5-7-23 Homily Jesus On the Beach John 21: 1-17 Rev. Betsy Wooster
Out fishing on the lake, grilling fish over the fire on the sand…this sounds like summer to me. As we move into the months of summer, it’s a good time to dig into some themes and explore stories from the scriptures as if we were listening to them around a campfire at night.
You may remember that last summer our worship theme was Profiles in Faith, where each week we focused on a person in scripture whose story was compelling. Whether their stories were iconic or subtle, we got to know them better. This summer, for the months of May and June, our theme is “Transformative Encounters.” For July and August, our theme is Metaphors for God. For many of the weeks ahead in May and June we will focus on stories within scripture that are transformative for the people or person involved in them. Today’s sermon is titled “Jesus on the Beach,” which as you’ve just heard, is a fishing tale.
This fishing story began long before the disciples met Jesus. When Jesus very first saw the men he would call to be his disciples while walking on the lakeshore, these fishermen were in their boats tending to their nets, a life they’d known since childhood. Fishing was the family business. As male heirs, they were expected by their father, and by society, to take over the business for their father one day. A fisherman’s job was tied to a place. Stability and security were tied to a place. Keep in mind that there was no middle class at this time. These fishermen were the indigent poor, the subsistence poor; walking away from their boats to follow Jesus meant they had no income. It meant they were leaving their families. And yet, they were drawn to follow this rabbi, Jesus. Jesus saw them from the shoreline and called them to follow him, and they dropped their nets and followed him. We might say that the holy spirit drew them to this task.
This is part of the background that brings us to today’s text. A lot has happened between then and now. Today’s story finds the disciples lost. As committed followers of Jesus, everything they had come to live for in their lives was gone. Their teacher, friend, and savior was crucified on the cross. They watched it happen. The experience of Jesus’ resurrection had not yet sunk in.
Yes, they had seen the risen Christ twice before seeing him on the lake shore on this day. Jesus had appeared to them in the locked room on the day he rose and then appeared to them again one week later in that same room, so that he could speak to Thomas, who wasn’t there the week before. He appeared to them, he spoke to them, he breathed on them the wind of the Holy Spirit, and then he was gone. We can only imagine what an enormous relief, what an enormous miracle it was in their lives, for Jesus to appear to them, to show himself to them in these instances.
And yet, unlike that first time that he called them to drop their nets and follow him, he was no longer there in a way that they could follow him, they couldn’t listen to the stories he told them late into the night, they couldn’t ask him their burning questions, they couldn’t learn from him in the way that they were used to, in the way that enthralled them and brought the presence of God alive to them every day of their lives. If they weren’t following him from day to day, and place to place, What were they to do other than to go back to the only livelihood they knew? Lost, grieving, and frightened for their lives, they went back to work. They went back to the boats where Jesus first found them. In a way, they went home. And it was there that they had one more transformative encounter with Jesus.
So, what is different this time around? One obvious difference is the setting. It is daybreak as the disciples head for the shore after an unsuccessful night of fishing. Jesus stands, unrecognized, on the beach, looking at them. He calls to them, “children, you have no fish, have you?” And from there, Jesus and the disciples proceed to have a regular exchange back and forth about what to do next, and they still don’t realize who it is. Then Jesus tells them to cast their net to the other side. They do so, and their net finds an enormous school of fish, a catch almost too big to haul in. And this was the turning point for one of the disciples, the one referred to as the disciple that Jesus loved. A catch like this had happened before in Jesus’ presence….and suddenly he understood it was Jesus, yelling to Peter, “It is the Lord! And Peter, jumps into the lake, while the rest of them haul in the catch.
What comes next has long been one of my favorite gospel texts. They reach the shore, get out of the boat, and find Jesus grilling fish and bread over a charcoal fire. There is something so incredibly ordinary about it, something so incredibly loving about it. So ordinary, in fact, that Jesus doesn’t embrace them with tears of love and joy. He says, simply, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Peter hops back on the boat and drags 150 fish in a net to Jesus, yet another story of Jesus’ miraculous provision of food. Here is the Jesus we know. It’s a pivot in the story as we shift from what’s just happened in the boat, to what’s about to happen on the shore. Jesus is going to feed them, and not just physically feed them, but to nourish them body and soul to show them who they are and what must come next. Jesus’ invitation to bring some of their fish to the grill seems to suggest that he is going to add them to the grill along the with fish and bread already there, and that is exactly what he does.
Never does something taste better than when you’ve been out on a boat for the entire day or the entire night. I remember a fishing vacation with my family when I was a child. My grandpa, dad, and brothers fished in Canada every summer, but on this particular trip, the girls of the family were along for a long boat trip on Pigeon Lake. We all went out on the Lake with our guide for a day of fishing. I was five years old, so I of course I was very excited to be included, and then very bored pretty early on in the trip. After what felt like many hours, we pulled up to a small island and the guides began grilling our freshly caught fish.
I wish I could tell you that this was just like the story of Jesus grilling fish for the disciples. However, at the tender age of five, I, most decidedly, was not moved by their generosity, because I did NOT like fish. But then, something miraculous happened. Just when I was ready to pout for the rest of the trip, I was handed a freshly grilled pork chop. From that moment on, I was transformed! I smiled at our guide and could hardly believe that he knew how much I loved pork chops. (It was only later that I figured out that it was my mom who had made that happen, of course.) Even now, what I remember most is my joy and surprise that what I needed most that day was given to me…food that I loved when I was hungry. For me, it was a miracle of sorts.
I was tired, and hungry, and feeling more than a little bit grumpy by the time our boat pulled up to the shore, and to my surprise, there on sandy beach, was a grill over a fire with a pork chop on it. I was fed, body, mind and spirit. “Come and have breakfast,” those are the words that Jesus said after the disciples gave him some of their catch. And then he took the bread, and he took the fish, and he gave it to them. This is a communion story, a story of the Sacrament of Communion caught up inside a fishing tale. What a beautiful blending of body and spirit.
But, something else is also happening here… Jesus is grilling for them, yes, but remember, he asked them to add their catch to meal. This wasn’t just what Jesus was doing for them, this was Jesus teaching them what they could now do for him, and it wasn’t in a closed room, and it wasn’t inside the synagogue. They were being called to be disciples in the wider world. The fish they added to the grill could feed not only them, but others who were hungry. Jesus showed them how to bring their own gifts to the nourishing work of God. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, when they no longer followed him from place to place, they discovered that their discipleship was not behind them.
Their true discipleship had only now just begun. They were no longer lost. They found themselves, and their purpose, as Jesus fed them. Jesus knew these fishermen. He knew them at their best, and he knew them at their worst. They weren’t perfect, but Jesus knew their potential. They knew how to fish, and Jesus chose this moment to show that their gifts were stronger than they knew, that he trusted them, and that their call as fishermen would go beyond the lakeshore. At daybreak on this beach, he gave them their charge. It was a simultaneously simple and profound charge: FEED MY SHEEP. Peter took center stage in this story. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Peter said yes, and three times Jesus said “then feed my sheep.” Jesus basically said, don’t just tell me that you love me. Show me that you love me. Feed my sheep. Jesus reveals to them that it is in the midst of their ordinary, daily lives, their regular jobs, and their regular habits, that they can model the life of Jesus and offer the love of God to the world around them.
Peter represents all the disciples. He was the first one called on the lakeshore back in the days when Jesus first found them; Jesus named Peter the Rock; he was viewed as the head of the church. Jesus speaks to Peter as a call to all of them. A call to trust themselves and use their God given, God nourished, gifts to extend this call beyond themselves. And he did this by passing out portions of freshly grilled fish. A reminder that they were being fed, and this joy, this nourishment, was now theirs to pass on. Their discipleship was not over. What did the disciples do when Jesus told them to feed his sheep? They became the church. They became the body of Christ, and they spread the ministry of Jesus throughout the known world.
Peter represents us, as well. God is constantly nourishing us and, if we are paying attention, at some point we realize that God is calling for our gifts to be brought in the service God in a way that will make our lives different than they were before.
So come, gather round the fire,
gather round the Communion table,
to be nourished and transformed by the love of God.
And bring your gifts,
bring what God has given to you.
Those are a part of God’s work, too.