“Doing the Next Thing”

May 5, 2019 | John 21:1-19

This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.  And Jesus finds them fishing.  I have to confess, my first response to the fact that after experiencing Jesus alive twice, the disciples have gone fishing, is to say, “what’s up with that?  Really guys?  That’s the best you can do?  Go back to doing what you did when Jesus found you and called you to follow him?   I felt judgment on them.

After our Bible study conversation about this story, I had to think about my judgment. Where did that come from?  What did I think they should be doing?  I realized that I learned this judgment from a lot of sermons I have heard about this text over the years.  Incredulous preachers chiding these guys for not getting it.  And the central message of those sermons was always, “don’t be like the disciples.  Don’t slide back into your old way of life.  If Jesus is really risen from the dead, get out there and share the good news!” So I decided to suspend all this judgment of others, which grows from my own judgments of myself and listen to the story again.

The first two times Jesus comes to the disciples, they are in a locked room together in fear for their lives.  Their teacher was executed.  There are plenty of folk who would love to see them dead.  And yet, they opened that door and walked out of that locked room.  It feels remarkable to me.  And I wonder, was it seeing Jesus alive that got them over their fears?  Did they think that now all the danger was gone?  Or were they still fretting some?  Was it expediency that got them to walk out of that locked room?  They were fisherman by trade.  They had to make a living.  They couldn’t stay in lock down forever.

They way John tells the story is kind of funny.  Like they were all just sitting around baffled about what to do next.  Jesus comes and goes like a phantom.  He’s given them no marching orders.  Maybe they had been arguing about the best thing to do next.  Then Peter, the ever impatient one, announces, “I’m going fishing,” and they all say, “We will go with you.” I wonder if any of them were secretly thinking, “this seems like a really stupid idea Peter?”  I wonder if some of them really wanted to stay in that room but didn’t want to look cowardly?  Or were they just relieved that somebody took the initiative to get up and do something?  In Bible study, someone imagined a quickly scrawled sign hanging on the door to the room where they had been locked away that read, “Gone fishin’.”

This story has had me thinking about those junctures in our life where we wonder, “what should I be doing now?”  Is this the right work for me?  Or should I be doing something else?  Should I spend more time caring for family members?  Do I want to volunteer somewhere in the community?  Should I maybe go back to school?  Or should I just give it a rest?  And I’ve been thinking about the kinds of junctures that churches come to where leaders and congregations wonder what’s the best plan of action for us?  What could we do to get more members?  How might we more faithfully serve our neighbors?  Should we spend money to re-paint the front of the sanctuary or fix the organ or make a donation to help reclaim the African burial ground?  And it can be kind of exhausting to always be wondering what should I do now?  What should we do now?  Is this the right decision?  Is this the best choice?

What I love about the first part of this gospel story is the ease in it.  Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” and the others say “we’ll go with you.”  So easy.  Once they’ve got their nets in the water, I imagine they’re just chilling together.  Listening to the waves lapping at the sides of their wooden boat.  Feeling the night breeze tussle their hair.  Rocking in the boat back and forth like babies in a cradle.  Giving in to the exhaustion of the last few days.  Doing what is familiar and comfortable.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stands on the beach, unrecognized by them, inquiring about their fishing expedition, and recommending they cast their nets on the right side of the boat.  Curious idea, but sure, why not?   Their nets are filled with exactly 153 brag-worthy fish.  John,  the beloved disciple, figures out that it is Jesus.  Naked Peter puts his clothes on, jumps in and swims ashore.  A little strange that he dresses to go swimming, but sure, why not?

When they come ashore, Jesus is cooking them breakfast.  A bit surprising, but sure, why not? Fragrant loaves and fishes are already sizzling over the fire.  The fire warms their bones.  Then Jesus serves them.  Feeds them.  Tends them.  The waves lapping on the shore.  The soft winds tussling their hair.  The sun slowly rising, painting the sky orange.  Their bellies full.  Their minds peaceful.  And the living is easy.

After breakfast, the story turns, the ease ends as tension rises between Jesus and Peter.  Peter is hurt that Jesus asks him three times, “do you love me.”  Some say Jesus asks three times because when Jesus was crucified Peter denied knowing him three times.  So now he has to confirm three times that he really, truly loves Jesus.  I don’t think so.  Jesus doesn’t do tit for tat.  It feels like this part of the story parallels the story Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness before he begins his mission.  This difficult exchange stands as testimony to Peter’s readiness to lead this little band of people who have chosen to follow in the way of Jesus, feeding and tending, providing and caring for others as Jesus did.  But it feels kind of heavy.  Like we’re back in the fretting, riding the “what should we do now” merry-go-round.  Somebody recently said to me, “I’ve always been kind of bothered by that part of Christianity that says, “you have to serve and serve and serve some more.”  Me too.   By itself, this message is a recipe for burn-out or feelings of guilt that we’re not doing enough, or not doing the right thing.  It is the source of those sermons that chide the disciples for going fishing when they should have been out preaching and doing the good news of resurrection.

But there is this other part of the story, the first part, the starting place, where an apparent stranger kneels on the seashore cooking breakfast, saying, “Come and eat.  Come and be fed.  Come and be cared for.  Don’t fret about what you should do next or if you are doing enough.  Rest.  Laugh.  Sit and enjoy the sunrise.  Feel the breeze tussling your hair.  Breathe in the fresh morning air. Trust in abundance. Put a sign on the door that says, “Gone Fishin’” and don’t look back. Imagine that resurrection is real and divine love embraces you and nourishes for life, here, and now, and forever.

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