Sunday 5 May 2019
Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
By Roger Spiller
Chair of Trustees, the College of Preachers
Context: Parish Communion in an attentive and thoughtful country church congregation.
Aim: to suggest how the story of the haul of fish can equip us in Jesus’ work of drawing others to himself.
There was a strong smell of cooked breakfast assailing the nostrils of those attending church for the evening service. It led some people to wish they’d been present at the morning family service when the curate had cooked breakfast. But others let it be known that such an activity should have been confined to the parish hall and not inside the church building. We have a clear view of what is and is not fitting conduct in a church building. One theological college actually had a notice outside the chapel banning eating and drinking in chapel, which seemed curious in the light of the call to eat bread and drink wine in Jesus’ name.
William Reece-Mogg, father of Jacob, wrote in a fine book on Christianity that if Jesus’ resurrection had been an invention ‘the storytellers would surely have shown Jesus with more of a sense of occasion. A God who rises from the dead on the third day in order to cook picnics … is a God to be believed’. And to indicate the down to earth, unseemly character of the Son of God’s action was the point of cooking in a church service.
There are other surprising and comedic features in the story. Why do experienced fishermen need to be told by the stranger they don’t recognise to cast their nets on both sides of the boat? Why does Peter appear naked when he’s in the boat but then puts his clothes on when he’s about to jump into the water? And why are we also left to imagine one of the disciples sitting on his own with nothing better to do than to count fish: 1,2, 3, right up to 153!
There’s a lot about Peter in our reading. His recognition of Jesus, his healing and rehabilitation by Jesus and his commissioning as one of the apostolic leaders, along with the Beloved Disciple. But the emphasis on the haul of fish and the size of the catch shows that there’s another theme that’s of more immediate concern to us. The catch of fish is the dramatic equivalent in John’s Gospel of the great mission charge that ends Matthew’s Gospel. We know that the earliest disciples were fishermen and Jesus called them to follow him, promising that he would make them fish for people. And now John is taking up this pledge and taking it forward in the post-resurrection church.
The idea of fishing for people can sound controlling, predatory even, although it served well in first catching the attention of those fishermen. But then, the language of ‘growing churches’ can also have too much of an institutional feel. But the word for ‘haul’ also means ‘draw’. It’s the same word that Jesus used when he said: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’. That time had arrived. His mission is not about netting people like fish, even enlisting members of an organisation. It’s a gentle process of wooing, evoking, cherishing. One Christian Orthodox theologian said that the church grows not by proselytizing but by seduction.
One of our sons went through a period at the end of his school-days when he wasn’t working hard or keeping up with his homework. We shared our concerns at parents’ evening with his class teacher. We expected he might involve us in a co-ordinated strategy to correct our son’s negligence. ‘Just cherish him,’ said the teacher. It was a revelatory word, a turning point in our attitude towards our son. And how much more potent is Jesus’ mission as cherishing and drawing than as ‘catching’ and ‘recruiting’. But it requires us to be drawn ourselves, anew each day, into the magnetic field of Jesus love.
The fishing episode has been an acted parable of Jesus’ words elsewhere in John’s gospel, that ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’ The fishermen couldn’t even do what they were experts in doing without the help of Jesus, still less could they draw people to Jesus. They needed first to be possessed by his love and Spirit. It’s no wonder then, that the crucial question Jesus asks as he asked Peter is: ‘Do you love me?’ Do you love me more than these? Do you love me pre-eminently, before all others? Am I the source of your life and strength? Who can draw anyone to Jesus except Jesus himself, and those who have his Spirit, live his life and act in his name. Jesus will, ‘draw all people’ to himself. After all, he didn’t even need fishermen to catch the fish; he procured his own so as to feed them. But he wants to enlist us in his work of drawing and feeding his people.
The great missionary vision of the Old Testament prophetic book of Ezekiel chapter 47 was surely in the mind of Jesus and our author. There he pictures water flowing in all directions from the temple, increasing in depth and force and reach and bringing freshness and life to all that it touched. ‘A place for the spreading of nets,’ said the ancient prophet, whose fish, like the haul of fish in our story, consisted of ‘a great many kinds.’ What more evocative picture can there be to draw us into Christ’s mission to his world?
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