April 14, 2013, Easter 3 – Big Jobs for Little People
When our big kids were little kids, we did all their school at home, and one of the ways we found to make history less painful, or even hopefully fun, was to have the kids read biographies of the important people from the past. We found books at the library written for children, about George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, and so forth, and as they enjoyed the stories they took in the facts without really noticing that they were doing it; facts about people and politics, how things were different long ago, and how things were the same. Or at least that was how it was supposed to work.
One thing that made it difficult was that it was hard to find books that were really truthful. Especially when they were written for children, those books about famous people always seemed to feel they should paint a picture of someone larger than life, someone who was “born to greatness.” George Washington was not only a great and powerful political figure as a grown man, these books wanted us to know; he stood out even as a boy, honest and upright. We’ve all heard about little George and the cherry tree, how he might have been naughty enough to chop it down, but he was so honest that he had to come clean, with his line “I can not tell a lie” – which doesn’t have any basis in historical fact, but is a legend that has persisted because we like thinking of him as a Good Person.
It is a human tendency to assume that people who do great things are great people. We believe that so strongly that we have often re-written the truth to hide the fact that all those great people are just people, who do stupid things; who are selfish and thoughtless and even cruel; and that most people, even the ones we think of as great, have probably done at least as much harm in the course of their lives as they have good. In short, they are just like us. And I think as recent generations have begun to realize the truth of that, many people have become cynical, and the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Instead of idolizing the great people of history, now we delight in cutting them down to size, looking for unworthy motives behind even the best of actions.
What most of us can never imagine in a million years is that we might be called to do great and important things. Most of us would never think of ourselves as great people or heroes or saints – though actually we are all saints. And that’s why we need to listen carefully to what God tells us in Scripture, because the Bible is truthful in a way that few, if any, other books are. The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat the lives of the men and women of the Bible like those “lives of famous Americans” did – even though a lot of Sunday school materials seem to be written exactly that way. And neither is the Bible an expose that delights in pointing out every flaw and shortcoming so it can rake people over the coals – even though modern books and movies like the DaVinci code would love to do just that. In the Bible God has ordained for us to hear the honest story of the lives of people like us, people who really and truly screw up big time, and then are used by God to carry out his work of loving and healing and restoring his creation.
The story we read in John today is about the third time Jesus appears to his disciples after the Resurrection. It’s the very last chapter of all the gospels, and it’s about a picnic on the beach. John tells us that there are seven men there, to begin with. Peter has decided to go fishing – it must have been such a strange time for them all; they had to have still been in shock a little from the whole experience of the arrest and crucifixion, and on top of that Jesus’ return, which was astonishing and joyful and kind of terrifying, and completely inexplicable. Perhaps you felt a little tired and drained after the emotions and busyness of Holy Week and Easter?– think of how you felt, and then multiply that by several thousand. It seems that the only thing Peter could think of to get a little sense of normalcy back into his life was to go fishing, back to what daily life used to be before Jesus showed up and changed everything. And his friends, the little community that had formed around Jesus, or some of them at least, came along for the ride.
And so now it was dawn, and they had spent the whole night fishing without a single fish to show for it. I wonder if Peter or any of the others thought of another dawn a couple of years earlier, when they had watched the sun come up, sitting wearily in their empty boat after a night’s fruitless labor, and a man had called to them from the shore and told them to try again. That man was Jesus, and that was the morning Jesus had first called them to follow him. And lo and behold, as the sun rose on this morning, they looked to the shore and there was a man calling out to them, “Children!” he said, “Have you caught anything?” And when they told him no, they hadn’t, he told them – “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some.” This time they didn’t argue with Jesus, and when the boat began to groan under the weight of the catch, John was the first to catch on, and he exclaimed, “It is the Lord!” And good old Peter put on his cloak and jumped into the sea, leaving the others to haul the enormous catch of fish in to shore.
The first time, Jesus had been calling out the twelve men who would accompany him in his ministry, the men who were going to be his companions and his friends and his students. He chose each of them individually; they didn’t answer an ad in the local paper; they weren’t just the first to come up for the altar call. These were the men he picked out for his own. They became the pillars of the early church; they wrote the letters that would form the New Testament; they defended the faith before kings and emperors; they were beaten or exiled or martyred for their faith. But it wasn’t their strength of character or intelligence or holiness that singled them out, it was just Jesus: it was Jesus, who called ordinary men to do the extraordinary work of the Father.
The gospels show us how very ordinary these men were. Besides being the kind of person who would leap into the sea with his clothes on in his excitement at seeing Jesus, Peter was always one step ahead in saying or doing the wrong thing. He misunderstood Jesus so completely at one point that Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” When Jesus stood with Moses and the prophet Elijah, transfigured in his glory, Peter babbled something silly about setting up tents for them. And worst of all, when Jesus was arrested, Peter gave in to fear completely and pretended he didn’t even know him. Peter wasn’t an obvious choice for head apostle. But he was the one Jesus chose.
We just read about Thomas last week, who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he could see and feel it for himself. Nathanael is the one who famously and foolishly said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” James and John were the irrepressible brothers who always wanted to get the good seats, and who were ready to call down fire to destroy a whole Samaritan town when they wouldn’t let them pass through. Every one of them in his own way was a bit of a screw-up, a little foolish or a lot foolish, prideful or vindictive or fearful, and every one of them – not only Judas – had betrayed Jesus in his time of greatest need. In fact, these men were exactly like us, hopelessly flawed and fairly untrustworthy. But they were like us in another way – they were the hand-picked, dearly beloved friends of Jesus. And it is that that made them what they really were; and it is that that makes us what we really are.
And as Jesus gathered his friends around the charcoal fire on the beach that day, we can see the way that he works in and through us. When Jesus had first called them, that day that must have seemed so long ago even though it had only been two or three years, he had told them, “I’m going to make you fishers of men.” The huge catch of fish they hauled in on that first day was a sign to them that he was going to make their ministry prosper. Instead of a huge catch of fish, Jesus was promising that they were going to haul in a superabundance of citizens for the kingdom of God. And we know that was true – on that first Pentecost Day, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and Peter preached his first big sermon three thousand people came to believe. That is a quite a net-full.
And since these men were laborers, not theologians or philosophers, and they learned best through their actions, Jesus repeated his message in another miraculous catch of fish. It took every ounce of strength they had to haul in the net, but the abundance came from God. And when they finally dragged the loaded net onto shore, Jesus had the charcoal fire burning merrily, and on it already he was cooking fish. He didn’t need their boat or their net or their muscle, but he invited them to bring some of their catch to share. That’s how we work with Jesus. Without him we come up empty. With him our efforts bear fruit.
It isn’t that he can’t get the job done without us, it’s that he wants us to work with him. And it isn’t that he pretends we are helping him; we’re not doing busy work while he does the real work. Jesus calls us to use our real muscle and sinew, our real minds and hearts and hands and voices. We’re not heroes – we know that already – but we’re not benchwarmers or cheerleaders, either. What we are is this – we are friends of the Son of God, co-workers of the Creator of the Universe. We are little people called to a huge job, the job of loving the Father with all our mind and heart and soul and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s the commandment, those are our basic marching orders, and it looks different depending on who we are, because we are all created for something special. Paul said it in his letter to the Ephesians, we aren’t saved by any effort on our own parts; certainly none of us have anything to brag about. But we are saved for a real and excellent purpose, we are the fine craftsmanship of God, created to do the good things he created us to do. And when we pour ourselves into doing what we do, that is loving.
We love by doing the things he created us to do – by cooking and building and making music and repairing things and praying and writing and teaching and planting and serving. We do these things with all our mind and strength and heart, and Jesus makes them abound – he fills our nets to overflowing as our work touches the lives of the people around us. And we also love by laying our lives down for others – by giving up what we might have claimed as our right – our right to hold a grudge, our right to keep what we think of as ours, our right to demand justice for ourselves, our right to receive the attention we feel we deserve.
We are his co-workers in all these things, because he did them before us, he was our example. We follow his lead, casting our nets in obedience, and he gives us an abundance. That’s why Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly.” He called it abundant life, the life he came to give us, because we no longer have to live in the smallness of watching out for ourselves, of measuring out fairness and rights and petty grievances. If we belong to Christ, we are free to live large, because no matter how much we give, he always gives more; no matter how much we love, he loves us more.
Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” As Jesus had stood accused before the authorities, three times Peter had sworn, “I don’t know him, I have nothing to do with him.” Three times Peter had screwed up just about as badly as it is possible to screw up. But that was past. The point, Jesus was telling him, is do you love me? Do you love me now, today? And Peter finally understood, “You know everything,” he said,” You know my treachery and my weakness and my failure. And you know that I love you.” “OK then,” Jesus said to Peter, “Go, feed my lambs. Preach the good news. Do the work I have called you to do. Leave your shame behind, and move forward in love, and I will make your work abound – to your joy and to the glory of the Father.”
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