A sermon preached at Grace United Church, Sarnia, Ontario
Text: John 21:1-19
Two weeks later, here we are, back at the seashore… Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two others have returned to the Sea. Here they are, all together sitting around a fire on the seaside. They’re just hanging out. Ever the impetuous one of the group, Peter suddenly looks up: “Guys, I’m going fishing.” One by one they join him and soon all of the boats are back out on the water.
Follow me, said Jesus, and I will make you fish for people. But now our fishermen have returned to their fish.
Easter. Two weeks ago we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the dead with what was likely a lot more faith and hope than did Mary, Simon Peter, and the other disciple when they encountered the empty tomb early that morning. It was empty of Jesus’ body and, in the words of Mary when she unknowingly encountered Jesus in the garden, “they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”
The inclination that something had happened doesn’t seem to have fully sunk in, however. The evening of the day Jesus rose, the disciples were hiding away behind a locked door. A locked door?! So much for believing in the power of the resurrection!
To their surprise, and very likely ours had we been in their shoes, Jesus appeared among them, speaking to them before breathing his spirit upon them as he sent them out.
But… one week later, there we are, still in the same room with the same locked door, clearly not entirely sure of what has happened. Jesus appears again in our midst and we are able to see and touch him.
Another week passes and the disciples are no longer locked up in the room. Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanial, James, John, and two others have walked some 170 kilometres north of Jerusalem to the Sea of Tiberias – the Sea of Galilee. That’s not too far off the distance between here and, say, Kitchener. First century roads, however, are far cry from our highways and it took them a little longer to plod the dusty tracks of Israel than the couple of hours it might take us to drive that distance today.
It is a familiar road.
I wonder if they were recalling the last time they had all walked it: on the way to Jerusalem and the way to Jesus’ death on the cross, though they did not know it at the time.
This time, though, we’re headed north instead of south. Perhaps they feel as we sometimes do when travelling: the return road seems to pass by faster than the leaving did. Despite the hills and the dust as we walk along, maybe our pace begins to pick up as we get closer to the Sea.
They’re going home.
Did the painful and confusing memories of the previous few weeks in Jerusalem begin to fade as they put some distance between themselves and the city? Were they talking about what had happened? Were they trying to forget? Or were they still struggling to make sense of what had happened?
Despite having seen Jesus, seen him twice for some of those in our travelling group, there seems to be some confusion about what to do now. Jesus sent them out, but maybe they don’t know what that means.
So we are gathered together beside the Sea, their familiar place, the place where they had fished every day up until Jesus called each one, one-by-one.
Two weeks after the resurrection and that first Easter morning, two weeks after Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and his sending them out… Three years of hearing Jesus’ teachings day-in-day-out and seeing his miraculous actions, and we are back where we started: at the sea, fishing.
I don’t know about you, but Easter Sunday wasn’t even over before I was back to my regular routine: papers to write, textbooks to read…
We have work to do. Activities to plan. People to see. Daily life catches up with us and it is easy to forget.
The writer of the gospel of John doesn’t tell us the motives behind Peter’s return to fishing fish, so we are left to fill in some of those blanks. Thinking about human nature, though, I think that I get it: Life has been pretty uncertain for awhile. They haven’t had a stable place to stay for anything more than a few nights at a time. Their leader has just died and then strangely reappeared.
The economy is uncertain. Unemployment has been dragging on and on. Too many good people have died for what seems like no reason. Food prices keep fluctuating.
It is pretty natural to want to stay in the security and certainty of things that are known, even if it does mean going back.
But can we go back? Can we remain unchanged?
Easter has happened and is happening whether we feel certain about it or not.
Today we call the third Sunday of Easter – so our feet are still firmly planted in the season of Easter.
With the cross and resurrection, time shifted and what was then is now. Rather than Easter being that day we look forward to once a year, it is every single day.
The sun rises every morning and we are reminded that early in the morning today, yesterday, and tomorrow, Jesus rose.
So it is for the disciples, whether they knew it or not: the things they witnessed and participated in over the previous three years have changed them irrevocably. There really is no going back for any of us.
As if as a reminder of that, Jesus suddenly appears to us for the third time since he rose.
But, we don’t know it is him at first. We’re still out fishing – well, trying to fish. It has been a bad night and we have caught nothing.
Maybe they had been about to give up anyway. Thomas, leaning over to Peter, reminding him that he had thought this was a bad idea in the first place: they hadn’t fished in three years! What made us think we could just pick it back up?
And a figure appears on the beach, shouting out: Have you caught anything?
I’m not much of a fisherman. Two summers on the lake with my husband and his family haven’t increased my skill at all, so I have some understanding of what it feels like to have to respond to that question with a sigh and a Nope. Still haven’t even caught one fish…
But I have enough of an understanding of how fishing works to realize that when you’re out in the middle of the sea, throwing your net or your rod over the other side of a small boat isn’t going to make a huge difference.
Believe me, I’ve tried everything.
But that is what Jesus tells them to do: Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.
So they do it and have an epic haul of fish. The gospel writer tells us that there were so many fish that they were not able to haul in the net, fearful that it might break.
Such abundant grace from Jesus: these people he had invested so much time and energy into over the last three years seem to have abandoned everything to go back to how life was before they met him. Rather than pout or get angry, Jesus extends so much grace that it strains our capacity.
Because that is what grace does.
When you least expect it. When all hope is gone. When you wonder what you are doing. When there are no fish. When you think there is no future.
There is overflowing abundant grace.
Not blame for having failed. Not guilt for feeling like there is no hope. Not shame for feeling lost.
Only overflowing abundant grace.
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness, in your doubt, in your confusion…
And then, as if to settle it, Jesus invites them to share a meal.
They came, Jesus took bread, broke it, and passed it to his disciples.
Then he did the same thing with the fish.
Eat with me, he said.
Remember what happens when we eat?
Where two or three are gathered,
Whenever you break bread and eat, you do this in memory of me.
It is so simple, isn’t it?
In the midst of our doubts, in the midst of our uncertainties, Jesus shows up on the shore and invites them to share a meal once again. We sit down together and eat: whether it be around the Table of the Lord on a Sunday morning as the church community breaks bread together, around the kitchen table at home with the familiar laughter of family or friends, or around tables in a church hall smelling and tasting rich and fragrant soup prepared by your church family, Jesus is with us on the shore this morning, inviting us to share life and eat with him.
The Last Supper and resurrection meals fold into one with the changing of time and we find community and fellowship with each other.
Not only that, but we remember that today is Easter. And tomorrow when we wake up and eat breakfast, it is still Easter. And the next day, and the day after that.
Shortly after Jesus rose, two disciples, in their fear and uncertainty, went for a walk and found themselves at the table, eating with Jesus.
As the bread was broken and shared, their eyes were opened and they realized that Jesus had been amongst them the entire time, overflowing with such grace that their hearts had been burning with the joy of his presence.
May it be for us as it was for them: as we eat, as we drink, may we find and know the abundance of God’s grace in our lives and in our lives together.