(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 25, 2004)
A man woke up one morning with a feeling. He just knew that something special was going to happen that day. He looked at his clock and it had stopped at 3:00. He went downstairs and glanced out his kitchen window to look at the thermometer and found that the outside temperature was 33 degrees. He grabbed the morning paper and it was dated March 3, the third day of the third month. On a hunch, he turned to the third page of the third section of the paper and just as he thought, it was the racing news. In the third race, one of the horses was called Trio. The guy ran to the bank, withdrew his life-savings, and bet it all on Trio to win that race. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome, but he was. Trio came in third.
I’ve seen people look for all sorts of signs—whether from God or elsewhere—for how to live their lives, be successful, avoid calamity, find a job, find a mate. But just as often as not, we seem to avoid clear guidance that’s staring us right in the face. Recently, I’ve been undergoing physical therapy with a neck problem. I go three times a week. For several weeks now, the physical therapist has given me the same basic instructions: four times a day, I’m to lie down on my back and get the weight of my head off of my neck; throughout the day, I’m to gently do retractions with my neck to help realign things. What’s amazing to me is that even though the physical therapist's instructions are clear and simple and redundant, I find ways to forget them or muff them, all the time.
This past week, things improved so markedly that I went into overdrive. I’m a man and as a man, I sometimes use “man logic.” If a few retractions, helped a little, a lot of retractions, would help a lot! I figured that by exercising aggressively, I would get over the hump and back in the gym to lose my flab. Instead, I set myself back, causing me headaches. So, during my visits this past week, with a smile, the physical therapist reminded me again of my simple instructions. I wondered if she was gritting her teeth as though she were teaching a frustratingly thick-headed student: “Four times a day, lie on your back and after the inflammation you’ve caused your neck and head muscles dies down, gently do retractions with your neck to realign things.” I think I get it now. We’ll see.
Our Bible lesson for this morning is the epilogue of John the Evangelist’s telling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In it, we find that Jesus is forced—like my physical therapist—to review some things with seven of His disciples that He’s shared with them many times before. This is critical though, because He has gone through His cross and His resurrection. Soon, He will no longer be physically present with them. Through Jesus’ encounter with the disciples in today’s lesson, He shows that neither they—or we—need any signs to tell us what our lives should be about on this side of Easter morning. We already know what to do. And it’s crystal clear!
The lesson begins very strangely. It’s just days after Jesus had risen from the dead. Easter is the most exciting thing that has ever happened in human history and the disciples had been given ringside seats! That in itself should have clued the disciples to the fact that their lives were to be different than they had been before.
Besides all of that, over the preceding few years, Jesus had spent hours and hours with these men. He had made clear that He was God, that He had come to die and rise so that sinners like them—and us—could be forgiven, have new lives, and live with God forever. Jesus had already told them that they would be going out into the world to tell others about Jesus so that they too, could turn from sin, entrust themselves to Jesus’ leadership, and live forever with God. Jesus had even told those who were engaged in the fishing profession that their fishing days were over. Instead, they would be fishing for people, gently calling them back to the God Who made them, loves them, and wants to live with them forever.
So, what exciting plans and great risks are the disciples preparing to make as our lesson begins? What kindness outreaches are they going to do? What sorts of bold prayers are they bringing to God, asking Him to help them share Jesus with their neighbors? They weren’t doing any of that!
Like children on a rainy Saturday, they seem to be bored and listless. Finally, Peter says, “I think I’ll go fishing.” The other six disciples say, “We’ll go with you.” They turn their backs on Easter and Jesus’ clear instructions. But habits are powerful things, you know. They’re hard for us to break. They make it difficult for us to try new things. Habits wear ruts into our souls. The husband and wife who constantly squabble out of habit, keep driving their relationships over the same old cliffs. Alcoholics make the mistake of ordering what they tell themselves is “just one drink.” The student who needs to get an important paper done says that just like last night, she needs to call a friend or play a video game and before you know it, just like the night before, the evening is gone, the important paper undone. Someone has said that one sign of insanity may be believing that if you keep doing the same things in the same ways you always have, eventually you’ll get different results than you’ve gotten before.
Jesus came to bring us the joy of heaven. But first, He came to annoy us by calling us out of our ruts and comfort zones and into His Kingdom instead. There, we’re called to love and serve as we’ve been loved and served.
Peter and the rest forgot that. They went back to old habits. They went fishing. And like a night on which several of them had gone fishing a few years before, they didn’t catch a thing. They shouldn’t have been surprised. They didn’t need any new signs or flashes of intuition. Jesus had already told them that for the rest of their lives, they’d be fishing for people. He’d also told them, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” If Jesus isn’t in the center of our lives, our lives can never be what God made them to be.
So, the disciples come back from a night of futility, their nets empty. A stranger is frying up fish over a charcoal fire on the shore. “Children,” He calls out, “you didn’t catch anything, did you?” (Of course, they hadn’t.) He tells them to throw their nets over the right side of the boat and soon their nets are full, just as happened in that incident of a few years before when Jesus had given them a similar command. Now, they know Who the stranger is. It’s the risen Jesus!
Soon, they’re sitting around a charcoal fire and having dinner with Jesus. A painful memory may have crossed Peter’s mind at that moment. It had been while he was standing around another charcoal fire, in the high priest’s courtyard, warming himself against the cool Judean night, that within sight of Jesus, Who been arrested and bound, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.
As if to assure Peter that all is forgiven and that he can go on with his new life, Jesus asks Peter three questions, each a chance to erase his earlier denials. “Simon Peter, do you love Me...?...do you love Me?...do you love Me?” And each time Peter says, “Yes,” Jesus reminds Peter of his mission in life: Feed My lambs. Tend My sheep. Feed My sheep. In other words: Take care of your neighbor in My Name, love the unlovable, tell others about Me, pray for those who are hated, give to the poor, help others to be My followers too, be a servant. Jesus summarizes it all even more succinctly when He says, “Follow Me.”
On Easter Sunday morning, this place was filled. Everybody loves Easter! But after Easter, what? Do we grow bored? Are we looking for some sign about what to do next? We don’t need to! Our mission is clear. No more business as usual. No more religion. Instead, we’re to follow Jesus. Period. We’re to do that by feeding His lambs, loving the world for whom He died and rose.
For each of us, that may look a little different. Some will teach Sunday School or volunteer occasionally for Children’s Church. Some will clean up the building, volunteer to man the mixer board for our new audiovisual system, take care of the sign on Route 125, mow the lawn. Others will help with mailings, or youth work, or Catechism, or play in a musical group, or participate in skits, or become a hospital visitor. Some will lead small group Bible studies, after school programs. I hope some day soon, the people of Friendship will be running a coffee shop, a Christian book store, an auto repair shop, and a hair salon right on our campus—using the income generated to provide services to those who can’t afford them and giving employment opportunities in a wholesome environment, especially to young people.
If you don’t believe those things can happen, look around you and see how far God has brought us so far and realize that other churches in other communities are doing these same kinds of things and more. When Jesus is at the center of our lives, we can do lots of things! And of course, no matter what we do, all of us will be involved in serving our neighbors, inviting them to worship with us, and helping them to know Jesus.
After Easter, new life comes! It’s a life filled with blessings and challenges and heavenly power. After Easter, we’re to follow Jesus. We’re to fish for people, bringing them to Jesus. We’re to take care of others, loving as we’ve been loved. There are sign-up sheets for some ministries in the lobby and when it comes to new ministries of love in Jesus’ Name for which you may have an idea, I am always all-ears. We don’t need to wait for a sign. We already have Jesus. Let’s get to work!