John 21: 1-14
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
May 5, 2019
Like many of you, I have been stunned beyond language over mass killings in places of prayer, whatever the religion. We call this room a sanctuary for good reason. We expect it to be a safe place, a place where we can come in from the craziness of the world and worship with a sense of security.
Of course, there is always the political finger-pointing and hand-wringing. There are always the debates about gun control and security at places of worship, and there are the inevitable religious TV personalities who are confident that these tragic events are the fulfillment of some supposed prophecy they found in the book of Ezekiel. But however people try to simplify the answer, the truth is that terrible things happen in the world, and sometimes there is no simple answer. We just have to embrace the pain and sadness of it.
At times of such sadness, religious communities like this one are very important because religious questions always surface. There is always the question of God and fairness. And there is always the question of why. And at a deeper level, there is always the question of meaning in life. Isn’t it good that we don’t have to grapple with these questions in isolation? However diverse we may be, we share at least one thing in common with people of all religions: we are human beings who ask difficult questions.
These hard questions are precisely what connect us to the story we just read from the gospel of John. Here is a story I have called “Night Fishing.” On the surface, they looked like any other fishermen out there on the Sea of Galilee. They were just going to work, doing their jobs, getting the task done. They were making a buck to feed their families. It was the routine of it, the physical work of it, which covered up the storm of questions they had inside of them.
This is the picture of people who have gone back to the routine of work after a crisis. You know how it is: the funeral is over, the flowers have wilted, the friends have dispersed. Now they are faced with the routine of work, making a living, facing each day. We all know what that is like. Sometimes there is comfort in having something to do, a routine to follow. But the routine does not diminish the questions deep in the recesses of our minds.
I want to point out to you the extraordinary symbolism in the skillful writing of this biblical story, a symbolism that would not have been missed by the early Christians who were surely wondering about the meaning of life in the midst of persecution. The gospel of John, the last of the four gospels and the one with the most symbolism in it, begins by listing the names of seven people. Seven, the number of wholeness, the number of completeness. It was a symbolic way of symbolizing the whole church.
Who were they? They were the knowns and the unknowns. There was, of course, Simon Peter, the leader. But there was also Nathanael, who has not appeared in the story since his call to be a disciple in the beginning. Nathanael represents all those whose names are on the roll, but who show up for worship only occasionally, rarely taking an active part in the community of faith.
Then there was Thomas, the doubter, representing the skeptics in the church. The list has familiar names until we get to the end when it lists two nameless people in the group. Surely, they represent those whose names are on the roll somewhere, but they haven’t been to church in years, and when they do come, no one knows who they are! In other words, this list includes everybody!
Everybody deals with ultimate questions, and everybody deals with them in the darkness. We are all in the same boat in the middle of the sea and it is dark! No one has easy answers.
But today’s story is not just about darkness; it is also about daybreak. Just after daybreak, the text says, and that makes all the difference! The resurrection was announced at daybreak; here hope is discovered at daybreak. How long does each one of us struggle in the darkness? I don’t know. We are all different. But the good news we call “gospel” is that there is daybreak! And for the Christian, that daybreak involves Christ standing on the shore of our lives. There is a glimmer on the horizon; there is a rising of the sun; and always there is Christ on the shore!
And listen as he calls out to them. Children, you have no fish, have you? What a strange greeting for full-grown adults! “Children”—paidia in the Greek language, the gentle word a mother would use with her children. It was an intimate term of endearment.
And God knows we adults need a divine word of greeting that is intimate. We don’t need a God who is distant. When a crisis strikes in all its fury, we don’t need an abstract noun; we need a loving parent who embraces us and knows our name. Here is a story about Christ who is reaching out through our darkness in love and who knows that we are struggling.
The other extraordinary symbol that would not be lost by the early readers of this story is the number 153. Cast the net on the right side of the boat, he tells them. And when they do, they pull out a net full of what would turn out to be large fish—153 of them. Why that number? People have turned themselves into pretzels trying to figure out the symbolism of that number, but here is a simple discovery: in those days every school child was taught that when God created the world, God created 153 different kinds of fish. And in John’s gospel, so full of symbolism, they would not have missed the idea that every kind of person will be drawn into the church. Every species of God’s children will be a vital part of the community of faith.
Those who are quick to exclude persons from the community of faith need to read this story carefully. They are like the fishermen who pull in a fish and decide whether it is a keeper or not. If they don’t like the fish for some reason, they are quick to throw it back. This story tells us that all of God’s people are keepers! No one will be thrown back into the dark waters of life to try to make it alone!
There is more to this story, but I want to close with a question. Where do we get our hope when we are struggling in the darkness? Surely not in the Dow or the S&P 500. The fickle winds of the market have taught us that.
Surely not in our physical health. No amount of Rogaine, Viagra, Vitamin E, Brewer’s yeast, Jenny Craig, or time in the gym can eliminate the reality that eventually our bodies will age and wear out. Our bodies are incredible, but they are not invincible.
Surely not in our human institutions. We would be foolish to minimize the positive role of schools, churches, government, hospitals, and the nonprofit organizations that we support. But we would be naïve to place our ultimate hope in an institution.
In the end, all of us are brought to the same issue. Where is there meaning in our lives? Where is there significance in the struggle? Where is the consolation in a time of sorrow and anger?
We find hope in a God of resurrection, as do all the people who filled these pews on Easter Sunday. In behalf of this church, I hold up to you, to myself, to this community and the world, the central Christian affirmation of our faith that is proclaimed in many forms around the world. The names change as the centuries unfold: Mary, Peter, Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, the Rev. Bernard Chapman, Mother Theresa, maybe your own mother or father. But the truth remains the same, and it is the great privilege of the church to proclaim it once again in these challenging times:
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!