Date: April 17, 2016
Title: “A Miraculous Catch”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: John 21:1-19
I once received an Easter card that had on the front a picture of a pope or a bishop, all decked out in the finest ecclesiastical garb – miter, stole, cape, alb. And underneath the picture were these words: I wanted to wear something appropriate for Easter. Then, when you opened the card, you found another picture inside, or someone in a life-size Easter bunny outfit, with this caption beneath, But they were all out of bunny suits!
Indeed, we do want to wear something, or to understand something, or feel something, or do something appropriate for this season of Easter, the great fifty days between Easter Sunday and the Day of Pentecost. But it feels as if the world has beat us to the punch by snatching up all the obvious and trivial responses, which leaves us only with the responses that count. You know the kind – the responses that go beyond sugar coated Easter eggs and all the rabbit suits in the world, all the way to new life and to resurrection. And so we are left to follow not just the baby in the manger, but the Christ beyond the cross – the one who is not satisfied with our gifts of frankincense and myrrh. The one who asks instead of our gifts of faith combined with justice, of love connected to action. The one who asks us to cast our nets time and time again.
Now I know it is not always easy to trust the power of resurrection. All too often we want to explain rather than to experience God’s love. In our frenzy to control the uncontrollable, to take the mystery out of mysticism, we are in danger of missing God altogether. So it is helpful this morning to be reminded that in the original language of the New Testament, the Bible does not speak about believing “in” God. Rather, the Bible speaks of “believing God.” Theologian Frederick Buechner comments on this fact:
Believing “in” God is an intellectual position. It need have no more effect on your life than believe in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Frances Bacon wrote Romeo & Juliet.
“Believing” God is something else again. It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It affects who you are and what you do with your life, like believing your house is on fire or that somebody loves you.
We believe in God when for one reason or another we choose to do so. We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice to do otherwise.
The whole of John’s Gospel points us toward believing God. It is about abundant grace- “grace upon grace” as the author puts it. Here, at the end of the Gospel, we are given a ridiculous number of fish, a miraculous catch. And we are meant to understand by this story that God’s grace cannot be limited. It is not limited to the incarnation or to the crucifixion. It is not limited by the resurrection, or even by what we think of as the ends of our own stories.
Because the miraculous catch is not about fish at all. It is about grace beyond our imagination or calculation. It is about grace beyond our judgement or our hope, beyond our despair or our shame. The miraculous catch is the presence, the perseverance and the possibility of God’s grace for each and every one of us.
You know, Jesus could have gone from Easter morning directly to the Ascension. Just one chapter back John says that when Mary Magdalene meets Jesus by the garden tomb, he tells her “Don’t hang onto me.” I am reminded by a story Joe Garagiola used to tell of the day a heavy hitter came up to bat:
This man was at the peak of his career, and the opposing pitcher in the game was young and nervous. Garagiola, the catcher, called first for a fastball and the pitcher shook his head; Joe then signaled for a curve ball and again the pitcher stood still and shook his head. Finally, he asked for one of the pitcher’s specialties, but still the pitcher hesitated and did nothing.
So Joe went out to the mound for a conference. He said, “I’ve called for every pitch in the book; what do you want to throw?” “Nothing”, was the pitcher’s shaky reply, “I just want to hold onto the ball for as long as I can.”
It can be tempting to hang onto the ball as long as we can, or to keep doing the same things in the same way we have always done them. When Jesus calls to the disciples out in the boat, they readily admit their fishing trip has been a dud – they have no fish. Talk about adding insult to injury! First, they watch as their dreams die on the cross with Jesus, and now they cannot even manage the one thing they thought they knew how to do – catch fish! No wonder they have been thinking about giving up, going in and calling it quits. But Jesus suggests they give it one more try, mixing it up a little, casting the net on the other side of the boat.
And here’s the thing…God is always going to want us to get on with the game, to stop holding onto the ball and muster up the courage to let it fly! God is always going to call us to try something new. And if that doesn’t work, God is going to call us to try again. Because faith is not a sedentary, static kind of thing, and “church” is better understood as a verb than as a noun. “Church” is more appropriately lived out as a movement than as an institution.
I say this just twenty-three days before the start of the most quintessential institutional thing we know – the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, coming to our own backyard. General Conference will bring 860-some delegates here from around the world, people who will have to work really hard every moment of every one of the ten days of the conference. They will be working hard to understand and track legislation (all 1400 petitions!); they will work hard to communicate across language and cultural barriers; they will work hard to attend committee meetings and plenary sessions, worship services and advocacy gatherings.
But most of all, we will all have to work really hard to remember that the big “C” church is better understood as a verb than as a noun. We will need to remember that God expects us to persevere, to get on with the game, and to try something new. Because God’s grace is more appropriately embodied in a movement than in an institution.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter this question no less than three times. And he is asking us that same question today. If you say “yes” – “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” – you are going to have to offer Jesus more than lip service. You are going to have to act on that love. You will have to see the possibilities of feeding lambs and tending sheep, and to understand, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, that:
To abide in love means to have open eyes, to be able to see things that only a few can see, namely the begging outstretched hands and our ability to fill them.
My friends, we have been given a miraculous catch of grace. And it is up to us to use it for the sake of the world, in response to God’s love for us all. In the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter if we have anything at all appropriate to wear for Easter. What does matter is that we do what is appropriate for this season and for every season yet to come. In the name of the Risen Christ, thanks be to God! Amen.