Mission & Fishin’: a sermon for mission awareness Sunday, 2017

A meeting with Jesus on the beach; “this now being the third time that Jesus had appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (John 21:14). The third time…maybe the old wisdom holds some truth, about things always happening in threes.  But setting that aside, this is an unusual encounter.

The disciples are back in circulation.  No more locked doors, no more hiding in grief.  There’s life to be lived, and livings to be earned, and Peter announces, without much fanfare, “I’m going fishing!”.  Back to the sea; back to the familiar family business that, only a few short years ago they had (many of them) left behind at Jesus invitation.  “Come and fish for people”, Jesus had said, and they did – gladly – though it had not ended well…

So back to the boats, dreams of a heavenly revolution spectacularly crushed by Rome’s earthly might and the intention (or indifference) of the keepers of religious purity.  The mission now was as it always had been; survive and adjust; safety in silent determination to be just who they were.  Fishermen.]

Except that everything is NOT as it was.  Jesus is there.  He’s been showing up in the strangest places – locked rooms, country roads, on the grounds of a disrupted graveyard – they think, they hope that it’s Jesus; it MUST BE Jesus!  The narrator goes back and forth about their certainty – their fear (which never really goes away) – and Jesus offers them sympathy, understanding, and some angling advice.  “Cast your net to the right side of the boat…”

After a night – a season – of frustration, abundance!  There are many fish; TOO many.  There is careful recognition; TOO careful, after a week (or more) of uncertainty and stories and visions and hope.  And there is Jesus; pointing them, once again, to abundance, to forgiveness, and to a new and extremely challenging purpose.  Feed my sheep, he says.  A seemingly harmless request, except that John’s telling of Peter’s redemption ends in sinister terms for Peter:

“Some one will fasten your hands and take you

where you do not wish to go…”

Too often we reduce this encounter to a reminder of how Peter’s life comes to a close (the narrator says so, but remember this account is written at least 100 years after the resurrection…) – We prefer to see this as Jesus putting Peter back on the road to discipleship after his emphatic denials on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but there is also contained here an interesting (and risky) metaphor for the church and her mission.

Feeding sheep – tending lambs – spreading the gospel are all excellent things…necessary things, to be sure.  The work requires energy and enthusiasm, creativity and imagination – and when the work seems finished, or the energy and enthusiasm wanes (as must happen from time to time), what then?  When churches are established and rules have been framed and the world (as we know it) has been nicely ordered according to Christian principles (such was the dream) – when all this is accomplished, what then?

Emil Brunner, a renowned theologian of the early twentieth century, was famous for having said “The church exists by mission just as a flame exists by burning”.   His suggestion was that ‘mission’ and ‘church’ are inseparable terms; you can’t have one or the other – you must (by definition) have both or nothing at all.  So it is not enough to have the rules sorted and the buildings maintained in perpetuity.  It’s not enough to have generations of people claiming membership, or believing that they have founded a country on ‘Christian principles’.  The country (or institution, or family) that is christian ‘in name only’ is not Christian.  The church that ‘supports mission” elsewhere, but is not engaged in the needs, joys and endeavours of its neighbours, is missing something life-giving.

Such questions have been much on my mind these last couple of years.  As the situations in our local churches tends more and more toward ‘survival’, we lose sight of what it is we ought to be doing.  “What is our purpose?”  “Why is our survival important?”  “What is it that makes the church, THE CHURCH?”  We have heard (and asked) these questions often enough, and the shortage of easy answers frightens us.  It is easier to take the path that Peter took, in the hours leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion…”I swear I don’t know!”  Such an answer makes it easy to turn the responsibility over to someone else – anyone else – so long as it isn’t ‘my” problem.

And it is to us that Jesus returns; for this reason was Jesus raised.  There on the beach, when we imagine that the danger has passed, and we can go back to doing the familiar things – the things that play to our strengths (whether or not they represent a response to God’s call to us) – here in this time, when we would rather enjoy the fruits of our labours (or the results of our resolute ‘stay-the-course’ tactics, Jesus comes and gently reminds us that the mission of the church is the purpose of the church.  That the faithful (and the fallen) must still – always – be fed; that our failure to do so is always forgiven; and that in our maturity of faith – in the full exercise of that mission given by God, we might well be led in directions that don’t seem natural (or even safe) for us.

This is the season we celebrate our risen Saviour; surprising us by his presence, in rooms we considered safe – on roads travelled in fear – on beaches we’d rather were empty.  When Jesus meets us we are forced to consider that we might have failed, saving his presence.  For when Jesus meets us, our courage returns, our hearts are strangely warmed, our supposed failures find new interpretation – success simply by casting a net off ‘the other side of the boat’…

It seems too easy – that our acknowledging Jesus’ presence; our naming the Risen Saviour; our acceptance, both of God’s forgiveness, and God’s invitation, might lead to something wonderful and unexpected – a discovery that the mission of the church is found (and accomplished) in our engagement with our neighbour, our opposition to injustice, our admission that grace and goodness, righteousness and faith might look different that we have long imagined.

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