Sermon Prep Reflections for May 3, 2020 - John 21, 1-14
You don’t have to go looking for God. God is everywhere you are. Even when you’re not looking, or maybe especially then, God shows up.
When the world changes rapidly, when the rug gets ripped out from under you, you may not know where to turn or what to do. Even if the change is a good one, it can be disorienting and strange and set us off our game.
We often revert back to our old, comfortable habits of place and practice when the world presents us with new information and opportunities that overwhelm us. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s just a thing. All depends on what those behaviors and spaces are and how healthy and helpful they are for us going forward. Just because it used to work for us in the past does not mean it will work for us in the future.
In John’s gospel, chapter 21, we again encounter several of the Apostles – the inner circle of Jesus’ friends and followers. These are his most trusted and loyal allies, the ones he called and mentored for months on end. They saw him teach and minister and heal. They were blessed and renewed by his grace. They shared his story as their own. They watched him be arrested, crucified, and buried. Then three days later they encountered him risen from the dead, just as he promised. The world would never be the same.
To be clear, their worlds had already been turned upside down by meeting and choosing to follow Jesus. They’d chosen the Gospel over their old lives, which if necessary meant choosing Jesus over family, friends, work, and even the ways they’d been taught to believe and practice their faith. Now everything had changed again. It just felt like too much.
I’m struck by the way John tells the story of these weeks following the Resurrection. I would have expected Jesus to spend every waking hour with his core followers, preparing them for his return to the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit and the Birth of the Church. There should have been strategic planning meetings, power point presentations, webinars and zoom meetings and conferences and workbooks with Certifications and Continuing Education Credits in Church Development and Missions. God was about the birth the church in, among and through them. All they seem to get is a brief weekly check in. “Hey. How are yall? Still doing ok? Alrighty then. Good. See you soon.” And he’s gone again.
It truly is a New World for the disciples. And they are dependent on their Old Routines to get them through. Easter night Jesus appears to them. Then, a week later, the same stunt showing up in a locked room. Then, John tells us, “…After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples… and it happened this way…” So according to John’s gospel, this story represents their third encounter with the resurrected LORD. Not surprisingly, they’re a bit at a loss for what to do in the between times. How should they be planning for what is next? What are they supposed to DO? They’ve got no clue. So they do what is familiar, comfortable, useful. They go fishing.
Remember, at least some of these guys are professional fishermen. They return to the Sea of Galilee (here called the Sea of Tiberias), some 75 miles north of Jerusalem. When they walked back home to the north country of Capernaum and surrounding communities we don’t know. But here they are back at the familiar port town, back at their boats and among their friends, their ropes and sails and nets. Here they know what to do without thinking. The muscle memory is so deep that they can function on autopilot.
That’s what often happens to me when I’m feeling overwhelmed. If I can function at all, it’s on autopilot. I do what I know so well that my brain can check out and I can just go. My body can be absorbed in the tasks of cooking and cleaning or organizing or playing music or walking or writing. These things I know. They are comfortable and familiar and in some way useful or productive. Widows will often come home from the hospital after losing their life partners and set to work in the kitchen feeding everyone in sight, because that is something their body can do without their brain fully engaged.
Notice several weeks have passed. It’s likely, since this story is framed this way, that the disciples sat around eating and drinking and staring at one another day after day for a fortnight. They couldn’t do much of anything. Nothing made sense anymore. They didn’t know their place in the world. The new reality had been described to them. They had the information, the facts, but still they were frozen. Finally, maybe because of the miles of walking north day after day, they get unstuck enough to at least do this. Peter is able to frame an idea, and everyone else simply ascents to it. “Yep, let’s go fishing…”
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Once you are able to do something of course. What are the people, places and practices that bring you that familiarity in which you find comfort? After a loss people often reach back into their past to reconnect with old relationships, even old flames. I think one reason is that people are seeking solid footing, and we imagine that the past might hold it. This rarely proves true, but there’s no harm in spending some time there.
It’s good and right to rely on the familiar in our time of uncertainty. Many people I know have reconnected with old friends, renewed old hobbies, returned to favorite authors. These are source of comfort that offer a mooring in these unsettled waters.
The story shows us that Jesus meets us there, but does not leave us there. He invites us to commune with him. He acknowledges and responds to our concrete human needs in the moment. And then he calls us toward the future. Once we’ve found rest and solace, once we’ve taken our fill and be satiated, Jesus shakes us from our stupor and calls us away from out past that can be an anchor dragging us down to the depths. He calls us forward into new life in Him. He refuses to let us get distracted by the paths that others are walking. “Keep your eyes on your own path. Mind your own business. Don’t worry about how I’m calling or leading someone else. Walk the road that I’ve put before you, and let that be enough.”
This is both a comfort and a challenge. It is comforting to know that we can return for a time to what soothes us. It is a comfort to know that Jesus meets us there. It is a comfort to know that he sees and addresses our needs in times like this. And it is a challenge because eventually he will call us to wake up to the new realities and begin to live the hope and promise of a bright tomorrow that is different and blessed.
So for now, take comfort. But be ready. It is a New World, and those Old Routines that may comfort us now will not serve us well for long.