Readings for this Sunday:
Acts 9:1-6 | Psalm 30 | Revelation 5:11-14 | John 21:1-19
We should wonder what this story from John of Peter and the other disciples is doing here. If we were paying attention last week, we would know that we had already made it to the end of the story. Check out the last paragraph from the previous chapter in last week’s reading:
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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 in his name.[i]
It is clearly the ending to the story—a hopeful summary statement by the gospel writer reminding us what the work of Jesus’ disciples has been about. And then we have this afterthought: “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias…”
Here is a, “But wait! There’s more!” that puts the famed inventor and pitchman Ron Popeil and whatever it was that sliced and diced and even made Julian French Fries on all those late night 80s commercials to shame. Here it is. One more story—a bonus all for the same price we were already quoted. No more cost, no more fuss. Just some added value.
And it does seem to provide some additional value. The story doesn’t really tell us what to think, but we kind of know the feeling. Jesus is gone. The disciples are bored—or likely worse—discouraged, deflated, a little lost, even. The memory is growing a little stale; the future is dim. What’s next looms large, and that rush of emotion, that deep well of faith has gotten a little shallower and murkier and they aren’t really sure anymore that it all meant what they thought it did. So they go back to what was familiar.
“I’m going fishing,” says the fisherman. And Peter’s friends sigh, and say, “Why not? We’ll go with you.” And so they go back to the familiar and do what they do without fail every time they are on the water. They fail. They get skunked. They don’t catch a thing.
I tell you, I kind of love this little detail. Here they are, these professionals—men who fish for a living out in their bass boat, talking to the camera about the latest lure—and yet every time we encounter them in the gospels they can’t seem to catch a fish. I mean it. Every time. The disciples never ever catch a fish in the gospels without Jesus getting involved. Go ahead, fact check me.
Maybe you saw the quote in the Seattle Times this week from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. He said this: “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail.”[ii] I don’t know about that. It seems the disciples are definitely giving Amazon a run for its money.
But maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples. In the arc of the story, a lot has happened in a short time. Incredible drama. An amazing turn of events. A promise that is at once so real, and so elusive.
Maybe the disciples need to catch their breath more than they need to catch a fish. We get that too, don’t we? They need some time to make sense of what’s happened to them. They need to assimilate what they have experienced. Human beings often respond to emotional overload by returning to what we have known formerly, and the gospel storyteller seems to understand this, and wants us to give ourselves to the idea.
We need to give ourselves time. We need to live life at a speed that allows us to understand and to remember and to believe again. Sometimes our running is a sign of our fear, of our lack of faith, of our forgetting that this work requires a spirit that doesn’t belong to us and that we cannot manufacture. All we can do is to work to align ourselves to it.
Back to Amazon for just a moment, because this is an important link to our gospel story. Jeff Bezos made his remarks about failure in his annual letter to Amazon shareholders. He said this: “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!) and failure and invention are inseparable twins.”
That last part is important. Failure and invention are inseparable twins. Bezos is making the claim that Amazon’s success is due in part to its creating a culture that is not afraid to take chances, not afraid to fail, even spectacularly. Knowing that many more experiments will fail than will succeed, and that failure is the only path to success. Instantaneous, wild success is mostly a myth. Success of every kind is always built on a giant mound of stinking failure.
And if this is true in business, it is even more true in faith. Faith is always a byproduct of our failure. How else are we to understand the cross? And faith is, by definition, relying on what we cannot grasp or hold onto. Call it inspiration or imagination if you want. It is a gift given to us.
The opposite of faith is not doubt. In fact, doubt is a part of faith, a regular part of the cycle of what it looks like to live according to what we believe, even as our failures mound up. Of course the disciples are going to doubt—whether we’re out on our boats on an ancient sea or sitting in a quiet sanctuary in the midst of a season of history in which everything is changing and unsettled and uncertain. Whether we are trying to discern why the fish aren’t biting, or why we can’t seem to connect with the children and grand children we love. Fragility is a part of faith. And the only fix seems to be openness to a Spirit that we do not control that overtakes us, inspires us, convicts us, and gives us the courage to hold on as long as we need to what we know deep within.
That’s what happens in the story, isn’t it? The facts on the ground don’t really change. The fish were always there. They apparently had the uncanny ability to organize themselves only one side of the boat, which is pretty remarkable. But we know the feeling.
Bezos goes on to name in his shareholder letter some of the ways organizations betray their fear of failure. Many organizations fall into the trap of pondering too much about small choices, Bezos writes. “The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently, diminished invention.”
His advice seems pretty good for churches as well as businesses. Faith suggests we are not reliant on our success, but on the Spirit of God that these stories tell us shows up again and again. And more often than not we will fail to recognize it at first. Whether in the locked upper room or by the sea, the disciples are consistent in their slowness to see that this one standing before them, giving them peace, feeding them, sending them out, is the Spirit of God risen once again in their midst. Why would it be different for us?
They are slow to see it, as are we, but that’s just the way it seems to work, John tells us. This is the nature of faith. And once they do, look out! They remember what it was like to follow this One.
They believe again. Failure is no longer to be feared. Peter jumps into the water and swims like an Olympian toward this one he betrayed again and again for his fear. And yet the courage that rises in him! We know this too, don’t we? How we long for it! We remember those times when we’ve known it. We know how close it is, how little it takes to tip us once again toward the kind of life that loses itself for others because of what we’ve been given. Feed my little lambs. Tend my sheep. Follow me. We know our work. Believe once again that God’s Spirit is here to empower us to do it.
[i] John 20:30-31.
[ii] Seattle Times, April 5, 2016, “Amazon’s Bezos: ‘I believe we are the best place in the world to fail.” Accessed online at http://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon/amazons-bezos-i-believe-we-are-the-best-place-in-the-world-to-fail/.
St. Andrew Sermons