team working together.
It also required—not insignificantly—
equipment that was in good repair.
Namely, a boat that had no leaks,
and a huge net with no tears or rotten spots.
they left their boats and nets behind over two years ago.
Sold them, I presume.
Or if not, they would have been in terrible state of neglect.

I wasn’t there that day by the sea.
And scripture doesn’t tell me Peter’s motives and intentions,
when he said, “I’m going fishing.”
But I’m sure this was no simple afternoon fishing break.
This was not Peter saying,
“You know, we’ve had some stressful days.
Let’s go cool our heels down by the creek,
throw in a line, and get some breakfast.”
A couple years ago, these partners in business sold out.
They forsook their boats and their nets, and they followed Jesus
into a new life calling.
Their vocational identity shifted
from fisherman to rabbinical students.
No small change.
Now, Peter takes the lead here
in announcing...he’s giving up, and going back.
I don’t see any other way to read it.
This was a mindful turning away from Jesus’ first call,
and returning to their earlier vocation.
Going back to what was secure.
I guess this makes it clear that Thomas
wasn’t the only doubter in the bunch.
Peter was chief among them.

I imagine Peter and the others were thinking:
Yes, Jesus has appeared to us three times now,
but what does it really mean?
What are we supposed to do with that?
Yes, he’s sending us out,
but to where, and to do what?
We’re not the miracles workers, Jesus is.
We’d only make fools of ourselves.
Okay, so we have the “Holy Spirit,” Jesus said,
whatever that means.
But that’s not the same as having Jesus here,
walking on ahead of us,
taking the lead in everything,
doing the talking for us.
We could never do what Jesus did.
And even if we could, look where Jesus ended up—
hanging on a cross.
Are we supposed to leave this house and risk our lives,
promoting the same cause that got Jesus killed,
and do it all on our own?

I can’t prove it, but I believe it.
There were thoughts like that running through their minds
that day when Peter made his decisive and pivotal statement:
“I quit. I am going fishing.”
Six others quit with him.
Acquired a boat and nets somehow.
And labored all night fishing,
for the sole purpose of selling their fish,
and establishing themselves once again
as competitive merchants on the Sea of Galilee.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t going so well.
All night they were throwing out their net,
and had nothing to show for it.
Either no fish were running that night.
Or they had gotten awfully rusty in two years.

That’s when Jesus shows up for a fourth time after the resurrection.
Could have been an ugly scene.
Yet another time when confrontation would have been appropriate,
and expected.
But Jesus chose not to shame them for their blatant lack of trust,
for giving in to their fears and insecurities
and turning their back on Jesus and his call once again.
He simply went to where they were at,
just like he did in the upper room.
And without condemnation,
he opened himself to them in generosity and hospitality.

The fact that they caught nothing all night,
was sort of poetic justice, wasn’t it?
The empty nets were a pretty powerful lesson, weren’t they?
Jesus could have let them remain empty, to make the point.
He already had a fire going on the beach,
and some of his own fish on the grill.
He could have just invited them to join him,
and eat the food he had.
They would have gotten the point.
But instead of trying to make a point,
instead of scolding them for taking up fishing again,
after having called them away from it,
he helps them with it.
He provides for them, a huge catch of fish,
which they, of course, will sell for a healthy sum of money.
Then he invites them for breakfast,
and invites them to put some of their fish on the grill, too.
He doesn’t look at those fish they caught as ill-gotten gain,
even though they wouldn’t have been fishing
if they hadn’t turned their back on him.
Jesus shared in their bounty. Shared in the joy of the catch.
Ate some of the fish himself.

And after breakfast, with only a few words,
he gave Peter something he needed even more than 153 fish.
He had already forgiven Peter,
when he met them in the upper room, and pronounced peace.
Now he gave Peter opportunity, not only to be forgiven,
but to be fully restored to his community,
to his role as the Rock, upon whom he would build the church.

In the most gentle, and affirming way, yet with utmost clarity,
he asked Peter a question three times,
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
The same number of times Peter denied that he knew Jesus.
Each time Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus wasn’t punishing Peter.
But he was holding him accountable.
He held up a mirror to Peter, for clarity, not condemnation.
“Do you love me, Peter?”
“Yes, Lord.”

That’s what it took to clear away the fog, I think.
The disciples were in a heavy fog after the resurrection.
They could see no more than a few feet in front of them,
so to speak.
They were in a fog of shame and guilt,
as well as fear and insecurity.

We’re in a fog, too.
For many different reasons.
We’re in a fog when it comes to following Jesus,
because we live in a culture that does not generally reinforce
our choices to follow Jesus—
at least not in a way that requires forsaking boats and nets
and other forms of personal security.
Our culture is no less hostile to the way of Jesus,
than the culture that Jesus himself grew up in,
and lived and died in.
We are encouraged to indulge the self,
to seek personal pleasure first,
to find our security by gathering possessions, money, and power,
to prize individual freedom above all.
That makes for a pretty thick bank of fog,
if we’re trying to see the way of Jesus clearly—
the Jesus who asked us to deny ourselves, take up our cross,
and follow him daily in life.

The fog rolls in for other reasons, too.
We all have many competing, and complex demands
on our time, our attention, our energy, and our passions.
We’re not all in position to throw everything up in the air,
and walk away from it all, and follow Jesus somewhere else.
There must surely be a way to be a faithful follower,
in the place where we find ourselves,
in our own community, and in our own place of work.
But it’s a complicated thing to follow Jesus.
More complicated, I think it’s fair to say,
than it was for Galilean fisherman in first-century Palestine.

The fog rolls in, too, in times of suffering.
We have all experienced some level of suffering,
when it’s difficult to make sense of life,
for one reason or another:
Life-threatening illness, death of a loved one,
a broken relationship,
And in a week like this past one,
we get in touch with suffering that results from mass tragedy.
We know, of course, that there is deep suffering
in other parts of the world,
on an even greater scale, on a daily basis.
But the Virginia Tech tragedy hits us in our gut,
because Tech is relatively close to us.
We are connected with people there.
We know current students Kari Stoltzfus, Kevin Hughes,
Phil Lehman.
Some of us are alumni.
Or we have friends on the faculty.
We might even know some of the victims, or their families.
We can understand, and appreciate, at least in part,
how difficult it must be for those who have suffered most
at Virginia Tech,
to think about just putting one foot in front of the other,
and moving forward in some fashion.

But whether we’re talking about massive disaster or tragedy,
or other kinds of suffering on a personal scale,
for those who are suffering, and who are followers of Jesus,
the questions are no easier.
How do you “follow Jesus” when you’re in deep pain,
when you are grieving loss,
when you are intensely afraid,
when you are feeling insecure and vulnerable?
Well, you probably do it like the disciples in John 20 and 21.
In fits and starts.
With hesitation and confusion.
Occasionally sounding courageous.
More often, not.

But the good news, dear sisters and brothers,
is that when the fog rolls in,
Jesus meets us right there in the thick of it.

Jesus does not condemn us,
when, in a time of suffering or confusion,
we slip into the default mode.
We go fishing.
We grasp for anything that looks secure.
We turn and run for cover.
Jesus does not condemn us.
Rather, Jesus finds a way to reveal himself to us.
To cut through the fog.
To make himself clear to us.
To give us another opportunity to come and follow.

That’s what was happening on the shoreline.
Jesus simply made himself present.
Made himself known.
Did not condemn the disciples for going fishing.
Just reminded them gently that they had a larger calling.
“Feed my lambs,” he said.
“Tend my sheep.”

Following Jesus when the fog is thick,
is no simple matter.
But God is a God of revelation.
God does whatever is necessary to be made known,
to be seen more clearly.
Whenever we find ourselves in the fog,
we can trust God to come to us in Jesus,
with kindness, with compassion, and in time, with clarity.
Lord, give us the courage to leave our boats and nets of security,
and follow you humbly.

—Phil Kniss, April 22, 2007

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