The late Bishop Herbert Spaugh was still living when I went to The Little Church on the Lane, way back in 1977. It was my privilege to meet with the Bishop for an hour once each week. He used that hour to good effect, trying his best to put his stamp upon me for the duration of my ministry. He talked me more or less permanently into the robe; but he could not talk me permanently into the collar, though I did wear it while I was at the Little Church, and I did find it useful, and once, even powerful. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was in an elevator at the Charlotte Memorial Hospital with two elderly ladies. They were about forty, or maybe even forty-five. Anyway, I was wearing an overcoat with my hands in the pockets, and the coat collar was turned up against the cold. I was standing sideways, and my round collar was invisible to them. We punched in our floors and started-up. Suddenly, the elevator lurched, and the ladies fell into one another’s arms, and one of them cried out,“God help us!” My hands were already in the pockets of my coat. In a fit of inspiration, I pushed down hard, suddenly revealing my round collar, turned, looked into their startled faces and said, “He will!” I felt like Superman coming out of a phone booth. Powerful.
Bishop Spaugh taught me a number of useful things. He was a great proponent of cafeteria style preaching. He said, “In the course of any sermon, I set out a number of entrees, key ideas that I think will help people, and then, I let them pick and choose what they want.” He went on to say that, some people would stay with him to the end of the line, but others would latch on to one of the first entrees, and be lost to him for the remainder of the sermon. “It is okay,” he said, “those people got what they needed.”
The text before us this morning can be read cafeteria style because it presents a number of entrees, key ideas worthy of considerable reflection.
1. I call the first entree “Old Habits Die Hard.” Peter was a fisherman. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, he hung around Jerusalem for about two weeks and then said. “I am going fishing.” The other fishermen in the group including, James and John joined him, and other disciples besides. Some would criticize Peter for going fishing when he ought to have been casting his nets for people; but Old Habits die hard. That is okay. When we come to Jesus, he ask us to rid our lives of sin, and selfishness, and lovelessness, but he does not ask us to abandon everything that we have ever been. He wants to use that. Consider the case of Peter and his friends. In facing the storms on the lake, they learned courage. We who fish for people need courage to share our faith. In seeking a variety of fish, they learned the importance of knowing the habits of their quarry. We know that we must meet people where they are, not where we would like for them to be. In pulling in their heavy nets, the fishermen learned the value of teamwork. We who belong to the church know the value of teamwork, too, especially those of us who have spent time in the ordained ministry. Finally, in long, unproductive days and nights in their boats during which they never stopped working and finally caught fish, they learned the value of patience. The Christian witness, knows that true patience is not about patiently waiting for something to happen, but patiently working to make something happen.
2. I call the second entree “New Direction.” The disciples fished all night and took nothing. They must have been fishing on the left side of the boat, because when the risen Christ appeared on the beach, he told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. Lest you think this text is the exclusive property of Fox News, it matters not which side the disciples fished, it matters only that they followed the direction of Jesus. It has been said that are three solutions to any problem: 1) My way; 2) Your way; and 3) God’s way. If we are not working God’s way, it does not matter how hard we work. I may reach the top of my ladder of success, and you yours, only to find that our ladders have been leaning on the wrong wall. To know true success as a community, we must find God’s way. Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would show us things to come. The Spirit sometimes does this in individuals, but most often the Spirit works in the community. We are a prophetic community! Of course, the Spirit can only work in a community as diverse as our Moravian church if we care enough about each other to sit down in the same room and listen to one another. More and more our whole society draws lines in the sand and says, “My way or the highway.” I am particularly discouraged that a great many Moravians are now doing the same thing. Some are even trying to tell us that there is only one way to read scripture. This may be true for some fundamentalists; but it strikes at the very foundation and core of Moravian faith and practice.
3. The third entree in this text I call “Whose Counting.” After the disciples listened to Jesus and followed his directions, they netted and landed 153 large fish, and though there were so many, yet the net did not break. Now I know from experience that successful fishermen count their catch. A couple years ago, my friend Steve Jones and I went fishing for Striped Bass in the Roanoke River down at Weldon. We caught 60 nice Stripers in five hours. Lest you think we were fish hogs, we released them all. Likewise, the last time I was here as pastor, the late Charlie Peterson took me and his grandson Mike Johnson fishing out of Morehead City. Most of the day, Mike and I fished from the fighting chairs, while Charlie leaned against the ladder and smoked big cigars. At the end of the day, Mike and I caught 24 nice King Mackerel and Charlie caught the best fish of the day, a Wahoo half-again larger than any of the Kings. It was a different time. We turned all those fish into steaks. So, I know from experience that successful fishermen count their catch; but in this case, I have my doubts. The disciples had just been invited to breakfast by the Master they had seen crucified, dead, and buried less than three weeks before. Who is going to count fish in a situation like that? The number 153 is a symbolic number. At that time, it was believed that there were 153 people groups in the world. The great catch of large fish stands as indicative of the fact that at least some from each of those groups is going to end up in the gospel net that will cast by the disciples and the church they will now lead.
Today, we know that there are far more than 153 people groups in the world. However there is still one people group that that attracts most of our attention: Our own. We always want to catch people like us in the gospel net, because it affirms our own choice. The amazing thing about the Moravian Church is the 18th century is that they sent missionaries to people who weren’t like them, starting with the slaves in the Caribbean. Today, the Moravian Church in Tanzania is growing, because it is fishing for people not unlike those already in the church there. Today, the Moravian Church in America is declining, because there are fewer and fewer people like us to be caught. Personally, I think it is hight time we started fishing other people groups, especially the Millennial Generation. Only 2 in 10 Millennials go to church. According to a r survey published by CNN, 42 percent of Millennials object to the way the church has ignored climate change (Only 30% of us do); 64 percent of Millennials object to the way the church is blind to the facts of science, like evolution; and 69 percent of Millennials object to the way that the church has continued to ignore the needs of Gay, Lesbian and transexuals. The facts are the facts. The point is, there are plenty of fish in the sea, but the vast majority of them are varieties we have never really tried catching before. Are willing to make the necessary adjustment?
4. The fourth entree in this text is “A Memorable Meal.” This time the meal is fish and bread. The disciples have just caught 153 fish—and they are asked to contribute, but, according to the text Jesus provides the initial meal, of bread and fish. As we have hitherto seen, in John’s Gospel there is no communion meal at the last supper like the one in Paul and the Synoptics. Still, as we learn from chapter 5 of the 4th gospel, John knows his readers are familiar with that meal. In this text, the author wants us to remember just once more that Jesus is the true and living bread that comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world, and to remember the bread that symbolizes that.
Some will say, “Worth, you are pressing the text.” If the text were from the synoptics, maybe; but not when the text is from John. In John many words are loaded with meaning every-time, and bread is one of them. The text says that the disciples recognized Jesus. Surely they could not eat bread supplied to them by their Risen Lord without thinking of the true bread that gives life to the world. At one time, they shared their lunch with Jesus, and Jesus took it and shared it with 5,000. Now Jesus shares his breakfast with his disciples, and expects them to begin to share that bread with the countless people who will be drawn to them, as they were once drawn to him. Don’t press this too hard, but John’s last supper maybe a first breakfast with the Risen One.
5) The fifth entree in this text is “A Second Chance.” Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter says, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” There are three exchanges, and there is some variety in the questions, and in the answers, and in the charges. Some people say that it is important that Jesus uses one word for love, in the 1st and 2nd exchange, and a different word for love, in the 3rd exchange. Perhaps. However, the important thing is that Jesus allows Peter, who denied him three times, to affirm him three times. Jesus gives Peter a second chance to be the person he wants him to be. Some will immediately think that a second chance is not always enough. True enough! In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus about that. He said, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how many times should I forgive him, seven times?” And Jesus answered, “No, but seventy times seven.” Seventy times seven is four hundred and ninety times, but the figure is not intended to be exact. Whose counting? It is symbolic. Jesus says are to forgive our brothers and sisters as often as is necessary, and he would hardly expect of us more than we can expect of God. The author of Psalm 130 is right, there is forgiveness with the LORD that he may be feared, which means to be held in awe, worshiped and loved.
6. There is a final entree here that we cannot overlook, “Jesus Predicts Peter’s Future.” Jesus looks Peter square in the eye and says:
8 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.”
The narrator adds that Jesus said this to show by what death Peter was to glorify God. The community of the Beloved Disciple knew how Peter died with some degree of certainty. We don’t have that certainty. We know only that a popular tradition says that during the Neronian persecution, Peter was crucified upside down because he refused to be crucified in the same manner of his Lord.
This text is not just for Peter. After my mother reached the point that she needed assisted living, I pointed out this text to her as a parable of old age for all of us. When we are young, we dress ourselves, and go where we want to go. When we grow old, like my mom grew old, and like I will someday grow old, and like you will someday grow old, another will dress us and take us where we don’t want to go. I am not saying that assisted living, skilled nursing or intensive care is as bad as being crucified upside down. Though some of us fear that it might be. I suppose the important thing here is that Jesus predicted Peter’s suffering, and then said, “Follow me!” Jesus wanted Peter to stay close to him, especially in suffering. Some of us see suffering as the sign that God has abandoned us. The New Testament says just the reverse. In the New Testament suffering is often seen as the sign that someone is walking close to God. In the 1st Epistle of Peter, a little after the apostle (or one of his close followers) says that we have been “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he adds:
Now, for a little while, you may have to suffer various trials, but only so that the genuine-ness of your faith, more precious than fine gold, which though perishable, is tested by fire, may redound to praise, and glory, and honor, at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.
Some of you have stayed with me to the end of the line. Others took a portion early on. Either is okay. I just hope you got something from this message that can provide you food for the journey.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.