Sunday, April 22, 2007

Gone Fishin'

Third Sunday of Easter– Year C
Jeremiah 32:36-41; Psalm 33:1-11; Acts 9:1-19a; John 21:1-14
Sunday, April 22, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

What was Peter thinking?!? Here it is, only a few weeks after Christ’s death and resurrection. Never mind the fact that this was the most miraculous, unprecedented event in all of human history. The founder and sole leader of a revolutionary religious movement had been assassinated. Sure, he had been resurrected, but at this point in time, it was still a little too early to know what that really meant for the movement. Things were not exactly looking that good. John tells us that just a few days before, on the evening of the day Christ was resurrected, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). From the looks of things, the movement was in danger of being squelched by the religious authorities – and if not by them, certainly by the Roman occupation.

In the midst of this, the miraculous happens. Jesus appeared to the disciples and said “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). And then “he breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus had given them their marching orders. They were being commissioned to continue the work of the movement – to continue the work that Jesus had done prior to his death. Seems pretty clear. In light of this, there was obviously a lot to be done. The faithful followers had to be gathered and told that the movement would continue. There were press releases to prepare, letting the world know that the movement had not gone under. There would need to be strategic planning sessions to figure out the best way to carry out this new commission from Jesus. There were hungry people to be fed, naked people to be clothed, sick people to be healed. There was a lot that needed to be done. Fortunately, the one thing that Jesus, being a good manager, had already taken care of was choosing a successor to lead the movement. You will recall that some time ago, Jesus said to Peter, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” and then promised to give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This move certainly saved time. There would be no need for arguments about who was best qualified to take the reins of the movement, and there would be no need to have an election.

So, despite a lot of uncertainty, the disciples were in a position to get down to work, the work the Lord had commissioned them to do, under Peter’s leadership. But then, what does Peter do during his first week on the job as CEO, right when there was so much work to be done? He puts a Gone Fishin’ sign on the door and leaves the office. And to make matters worse, he takes half the management team with him. So, again, I ask, what was Peter thinking?!?

Now, there is certainly disagreement among biblical scholars about why Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, and John, as well as two other unnamed disciples were motivated to go fishing, of all things. And more to the point, about what does this impromptu fishing trip say about the disciples’ relationship to Jesus. Some see this expedition as a sign of the disciples’ complete apostasy and a fulfillment of Jesus prediction in John 16:32, where he says “the hour is coming . . . when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone.” These scholars take the fishing trip to be a sign that the disciples have abandoned Jesus and returned to their homes, to their former lives. Still other scholars see the fishing trip as indicative of the disciples’ aimlessness – they didn’t know what to do following the death of their Lord, so they were, pardon the pun, floundering (that was for you, Ron). So, they occupied their time with what they knew best – fishing. And yet other scholars are inclined to view the scene more positively, through the lens of the Synoptic Gospels, such as in Mark where Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). In this interpretation, the fishing trip is a symbolic enactment of John’s account of Jesus’ commission to the disciples during his first post-resurrection appearance to them – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).

But, of course, as I am wont to do, I have my own take on the motivation for and subsequent meaning of Peter and company’s little fishing trip – an interpretation that is perhaps a little more generous than some.

As you can well imagine, Peter and the other disciples would have been confused and overwhelmed by the events of the previous couple of weeks. A little over two weeks before, they had been enjoying a Passover meal with their master and friend – celebrating the victory won for Israel at the hand of God during what for them would have been the greatest event in salvation history – the Exodus. And then, in the space of a few hours, their master was betrayed by one of their own and arrested by the Romans. Within a day, their master had been tried and convicted by Roman and Jewish authorities, sentenced to death, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Their heads were obviously spinning from the rapid pace of events. Everything they had known for three years, had been destroyed. Their world had been turned upside. They were naturally confused, uncertain about what would happen to them, what they should do. And as if that weren’t enough, a couple of days later, their master was raised from the dead and appeared to them, telling them they were to continue the work he had begun. Now that would have had to have been not only confusing, but overwhelming. Like most of us, they would have needed time to reflect on what had happened, to process their experiences and feelings. They would have needed time to discern what they were supposed to do, particularly in light of the fact that their risen Lord had commissioned them to continue on. This would be too much for most people – especially so for these simple men. So who can blame them for wanting to go fishing?

Now, I don’t mean to imply that they were trying to escape from their problems, from the events of the previous two weeks, from the challenges that they faced. No. If there was something they learned from three years with Jesus, it was that when you are depleted, confused, overwhelmed, the best thing to do is to withdraw to a quiet place for prayer and reflection. They knew they needed time and space to step back, to reflect, to pray, to figure things out. Rather than sit around in Jerusalem, they decided to go for a change of scenery, to get away and get a new perspective. Peter chose to do this in a place that was safe and comfortable. For men who spent their whole lives, from the time they were boys, in fishing boats, what could be safer and more comfortable than to return to their roots, to what they knew best?

In a way, what they were doing was incredibly practical. They could get away and also do something productive – catch some fish, either for their own use or to sell to earn a little money. After all, fishing does not require a lot of mental or emotional energy. It is essentially physical labor. While throwing out their nets, while waiting for the nets to scoop up the waiting fish, they would have the time they needed to think, and reflect, and even pray.

We are not told if during this fishing expedition they came to any new insights into what they had experienced in Jerusalem, had any revelations as to how to deal with the changes in their lives, or gained any clarity about how to carry out the commission they had been given. But what we do know from John’s account of the fishing trip is that in their work, they encountered the risen Christ. They didn’t just encounter him, they experienced the abundance that Christ makes possible. An abundance that is made possible only when they allowed themselves to be open to possibilities – in this case, the possibility that maybe, in spite of the fact they have fished all night and not caught a single fish, just maybe, they will catch something if they cast their net on the right side of the boat, as Jesus suggests. And when they trust in the possibilities, when they trust in Jesus, they are rewarded with an abundance of fish beyond their wildest dreams.

In this story about Peter and the disciples and their little impromptu fishing trip, there lies a lesson for us today – the importance of meeting Christ in our everyday lives, and most importantly in our work. In our society, we tend to define ourselves by what we do. When two people meet, particularly in social situations, one of the first pieces of information exchanged other than name is occupation. Think about it. “Hi, my name is Michael.” “Hi, I’m Peter.” “Nice to meet you Peter. So what do you do?” “I’m a fisherman. What do you do?” “Me? I’m an Episcopal priest.” And the conversation goes from there. And if you’re a student, it’s pretty much the same thing. But instead of “what do you do?” the questions are more along the lines of “what year are you?” and “what’s your major?” What we do is such an important part of our self-identity, of how we view ourselves, of how the rest of the world views us.

On any given day, most working folks spend at least a third of their day, if not more – usually more, engaged in whatever it is that they “do.” Most of our jobs require that we focus our attention on the multiple tasks required of the job – often multiple tasks and people, all competing for our attention. When I was working in the transportation planning profession, my time was always in demand – juggling multiple projects, many with competing deadlines; catering to and holding the hands of numerous clients; addressing the concerns of numerous government agencies; attendance at endless meetings; answering phone calls or returning calls left on voice mail while I was out at meetings; endless e-mails; staff members who needed me to review their work or answer questions about difficult assignments; colleagues wanting to discuss various issues. And the list goes on. I would venture to say that all of you could come up with similar lists of demands on your time and your person. And if you’re retired, it’s probably much the same – most retired people I know are even busier in retirement than they were when they were employed. Even our children have increasingly growing lists of demands – school, homework, practice for sporting events, the sporting events themselves, music lessons, dance lessons, etc.

My point is that in our fast-paced society, there are increasing demands on our time, with something, multiple somethings, vying for our attention from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night. We barely have time to breathe, let alone time for our Lord, time for God. We have church, you say? Sure, we have Sunday mornings, but frankly, that is not enough. There are 168 hours in a week. An hour on Sunday is only six-tenths of one percent of our week. In the meantime, we are spending 25, 30, even 35 percent of our time at work, not to mention all the other time that is spent just keeping life going. Shouldn’t God be a part of that time, too?

Here again, we need to take a lesson from our friend Simon Peter. In the midst of working, he was able to recognize the risen Lord in his midst. When he did, “he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” This little bit of comic relief in the story tells us an important lesson. In his enthusiasm, his excitement, his eagerness, to embrace the Lord in the midst of his work, Peter jumped out of the boat fully clothed, wanting to get to shore to as quickly as possible. He was not willing to wait for the boat to get to shore, we was so eager.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to see Jesus in the midst of our everyday lives, in the midst of our demanding work. But we are not alone. As you recall, John tells us that the disciples did not initially recognize the risen Lord in their midst, either. They were uncertain that who they were seeing really was Jesus. As Bill Countryman, New Testament Professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, points out, “the uncertainty is intrinsic to any encounter with the risen Jesus. It is the consequence of looking out from a familiar world onto the still scarcely imaginable life of the age to come” (Countryman, 26).

But the good news is that we have a rich tradition of saints, beginning with Peter and the other fishing disciples, who have led the way, showing us that Jesus is indeed in our midst, no matter where we are, no matter what we are doing. And that same tradition shows us that when we do recognize Christ in our midst, when we are open to the possibilities and allow him to guide us in our endeavors, we will be blessed with abundance, just as the disciples were.

There’s a lot to do. So what are you waiting for? Let’s go fishin’!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Countryman, L. William. Proclamation 6, Series C: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Easter. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

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