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Sermon:  April 7, 2024 – John 21: 1-14

in a service of farewell – Rev Greg Wooley



Typically, on this first Sunday after Easter we hear the post-resurrection story of doubting Thomas and his encounter with the risen Christ, but knowing that this would be my final time in this pulpit with you, I chose another post-resurrection Bible story, which is rich in meaning and potentially quite fun. From the 21st chapter of John, the story of Fishing on the Other Side of the Boat.  But since not many of us are all that familiar with the life of fisherfolk 2000 years ago, I figure that a fresh paraphrase of today’s lesson may be in order, using a more universally understood metaphor.

Disheartened that their leader, Jesus, was no longer with them, nine of the disciples returned home to re-engage with their previous career: baseball.  They had been playing all night, and were stuck in the field, nearly falling asleep as their pitcher could not find the strike zone. 

Jesus heard the jeering of the crowd and slipped into the ballpark, undetected. “How’s it going, boys” he shouted from the dugout, but they did not recognize him, for he had his cap on backwards and he NEVER wore his cap backwards.

Andrew yelled out, “we haven’t been on a diamond in three years and we’re terrible.  We’re down by fifteen in the top of the ninth, Nathanael couldn’t hit a beach ball with a tennis racket and Peter here keeps trying to make heroic throws that miss the target by a mile.”

“Make sure you step toward your target, Peter, and just hit the cut-off man” replied Jesus. “Don’t try to do it all yourself.” Peter did so and yea, verily, there was a double play, and an amazing rally when they batted around twice in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. 

And there were hot dogs all around, with both mustard and relish, and much rejoicing.

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So on second thought, perhaps the original text and context would be better, because the original story really needs no augmenting.  We presume that when the disciples left their original occupations to follow Jesus, they were all-in.  There may have been the occasional time that the fishers in the group may have gone off to catch fish for supper, but there is also reason to believe that seeing these fisherfolk out in their boats again in the gospel of John’s account may indicate that they sensed that their work with Jesus was basically done.   They had experienced unforgettable times together, and they had miraculously seen him arisen, but then there was the other side of the story: he had been put to death by crucifixion, a fate that none of them wanted, and without a leader, well, why even try.  The time they had spent together would always be something they carried in their hearts, but their bellies suggested that getting back in the boat and catching some fish was going to be their life’s calling from here on.

For some reason, though, this time out of the water they had caught nothing. Zilch. Nada.  Perhaps they were rusty after three years off the water, perhaps things were a bit fished-out where they were and nobody had told them, perhaps Peter was overthrowing the cut-off man, but one way or another there was not even one fish in their nets.

In the wee hours of the morning, a stranger from the shore shouts out what could well have sounded like a sarcastic question: “have you no fish?”  “No.” came the terse reply.  “Well, how about casting your nets on the other side of the boat” suggested the spectator on the shore. 

Now, no Bible translation I have encountered has included a verbal reply to this suggestion, but I’m imagining words that would, as they say, make a sailor blush. I have a hard time imagining a boatload of expert fisherfolk just silently doing as they were told by some unknown voice from shore when they were already tired and discouraged.  But according to the gospel of John, they did indeed recast their nets on the other side of the boat… and they hauled in 153 large fish, enough to nearly swamp them. Given that a typical fishing boat those days could handle a crew of ten to twelve and half a ton of fish, these fish must have been absolute whoppers – and as any of us who’ve been fishing can attest, the size of the fish that we’ve caught always grows with time.  John’s story continues in a warm, earthy way, with a memorable fish and bread breakfast on the beach with their friend Jesus.

This scene, of Jesus calling to start fishing on the other side of the boat, is one of the Biblical metaphors that describes our past twelve years together as Church, here at Ralph Connor.  Sometimes it’s been me suggesting that we fish the other side, sometimes it’s been the initiative of a team, committee or Church Council, sometimes someone else has suggested it – like when Marj Hughes made that motion from the floor of our AGM one year, that we might add some staff to meet and engage the young adults in our community, a point of personal curiosity that turned into the Canmore Young Adult Network.  One way or another, I celebrate that we have, together, been generally open to God’s urgings in our midst to the point that at times we have fished the other side of the boat with such regularity that I’m not entirely sure which we would call the “usual” side of the boat!

This scripture often gets interpreted as something whose original intent was to speak to the Church as a whole.  The curious reference to 153 fish – such an unusual number to be stated specifically – was interpreted as early as the 4th century CE by St. Jerome to represent “the total number of species of fish known in the days of Jesus,” so catching 153 fish could be taken as an allegory for reaching successfully into all the nations of the world with the gospel.  As in the call stories where Jesus tells his new disciples that he will teach them how to fish for people, the metaphor gets a bit problematic when we consider that Jesus isn’t exactly talking about catch-and-release here, but it’s not hard to see how one might draw a connection between the Jesus who recruits disciples to fish for people, and the risen Christ who enables the disciples to have a bountiful and infinitely diverse catch.

Near the beginning of my time here, this metaphor got used in a slightly different way, but still directed at the Church as a whole.  A United Church task group consulted broadly with local congregations across Canada to determine what the hopes and needs were across the Church.  In February 2014 a report was produced, entitled “Fishing on the Other Side of the Boat”, which Mary Shearer presented to our local Church Council.  It listed seven hopes and wants that local communities of faith regularly expressed to the task group:

• a clear understanding that our church needs to change

• a strong sense of denominational identity as an open, welcoming, and justice-seeking church, as well as a yearning to share that identity more clearly and publicly;

• a desire for governance that is both simpler and more effective;

• the experiences of a significant number of faith communities that are experiencing growth by imagining new ways of being in the world;

• a desire for both more autonomy and connection, and access to excellent advice, training, resources, and support when needed;

• a recognition that technology will be central to the church, but some help and support will be needed;

• a desire for training and support for clergy and a supportive and collegial community.

This report, after passing through official channels, led to significant changes in the way we govern ourselves as a denomination (including the end of Presbyteries and Conferences and the beginning of Regions), it named both who we are and who we want to become, and it urged the necessity of “imagining new way of being in the world.”

As I stand before you on this 7th of April 2024, I want to encourage the Ralph Connor Community of Faith to follow with gusto this good advice received a decade ago: to own your identity as an open, welcoming, and justice-seeking church, to share that vision actively and verbally with people you meet, to seek, when needed the advice and support of the wider United Church, and again, to “imagine new ways of being in the world.”  Not just to stay afloat financially, or to have a couple of new members share the workload, but to share an important voice with these communities and, in turn, to provide a place where people can grow and thrive spiritually. To the metaphor once more, I don’t know if just a matter of casting one’s nets on the other side of the boat, or if now and then you would be better off abandoning the nets altogether and getting out into the water to do some fly-fishing, or maybe fish isn’t our thing.  One way or another, as Church, it will be so important to lean into one another and lean into the Holy Spirit who will continue to repeatedly present you with new ways to love, new opportunities to serve, and new ways to welcome diversity.  

There is a second angle from which to interpret this scripture, however, and I found an increasing number of Bible scholars from across the Christian spectrum moving in this direction.  In addition to viewing this as a scripture for the Church as a whole about evangelism, it could also be about the overwhelming, outrageous amount of grace that God shares with each one of us.  Perhaps the 153 fish are not a puzzle that needs to be solved, but simply a great big, God-initiated solution that shows up when least expected.  

Remember, in John’s gospel this is the risen Christ on the shore, the Jesus who had already gone through crucifixion and resurrection, so whatever he says in this situation is, literally, an expression of the glories of resurrection life.  And when he says, “cast your nets on the other side” perhaps it’s not a new technique he is recommending, but a new trust in the risen one.  These fisherfolk didn’t need someone to tell them how to do their jobs, least of all the son of a stoneworker from up in the hills of Nazareth.  But the simple fact that they trusted this voice enough to try something different, led to such abundance that their nets nearly tore apart.

In addition to who you are as a community of faith, then, working together to be relevant and loving and brave for these towns and villages around you, I suggest that this scripture is also speaking a word of encouragement to each one of you.  It really doesn’t matter if you fish this side or that side, your net-casting technique won’t be the determining factor, and it doesn’t even matter if you throw to the wrong base. (Well, that one might matter a little, and we can have a side conversation about tag-outs and force-outs if needed.)  What does matter is a basic willingness to pull those nets out of the water if things aren’t going as hoped, take a deep breath, and try again.  What does matter is knowing that God’s love is present to you in tangible ways right here and right now, and that God’s love will continue to be abundantly present as you open yourselves up to be recipients of love, incubators of love, sharers of love, fierce defenders of love.  Whatever the circumstances of you life, Christ calls out for you to keep on trying, one day at a time, to be your best self, building your life on the belief that you are loved by God completely and unconditionally, trusting that God’s guidance will help you find meaningful ways to engage this fascinating, beautiful life.

There are the fishers out in the boat, perhaps discouraged that they’ve returned to their old occupation after those exciting, formative years with Jesus.  There is a voice calling from shore, to trust in new ways of being.  There is an outrageous catch, and bread broken with trusted companions, and sustenance shared on the shore with the risen Saviour.  What a beautiful story to guide our last Sunday together, and the beginnings of the next thing that God has in store for you and for me. Thanks be to God, Amen.

References consulted and/or referenced:

The United Church of Canada. “Fishing on the other side of the boat”, accessed at https://www.wesleyknox.com/images/Fishing_on_Other_Side.pdf 

 

© 2024 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.  Preached in Canmore.

 

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