John 21: 1-19
+ So, when I was in graduate school, studying poetry, I came across a great quote from the British literary critic, A. Alvarez. He said, essentially, it’s good to be an apprentice. You learn the task—in this case, of poetry—so that “when the Devil takes you by the throat and shakes you,” it is then, that you’ll know what to do. It is then, that you become a poet. It has been great advice. And I think it’s advice that can be used in multiple situations.
So, the question for all of you this morning is: When the Devil takes YOU by the throat and shakes you, what do you do? What do you do when the bad things of this life are thrown at you? Do you shut down, and curl up and just wait for it to pass? Do you freeze up and just brace yourself for it? Do you react and rage at the injustice of it? Or do you confront it all?
When the Devil takes me by the throat, do you know what I do? I make myself busy. When I was diagnosed with cancer, when my father died very suddenly, when any of the bad things happen, I just get busy. I do something. Anything. Because not doing something is worse than the Devil’s cold hand on my throat.
In this morning’s Gospel, we find the Apostles doing something very much like that. They aren’t sitting around doing nothing. They are doing some thing. They are keeping busy. In the wake of the murder of Jesus, in the wake of his resurrection, in the wake of his appearing to them—in the wake of this unusual, extraordinary activity in their lives—they do the most ordinary thing in their lives.
They go fishing. They pick up their nets and they go out onto the water. No doubt, considering all that had happened to them in the previous days and weeks, their minds were reeling. But, now, they are doing something they knew how to do. Something that gave them some comfort, no doubt.
This what they did, after all. This what their fathers did and no doubt what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did as well. Fishing was in their blood. It was all they knew until Jesus came into their lives. And, no doubt, when the extraordinary events of Jesus’ murder and resurrection happened, the only way they could find some normalcy in their life was by going fishing.
The fact is, this is probably the last time they would ever go fishing together. Their old life had once and for all passed away with the voice that calls to them from the shore.
Their jobs as fishermen would change with the words “Feed my sheep.” It that instant, they would go from fishermen to shepherds. No longer would they be fishing for actual fish. Now they would be the feeding the sheep of Jesus’ flock.
That symbolic number of 153 seems to convey to us that the world now has become their lake. And what is particularly poignant about all of this is Jesus doesn’t come into their lives to change them into something else. He comes into their lives and speaks to them in language they understand. He could have said to them: “Go out and preach and convert.”
But to fishermen and shepherds, that means little or nothing. They are fishermen, not priests or pastors. They are not theologians.
Instead, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This they would understand. In those simple words, they would have got it. And when he says “feed my sheep,” “Shepherd my sheep,” it was not just a matter of catching and eating. It was a matter of catching and nurturing.
And this calling isn’t just for those men back then. That voice from the shore is calling us too. In a sense, we are called by Jesus as well to be shepherds like Peter and the fellow apostles. And those around us—those that share this world with us—are the ones Jesus is telling us to feed.
It isn’t enough that we come here to church on a Sunday morning to be fed. A lot of us think that’s what church is about. It’s about me being fed. It’s about me being nurtured. To some extent, yes. But, if all we do is come to church to be fed and then not to turn around and feed others, we are really missing the point. We, in turn, must go out and feed.
And this command of Jesus is important. Jesus asks it of Peter three times—one time for each time Peter denied him only a few weeks before. Those words of Jesus to Peter are also words to us as well. In the wake of the devastating things that happen in our lives, the voice of Jesus is a calm center. Amid the chaos of the world, the calm, cool voice of Jesus is still saying to us, as we cope in our ordinary ways, “feed my sheep.”
Because, it is in these strange and difficult times that people need to be fed and nourished. Not by me, the priest, only. But by all of us—all of who call ourselves followers of Jesus. It is in times like these that we need to be fed, and it is in times like these that we need to feed others as well. That, in a sense, is what it means to be a Christian.
Following Jesus, as we all know, is not easy. The fact is: it’s probably the hardest thing one can do. Jesus is not present to us as he was present to those fishermen in this morning’s Gospel. He is not cooking us a breakfast when we come back from ordinary work. This God of Jesus, this God he keeps telling us to love and to serve, is sometimes a hard God to love and serve. Loving a God who is not visible—who is not standing before us, in flesh and blood, is not easy. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone here this morning: loving our neighbors—those people who share our world with us—as ourselves, is not easy by any means.
It takes constant work to love. It takes constant discipline to love as Jesus loved. It takes constant work to love ourselves—and most of us don’t love ourselves—and it takes constant work to love others.
But look at the benefits. Look at what our world would be like if we loved God, if we loved ourselves and loved others as ourselves. It was be ideal. It would truly be the Kingdom of God, here on earth. It would be exactly what Jesus told us it would be like.
But to do this—to bring this about—to love God, to love ourselves, to love each other, it’s all very hard work. Some would say it’s impossible work. There are people, I’ll confess, I don’t want to love. I don’t want to love those people who hurt me, or who hurt people I actually do love. Sometimes I can’t love them. I’m not saying I hate them. I’m just saying that sometimes I feel nothing for a person who has wronged me or one of my loved ones.
In that instant, it really is hard to be a follower of Jesus. Certainly, it seems overwhelming at times. Let’s face it, to live as Jesus expects us to live, to serve as Jesus calls us to serve, to love as Jesus loves—it would just be so much easier to not do any of it.
Being a Christian means living one’s life fully and completely as a follower of Jesus. It means being a reflection of God’s love and goodness in the world.
A quote you’ve heard me share many, many time is this one of St. Augustine: “Being a Christian means being an Alleluia from head to toe.”
It means being an Alleluia even when the bad things in life happen. It means being an Alleluia—in our service to others—when we would rather go fishing. It means, occasionally, going and feeding the sheep rather than going off fishing and being a busybody when the bad things in life happen.
In the midst of all the things in the world that confuse us—as we struggle to make sense of the world—the voice of Jesus is calling to us and is telling us to “feed my sheep.” Because in feeding those sheep, you know what happens: we too are fed. In nurturing Christ’s sheep, we too are nurtured. See, it all does work out. But we have to work at it for it to work out.
So, let us do just that. Let us feed those Jesus calls us to feed. And let us look for the Alleluia of our lives in that service to others. In finding the Alleluia amidst the darkness, we—in our bodies and in our souls—become—from our head to our toes—an Alleluia.