Sunday, April 18, 2010


Sermon, Sunday April 18, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19

This was the music playing in the background as I wrote this sermon, and as you will see it highly influenced my interpretation of these texts. Enjoy! Sermon is below the video.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: God is a meddlesome, troublesome, irksome being.  And today’s scriptures just prove my point.  The passage in John starts out innocently enough: “After these things Jesus showed himself again...”  I often read on for quite a ways before remembering to wonder, after what things?  Taken out of context “after these things” could mean anything couldn’t it? After going for a stroll. After playing with the children. After a few beers with his friends. After visiting his mother. After these things Jesus showed himself again. Just a few simple words.

And yet when I remember to read backward, to check just what is meant by “these things” I am reminded that by chapter 21 in the Gospel of John, “After these things” means, “After a lifetime on earth, followed by persecution, death, and resurrection, and finally several post-resurrection visitations” after those things, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples.

They had gathered together, exhausted I imagine, and Peter said, “Hey, you know what? I’m going fishing!”  And why not, really? The last three years had been hard—constant change, travel, leaving behind families. And let’s not forget three years of traveling around with other people he may or may not have liked traveling with.  Three years of his life given over to Jesus’ agenda and influence. Three years he could never get back—and some days he surely wished he’d just stayed a fisherman.  Three years of dust, of dependency on others, three years of listening to Jesus say strange things and trying to decipher them. Three years of sometimes getting it right and sometimes saying stupid stuff in front of a beloved teacher. Three years of moving around at the whims of crowds, legal and religious authorities, and a strange man who he loved to the bottom of his soul. And now what? Three years down the drain, that’s what. All gone in a week’s time.

And Lord, what a week! A triumphant return to Jerusalem, even though the disciples had hoped Jesus would not go there.  That triumphant entry into Jerusalem was like spitting in the eye of the authorities, just daring them to do something. And they did.  This last week, Jesus had been betrayed by Judas, but all of the disciples had been betrayed by Judas as well. And not only that, because of Judas the disciples had wondered which one of them was going to betray Jesus. “Is it I, Lord? Did I do something? Am I going to do something?” Not only would it be exhausting to follow around on the coattails of a man who could see the future, but it would get annoying after a while.  There’s Jesus, dropping cryptic hints, and the disciples constantly saying, “What?  Can you clarify, please???”  In such a politically and violently charged atmosphere as the last week had been, it would be easy to betray Jesus without even knowing it. Talk to the wrong person, make the wrong move, place one’s trust in the wrong person.

And the last supper, which let’s face it, they didn’t call it the last supper until after it was the last supper! They sat down to that meal like any other and Jesus said a bunch of cryptic stuff. But according to the gospels, Jesus shared meals constantly with his disciples and others. And he talked a lot. So how were they to know that this was the last supper instead of just any other supper? For the last while, Jesus had been talking of his impending death, and after you hear such things enough times it’s easy to become complacent.  Yes, yes, you are going to the Father. Yes, yes the Son of Man is leaving soon. Yes, I believe that is true. Now stop talking and eat Yeshua, or you’re going to die of starvation.

And at that supper, that last supper, Jesus had told Peter that he would deny him three times. That three times he would deny knowing Jesus. Full of Jesus’ presence and company, Peter said, “Impossible! I would never!” And again, with the cryptic foretellings, Jesus said, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.”

Then came the awful events of those last days. The arrest, the crucifixion, the missing body. And through all that, the knowledge for Peter that he had indeed denied Jesus three times. That in the midst of all the chaos and fear, Peter had chosen survival over standing firm. “No, I don’t know that man. It’s not me. You are mistaken—I have never seen him!” 

So it is after all those things that Peter said, “Hey, I’m going fishing!” And some of the disciples hop in the boat with him, and off they go in to the sea. And why not? Fishing is relaxing, drifting along in your boat, letting the wind and the current take you where they will. You hope for fish, but maybe that’s not the real reason you’re out there on the sea. The sun sets and the air is still warm, you lay down in the boat to rock to sleep.  No fish all night long, but pleasant company in the boat, the quiet conversation between close friends whispered long into the night.  Why not go fishing? After the last three years, who wouldn't go fishing?  This is what Peter used to do, after all, before God stirred the waters and Jesus called him to leave his nets behind.

Just after daybreak, Jesus called out to them from the shore and called out, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” God’s mischief comes into play as he gently teases these fisherman. He tells them to try the right side of the boat, and the disciples dip their net in the water, bringing up so many fish they couldn’t even haul in the net—153 large fish.  Sometimes God is a bit of a showoff, like sunsets that leak excessive beauty. And when the disciple John saw the ridiculous amount of fish, he said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”  Peter jumped up in all his naked glory (this was clearly a relaxing boat ride!), put on his clothes, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples took their time and came in with the boat, but Peter jumped in as he was wont to do.  Giving Jesus the fish, they ate together for a last time, and perhaps this is what we should call the last supper.

After breakfast, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, and by the third time, Peter felt hurt that Jesus kept asking. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Then Jesus tells him the consequences of loving Jesus, the consequences of following Jesus, the consequences of feeding the sheep and tending the lambs: “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

I think this is what Peter was trying to do that day with the fishing trip. After three years of tumult, change, and unrest, I think Peter was trying to go back to how things used to be, if only for a little while. Stepping back into his old routine, he went out into the boat. Perhaps it was on his mind that he might return to fishing now that Jesus was gone—perhaps he could go back to a time when he wasn’t so aware of things, when he didn’t know so much, when he didn’t grieve so much.  But Jesus calls him back in a moment after breakfast. “Do you love me? Then take care of the people I love. And for this you will persecuted. Now that you know what this means, follow me.”  Do you love me? Then feed the hungry. Do you love me? Then clothe the naked. Do you love me? Visit the sick and imprisoned. Do you love me? Then commit yourself to anti-racist movements. Do you love me? Go read those feminist tracts. Stand up with the fat man, the trans woman, the child with no hope. And probably get beaten for your trouble.  You love me that much? Okay then, follow me.

So many of us explore the edges of what it means to know Christ, and we come to a moment when we have seen too much injustice to return to our old ways of life. Like Peter we hit a critical point where we joyfully embrace the Way of Christ and we cannot return to our old ways. We hit a point, perhaps, where our own survival and comfort is tied to the survival and comfort of others. We wade into the waters, troubled though they may be.

For Saul/Paul this critical point came as a startling experience on the side of the road.  On his way to Damascus, carrying letters permitting him to seize men and women belonging to the Way, Saul heard Jesus speaking to him, and a blinding light felled him to the ground.  For three days he could not see, and he would not eat or drink.

God went to Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, and sent him to tend to Saul.  And this is where God gets a bit presumptuous. “Go to the house of Judas and find the man named Saul—you know, that guy who has been persecuting and killing Christians. I’ve told him you are coming and that you will heal him.”  Oh really? I might ask.  But the Almighty insists. “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Perhaps Ananias, familiar with God's odd humor, recognized the pattern of choosing unlikely candidates to embody the Word.  But regardless, he went, and Saul’s life was changed forever. Taking on the name Paul, he went on his own three year journey to learn and grow. And then he went on to found churches and write letters, to encourage many in their faith, and ultimately to die for his own.  But there was no turning back, only a way forward, and so Paul too waded into the waters, though they were troubled.

Immediately following the return of his eyesight, Paul was baptized, and he ate some food to break his fast. And these, I think, are the lessons for today.  First, that we wade into the water, no matter how troubled, because we love God and love God’s people—we love them too much to return to our old ways and ignore hate and oppression spewed out at people of color, women, trans persons, and lgbtq folk. Second, this is hard work and scary sometimes, and so we eat together and drink to regain our strength. We lay in the bottom of the boat with our comrades, whispering of hopes and dreams, and when the dawn comes and we see the Way on the shore, we wade in.  Because the other option is to walk away from Jesus, to walk away from brothers and sisters in pain, and this is unthinkable. For our humanity is tied to the humanity of others.

This morning as I prepared for worship, I spent some time listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock.  It is difficult as a pastor to sink into the Holy Spirit as I preach and lead worship from the pulpit. So I find other preachers to feed me so I might regain my strength.  At the beginning of their song “Wade In the Water” one of the musicians spoke these words:
And when there is the promise of a storm, if you want to change your life, walk into it. If you get on the other side, you will be different. If you want change in your life and you are avoiding the water, you can forget it. Wade on in the water, it’s gonna really be troubled water.  Children, wade in the God’s gonna trouble the water.”
May you find trouble wherever you go, for there too you will find God.

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