I shared this message on 4/10/16 with Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, MO as they enter a pastoral transition.
When our children were little, we loved to show them Living Books on the computer. This was early in the tech era and these books came on a CD. We could click on different parts of the page for some action to happen, like birds singing, the doorbell ringing, and so on. Our favorite Living Book was based on Aesop’s Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.
You know the fable, the Tortoise and the Hare engage in a race. The Hare is over-confident in his speed and he gets distracted during the race. He forgot to eat, so he stops to eat breakfast, he takes a nap, and he stops to tell on-lookers how great he is. Of course he’s so distracted and full of himself that the Tortoise crosses the finish line while the Hare is racing to catch up. At the end the narrator asks the crowd around the finish line, What is the moral of the story? The crowd pipes up with
• The journey is the reward?
• Don’t act like such a big shot?
• Always eat a good breakfast?
No, says the narrator, Slow and steady wins the race!
I think the disciples in Jesus' third resurrection appearance described in John 20:19-31, are learning some of the same lessons as the Hare in Aesop’s Fable.
Peter and the disciples are at a loss; they don’t know what to do. The resurrected Lord has appeared to them 2 times, Jesus has breathed on them the Holy Spirit and sends them out—As the Father sends me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
There it is. There’s the call. The disciples are sent out, scars and all, with a Gospel to proclaim, sins to forgive, peace to offer, and a church to build—the only problem is they don’t seem to know how to get started. They’re at a loss for what to do, exactly. Following Peter’s lead, the disciples go fishing.
Ironic, isn’t it? It was not long ago that Jesus called them away from their boats to fish for people. But now, despite the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the disciples have returned to their old way of life. They’re almost like the Hare in the fable—the disciples are easily distracted from the path that Jesus has set them on. Instead of sharing the incredible news of God’s power over death, they stayed hang up a sign that says, “Gone Fishing.”
As a congregation, you may feel like the disciples in this passage. You have a mission and ministry in this community, but now you’ve entered a time of pastoral transition, and you are still grieving the loss of a very beloved and key member. You may feel at loose ends—at a loss for what to do, what’s going to come next, what the future holds. What’s the next step and how do we take it?
We can feel this way in our personal lives as well. This last year, I have been unsure myself of what God wants me to do. My husband and I were working very hard at new mission development and we had to stop due my chronic migraines. I was at loose ends—I was not sure what to do, what was going to come next, and what the future was going to hold.
Our temptation in these situations of uncertainty is to join the disciples in going backwards—to re-tread the past—to go back to what we were doing before, rather pay attention to what new thing God might be doing. I would encourage you to resist this temptation because you’ll notice that this did not work for the disciples. They were experts at fishing –and they fished all night and caught nothing! They’re totally flunking. Going backward hardly ever moves us forward. We can learn lessons from our past, but our future is not there.
But then the story in John shows four practical ways to move forward on the path in front of us, even when we don’t know what to do, nor what the future holds.
1. Jesus gets the disciples set back on the right path by appearing on the beach that morning. He invites them to cast their net on the other side of the boat—we know that the sides of the boat are port and starboard, but I might call this the forward side instead of the backward side of the boat. And they caught 153 fish—it strained the net, but it didn’t break!
It’s an odd number- 153. It doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible, so why 153? One hundred fifty three is the known number of species of fish during the first century! Jesus did call them to fish for people, so perhaps this is John’s way of foreshadowing that the good news of Jesus is to be proclaimed to all “species” of people to the ends of the earth. Everybody’s in! The net won’t break because God can hold us all! You are in! Ferguson is in! The journey is the reward—and being part of God’s great plan to love and redeem the world is blessing enough! You may be in transition, or at a crossroads, but the mission is the same—reach everyone with God’s love no matter what. The journey is the reward.
2. Then the funniest part of the story comes—Peter is fishing naked, and when he sees Jesus, he puts on his clothes to jump in the lake and swim ashore. Don’t we usually work while clothed and strip down to jump in the lake? (In the first century the one who saw someone naked was dishonored, so Peter is actually honoring Jesus by putting on his clothes, but it seems all backward to us!) But the point is, Peter is naked. John wants us to see Peter in all his vulnerability. He denied Jesus three times, and even though Jesus has given him a new mission since the resurrection, Peter has reverted back to his old profession and he’s failing miserably at it.
Jesus sees right through Peter—he can put his clothes back on, but none of us can hide ourselves from God. Jesus sees us and knows us in all of our failings, fears and falling backwards. So stop trying to hide. Don’t act like such a big shot. You’re not so bad God can’t love you and you’re not so good you don’t need Jesus! Peter gets to Jesus as fast as he can—he got this part right! Come to God in prayer, talk with Jesus throughout your day—rant and rave if you need to, cry if you feel it, dance when you’re moved—just don’t run the other way from Jesus because he already knows all of who you are and all of what you need and all of what you’re capable of. Don’t be such a big shot—join Peter and come to Jesus as fast as you can. Take it all to the Lord in prayer.
3. In the midst of this complete, stark-naked-knowing, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him for breakfast on the beach. Jesus feeds them, body and soul with the physical food and the spiritual relationship they need to run with perseverance the race he has set before them—to carry the good news of God’s love throughout the world. Always eat a good breakfast. We can’t survive on this journey of faith, this mission of good news without proper nourishment. We need to be fed and loved at this table, where Jesus appears to us in Communion—our breakfast on the beach—to be loved, forgiven and strengthened for the day, even and especially when we don’t know what’s coming next. Always eat a good breakfast physically as well. We can’t carry out the mission of peace and love when we do violence to our own bodies by over-functioning as if the kingdom depended on us while not taking care of ourselves! This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.
4. Jesus re-establishes a relationship with Peter and all the disciples based not on their good behavior, not on getting everything right, but based on love. Peter’s 3-fold denial is redeemed when he affirms that he loves Jesus 3 times–which he can do only because Jesus has already loved and nourished and forgiven and blessed him. It’s not just about how much Jesus loves us, it’s about how much we love Jesus! Slow and steady wins the race. Take time to experience Jesus’ love and let Jesus know you love him! Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t have to rush to prove yourself. You don’t have to rush to find an interim. You don’t have to race and around and make sure everything is done just so. It’s about love; it’s about being as much as doing. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Order your life around love: love of God, love of each other, love of all 153 species of God’s people, love of your community, love of Ferguson.
Even when we don’t know what to do, our faith gives us the daily and weekly practices we need to remain faithful in the in-between times of transition. I was off work for a year—but I knew I wasn’t forgotten, because like all of us, I ‘m part of God’s mission in this world, part of the 153 species! I came to Jesus in prayer, I ate a good breakfast and came to worship and Communion, and because church’s like you asked me to preach, I knew God still loved me, so thank you, Zion! Thank you for helping me.
God loves you Zion as an important and valuable part of God’s mission in this world. The repetition of your faith practices will serve you well as you use them to discern the next task, the next month and the next chapter of your life together! All you have to do is the next right thing. So fear not, Zion! And remember that
- You are part of the 153 species that God loves, so the journey is the reward!
- God knows you fully and completely, so come to Jesus in prayer and don’t act like such a big shot!
- Nourish yourself in worship, Communion and in your physical well-being - always eat a good breakfast!
- Your mission is all about love-how much God loves you and how much you love God, so remember that slow and steady wins the race!