May 5, 2019
John 21, 1-19
Rev. Nancy Talbot
Many of you will have heard the well-known quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that says: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” If there was ever a good illustration of that quote, this morning’s story from the Gospel of John about Jesus’ appearance to disciples fishing at the sea of Tiberius might just be it.
(Let me set the scene) It’s now more than a week after Jesus has mysteriously risen from the dead. Twice he’s appeared to his disciples. He’s broken through the locked doors of the home in which they were hiding for fear of the authorities. He’s spoken words of peace and breathed into them a spirit of new life and forgiveness. He’s shown his wounds to Thomas, he’s given them a mission to go and preach and dare to live the good news of their faith. He done all these things and many other signs in the presence of his follower.
A week later, what are they doing in response? They’re going fishing. They’ve gone back to doing the same old thing, in the same old way, in the same old place they were doing it when Jesus first discovered them and called them to follow in his way. They’ve fallen back into old familiar habits, fishing out of the wrong side of the boat, perhaps expecting different results but getting instead the same old empty feelings and the same old empty nets.
A few years ago, some of us went to hear author and scholar Dominic Crossan talk about the circumstances in ancient Israel that allowed Jesus and his movement to take root and gain momentum. He spoke specifically about the state of the fishing industry during the 1st century in the area of the Sea of Galilee also known as the Sea of Tiberius.
He told us about the discovery of the hull of a boat back in the 80’s that illustrated the pressure under which the fishing industry was operating back at the beginning of the common era. The hull had been pieced together with a variety of inferior woods found locally. The entire keel of the boat had been salvaged from an earlier boat and re-purposed into the one that was found. The stern-post and stem post had been removed, presumably to be used in some other vessel. Even the nails had been taken out to be reused.
The boat hull, Crossan says, tells the story of a community living in poverty, a community experiencing a huge economic squeeze under the rule of Antipas, son of King Herod who had commercialized the lake in order to increase his tax base. The impact of that on the local fishing villages was severe. Resources were scarce, people were valued only for the economic worth, which is why children and widows had such little worth, and people were despairing.
So when a man named Jesus showed up and said follow me and I will make you fishers of men, we can imagine that what Jesus was inviting them into was a movement: a growing movement of people that valued each person for who they were, not just for what they could produce; a non-violent movement that taught them that when they shared with one another what they had and cared for one another and let their lives be ruled by grace and love everyone would have and be enough; a movement that called forth from within them the strength and the courage to stand up for what they knew was just and fair.
Crossan says this is why the Jesus stories emphasize food and health and the land because people were desperate for the abundance that good and just relationships with one another and with the land can bring.
So the stakes were high. If the response of Jesus followers to his death was to cower in the corner and go back to the way things had been because they were afraid; if they felt unworthy of their mission because they had messed up so badly by abandoning their leader in his hour of need; if they thought they would never have the gifts and skills to do what he could do, so why bother trying; then everything that had been gained would be lost and even worse, everything he showed them was possible would never come to be.
This was a community that desperately needed resurrection.
We too are a community in need of resurrection aren’t we? I’ve certainly been feeling that all week long. We’re grieving the loss of a long term and faithful member of our community, Ted Butterfield who died last Sunday morning. We’re also grieving the loss of a newer member of our church, Joan Ogden who died on Monday. On Thursday we received news that our friend Ian DeJong who lives in the Atrium had fallen and fractured his pelvis while on holidays in Mexico and was being airlifted back to Vancouver. It’s been one of “those” weeks around here.
And that’s not even to mention all that we are grieving in our wider community: a changing climate and all its ill effects; a political landscape that doesn’t seem particularly hopeful at least not to me; increasing racial tensions and I could go on and on.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when we experience the shock of a significant loss in our lives, part of what helps us move through that shock is going back to what is familiar in our lives. Sometimes we literally retreat behind closed doors in places that feel safe. We often spend time revisiting old memories. Sometimes people even take up old hobbies or projects they had long forgotten just because they evoke a feeling of familiarity. Going back seems to helps us go forward when we are ready to do so after we have experienced a loss. It somehow helps us get our bearings in disorienting times.
But we can also get stuck in our grief or stuck in the nostalgia of the past when we go back there for a visit. It can happen when we are grieving the loss of a loved one. It happens sometimes when we are championing a cause like the environment and we experience failures that discourage us from taking any more action. It happens in places of diminishment like the church when we tell ourselves that if we just go back to the way things used to be all our problems would be solved. It happens in the political arena when we are so enamored with the way things used to be we can’t imagine a creative way forward. It happens when we are burnt out and exhausted for any number of reasons but we just keep repeating the same old unhelpful patterns anyway because if nothing else, those patterns are familiar.
Before long, instead of feeding on all that is right and wonderful in our lives, abundant and good we start to starve ourselves instead with fear and failure, self-doubt and sorrow.
We forget that we are immersed in the power and the promise of resurrection even when we are surrounded with death and loss. We forget that we too have been called and given a mission to live and to share good news.
That’s what’s going on with the disciples in this morning’s story. They are literally starving. They are not catching enough fish to sustain their own living let alone enough to share with those around them. They’ve gone back to the way things were and that way is not life-giving.
The morning Jesus shows up on the shoreline and directs the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, he doesn’t admonish them for messing up – again. What he does instead is feed them.
Those of you who are familiar with the Gospel of John know that it is full of symbolism, so you may have picked up by now that what Jesus feeds the disciples when he calls them to gather round the fire is not just fish and bread. He feeds them on memories, memories of his presence with them, memories of what they have already learned and what they already know, memories of love and forgiveness, possibility and grace, memories of who they are and what they are meant to be about.
The fish and the bread are meant to remind them of the miracle of the fishes and the loaves and the promise that there is more than enough for all to eat it we would simply share what we’ve been given and be thankful for what we have.
When after he feeds the disciples, he asks Peter do you love me, not once, not twice but three times, we’re meant to remember the three times Peter denied Jesus and in that moment to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God and the power of the spirit that has been breathed into each and every one of us as surely as life itself has been breathed into each one of us.
What we’re being told here is that we’re meant to feed on these promises and to do so as regularly as we put food into our mouths, so that along with Peter and the others we can be sustained in the work that is ours to feed those who hunger in body, mind and spirit. We’re meant to feed on these promises and do so regularly so that whenever we are in the midst of sorrow, loss and grief, whenever we wonder how we will save our planet and achieve justice and peace for all, we will be able to move beyond the past and continue to live as an Easter people.
It is understandable that when we sustain a great loss we need to grieve, to pause and remember, to feed on compassion and grace. Then we need to remember who we are and what we were made for and get on with the work of feeding the sheep. The stakes are high and the need for resurrection is great.