It must have been hard for the disciples, trying to figure out what to do next. They had been on this emotional roller coaster ride. First Jesus is killed on the cross. Then three days later, the hear this bewildering message from Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord.” They don’t know what to think. They know the tomb is empty, but where Jesus is, they don’t know, until later that day when Jesus’ showed up. In a locked room, Jesus appeared to is disciples, and gave them a strange commission, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them; and then, like that, Jesus was gone again. So, it is no wonder that they found it difficult to figure out what they were supposed to do next. I wonder if sometimes we in the church feel the same way. We know that, like the first disciples, we too have been called to go into the world, just as Jesus went forth into the world. Yet, we too find it hard to understand exactly what it is that we are supposed to be doing, both as a church and as individual Christians. It would have been much more helpful to the church, if Jesus had given us a manual, a step by step procedure that would ensure we were getting the job done right. Instead, we feel like we are flying by the seat of our pants, hoping, but not really sure if we are getting it right. So, what do you do, if you are unsure of what to do? You return to what you know. You stick with the familiar. “I’m going out to fish,” said Simon Peter to the rest of the disciples. “We will go with you,” they said in return. Peter and several of the other disciples returned to what they knew. They returned to their boats and fishing nets. After all, when Jesus first called them, they were fishermen. This was the safe and familiar option for them. This was the world that they knew. On top of that, they had families to support. Maybe they have even been told that it was time to stop all this wandering around the countryside, that it was time to settle down, and do something sensible for a change, like earning some money, like catching some fish. So, off they went, out onto the sea of Tiberias. If you are unsure of what to do, stick with what you know, hold onto the familiar. It is our uncertainty of knowing what to do, ministry-wise, that keeps us, as the church, sticking to what we know, holding onto the familiar. Let us do what we have always done and we can’t go wrong. That will be a safe option for us. Of course, we pastors like to help perpetuating this idea. Most of the time when we preach, we are vague in our suggestions of what to do. Or, if we are not vague, we usually pull the same suggestions out of the bag of tricks that we have been carrying around for years, pray, read your Bible, worship, be kind to your neighbors, give to the poor. Same old, same old. This doesn’t mean, of course, that everything we do in the church needs to be new and innovative. After all, the point of ministry has always been faithfulness to God. However, sticking to what we know, often times leaves us with empty nets. All night long, Peter and the other disciples fished. They threw their nets in all the familiar places where they knew the fish liked to congregate. Yet, each time, they pulled up empty nets. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. They were doing everything just right. Still, they came up empty. The lake had changed in the three years since they first left their nets to follow Jesus. The fish had moved. The opportunities to catch them had changed. If they stayed in the familiar places, stuck to what they knew, then they would continue to pull up empty nets. One of the hardest realities for the church to admit is that the world continues to move on. The larger community in which the church finds itself is not the same as it was twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, when the church was more at the center of society. Slowly, the church, and even God has been pushed out to the sides. The church now has to share its Sundays with the stores and the ball fields and the golf courses. The Ten Commandments are disappearing just like public prayer began disappearing many years ago. Our community is moving on. The opportunities for doing ministry are changing. Yet, if we stay with the familiar, stick only to what we know, then, we too will find ourselves pulling up empty nets. What we need, like the disciples, is someone to come along and say, there are the fish. “Throw your nets there and you will catch them.” The dawn was just beginning to break over the horizon when the disciples looked up and saw someone standing on the shore. “Friends, haven’t you any fish,” came the question from this stranger? No doubt it was a painful question to have to answer, given the empty nets. It was a question that brought to mind futile efforts, faithful work with little or no results. It was a question that appeared to suggest failure; but in reality, it was a question that pointed to new opportunities. For, no sooner had the disciples answer, “no,” than their eyes were opened to where the fish were located. “Throw you net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” Who could possibly have known where the fish were located? Who could have known where the new opportunities could be found? The disciples knew immediately, it was Jesus; and, when they followed Jesus’ leading, even though it wasn’t what they knew, they discovered that the nets were full. When we think about our ministry as the church and even as individual Christians within the church, we can stick to what we know. We can stay with the familiar. The result will be that for awhile, maybe even a long while, we will get by. We will survive. Yet, eventually we will start pulling up empty nets. So that, when Jesus asks us, “Haven’t you any fish?” we can accept the defeat and simply say no. Or, we can see that there is the possibility of new opportunities opening up before us, opportunities that only Jesus can show us. When was the last time we asked, “Lord, what is it that you want us to be doing?” I don’t just mean one or two of us. I mean the whole church community. When was the last time we as a whole community sought to know what Jesus wanted us to do? When was the last time, we as a community asked Jesus to show us where to cast our nets? It takes courage to ask such a question of Jesus. For, to ask such a question means that we are willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads us, even if where we go is unfamiliar to us. Now, we may wonder, if we ask Jesus what we are to be doing, is he going to answer us? Is he going to show us where to cast our nets. The answer is yes. Why? Because Jesus is already at work in our midst. There is an interesting detail that John includes in this beach-side story that is easy to overlook. When the disciples finally hauled their catch of fish onto the shore, they discovered that not only did Jesus already have the fire going, but there was already fish cooking over the coals. Jesus had been busy that morning. Long before the disciples had caught anything, Jesus was at work catching his own fish. It sounds sort of strange to say this, but in reality, Jesus didn’t need their fish. He was capable of getting everything he wanted by himself. It is important for us to remember that even though Jesus chooses to work through his church to minister to the world, Jesus doesn’t have to, or even need to in order to minister to this world of ours. Jesus doesn’t need the church. I realize that may sound rather defeating for us to hear. Yet, is should be a source of relief. It is so easy for us in the church to get the impression that we’ve got to do it all. We imagine, that Jesus is passively waiting for us to get things done. We think to ourselves “If we don’t organize it, it won’t happen.” If we don’t tell people the good news, they won’t hear it. If we don’t change the world, if won’t be changed. What an overwhelming burden this becomes for us, a burden that we sometimes place upon our own shoulders. For example, there is a Christian musician by the name of John Michael Talbot, who wrote a beautiful song called, Christ has no body now but yours. Listen to some of the lyrics. Christ has no body now by yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. It is a beautiful song that is meant to encourage the ministry of the church, and to understand ourselves as the Body of Christ on earth. Yet, what a song like this can do is lead us to think that it is all up to us. In other words, Jesus is completely dependent upon us. But, think about it, whose hands made the sun rise this morning? Whose breath is sustaining our very lives right now, guiding us to think, to pray, to love, to hope? Who is the Lord of the world, anyway? It is Jesus; and, when Jesus called us to follow him, to go forth into the world as he went forth into the world, he didn’t just give us the call and then go on his way to heaven, leaving it up to us to get all the work done. Jesus is still at work, among us and through us. What a relief! It is not all up to us. Instead, Jesus invites us to bring what we have and join it with what he is already doing. Even though Jesus had fish cooking on the fire, he still invited the disciples to bring their own fish and add them to the fire as well. He delighted to receive their hard work, to receive their faithfulness to his commands. After all, when he told them where to fish, they followed Jesus’ leading and their nets were filled. They were faithful. Jesus took the disciples efforts and combined them with his own, and together their was an abundant catch. The disciples did not know that Jesus was already at work in their midst; yet, as they discovered what Jesus was doing, then they discovered how they could be part of it. One of the things that we need to remember in the church, is that Jesus is at work in our midst as well. Jesus is already at work, ministering to this world, even when we are unaware of it. So, I wonder, how often have we prayed, “Lord, show us what you are doing in our midst,” not just one or two of us, but as a whole congregation. When was the last time we asked, “Lord, what are you up to here in Oakdale? Lord, in what ways are you already ministering here in our neighborhoods? It takes courage to ask such a question of Jesus. For, to ask such a question means that we are willing to participate in what Jesus is doing, even if it means setting aside what we are doing. As the church, we are to be about the ministry of Jesus Christ. That is our calling. Yet, sometimes this can be hard, because we are not always sure of what we are supposed to be doing. At such times, we want to go back to what we know, return to the familiar. Yet, if we are willing to be courageous, we can see this moment as a moment to be surprised by our Lord Jesus. Such courage requires us asking, “Lord, what are you doing in our midst? And also, “Lord, what do you want us to be doing to share in your ministry?” Then we need to watch for the dawn. Watch for the figure standing on the shore. We need to listen for his voice and then do whatever he tells us.
Pastor Jim's past sermons:
Links to past sermons can be found at the bottom of this page.
Ash Wednesday - February 18, 2015
Week 2 - February 25, 2015