Bible Text: John 21:1–14, 25 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written. —John 21:25
Let’s say that this afternoon, you go home, relax for a while, and then begin getting ready. You shower, get dressed in your favorite floor length black dress, or your best tux, fix your hair just right, put on special shoes, make sure you have your tickets in hand, and then, when the time is right, the limo arrives, and you begin your drive south towards the bright lights of the city.
You arrive downtown at your destination, get out of the limo, and look up at the marquee before you walk inside. People greet you at the door, ask for your ticket, and offer to take your coat. You walk upstairs, and are greeted again. You are handed a playbill and asked for your ticket again, so you can be guided to your seat. You find your way to a plush velvet chair and sit down. Some time goes by, and finally the lights go down, and the curtain goes up. It’s time.
Now, based on what I’ve described, what do you expect? An opera? The symphony? Beethoven or Bach or Shakespeare? Maybe you wouldn’t be overly surprised if it were Springsteen or Beyoncé, even if the scene seems a too little formal. I suppose, if the curtain went up, and there stood Pope Francis, or the Dalai Lama, or even Malala, you might not have too many questions—it could be a charity event, possibly, maybe. But, what if the curtain goes up, and behind it is something entirely different; a televised baseball game, or a rerun of Friends or CSI or Breaking Bad, that you might watch in your pajamas on your couch on a Thursday night, or what if it were simply Monet’s lily pond, hung just right, yet unaccompanied by story or song or dance?
It might leave you wanting something more.
Everything you did—getting dressed up, taking special transportation, walking under the marquee, being ushered up to a velvet chair, holding a playbill, waiting for the curtain to rise—it framed your expectations, and anything outside of those expectations might be considered a disruption.
We live in a world of expectations and disruptions. A daughter always expected to be a doctor, was disrupted when she took her first economics class, and switched majors. A son always expected he’d go to business school, until he was disrupted by a summer of volunteering in Malawi. There was the injury that ruined a sports career; the medical diagnosis that changed everything; the death in the family that turned everything upside down; the job offer that moved you and your whole family across the country; even the small incremental changes that made you turn around one day and wonder how you’d gotten so far from where you had been pointed, a world of expectations and disruptions.
Among friends and peers, the world of expectations can mount. It’s not just what to wear or who to hang out with or what music to listen to or what party to go to; the pressure to appear effortlessly perfect, smart accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, all without visible struggle can be overwhelming.
You’ve heard me say it before, these demanding expectations are dubbed Duck Syndrome—each person tries to glide calmly across the waters of life like a duck, while hiding beneath the surface just how frantically and relentlessly they are paddling.
The duck life is hard for anyone of any age, and Duck Syndrome is unquestionably pervasive across all generations of our culture, but it is most felt, I suspect, by teenagers, who are in the process of being taught that wearing a mask is the only option, and hiding their struggles is the only way—but is it?
You know what disruption looks like, in this scenario, too. Substance abuse, depression, suicide attempts, eating disorders, and risky sexual behavior are all symptoms of seeking such perfection—it happened to you or to your friends or to those who you’ve seen struggle from afar. We live in a world of expectations and disruptions.
The Gospel of John, too, takes special care to highlight the expectations and disruptions of Jesus, but they are quite different. This is the fourth gospel. It’s the different gospel. It doesn’t try to fit in with all the other gospels.
Instead, it is more comfortable with metaphor and simile, things that are symbolic or epic. It begins, not with a manger scene, but instead with a wide sweeping epic tale of darkness and light, of beginnings and all things coming into being. And all things come into being, Jesus is both divine and dusty, a tangible story at the edge of intangibility.
Here enters today’s story: some scholars have argued that today’s story is tacked on, a second ending to a story that’s already over. It’s not hard to see why. Chapter 20, just sentences before today’s story, ends like this:
and Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Sounds like an ending, right? Like the story is being wrapped up all neat and tidy? And so, what’s up here? With chapter 21? Was it added later? Was it an afterthought? Was it a post-credit sequence, like the ending of Ferris Buehler’s Day Off or Iron Man or the Avengers? Was it a final nugget of wisdom as the audience got up from their seats, as the curtain went down, and the lights went up?
I wonder if this story might be, not a tacked on addition, but a crucial element to the plot; a well-orchestrated disruption to our expectations of the post-Easter Jesus. The women had met Jesus at the tomb, and they were disrupted by Jesus’ missing body. The disciples met Jesus later in the week, in Jerusalem, and Thomas, our doubter, is disrupted by the presence of Christ, wanting to touch the wounds in his hands and his side.
But today’s story? It offers something different. A new disruption. Less tangible and more liminal, and yet, somehow, still substantial. Jesus appears, calls the disciples, they respond, Jesus feeds them, and they recognize him. This narrative is not outside the realm of typical gospel disruptions. But this one ends with a different type of promise. This one ends saying:
Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.
Even a whole printed Wikipedia set with 7,473 volumes and 4.6 million pages wouldn’t be enough space to write down all the encounters of Jesus.
This story is a disruption of a different story; a foray into Jesus-who-disrupts-our-neat-and-tidy-lives; a story about how we might expect to taste and see God-made-manifest-in-the-world-beyond-the-gospel; an ending that calls us not just to recognize that others saw God-in-Jesus, but a calling for us to recognize God and respond.
If we are going to be detective theologians, then the first clue might be Galilee. You know Galilee, right? It’s where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Now the disciples are back there, at that same sea, about to go fishing. Readers should be on high alert. You know the importance of setting, right? The Lion King begins with the sun rising on the whole animal kingdom, who gather to meet the new born heir to their kingdom, Simba. Finding Nemo begins with a barracuda attack on Nemo’s coral reef home. Frozen starts with Ice Miners prophetically singing about how ice is so “beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold.”
Location matters. Galilee is important. Lion King cannot begin in an ocean, just as Finding Nemo cannot begin in an ice mine. The story’s beginning points to what’s to come, and location matters. Galilee points us back toward the feeding of the 5,000 and forward toward a mystic meal, a beachside breakfast. But it’s not just the location, it’s also something more.
Stories themselves are not without disruption. Stories, in fact, are not stories, unless there’s a disruption, unless the everyday has been turned upside down. Stories entail upset and agitation; a new lion-cub king in town, or in the case of Nemo or Elsa, the imminent danger of ocean or ice, that comes near enough to painfully disrupt the lives of those involved.
The whole Gospel of John is a holy disruption. But this final episode in itself is the final-disruption-within-a-disruption that gives us a clue as to how we are to make sense of being a Christian in every new era, every new century, every new decade, every new generation. The ways that Jesus is made known in our midst could not fit in a stack of books from here to the moon and back, here to Pluto and back, here to the next star and back. Jesus is made known again and again, for us, through us, and with us.
Now that we are in Galilee, and we see that Galilee matters, we see that Simon Peter decides to go night fishing. Maybe this was intentional. Night fishing would have allowed them to bring in their catch before dawn and carry it fresh to the market before morning—in an era before refrigeration, you’d want the freshest of fish—if you’ve ever found yourself downwind from Fish Town in Leland, or Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, you know the truth of that, even today.
But even so, if we are being detective theologians, our second clue here would be this night fishing. In the Gospel of John, with its attention to darkness and light, we are attuned to pay attention here to the nuanced details of night and day—this is no ordinary fishing trip. They go fishing at night, and at the break of dawn, while they are still out in the boat, Jesus stands at the beach. He asks simply, if they’ve caught anything. Nada. Nothing. They are empty handed as the sun comes up.
And so, he asks them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. Well, sure enough, they follow him, and their catch is so abundant they can hardly pull it in. They haul in the fish. Peter can’t wait though. Once they recognize Jesus, he jumps out of the boat and swims to shore before everyone else. As the rest of the disciples pull in the fish, the nets don’t even tear. 153 fish, they count.
They’re curious enough about their fish-count, but none are daring enough to ask their fishing guide, “Who are you?” They just know. It’s Jesus. They eat. They have a campfire breakfast on the beach. They are surrounded by abundance. Night fishing and empty nets become sunrise and a wild catch. Darkness turns to light. Scarcity becomes surplus. The unbearable becomes bearable. The impossible becomes possibility. This is the final disruption. The gospel disruption.
The story churns. It obstructs our neat and tidy expectations of what is possible and impossible, bearable and unbearable. It stands between what is tangible and intangible, what can be said and what remains unsaid, yet silently known. Unlike the other post-Easter appearances, this story asks nothing of evidence.
It stands at that liminal place of knowing and not knowing, returning again to a knowing that is deeper and more true than any evidence might provide. I know you want evidence. And yet, the Gospel of John offers us a more messy ending, a less tidy ending, more imbued with a sense of wonder and awe and mystery.
On confirmation Sunday, this too is my hope. That there is no happy ending here today, that there is no tidy ending, that no one rides off into the sunset knowing that they know everything about the presence of God. Confirmation, instead, is a final disruption, an invitation into something more. It is a messy ending, imbued with a sense of wonder and mystery and awe.
In the Gospel of John, we meet God, not in the way we might expect, but instead, faithful people “glimpse a puzzling, raging, weeping, shouting, pleading, disruptive, disturbing, even evolving God, moving within the deep and appearing in unexpected and unplanned places.”
I’ll end with this. A sermon nugget from Ambrose of Milan, a 4th century Christian leader, who said this: Imitate the fish.He offers this, I think, as an alternative to the perfection-seeking duck. Imitate the fish. Preaching to the newly baptized—those who had just come through a season of faithful preparation, not unlike confirmation (but sometimes five years long, should we consider implementing something like that?)
Ambrose said to them, “swimming with the swell of the water is not swallowed up because the fish is used to swimming.” He says, “to you, this world is the sea; currents uncertain, waves deep, storms fierce.” Instead of swimming in fear like a frantic duck to “fake it ‘till you make it” as the saying goes, Ambrose offers this: none will be swallowed up by the “waves of the world” who are used to the swell of the water, the chaos of everyday life.
Bonnie Miller-McLemore reiterates this saying, “God bestows peace, not as a promise of perfect serenity or an end to chaos, anxiety or strive, but as a source of strength in turmoil.” Catherine Keller adds, “if we unclench the needy, greedy ego and let it ‘let be,’ the divine process will not do our swimming for us, but may guide us within a depth that even now bears and births us.”
This is the promise of the Gospel, a more messy, yet somehow more full hope for something more. Something more, that cannot be contained in a whole huge Wikipedia-sized book; something that cannot be contained by mere evidence; something that cannot be contained even by the stories we tell; a something more that bears us and births us, that points us again and again to the mystery of God in our midst. Based on the work of Erving Goffman described in Deborah J. Kapp, Worship Frames: How We Shape and Interpret our Experience of God, 2008.  Julie Scelfo, Suicide On Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. New York Times. August 2, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?_r=0 accessed November 22, 2015.  Sandra M Schneiders. John 21:1-14 Interpretation January 1, 1989.  Thomas G. Long Easter. The Extra Scenes? Journal for Preachers January 1, 2010.  Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2007), 18.  Keller, Catherine. “’Be this fish’: a theology of creation out of chaos,” Word & World 32, no. 1 (Winter 2012):15.  Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002), 69.  Keller, The Face of the Deep, 213, 27.