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The Reverend Canon Peter Moger (Precentor)
3rd Sunday of Easter – 5 May 2019
I served my curacy in Whitby. Although the fishing industry was in decline, fishing and the sea were very much part of the local consciousness; at harvest time, we used to think as much about the harvest of the sea as the harvest of the land. We used to hold two harvest festivals – on successive Sundays – one in the Parish Church and the other in the chapel at the Mission to Seafarers. The favourite reading at the second of these was this morning’s Gospel – the account in St John’s Gospel of the miraculous catch of fish. It’s a fascinating story – not least because it forms part of that curious final chapter of the fourth gospel – a sort of postscript, after the conclusive end of chapter 20 – in which the writer records additional resurrection appearances of Jesus. And as such, the passage we’ve just heard, and the chapter as a whole, forms a bridge between the risen Christ of the first century and the Church of today – Christ’s body on earth. Although Jesus is risen, the fruits of his resurrection have still to be gathered in. And that is the continuing task of the Church.
The background to the story is significant. St John records Peter saying to his friends, ‘I am going fishing’. It’s as though Peter and the other disciples had experienced the risen Christ but were now waiting for something else to happen. They had time on their hands, and they had to pay the bills, so what better than to go back to their fishing, which was the trade they had known all their lives.
Nothing particularly remarkable in that, we might think – but it was while Peter and the others were in the middle of a night’s fishing that they encountered the risen Christ again. That’s often true for us. Although we might have special spiritual experiences from time to time, on the whole, it’s in and through the everyday business of life that God meets with us and speaks to us. At work, at leisure – in time spent with friends and family – in the everyday chores of life, and sometimes in the chance encounters – God is there, waiting to meet us. And that is the norm – we should expect it to happen.
The gospel writer then goes on to say that the disciples had been fishing all night, but without success. They’d caught nothing, and were utterly demoralised. Jesus seems to be aware of this, because the question he asks implies a negative reply. It’s almost as though we might loosely translate the Greek ‘No fish, then?’ He suggests that they cast their net on the other side of the boat, and when they follow this advice, they land a catch almost bigger than they can manage. Was it a miracle? Or were the fish there all the time, simply waiting to be caught? We don’t know – and, at the end of the day, that’s not really the point. What does matter is that the story shows us that without God’s help, all the effort in the world will ultimately get us nowhere.
There’s something else here, too. What Jesus suggested to the fishermen was a change of approach – a change from fishing on one side of the boat to fishing on the other – and the change paid off. Change is always a difficult subject in church, because we are creatures of habit and like stability; we can all feel threatened if someone suggests a change in the way things are done. But we can’t get away from the fact that the Christian gospel is – above all things – about change. That is the point of the Resurrection – that God, in Jesus, having shared our life, then changes it forever – transposes it into a new key – lifts it onto another plane.
This is brought home to us in both this morning’s readings. In the first, we heard of Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ. This was an encounter which was literally to change the course of human history. Saul had been among the most ardent persecutors of Christians – we are told in the book of Acts that he stood and watched as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death. And he was to become the most zealous of the apostles.
And then, in the second part of the Gospel, we hear of Peter being commissioned to ‘feed the sheep’ of Christ’s flock. This, again, marks a complete change. Peter, who had denied Jesus 3 times on the night before his trial, is here restored 3 times, and given not only another chance, but the command which would lead to his being the rock on which the Church would be built.
Resurrection means change – change for ourselves, in terms of where we focus our lives, and also for the Church as a whole. The Resurrection means that we have to shift our view from the Church as a human institution to one fuelled by the same power which raised Christ from the dead.
Here at York, Chapter is about to start work on drawing up the next 5 years’ strategic plan and, as we did 5 years ago, that will involve a lot of thinking, praying and consulting, as we try and discover what it is God is leading us to do in the immediate future. What is clear is that, if this work goes ahead in our own strength alone, it is sure to fail; we have to plan with a post-Resurrection perspective.
I won’t be a part of that – I’ll be trying to work things out literally on another shore! – but later this year, the Archbishop will be appointing my successor and also a Canon Missioner. Do please commit to praying that we find the right people to help us move into this next phase of our life under God.
Returning to the Gospel, the writer tells us two interesting details about that catch of fish. First, that the catch numbered 153 fish, and second that the net remained unbroken. Now are we to believe that there were exactly 153, or does that figure speak more figuratively of a large number? Over the centuries, biblical scholars have come up with many theories; and it’s known that the writer of St John’s Gospel had an interest in numerology. St Augustine produced some very complicated calculations to explain the number 153 – but John Calvin in the 16th century dismissed them as nothing but ‘childish trifling.’ The great translator of the Scriptures, St Jerome, even went as far as to say that there were 153 known species of fish in the ancient world! Whatever the number means, we shall never really know – except that the catch was exceptionally large. And perhaps that it points us towards the truth that there is no limit to God’s offer of new life in Christ.
But although there was such a large catch, the net remained unbroken. Perhaps here there is a hint as to the inclusivity of the Christian Church: that it is – or that should be – a community big enough to hold everyone. And while this is might be true in a theoretical sense about the Church as a whole, is it always true in practice – especially about individual churches and congregations?
Do we offer an open door? God promises never to turn away anyone who approaches him – it is the Church’s task to do the same. I remember a few years ago being told by a priest who had recently taken over a parish that when he had arrived, there were no fewer than 7 signs in the porch which began with the words ‘Do not…’. His first task was to remove them.
Cathedrals have a crucially important role to play in being an ‘open door’ for the Church. So many who come within these doors profess no faith, have no background of Christian faith and worship, and yet they are drawn by a whole range of factors, to this wonderful place. Much of a Cathedral’s role is ‘pre-evangelistic’, in that it prepares the ground for people to receive the Christian gospel. An experience of beauty (through stone, glass or music) can lead to a longing in the human heart to know the source of that beauty – and so to discover the God who is known to us in Jesus.
The story of the catch of fish ends with Jesus inviting the disciples ashore for breakfast – a meal of fish, some of which was apparently already cooking on the charcoal fire; some o
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