Fishing and St. Paul

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, April 10, 2016

That reading we just heard from St. John’s Gospel is the account of the final appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples before his resurrection. And it’s right in the context of ordinary life.

Last week, I was talking about Jesus’ disciples – Thomas in particular – and how we tend to think of them as these very venerable, learned, beatific paragons of virtue. Stained glass windows and icons stylize them that way, but in actual fact they were poor subsistence laborers. They were regular guys. Matthew was a tax collector, so he was likely from a slightly different background, but it’s always good to have a CPA around to look after the accounts, right? 

But, yes, the disciples were regular guys (both men and women, incidentally, but history has always seemed to focus on the men). And most of them were fishermen and throughout the story of Jesus ministry on earth, they still carried on being fishermen. 

And so, today, after all the drama of the crucifixion and the resurrection of their dear friend and spiritual guide, Jesus, they were back at work, on the Sea of Galilee. John’s Gospel refers to it as the Sea of Tiberias. It was renamed by the Romans as a bit of flattery to the emperor, but it was still always the Sea of Galilee to most people.

The Church of the Primacy of Peter with the Mensa Christi (the Table of Christ) in Galilee

The Church of the Primacy of Peter with the Mensa Christi (the Table of Christ) in Galilee

As you will know, because I regularly mention it, Kelly and I visited the Sea of Galilee a few years back. It is, remarkably, largely unchanged from Jesus’ time and is one of the most calming places I have ever been. Jesus’ presence is almost palpable there. One thing that has changed from his time is that from fairly early on, the newly formed Christian Church started building church buildings over just about every site that Jesus visited. So there are churches over the site of Calvary, the Garden of Gethsemene, the Garden Tomb, the place where the wedding of Cana took place, and so on. And there is a church on the rocky shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus appears to his disciples in today’s reading. The Church of the Grilled Fish (it isn’t really called that, but I forget its name) is on a small rocky outcrop where it is said that that Jesus lit his breakfast fire and cooked fish for the disciples.

They would certainly have had enough fish to grill. We are told that they were fishing without catching much, when a helpful stranger on the shore suggested casting their net to the right hand side. I suppose that they felt that they had nothing to lose by doing so. When they did, we are told that they hauled in such an abundance of fish that they were afraid the nets would tear. It was at that point that they recognized that the helpful stranger on the shore was in fact Jesus. 

It might seem strange to us that the account tells us that they were only a hundred yards off the shore, and though these men had spent the most dramatic years of their life with Jesus, they did not recognize him until there was this miraculous abundance of fish. But remember that this was early, early morning. First light. Probably a mist hanging over the water, and hard to see very far. 

My first thought for the day is this: sometimes we find it hard to see Jesus, to get a handle on where he is in our lives. It often feels to us that we are peering through the mist. Sometimes we may hear a helpful voice, deep within us, as it were. So, sometimes we need to take note of the experience of this account from the Sea of Galilee, is that even if we struggle to see Jesus, to know God, we can see the effects of his presence. Wherever there is good, wherever there is life in abundance, that is where God is.

That abundant catch of fish for the disciples was also a metaphor for them. They knew that following Jesus meant that they were gathering not only fish, but people’s hearts and minds. The metaphor, then, of this story, is that the big haul of fish through their work as disciples was to encourage people to become followers of Jesus.

The momentum that the Jesus Movement was garnering, by this point, was considerable. Although Jesus had, as we know, many followers during the main years of his ministry, it would seem that news of his rising from the dead had begun to permeate through Galilee and Judea. These people following Jesus were known as followers of The Way. Indeed, The Way was the original name for Christianity. It was only later, in Greece, that followers of The Way became known as Christians. 

The Jesus Movement was gaining great momentum, but it was still very much a sect within Judaism. And because it was still within Judaism, it was seen as a renegade movement, an heretical movement that mainstream Judaism saw as its duty to stamp out.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection in the Upper Room. Presumably this was the same room where they had shared the Last Supper. And John’s Gospel tells us this detail: that they were in the Upper Room, with the doors locked and barred “for fear of the Jews”. What this refers to was the start of the serious persecution of the followers of The Way. The Jewish authorities were really starting to ramp up their crack-down on the followers of Jesus, so the disciples had locked themselves into that Upper Room for good reason.

Although the Jewish religious leadership was pretty much united in its opposition to the Jesus movement, there were some within it who counseled a more careful approach. One of those people was a member of the highest religious council, the Sanhedrin. His name was Gamaliel. Now, his approach was a very pragmatic one. His reasoning was that if the Jesus Movement was not of God, then it would die out, since for something to flourish, it would require God’s input. But, on the other hand, if the Jesus Movement were of God, then to oppose it would be to oppose God. 

Sadly, Gamaliel’s pragmatism was sidelined and short-lived, and the Jewish authorities persecution of the followers of Jesus resumes its previous intensity and, in fact, grows. Not only are followers of Jesus arrested and questioned but, with the full support of the authorities, one of them is, for the first time, stoned to death. His name was Stephen, and this church is named in honor of his memory.

One of the witnesses of Stephen’s execution is a very zealous young man named Saul. He was a native of Tarsus in what is now Turkey, but studied in Jerusalem with, as it happens, Gamaliel. Saul seems to have been emboldened by Stephen’s execution, because he begins to ravage the Christian community in the manner of the worst excesses of a totalitarian regime: acting on the advice of informers, going to the houses of suspected Jesus-followers, dragging those people to prison. He was more determined than anyone  to root out and destroy the followers of The Way. We know how determined he must have been because he was not content to stay within Palestine, but he felt the need personally to travel the 175 miles north to Damascus, in Syria, where he had heard reports that the synagogues there had Jesus-sympathizers. 

But something happened when Saul was traveling on the road to Damascus; something that has entered our very lexicon as a metaphor of a complete and utter change of heart. As he rode along, suddenly he was aware of a light that intensified so much that it seared into his eyes, leaving him temporarily blinded. At the same time, a voice came from the light, the voice of Jesus, asking him why he was persecuting him. The encounter left Paul physically blind for a time, but at the same time opened the eyes of his soul. It’s a great paradox. Before, he could see, but not see. Now he could not see, but he could see. The encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus leaves Saul behind and henceforth he is known as Paul. And he, above all others, becomes the greatest source of energy in establishing the Jesus Movement as the Christian faith that we as the very inheritors of. It’s important, though, to recognize that the encounter on the road to Damascus didn’t change what made Paul Paul. It changed his outlook, but not his essence. He was zealous, smart and committed before his conversion, and he was zealous, smart and committed after his conversion. His wiring was still the same, but his world view was different. His beliefs and, therefore, his priorities had changed and we personally owe so much to him.

The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus by Hans Speckaert

The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus by Hans Speckaert

That’s a big take away from the story of the road to Damascus, to be sure. But there’s something else that really interests me a lot. When Jesus speaks to him through the blinding light, he says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He doesn’t say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” In other words, that to persecute a follower of Jesus is to persecute Jesus himself.

And so my second thought for the day is this: Perhaps the greatest thing in the world is that God has made us in his image. Let’s stop for a moment to think what that really means. When we do that, then its implications are extraordinary. When we wound another person, we wound God. Equally, when we treat others with dignity and kindness we honor God. 

So let us give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses around us: Peter, James, John and the other disciples, Gamaliel, Stephen, Paul and all that have followed them, because they have shown us how we can be frail and faulty human beings and yet find greatness in serving God, and let us know that we can do the same.

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