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10th April 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
7 April 2016

Readings

Acts 9 1-6

In Acts Chapter 6 verse 8 we are told that Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.  In chapter 7 we read about people getting angry with Stephen and stoning him to death and in 7:58 it says: ‘Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’.  Chapter 8 then begins: ‘and Saul approved of their killing him’. That introduces Saul and then the action moves off somewhere else.  Now meet Saul again at the beginning of chapter 9. 

Crossan and Borg point out that, although the Act’s version caries some of the details Paul mentions in his letters, it is more dramatic than the references to the event in any of Paul’s own letters.  Therefore the Acts description carries a fair amount of Luke’s theology and is tailored to fit his overall theme of the Journey, first in the Gospel from Galilee to Jerusalem and then in Acts, through Paul, from Jerusalem to Rome. Crossan and Borg understand Paul as a mystic, more precisely a Jewish Christ mystic.  Paul was a Jew and in his own mind never ceased being one.  Paul’s letters indicate that there were more meetings with the risen Christ than just the one Damascus experience recorded in Acts and Paul always described the Risen Christ in all these meetings as the light and glory of God. 

John 21: 1-19

This last resurrection appearance from John’s Gospel almost seems like an oversight added in after the neat conclusion to the Gospel at the end of chapter twenty after the two appearances in the locked room.

Chapter 20 seems to end the Gospel quite satisfactorily in verses 30& 31.  ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life again’.

However that is immediately followed by chapter 21 where the action is picked up again.

It almost looks as though John was tidying up his desk after he finished and found a story he missed so tacked it onto the end.  Alternatively the community might have began using the book and people started to say ‘hay you have got Jesus meeting the disciples in Jerusalem but I was told he met them by the lake and what about the authority of Peter’.  You can almost hear the author’s frustration in the closing words: ‘if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ 

Sermon

I don’t know how many times I have stood at the mouth of the Waimakariri River as the sun struggles up above the horizon and thought of today’s gospel reading, and the similar story in Luke’s Gospel.  What has prompted those thoughts is the fact that I and many others have been fishing on the North bank of the Waimakariri River and have not been catching any fish.  Instead we have watched the people who have four wheel drives and therefore can get to the South Bank where they seem to regularly catch fish. 

I stand there watching the red morning sun shimmer across the ripples of the surging river and think, ‘I have to fish on the other side, Jesus said so in the Bible’. 

However today’s Gospel reading is not about fishing even though the disciples got a bumper harvest of fish and this service is our harvest festival.  The important words from Jesus in today’s gospel reading are ‘follow me.’  Those who follow Jesus become fishers of people but that involves far more than simple evangelism designed to fill churches.

That call to follow Jesus is picked up by Robin Meyers in his book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus where he writes:

If the church is to survive as a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, then we will need to commit ourselves once again not to the worship of Christ, but to the imitation of Jesus.  His invitation was not to believe, but to follow. [1]

The last sentence of the last verse of our Gospel reading gives Meyers the biblical authority to make that claim: 

After this he said to him ‘Follow me’ (John 21:19b).

Calling the fishermen features in all four gospels in various stages of the gospel journey but the call is always to follow.

In the opening chapter of Mark, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee and Jesus says ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’. (Mark 1:17)  Matthew picks that up in his fourth chapter using Mark’s words as Jesus says to Peter and Andrew ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ (Matthew 4:19)

Luke carries the same theme of calling the fishermen but within a very similar story to our reading from John’s Gospel.  In this incident Jesus uses the boat as a preaching platform then he instructs Simon, along with his partners James and John, to let down the nets and they catch a huge harvest of fish.  Jesus then says to Simon Peter ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ (Luke 5:10)

So the call of the fishermen is featured in all four gospels but in John’s Gospel Simon Peter and Andrew are introduced to Jesus by John the Baptist.  Therefore the gospel writer introduces the call of the fishermen at the end of the Gospel.  Even more significantly the call is from the Risen Christ.  In that respect the call to Peter and the call to Paul in our acts reading are the same, a call from the risen Christ in a mystic moment, a moment of mystery, a spiritual experience.

We should also note that Jesus took the bread and gave it to them and also the fish so we have an echo of the feeding of the five thousand and of course a pointer towards the communion service. 

Writing at the turn of the first century, possibly in the gentile city of Ephesus, John may well be encouraging us all to meet with the Risen Christ.   Through the ritual Christians use to remember Jesus they will find themselves in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Furthermore the presence of Christ calls us all to be workers in Christ’s harvest, calls us all to fish for people.  That call is clearly an evangelical call and vital call to the early church as it spread out into the world. 

Meyers suggests the call to follow is an important call if the church is to survive and in his book he stresses just what it means to follow Jesus. 

To follow Jesus in Meyers’ understanding is to live with the compassion Jesus shows to others. To heal the sick, empower the poor, feed the hungry to welcome everyone and so on.  It is as we live as Christ to others that we ‘fish for people’ and bring in the harvest of a vital living Christian Community.  

However we should not overlook the implication in these stories that Jesus cares for our physical needs.  Both the Luke and the John fishing episodes carry the message that with Jesus, or with the Risen Christ, the harvest is plentiful. 

We are called away from the gathering and growing harvest to fish for people but miraculously as we care for everyone there is enough for everyone. 

Even in this overcrowded world we live in many economists will say that is true.  The cause of want in our world it that a very few people control the wealth.  According to the online Fortune magazine of October 2015 the wealthiest 1% of the population now own half the world's wealth[2]

It is as we live as Christ, as we follow Christ the harvest becomes more evenly spread and therefore plentiful for all.  The advice from the Jesus of the gospels was to cast the nets on the other side, to look at an alternative model, a different way of living than the few dominating the many.  Jesus called it the kingdom of God

For those who were disadvantaged by Roman Imperialism, both Jew and gentile, the Jesus way of welcoming and sharing was an alternative way.  To be freed of the stigma created by believing that sickness and misfortune was punishment for sin was totally liberating.  Acceptance into the community of Christ is just as liberating today.

Our Acts reading is the classic Damascus Road episode, that sudden meeting with the Risen Christ which turns Saul’s world view upside down. 

It strikes him blind and through the care and compassion of others he recognises the presence of the Risen Christ and metaphorically casts his net on the other side.  The change is so dramatic that he changes his name to Paul and instead of persecuting the emerging church he organises it.

Much as the structures of the organised church have frustrated the mission of Christ over the centuries it probably would not have survived without structure. Pauls travel and writing did much to send Christ’s call through time towards us.  We don’t know exactly what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus or reignited those disciples who had left Jerusalem to return to their original occupations.  But if we read through the imagery and metaphor we can recognise these stories as incidents that happen in our own lives. 

These Christ appearances are like the times walking on a lonely road or a quiet moment as the sun pushes above the horizon and shimmers across the swirling power of a Canterbury river.  Times when a quiet mind processes and rearranges the information stored in our minds and a new perspective comes to us.  Times when we take the bread and the drink in memory of a long dead Jesus and our heart feels strangely warmed.  Times when we mechanically listen to the words that Paul writes were passed on to him, the traditional communion liturgy.  As we listen to those words and eat the bread and drink the drink memory becomes reality and for a moment we find ourselves in the presence of the Risen Christ.  In Christ’s presence we can all hear the call, not to believe, not to worship, but to follow.    

As Albert Schweitzer wrote and I have probably quoted far too often:

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was.  He says the same words, ‘Follow me!’, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfil in our time.  He commands.  And to those who hearken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labours, the conflicts and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery they will learn who he is.[3]

The Jesus call to follow is always a call to cast our nets on the other side, a call to an alternative and inclusive way of being human.  A call to truly be fishers of people, the call to the harvest where everyone is fed, everyone is cared for and we live as Christ to others.  To steal one of Marcus Borg’s book titles, in following that call we meet the Jesus again for the first time.

To meet the Jesus of the Gospels we are called to follow an alternative vision that recognises that we worship the God whose farm is all creation and follow the Christ who cares for all humanity.



[1] Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p.145

[2] Daniel Bentley in Fortune   October 14, 2015, Thttp://fortune.com/2015/10/14/1-percent-global-wealth-credit-suisse/

[3] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Bowden, John (ed.) (London: SCM Press 2000), p.487.

 

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