Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
Easter 3C - Sunday, April 14, 2013
John 21: 1-19
I love this morning’s gospel. There is something cinematic about this story. It’s like a guy film. Seven guys who don’t seem to know what they’re doing decide like guys do to go fishing – the big guy makes up his mind and the other guys follow along. Then, as is so often the case when a group of guys just sort of decides to do something, nothing happens. Hurry up and wait. Except that some man on the shore calls out to them – Hey, guys – Catch anything? No? So lower your nets on the right side. Suddenly so many fish they can’t manage. But who is that man on the beach? The leader of the guys is not the brightest bulb in the sign – it is John who recognizes Jesus, but it is Peter who acts. He puts on his clothes, jumps in the water, swims to shore, and hauls in the net.
We know, but the guys don’t, that the man on the beach is Jesus, and he is the reason the guys have been drifting. Condemned, killed and resurrected – two appearances already! – and the guys still don’t get it. They’re like lost boys. So Jesus helps them focus. He serves them breakfast, and then has a purposeful chat. Simon son of John, do you love me? I do Lord. You know I do. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Jesus gives Peter his new job description. But this time, no glory. No young hero stuff. This time the call is to get old and feeble and then get killed. Jesus seems to ask, Are you up to it? Then follow me.
This story is a call story. But it is so unlike the call story at the beginning of the Gospel. The first call is about excitement, about following an unexpected and emergent leader, about the prospect of initiating change and doing something new. But the call story at the end of John’s gospel - for our gospel today is from the very last chapter of John - this call story is about something altogether different. These guys seem not to be at the beginning of something filled with hope and expectation, but are like lost lads, drifting, unsuccessful, at the end of something but even what they are at the end of isn’t really clear to them. This is the third resurrection appearance, apparently – the third one! – and they still don’t quite get it. It bears repeating. So Jesus hammers it in.
The narrative line of this story is like a template for what is to follow: If you depend on your own efforts, if you rely on yourself, you will fail. No self-gotten glory, no fish for self-starters here. In order to make the catch you need to rely on the one who calls you, whom you don’t always recognize at first. This call will penetrate to the center of your soul, and will hurt you because it won’t accept your first or even your second answers, but keeps on until you cry out in frustration and anguish, until you declare your love from the depth of your heart. This call is for the long haul, fishing all night and catching nothing not just once but your whole life. And the big catch is none of your own doing. You haul in the big catch because of advice from somewhere, someone you don’t even know. And you don’t really know who it is until you sit down and share with him, with a stranger, who turns out not to be a stranger at all. This story tells us that we will find the Lord at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.
As did Saul of Tarsus. History’s most famous convert. For once we are not entirely at the mercy of a thirty or forty year communal memory, a story told and retold and sharpened in the retelling and finally written down, the story we heard from Acts. Paul himself tells us what happened to him, in his own words, in the beginning of Galatians (1:11-24):
“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.”
While Acts doesn’t contradict what Paul himself tells us, Acts tells a very different story, full of action and interesting detail, a little like the story we heard from John this morning. It is cinematic, strongly plotted, breathless even. Who doesn’t get caught up in it when they hear it? Who doesn’t put himself or herself into it, wishing perhaps to be chosen and transformed and given a world-changing task like Saul was?
But Paul’s own account is different. There is no light, no voice. There is something reticent, almost passive in Paul’s own account. The whole exciting narrative in Acts is summed up in a single phrase: When God was “pleased to reveal his Son to me”. No dramatic story, no Ananias sent to the street called Straight, no nursing back to health, no scales falling from the eyes. What Paul gives us instead is entries from his appointments calendar. Arabia, Damascus, Jerusalem, Syria, Cilicia. Years pass. Not much happens for three years, and then he gets two weeks with Peter and James. This doesn’t sound dramatic. This isn’t cinematic. Something happened. Then I went here, and then I went there, and then I met with people, and then I went out on the road again. It’s like listening to a friend we haven't seen for a long time tell us about what’s happened in his life, but it’s not an exciting story, it’s really just a list, and our attention maybe drifts just a little bit as we smile back as he drones on and on.
This sounds like real life.
These stories seem to say that the call itself is dramatic enough. Sometimes the haul is so big we can hardly manage what the Lord has given us. We meet the Lord in a stranger, we have an apocalyptic experience. But then it is back on the road, for years and years of slogging, till all of a sudden we’re old. We used to be able to spring up and get right to it, but now we’ve gone all creaky, and maybe the end is in sight. Paul didn’t begin his writing career till twenty or more years after the Lord revealed himself to him. Peter didn’t get the job description till he was broken down by the Lord’s persistent asking him the question Peter thought he had already answered.
Easter Day may be all joy. But the resurrection life is a long slog. Simon, son of John, do you love me? Lord, you know I do. Feed my sheep. Not once, not twice, but three times. Over and over. Once again, from the top.
Are we up to it? If you are, he says, Follow me.