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Sermon: Dawning Faith

April 18, 2010

John 21:1-19

For a number of years—beginning when I served in Hawaii—I wrote my sermons very early on Sunday morning.  I would do all my studying during the week and put an outline together, but then somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 on Sunday morning, I’d sit down to write.  I probably did that for six or seven years.  I stopped doing that about a year ago because, well, I’m just not a morning person.

I would step out the door in the crisp morning air, and the sky looked like it had just been scrubbed clean, I’d be coming down the hill and the new light—before the sun was up—would be shining off the still water of the harbor like silver, and since everyone at home was still asleep, I hadn’t had a cross word with anyone, so I’d think to myself, “I should get up this early every day.”  I knew, of course, that would never happen.  It can take me an hour just to get out of bed.  Nevertheless, there is just nothing like the early morning.  The world is still quiet and the day is full of promise.

The only problem with the dawning of a new day is that it is hard to see.  There are extra shadows, maybe a fog or a mist, and the light just isn’t that good.  It is difficult to see the early morning jogger coming off the sidewalk into the intersection, or the neighbor’s cat darting by as I’m trying to get out of the driveway.  Is that a shadow or a person?  And if it’s a person, is it somebody I know?  I just can’t tell.  Like the twilight, the dawn is an uncertain, in-between period, neither day nor night.  Things are hazy.  There are no clear details.

That is exactly how the gospel according to John paints the picture of our scripture lesson this morning.  At daybreak—in the in between time when it is difficult to be certain of what you’re seeing—several of the disciples of Jesus, led by Peter, were in a boat, about a hundred yards from shore.  They had been out on the water all night, and they had watched as the sky turned paler and paler.  As they worked, they probably noticed that they could begin to see some details from the shoreline.  There a boat; there a small hut; there an old, dead tree, and there…there was a man.

They did not know who this man was.  It might have been that this was early dawn, before the light revealed the details of the man’s face and mannerisms.  Maybe that’s why they couldn’t recognize him.  Was it meant for them not to recognize him?  Or perhaps it was something else.  John lets us wonder about that.  We would like for him to tell us these things.  We don’t like to wonder.  But that is the character of scripture.  It doesn’t always answer the questions we think are important.

So this shadowy figure of a man stood up and called out to them.  “Hey, lads, I take it you don’t have any fish.”  Now that’s almost the worst thing for a fisherman, to meet up with someone who asks, “Any luck?”  All you can do is sheepishly say , “No, not this time.”

Then the man on the shore called out, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some there.”  Now that is the worst thing for a fisherman, to have some know-nothing give you fishing advice.  “I use Power Bait.  Did you try using 6-pound test?  Try casting over there.”  And this guy on land, who didn’t even have his own boat, said, “Try dropping your nets over the right side of the boat.”  What a brilliant strategy!

It has been said that the first miracle in this story is that Peter and the others did exactly what the unknown man on shore told them to do.  (Attributed to Ken Callahan; reference unknown.)  We imagine that Peter was an experienced fisherman, but he and the others went ahead and tossed the nets out into the water.  What happened next was the second miracle.  There were so many large fish caught up in the net that they couldn’t even haul it all the way into the boat.

It is at this point that the man called only “the disciple whom Jesus loved” turned to Peter and said, “It’s the Lord!”  It’s Jesus.  Now how did he recognize him?  Had the morning sky become light enough so that the disciple could see it was Jesus?  Had the sun peaked over the top of the hill?  Or had the command to cast the net and the remarkable catch of fish enabled this unnamed disciple finally to understand?  Who knows?  We don’t, and the gospel doesn’t make it clear.

Whether Peter, too, recognized Jesus, or whether he simply trusted the other disciple, he put on his clothes and jumped into the sea.  That is another strange moment in the story.  You would think that an experienced fisherman would rather take clothes off rather than put them on before he jumped into the water.  But that is what John’s gospel tells us he did.  And furthermore, Peter left the rest of the disciples back in the boat to do the hard work of rowing the boat back to shore, all the while towing the heavy load of fish.

Once on the shore, Peter could not have helped but notice that Jesus sat close by a charcoal fire, with a breakfast of fish and bread ready for them.  It was probably an awkward moment for Peter, because the last time he had been standing over a charcoal fire, he had been in the process of denying that he ever knew Jesus (John 18:15-18).

The next thing that Jesus said to them was so ordinary as to be absurd.  He said, “Come and have breakfast.”    “Come and have breakfast.”  Sometime after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, after he had mysteriously appeared to them in the mists of an early morning, after directing them to an unusually large catch of fish, just about the first thing he says is “Come and have breakfast.”

Now get this.  They are standing with Jesus around the fire on the shore, daylight is clearly coming, but they are still not sure it is Jesus.  None of them—not the disciple whom Jesus loved nor Peter nor any of them—dared to ask “Who are you?”  They knew it was Jesus, but somehow they just weren’t sure.  “Who are you?  You must be Jesus.”  But apparently, there was a little bit of doubt.

Now I have, at times, looked across some distance toward a woman walking and said to myself, “There is my wife.  Oh wait.  Is that Desiree?  I’m pretty sure it is.”  But I have never stood face to face with her and heard her speak words to me like “Here’s your breakfast” without being absolutely sure that it is my wife or it isn’t.  But with Jesus on that early morning on the beach, they just couldn’t be sure.

What in the world is happening?  This is a strange story all around, but the strangest detail is that the disciples—even up close—could not be sure they were meeting with the risen Christ.  What is this story trying to tell us?  What can we learn from a tale about some men who spent perhaps three years with Jesus, who stayed by his side while he taught and healed, who at countless meals with him, but who could not—when face-to-face with their friend—be sure who he was?  What’s going on?

*     *     *     *     *

We have some wonderful young children who are here today, and we’ve prayed for some wonderful young children who are not here, and I think that in a lot of ways, children are like the dawn.  They are new and full of promise and possibility.  What they will turn out to be is not yet known.  And for people who are parents for the very first time, that first year can feel a lot like early morning when you’re not sure which way is up and you’d rather stay in bed.  Young children are like the dawn.

Children don’t get to noon all at once.  They don’t go from soft, slobbering bundles to married with two kids and a law degree all at once.  Before they get to soccer and piano lessons and higher math, there is throwing food on the floor and writing on the walls and putting strange things in their mouths.  It takes some time for a child to grow up.  That’s good.  That’s the way it should be.

But sometimes—no, not sometimes, usually—it takes adults a good long time to grow up, too.  You know, I’ve been married for nine years—twice—and I’ve got three teenagers (and a granddaughter, for heaven’s sake), and there are a lot of times I say to myself, “When in the world am I going to get my life figured out?  When am I going to stop feeling like I don’t really know what I’m doing?”  It takes a long time to grow up, even after you’ve already grown up.  I think there might be one or two of you out there who know what I’m talking about.

Yet, given that fact, given the fact that we know it takes a really long time to learn and to grow, we often give the disciples a pretty hard time.  We say, “You’d think that after all that time they spent with Jesus, they would finally get it.  You would think that they had been so close to that man for those years, that they would recognize him when they met him on the beach.”  But they didn’t.  They didn’t recognize him, even after they had followed him along all those long, dusty roads.  They heard him say things like, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and they watched him turn water into wine.  But when it came to that morning by the lake, they could only say, “Is that Jesus?”

There are people who have been sitting in the same pew for forty years, and they’ll be listening to a scripture they have heard preached 15 times before, and thinking “I don’t understand.  Does Jesus mean that literally?  Am I expected to really live that way?”  Likewise, there are people who wander into a church for the first time in forever, and at the end of the service, they think to themselves, “I didn’t get it.  I didn’t feel a thing.  This isn’t for me.”  And to people like that, to people who are frustrated with themselves because their life of faith doesn’t seem as strong as it should be, or who are new to faith and wonder if it is worthwhile, I say, “You’re in good company.  Have patience with yourself.”

Even for people who have lived a lifetime following Jesus, there are plenty of moments of doubt and confusion.  But in that lifetime, they have learned that Jesus remains there waiting for them in the dawn, helping them to know where to cast their nets after they have failed, sharing bread and fish for the journey.  Jesus remains with them and waits for them even though they haven’t got it all figured out.  The risen Christ ultimately breaks through their confusion at just the right moment, even when they haven’t expected to find him.

Isn’t it interesting that despite all our failures, the times we have misunderstood Jesus, or failed to live up to the calling of our faith, when Jesus does meet us again, he doesn’t say to us, “What were you thinking?”  He doesn’t say, “Why did you betray me?  Don’t you know any better?”  Jesus only asks, “Do you love me?”

Because that’s all that matters.

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