John 21:1-19 | The Ordinariness of Christ and the Ongoing Call to Follow
A reflection by Dan Spragg.
“Some disciples fished, labouring all through the night, yet they caught nothing. Just after daybreak one they did not recognise spoke hope from the shore. A breakfast of fish, three questions of love, a call to follow – again. This is our life too, with its vagaries – a call to follow – renewed.” (Jeff Shrowder, 2019, www.thebillabong.info)
Life with all its vagaries… what a great way to put it. All of life’s whims, and fancies, and its comings and goings, its ups and downs. The disciples, had certainly experienced life as all of these. They had learnt that crowds are fickle, that reality isn’t always what is seen, and that one minute you can be fishing for your livelihood, and the next be caught up in a world changing movement. Even in the few days and weeks following Jesus death, I imagine, all of life’s forces of motivation and deflation had come and gone. Into the midst of this comes this third appearance of Jesus to his disciples since he had been killed and since he had been raised to new life. All through the gospels, the stories are dripping of symbolism and this story is no exception. Today I want to simply take note of a few of these and try to draw the threads together for us.
As I said, this is the third and final appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples. Do you remember the first appearance? Mary thought he was the gardener before she realised who it was and went running off to tell the others. As I said on Easter Sunday, this was a significant detail linking the resurrection with the big ongoing story of God that we’re all invited into as the new creation has been birthed right in the middle of the existing one. The Christ appeared to Mary as the gardener. The second appearance you will recall was as the disciples were walking the road to Emmaus. Dejected, downtrodden, a stranger walks and talks with them, then as they are eating together at the end of the day they recognise him as their Lord. The Christ appeared to them as a stranger walking, talking, and eating with them. This third appearance is like the other two. The disciples were fishing, not having much luck, and a stranger gave them some advice, then proceeds to feed them over a fire. It is similar in its complete ordinariness. Christ appeared to them not in a blaze of glory, but as a gardener, as a stranger walking along the road, and as a fisherman cooking breakfast over a fire.
It doesn’t surprise me that the disciples had gone fishing, that was for a number of them their trade, their livelihood. And it had been a fairly hectic time for them not only in the last wee while, but what about the last three years!? Called from their normality, plunged into a roller-coaster of ups and downs, culminating in the execution of their Rabbi, and then the emotional pulling in one direction and another as word of resurrection spread. The disciples may well have gone fishing to withdraw from the chaos of what they had been involved in. It is quite a normal human reaction to withdraw to something familiar, something simple, when life throws us more than we can handle. Some may go to drugs or alcohol, others to TV or burying their heads in books. Others work more and more. We find our emotional retreats in all sorts of places and while sometimes we go to unhealthy places to find retreat, most of the time we withdraw to the familiar, to what is known to us, something that is easy, and something simple. We might go for a walk, or do some gardening. We might want to spend time with a long-time friend, that person who ‘gets’ us. The disciples, went fishing, this was their retreat to what they knew. And this is what’s so wonderful about Jesus’ appearances for as life began to tick over again for the disciples, as they retreated back and settled into the ordinary after the chaos, what they discovered there was that they were to find the risen Christ present with them, even there. Christ revealed himself as a gardener, as a stranger walking, and now as a fisherman and here’s where the symbolism really lands for us in this. We won’t find Jesus as Jesus now, as only one man in a particular time and place. But rather what is revealed is the universal Christ, present in every ordinary moment and person, present in every time and place. That’s the whole point. Jesus, the meeting of the human and the divine, is now revealed in every ordinary thing and that is what we call ‘the Christ’. We actually don’t know Jesus’ last name… Christ isn’t his last name but rather who we now know him to be; universal, present in all of life like in a garden, on the road, or by a lake.
The next symbolic moment I’d like to touch on is the number of fish they caught. This number wouldn’t have been put in for no reason, why would you include this detail otherwise?! Among other things, like displaying the abundance of God’s provision, one line of thought on the inclusion of the number of fish is that at the time the Jewish people thought that there were 153 nationalities or nations in the world. Do you remember when Jesus initially called the first disciples? He said to them that he would make them fishers of people, could it be that Jesus again was displaying that the good news of what God was up to, the good news of the expansive grace and love of God, was to include everyone in the world… God’s grace is open to everyone and God’s love is strong enough, encompassing enough that it will not be broken by this magnitude. Peter was to be the rock that the church was built on and the beginnings of this Christian community was to be all inclusive, open to anyone, gathering all people into the love and grace of God. The universal Christ has gathered in and lifted up all people in every time and space without boundary or exception.
Sharon and I have an exceptional group of friends. Some of us have known one another since the first day of school. Most of our connections were formed in our teenage years as we found our way through the church circles of small town Christchurch. Sharon and I now are the only ones of us who have any real connection to a church community and while some questions of God and faith have definitely been present, the main reasons for them leaving church has been because of the church! Because of what Christians have said, and done; what the church has said, and done. It’s not an uncommon story is it? It’s quite common now to hear people say, ‘I’ve got no problem with Jesus, but I don’t want anything to do with the church!’ Why is it that so often what’s portrayed of the church, is what it is against, rather than what it is for? How did we go from God’s love and grace through the risen Christ being for everyone to only being for a few? Christ isn’t the exclusive and separatist one, we’ve done that quite well on our own. How often has our impulse been to exclude not include. Right throughout the Church’s history this has been present. It has been Jews, and heretics, and the homosexual; it has been the poor, women, and those who dress differently; it has been if you swore, or had to work on Sundays… and let us not forget it has always been foreigners. How did we end up there?
The third symbolic item in this story relates to two of the main characters, Peter and John. The universal Christ, one who is present in every ordinary person and place, with grace and love seeking to gather in all people is the one who offers grace, hospitality, love and service to everyone. In this story of breakfast and conversation on the beach we see all of this present and we also see forgiveness extended to Peter. This Christ shares with us all of this, and challenges us as he challenges Peter, who represents the Church, to follow and do the same. I imagine most of us can relate to Peter in one way or another. The ups and downs of the life of faith. The passionate yes and the frightened denials. But there is another important character in this story too. John is the one who recognises that it is Jesus on the beach. John is the one who sees the presence of Christ. There is a sense in which in our lives as Christians and as church we need both John and Peter. John sees, hears and recognises Jesus – John bears witness to the event and the gravity of the moment. Peter is the one who acts. Having understanding as John does and action as Peter is known for are vital companions. We need each one, for without understanding how can we act accordingly or appropriately? And without action our understanding lies in waste. In our life together we need both contemplation and action. They are not opposites working against one another, but rather they work in synergy with one another.
All of these symbolic moments in this story I believe can be tied together as being the beauty of resurrection! Here and now the divine ‘with God’ experience of Jesus is not restricted to one person at one time and place. But rather, is available, waiting and ready to be seen in every ordinary time and space, in every ordinary person. The resurrected Jesus, is the Universal Christ. The particular person of Jesus has shifted to the universal experience of Christ in all. As John (Simpson) said last week, the cross is now empty… the stone has been rolled away, the new creation of God has been birthed right in the middle of the existing one. This is what we are caught up in as we go about our ordinary lives.
We need to be like John (the disciple), ready to recognise and name the presence of Christ wherever and whenever we see it, expectant, having eyes to see and ears to hear. And, we need to be like Peter, whose first response was always, yes, let’s go! We recognise, and we act, and Christ welcomes us, feeds us, shows us the beauty found in the ordinary and simple, extends us grace and invitation, and challenges us to go and show our love to all people. You have come here today as church gathered around the risen Christ. But you wake up tomorrow in the presence of Christ all around you if you are willing to see it! As Jesus said to Peter, if we love him we will feed his people. We are to love Christ by serving those we run into in the garden, along the road, by the lake… this is our love for God, that we are the body of Christ in the world. I admit, the risen Christ is not overly obvious once we leave this place, but can we have eyes to see, like John? So that we are able to say, ‘It is the Lord!’ It’s also not overly obvious to us how we are to act, to be like Peter. So, how do we see? Well, let us seek like John to contemplate, meditate, and understand what it may be to see Christ in our everyday. And how do we ensure that Christ is seen? Well, let us be like Peter, ready for action, honest about past failings, but ready to listen and follow where Christ leads us next.
A gardener, a walking stranger, a fisherman with a fire. Perhaps like Mary we see Christ when someone calls us by our name, when we feel heard and understood – when we are truly ‘seen’. Perhaps like Mary, when we recognise Christ we run to tell others about it. Perhaps it is like those disciples on the road to Emmaus who found Christ while discussing the scriptures with one another, and woke up to the presence of Christ fully as revealed with friends around a dinner table while searching for meaning in their lives. Perhaps like those disciples on the road, we invite a stranger to walk, talk, and eat with us. Perhaps it is like the seven disciples who were going about their ordinary work but who saw Christ in a different way of doing things, in hospitality, in forgiveness, in the invitation to follow. Perhaps like the seven we simply realise that in our everyday activity, it is the universal Christ who is present inviting us to follow and do the same.