Pulling your love to pieces
A sermon on John 21: 1-19 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 April 2004
© LaughingBird.net


Message
The risen Christ is extravagantly generous and excruciatingly unwilling to settle for pious platitudes in return.

Sermon

Last Sunday we noted that although John’s gospel tells us that Jesus had given his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to take his message out into the world, a week later they were still locked behind the doors of their fear in an upstairs room. Not only had they not yet become the fearless apostles who would take the message to the ends of the earth, but they hadn’t even managed to convince Thomas, the one of their own number who had been absent when Jesus had turned up, overwhelmingly alive, on that first day. Well, here we are, another week later, and I’m pleased to say that they have now made it out from behind the locked door. Taking on the world, though, still seems a good way off. Far from stepping straight out to become the one who fishes for people, Simon Peter is ready to go back to fishing for fish. Although it doesn’t explicitly say one way or the other, it doesn’t look like this is just to be a spot of recreational fishing before getting on with his new job. Peter is a fisherman by trade. When Peter goes fishing it probably means that he thinks everything else has run its course and there is nothing left to do but go back to his old job. And his mates are ready to go with him.

Most of us have been there, haven’t we? “I’ve done my best, I’ve given this Jesus stuff my best shot. It seemed like a good thing for a while, but in the end it just didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. Time to give it away and get on with my life.”

Daughters and sons of the earth, do you love me?

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. But we reached the end of the road, didn’t we? I’m grateful for the good times, I really am. But it’s over now, and I’ve got a life to get on with. I’ve let things get way behind at the office, and now I need to get it all back in order and follow through on my responsibilities. It was good while it lasted though. Really, it was.”

Peter must have thought he’d been away from the office too long. He’d completely lost his touch. The one-time gun fisherman is out on the water all night and he’s got nothing to show for it. Sweet nothing. But then, with nothing to lose, he acts on a silly suggestion shouted out by a stranger on the beach. “What the heck, I’m not catching anything anyway, why not try fishing left-handed? At least I’ll show that cretin on the beach that he doesn’t know any better.” And almost instantly, he had fish climbing over each other to get into his boat. Dozens of them. More than he’s ever seen at one time. More than his boat can hold. This is over the top, outlandish, wasteful. Miraculous even. Who is that bloke on the beach? It’s got to be Jesus, doesn’t it? Who else can turn a ludicrous suggestion into a sign of heaven? Who indeed?!

And isn’t that just so like Jesus? It is almost as though he’s taking the mickey out of you sometimes. Just when you think you’ve thrown in the towel and gone back to living without him, there he is, bobbing up again to show you that you can’t even do what you are supposed to be able to do best unless he backs you on it. Even the fish won’t bite unless he says so. And just when you think everything is lost and nothing is ever going to go right for you again, there he is, handing you just what you thought you were going to have to slave for, and handing it to you on a plate. The good things you were searching for, all that you had yearned for and perhaps despaired of ever seeing, there it all is jumping into your boat, poured into your lap with such extravagance that you have no idea what to do with it all. Just when you thought everything you had believed in was snuffed out and everything you’d put your hopes in for the future was well and truly dead and buried, there he is, standing on the beach, more alive than ever, and cooking you breakfast!

Daughters and sons of the earth, do you love me?

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. But I’ve missed my chance, haven’t I? I’m really sorry I pretended I didn’t even know you the other night. I wish I was the sort of person who always had the courage of their convictions, but I really did think the game was up. All I could see was rich and powerful enemies determined to get you off their case once and for all and you weren’t going to lift a hand to stop them. There didn’t seem to be any sense in getting myself killed as well when the cause was already lost. You were clearly done for, and all I could do was get the hell out of there and look after number one. I can see now that I got it wrong, but you can only play each ball as you see it. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I really thought you’d given up on us and we were on our own. I feel like a right drongo now, but that’s how it looked at the time. I’m sorry. I do love you. Really I do.”

So here we are on the beach, standing around a fire while breakfast cooks. We’re half wanting to play dumb and say, “Who are you, mate?”, but we know who he is. It might not be obvious just to look at him, but we’ve spent a few years with him now, and you get to know his style. And he’s running true to form with his line of questioning this morning. He just won’t let anyone get away with fobbing him off with a half-baked answer. It’s like he sees right through you and he just keeps at you until his questions have cut to the core of your being and laid the truth out there in plain view, and it’s like you didn’t even know what was there yourself. You can’t just tell him you love him and expect a thanks and second helping of breakfast. He knows you better than you know yourself, but he’ll ask you whether you really mean it so that you have to look deep inside yourself and try to work it out. He never lets you get away with just saying what you think he wants to hear. The vaguest hint that your answer might just be a pious platitude trying to smooth things over and deflect the spotlight, and he’s back in your face again:

Daughters and sons of the earth, do you love me?

“Come on, Lord. You know everything. What do you have to keep asking me for? I know I screwed up the other night. Okay, I know I’ve screwed up lots of times. But it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. You know what I’m made of. You know I’m giving it my best shot. Can’t we just put it behind us, enjoy the breakfast together and get on with living? Why do you have to keep digging? What do you want from me? I love you, but I’m only human.”

And still those eyes keep looking right at you, through you, into you, into the depths of your soul. And if it was anyone else you might be thinking you were about to be torn apart, destroyed. But this is the guy who has shown you over and over that if you strip off your defences and dive into the terrifying unknown with him, it’s always worth it. Even when it means diving into a raging sea of confusion and humiliation and grief, still it ends up with so many blessings you can hardly fit them in. And even though it still catches you unprepared every time, the pattern is so familiar by now. The gifts come first, and then the questions. He never makes you earn the gifts. He just pours them into your lap, extravagantly, overwhelmingly, passionately, unconditionally. He never leaves you in any doubt about whether he loves you or whether he is willing to go on backing you and blessing you. But he is also unwilling to see you just pick at the plate he offers you and then trudge of back to where you came from. And so those excruciating questions keep coming. And as long as we keep answering “Yes, but...”, those questions are going to keep coming. On and on until they have peeled through our resistances and our timidity and our clinging to our pain. On and on until they find the place within us where there is an answer that will open out to the future, that will set us free, and set us ablaze with wild hope and extravagant love and nerve-tingling wonder.

Daughters and sons of the earth, do you love me?

(silence)

Daughters and sons of the earth, follow me. Follow me.