Sermon: Stranger on the shore

A short sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter year C.

John 21:1-19

Fishing boats, PhilippinesThis Sunday’s Gospel contains one of my favourite texts:

‘Jesus said to them “come and have breakfast”.’

What did you have for breakfast this morning: Cornflakes or some other cereal? Toast and marmalade? Porridge?

Our bible story tells of a very different breakfast. A breakfast not in a kitchen or dining room but on a beach by a lake. On the menu was barbecued fish and bread.

And perhaps most surprising of all, the cook was Jesus.

This was clearly no ordinary breakfast…

The story begins with the disciples in a fishing boat on the sea of Galilee. They have left Jerusalem and returned home. What should they do now? “I don’t know about you lot” says Simon Peter, “but I’m going fishing.”

Don’t you think it strange that after all the astonishing things they had witnessed – Jesus risen from the dead – that in the end it didn’t seem to make much difference? Everything returned to normality – the disciples just returned to their homes, their families, their jobs and their boats.

And so there they were, out in their boats on the lake. Out all night. And what did they catch? Not so much as a minnow. Perhaps they’d lost the touch.

They had been out so long that dawn was breaking. Then they became aware of someone shouting. A stranger on the shore.

“Hey lads! Have you caught anything?”

“No! Nothing at all”

“Let your net down on the other side of the boat!”

And so they did. And imagine their astonishment and surprise when they tried to haul in the net. It was so full and heavy they could hardly handle the catch. What was going on? The last time something like this had happened was when Jesus was with them.

And then the penny dropped. “It is the Lord!” They realised who the stranger was. Simon Peter was so excited that he jumped out of the boat into the water, leaving the others to handle the catch.

When at last they reached the shore they found Jesus had made a charcoal fire. “Bring some of the fish you have just caught” he said. But the strange thing was, he already had bread and fish warming on the fire.

And so Jesus and the disciples ate breakfast together. If the meal they shared on the night of his arrest was the last supper, this was the last breakfast. The fact that it took place at daybreak is surely significant. After the darkness of death comes the dawn of resurrection life and all the possibilities of a new day.

This is a message just as relevant for Christians today as John the evangelist’s early church community. For it speaks of Jesus’ continuing presence with and provision for his community.

Presence

As I read and meditate upon these mysterious resurrection stories, I have increasingly become aware that they are not just interesting tales about events that happened long ago. Rather they are about the continuing presence of the risen Lord in the church today.

Jesus comes to his disciples where they are, at work. They are not in church, or praying, or doing anything remotely religious. They’re fishing. Because that is how Jesus so often makes himself known. Jesus meets people in everyday life and ordinary places. At work, at school, at home, Jesus is there.

Not that we always recognise him. He comes to us as he came to the disciples, a stranger on the shore of life. Jesus is at work in people’s lives, but we don’t always recognise this at first. Sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop. “It’s the Lord.”

As we reflect on the life of our church – the joys and the sorrows; the things that irritate us and the things that make us glad – we need to relate this to our gospel story. Where in all of this, is Jesus to be found? In worship – perhaps. I hope that for you this is an encounter with the risen Lord. But the story challenges us to seek Christ in the kitchen when the flowers are arranged; in the charity shop when clothes are pressed and sorted; in the Octagon during church council meetings; at the church door as conversations take place with friend and stranger.

Provision

Peter and the others are tired and hungry after a fruitless night fishing and Jesus knows just what they need. “Come and have breakfast.”  Bread and fish – now what story does that remind you of? That’s right – Jesus once fed 5,000 hungry people with bread and fish, only this time there’s a difference. Rather than a little boy giving up his packed lunch, this time it is Jesus who provides the food and commands his disciples to sit and eat. As Kenneth Grayston writes:

“The Christian community does not feed on its own success… it feeds on what Christ has prepared for it.”

Left to their own devices, the disciples were spectacularly unsuccessful. It is only when they hear the voice of Jesus and obey, that the catch is made possible.

Fishing, of course, is a symbol of mission. When Jesus first called Simon Peter, he told him that he was to stop catching fish and start catching people. So what is John telling us about our mission? When we do things unaided, by our own effort, we are doomed to failure. It is when we hear the voice of the risen Lord, when we faithfully respond to his guidance, that things start to happen. Perhaps he is calling us to do things a different way – to metaphorically cast our net on the other side of the boat. What is Jesus telling us to do today?

So the story assures us that the risen Lord is present with his people, and still provides. This reality was beautifully expressed by the theologian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, with whose words I shall end:

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘follow thou me!’ and sets us to those tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they will pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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