Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unfinished Business, Part 1

Text: John 21:1-22

ONE THING I'VE LEARNED over twenty years of preaching is that my sermon title is not Scripture.  A preacher might think the title she's come up with when she's planning worship is really good and appropriate, but when she really gets into the text the Holy Spirit might have other ideas about where the sermon should go and what it should be called.  And over an even longer time of being a church member sitting in the pew, I learned that when this happens and the preacher doesn't let the congregation know, the typical church member is liable to spend half the preaching time waiting for the preacher to get to some point that fits the title printed in the bulletin, and for him the sermon falls flat.  People naturally expect the sermon content to match the printed sermon title, and they can get thrown off when it doesn't.

So as you might have guessed, this happened to me this past week.  The title I initially chose for today's sermon, "What About It?" no longer matches what the Holy Spirit wants me to bring to you from today's text.  A better title might be something like "Unfinished Business."

From the purely human point of view, the protagonist of our reading from the 21st chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, is the Apostle Peter.  Or, as he is also called, Simon son of John.  And the risen Jesus clearly has unfinished business with Him.  Peter held a unique position among the apostles, and so we have to be careful about applying everything that John writes about Peter directly to our own lives.  But all Scripture is written to build us up in faith and life in Jesus Christ, and since we are to follow and imitate our leaders as they follow and imitate Christ, this 21st chapter of John can certainly guide us as we believe and live in light of Jesus' resurrection.

The events John records happened during the forty days between Jesus' resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven.  Think how strange a period this must have been for His disciples!  It was a time of waiting, when uncertainty and hope were all mixed up together.  Christ indeed was risen; His body had been renewed and transformed in unimaginable ways.  So never again would He go back to being the same old human Jesus they'd known in the three years previous.  On the other hand, He was definitely there with them bodily and tangibly; that is, when He was there with them.  And then, their Lord had told them He was sending them out to preach forgiveness of sins in His name.  So the disciples were no longer just students, they were to be teachers with His authority.  That first Resurrection Day evening in the upper room, Jesus had breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit."  On the other hand, the full outpouring of the Spirit and His empowering for ministry was several days or weeks away.  And until it fell upon them they could not begin their mission.  This business of being an apostle was unfinished.

Peter, along with the other disciples, was an ordinary person living in the most extraordinary reality humanity has even known.  A Man he knew, his Teacher and Friend, had been brutally crucified but now was risen gloriously from the dead!  Jesus had conquered sin and death and brought life and immortality to light through His mighty resurrection!  Any time now Peter and the others would be released to go out and tell the good news. But what was he to do with himself in the meantime?  He was only human, with twenty-four hours in the day to fill.  Sometimes they all could see and fellowship with their risen Lord.  But often it'd be just Peter and the other disciples, wondering when Jesus might appear next.  No human being can live in a high state of watchfulness and spiritual fervor all the time.  Even when something has occurred that's changed us and all human history, ordinary sinners like Simon Peter, like you and me, sometimes have to exhale, and think and do ordinary human things.

So we shouldn't be surprised that at some point Peter (or some other disciple) should say, "I'm going out to fish."  A lot of preachers (including me, I'm afraid) judge him harshly for proposing this, but we sin against mercy when we do.  It's totally understandable that Peter and the others might go fishing.  Jesus wasn't with them at the time; maybe they hadn't seen Him in awhile.  They were home in Galilee, the boat was available, and a little extra income for their families would be a welcome thing.  Peter wasn't announcing that he was giving up on Jesus and going back to being a full-time commercial fisherman.  No, this was a one-time proposition, and you'll notice that we never read that Jesus rebukes Peter for coming up with the idea.  It's my thought-- and keep in mind this is only my thought because we can't know for sure-- that what motivated Peter to go out fishing that night was the pressure of uncertainty and waiting.  When you don't know quite what to do, the handiest thing can simply be to do the thing you know how to do best.

We can learn something from this.  When we know exactly what Jesus wants us to do in a situation, we should do it.  We should remember His resurrection and His power and fearlessly obey His word and His will.  It can be something as momentous and long-term as going overseas as a missionary or as momentary but equally significant as calling a friend to offer a word of comfort or stopping to smile and open a door for a stranger.  When the Holy Spirit of Christ is clearly leading you, obey.

But what about when life is just going on in the ordinary way?  What if we're uncertain what God's special will is for your life?  Remember that whatever you do and wherever you are, you belong to Christ, and He is risen.  Do your work, enjoy your family and friends, and take advantage of the good things of this world, including recreation and amusements, with thanksgiving and good sense.  Being a child of God doesn't dehumanize you or take you out of the world.  Knowing that Jesus is risen doesn't oblige you to live continually on some high plane of spiritual ecstasy.  In fact, what seems to be your ordinary work and play may be Christ's special mission for you.  But in everything, keep your eyes open and your ears attuned to perceive your Lord when He comes to you with the clear word of His will.  For you are His disciple, and His business with you isn't finished.  To you He certainly will come with His word and will, sometimes when you least expect it-- as we shall see in our reading.

So, the seven disciples launch the boat out onto the Sea of Tiberias (which we also call the Sea of Galilee) and get ready to fish.  But this night the luck is against them, or maybe they've lost their touch.  They fish all night and catch nothing.

And then dawn begins to break over the water.  Dimly in the morning light they can see a figure standing about a hundred yards away on the shore.  A voice calls out, "Friends, haven't you any fish?"  The Stranger seems to know they've had no luck; in fact, in the Greek this question is definitely put in the negative.  And the disciples have to admit, "No."  So the Stranger tells them to throw their net into the sea on the right side of the boat and they'll get some.

Ordinarily, this would be a silly thing for some random person to suggest to a bunch of commercial fishermen.  If the fishing was bad at night, it's going to be worse in the morning.  Are they beginning to wonder just Who this is that has commanded them?  At any rate, they comply.  And when they do, they can't haul in the net, so many large fish are in it.

Oh, my.  Oh, my!!  What memories would be going through the heads of Peter son of John and James and John the sons of Zebedee!  Three years before, as St. Luke tells us in chapter 5 of his Gospel, these men had had another night of fishing with no luck.  And in the morning the Rabbi Jesus came along.  They'd met Him before, as St. John tells us, down in Judea with John the Baptist.  The Baptist said He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But by the world's reckoning, Jesus was only a carpenter turned rabbi and no fisherman.  But He'd told them to push out and try again.  That time, Peter had grumbled a bit but did it to humor the Master.  Three years before, when they complied they also caught such a large number of fish the net began to break.  And now it was at the word of the Stranger on the shore, a tremendous catch is leaping into their net again.   John the beloved disciple cries out, "It is the Lord!"

But this time there's a difference.  Three years before when these things happened, Simon Peter fell at Jesus' knees and begged Him, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" But this time Peter grabs his cloak, jumps into the water, and wades to shore as fast as he can.  He's still a sinful man, but Peter now knows that in Jesus there was salvation, forgiveness, and love.  Regardless of the unfinished business in the boat and in his heart, he wants to be where Jesus is.

Brothers and sisters, let us run to Jesus, for He does not change.  He is the Son of God who rules over heaven and earth and everything in them.  The power He shows when He first calls us from our sins He still possesses when we are old both in years and in the faith. He is always able to use His authority for our good and His Father's glory.  What changes is we ourselves and our understanding of Him.  In our early years of walking with Christ we know Him a little, but He brings us on to know more and more.  Where once His holiness made us focus on the filth of our sin, He remakes us so we own His holiness as our only hope.  Like Peter who jumped out of the boat and waded to Jesus, we're still sinners; becoming totally free from of sin is unfinished business that won't be completed till we ourselves are raised to be like Christ.  But in His resurrection power He is working in us and for us, so that the sight of Him more and more will bring us gladness and joy.

The other six disciples continue to tow in the net full of fish.  When they arrive at the shore, they see that a charcoal fire is burning there, with fish already roasting on it, and bread as well.  Where could Jesus have got fresh fish so early?  This was a time and culture with no 24-hour grocery stores and no refrigeration.  He invites the disciples to bring some of the fish they've just caught, but He has no need of them.  The risen Christ is the Lord our Provider who requires nothing from our hand, but in His brotherly love He calls us to participate in His work.  Don't ever believe that without us, the Church on earth, the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do nothing.  If Christ our Lord wished it He could convert every one of His elect by the direct action of His Holy Spirit working in their hearts.  But in His grace and love He allows us to be His ambassadors and agents, bringing the food of His salvation through His word and sacrament, serving Him as we serve our neighbor in acts of comfort, encouragement, and relief.  But here in John 21 we see how Jesus told the disciples to come to breakfast and eat.  He took the bread and gave it to them.  He did the same with the fish.  Whatever we have to give comes from Him, and to Him we return our thanks and praise.

I'll have the privilege of filling your pulpit again in two weeks, and at that time, God willing, we will finish looking at this passage and see what it has to teach us about life and ministry in light of the resurrection.  Until then, I want you to consider that even though Peter seems to be the protagonist of this passage, the true central character is our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the central figure of all of Scripture and all of history, and He has unfinished business with each and every one of us.

For we, too, are living in an in-between time as we wait for Christ's return.  God has credited with His righteousness, yet we still struggle with sin.  We look back to His resurrection and live our lives in the knowledge and joy of it, yet it won't be made perfect in us until we receive our new bodies and are made perfect in Him.  Nevertheless, whatever we do, whatever He calls us to, let us live open-eyed in hope, ready to obey His commands whatever they may be.  And whether our spiritual eyes see Him or not, whether we feel His presence with us or we don't, He is with us, He provides for us, and in His good time, His heavenly business with us will one day be complete.  Amen.

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