In the collection of materials the Gospel writers passed along to generations after them we have a limited number of stories, which is to say, among other things, that we don’t have a whole lot of information at our disposal about Jesus. Many of you have heard me say before that we have about 33 days of information and that out of a life that lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 years. That’s not much data. It is important detail, but what we can know is painfully limited.
By the way, there was upheaval in the world of scriptural scholarship this week, the scholarly world of those who are primarily experts on Jesus material. One of the more liberal Jesus scholars at work in our time is Dr. Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Ehrman is an agnostic who takes a strong interest in the material about Jesus, and usually comes down at a liberal place, rather consistently irritating conservatives or even moderates. Here’s the lowdown, and remember you heard it here first–most of you, anyway.
There’s so little material available about Jesus, and much of it parallels the events in the lives of other notable religious figures, including some who were known as deities, that some scholars across time have concluded that Jesus is a fictional character. They have said out right that Jesus never existed. Now Dr. Ehrman is in the fascinating place of defending Jesus. Rather than interpreting something Jesus said an entirely new way or questioning whether Jesus would’ve said such a thing, it is Professor Bart Ehrman taking the lead and criticizing those who are trying to start a new round of doubt about the existence of Jesus. Those kinds of arguments are theological fads, and they come and go.
Ehrman, however, is absolutely convinced that Jesus lived, and he believes that no one has or will ever be able to disprove that. So the conservatives are applauding him guardedly because they know that, even though he will bolster a means for believing that Jesus existed, the Jesus he believes existed isn’t anything at all like what most of the conservatives want Jesus to be.
Among the limited number of stories we have about Jesus some few are accounts of post-resurrection appearances. If you are familiar with the Jesus material you know that after the story of the resurrection there are accounts of Jesus dealing with people, seeing his closest followers and so forth over a 40 day period. And it is not until the so-called ascension that he leaves the earth and goes to dwell in heaven with God. So in this 40 day time span there are some significant encounters Jesus has with strangers as well as followers and friends before being taken up into heaven, his ascension.
Some folks believe literally in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus; others do not. I once assigned the ascension text to a preaching student for his next in class sermon. I was teaching in Switzerland at the time, and the student went to his advisor who was a liberal theologian and complained about having been assigned this impossible text, which the student claimed not to believe. He told his advisor that he did not believe in a literal resurrection or literal ascension but rather looked for the spiritual meaning in such accounts. The professor who remains one of my great friends, I’m happy to say, said to the student, who by the way has preached in this pulpit, “Why would you worry about that text; its message is simple: what goes up must come down.” Preach that and enjoy the look on Farmer’s face. The student came and reported the advice to me, and I said, “If you do preach on the text as if that is the meaning I can guarantee that you will not pass the assignment.”
The story before us today falls in that category. It is one of the post-resurrection appearances Jesus makes presented as such. On occasion a Gospel writer will take a post-resurrection appearance and reposition the story as if it were something that occurred before Jesus’ execution/resurrection/ascension. Perhaps as one scholar suggested to me some years ago this would’ve been one way of having Jesus appear to have been clairvoyant. That is not the preferred interpretation for a number of readers and hearers, both conservative and liberal, but it is an option.
In our story, Jesus comes across several of his closest male followers, the disciples, and he is clearly in this state of having been raised from the dead as the story goes yet awaiting his departure from the realm in which we now live. This is an absolutely fascinating story. It has so many levels of meaning, and it offers us so many reminders of what is involved in being a follower of Jesus in the real world.
The connection with the current sermon series, which has to do with memorable biblical meals, is that Jesus prepares breakfast for his disciples who have been fishing all night long. The post-resurrection Jesus who is the same guy who did carpentry work is now cooking breakfast for some of his closest male followers who were fishermen.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.
Not all the disciples were present, only seven of them. If we keep symbolism in mind, which would be a very appropriate and important thing to do when we read the Gospel of John, then we would immediately take note of the fact that seven is the number in Jewish numerology of the period that symbolizes perfection–the completion of divine acts involving humans at their best, the blending together of the divine number, 3, with the number representing humanity at its best, 4.
Since Judas had committed suicide and hadn’t yet been replaced, there were eleven men remaining in the men’s group. Wouldn’t you have hated being one of the five not included at this important event? Well, maybe those four not present, like Matthew who was a tax collector, didn’t do fishing. Even so, what about the two unfortunate souls who were unnamed by the storyteller who goes into detail naming the other five? Ouch! It would be something like Dr. Bill Linn publishing his Church Council minutes in our newsletter, and in the section that reports attendance he reports something like this: “Attending our meeting were Council Chair, Bruce Smith; Council Vice-Chair, Karen Smith; Clerk of Council, Bill Linn (of course!); the Pastor; and a few others.”
The fact that the writer of the Fourth Gospel listed seven men was his subtle way of saying to his first readers and hearers that precisely those who needed to be present were there, even if there were two whose names the author neglected to reveal. Seven represented just-right-ness; God is pleased and present (#3), and humanity is at its best (#4). Three plus four equals seven.
My college math professor, Dr. Cary Herring, began class one morning at our small religiously affiliated college by insisting that mathematics would be part of our careers whatever they turned out to be. I raised my hand and said, “I’m going into the ministry, and none of what we’re learning will ever be used by me.” Well, I have just proven that Dr. Herring was right, and I was wrong! Three plus four does equal seven. I suppose I owe Professor Herring a letter of apology.
Simon Peter said to his six colleagues, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” The seven of them went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
So just the right people were present; perhaps just the right people in this case meant those who were fishermen by trade and were getting ready to go to work on the graveyard shift. Perhaps there were a couple of others whose names we won’t bother to mention or even think about who were pretty decent at fishing and might’ve come along to help out. Who knows? The professional fishermen did not want any of the others to come along if they knew nothing about fishing. They did not want colleagues to come along who talked loudly and incessantly and scared the fish away. Maybe one or two of the other four disciples did not want to come along because they easily became seasick.
The next point the writer is making in the telling of the story is that sometimes we do poorly what it is we supposedly do best. These professional fishermen went out as they regularly did–sometimes during the day, sometimes during the night. It was their job. On this particular evening, they worked a whole shift and caught not one fish. This was their livelihood so not only were they disappointed fishermen, but also disappointed businessmen, disappointed fathers and husbands because they had no fish to bring home to their own families. They had caught nothing, zilch.
I would guess this was probably rare, but this likely was not the first time it happened. The disciples who were fishermen were well trained in their profession, but sometimes they did poorly. Occasionally, that had something to do with their technique or where they decided to fish, something like that; at other times they did everything perfectly from a technical standpoint, but the fish just weren’t biting, or in their case diving into the nets.
I think this passage should call highly competent people like all of you to realize that there are times when we set out to do what we do well as a rule, what some say we’re the best at, and the results are zero. How hard it is to explain a failing to our peers, to our bosses, and to those whom we supervise. People watch us all the time to see how this particular task is done. We, directly or indirectly, are their teachers, their coaches, their encouragers; but here’s a shift when we’re supposed to be doing what we usually do well during which nothing goes correctly. It is as if we expended no energy whatsoever. Others who watch us to see how this particular task is done shake their heads in disbelief and wonder if what they’ve heard about our great skills is reality. Most painfully, during these disappointing times, we doubt ourselves.
Here is a therapist who been counseling effectively for years. One day, client after client after client comes and goes, and the therapist realizes that she or he has offered not one of them even the tiniest bit of help or support. The right words would not come. The connections that usually were there emotionally weren’t there. No matter what the counselor tried to do between sessions to make sure it didn’t happen again was futile; she or he did essentially nothing except of course to collect the fee at the end of the counseling hour, which is 50 minutes not 60 minutes. I might need to check with Dr. Herring to be sure, but I don’t think 50 minutes make up an hour.
Here’s an athlete who has been noticed by the whole world for her or his amazing skill and success in this particular sport. During the Olympics is a great time to visualize what I’m about to describe. In every game or contest she or he is a winner and most often the top winner. One day this athlete goes into the event, and nothing happens; she or he is at the bottom of the list of performers that day. Nothing happens; nothing is accomplished. Failed effort after failed effort.
Here’s a presidential candidate who won the oval office by a landslide. On the next try, however, he and one day she suffers a humiliating loss. How could this possibly be the case? The pundits are puzzled, and the news writers don’t know what to say except, “Carter loses.”
Here’s the church who has been exemplary. This church has done all the right things, and its members along with any nonmembers who care to observe know that’s the truth. For years other churches looked to this church’s success with envy, though envy is not supposed to be a trait planted in the hearts of spiritually-grounded people. The church grows; the church has blooming finances. The programs the church offers never fail to meet the needs of those who participate in them. It is an amazing sight to behold year after year after year, and then finally one day nothing goes right anymore. The staff is shocked and confused and saddened as are the lay leaders of the church. They do things the way they’ve always done them, the way that always brought results and success. Suddenly, that way doesn’t work no matter how many times they retry.
I hope you don’t know what that’s like, but my suspicion is that most of us know exactly what that’s like. We set out to do what we know we do well and what others know we do well, and we fail miserably. We aren’t sure what that means. If we are aging we may say to ourselves, “I knew I would be slipping one of these days, and here’s proof.” We have been cool, calm, and collected as parents, and then one day we lose it and create distance between ourselves and our children; we wonder if anything we’ve ever done parentally has been worthwhile.
I could give more examples, but you know what I’m talking about. Thankfully there’s more to the story.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
The weary disciples feeling the full force of failure did not know what to make of the question the stranger on the shore asked them as they left their boats behind and began to call it a night. “You didn’t catch anything did you?”, the stranger asked the seven disciples who did not know he was Jesus. They didn’t know if it were an honest question from somebody who knew they were the best fishermen around. Or was the question a way of mocking them, a way of saying, “You must be losing your touch. Will you ever be able to catch fish again?”
Then the stranger still completely unknown to the disciples gave them some fishing advice. They weren’t accustomed to taking advice from anybody. They were the best around, and had they known this was Jesus resurrected they would still have been put off at the directive because he was a carpenter. Carpenters didn’t know what fishermen knew about fishing.
This story is part of the closing of the Gospel of John. The very well-placed episode is intended to make a number of points; one of the points was especially directed to the struggling Christians at the end of the first century when the Gospel, the last of the four, began circulating in its final form. The final point of the story is probably the crux of the story: never become unteachable. Never think you know so much that you are unable to benefit from the input of others–someone who may know a little more than you know or someone who simply might have a different approach.
Never become unteachable. I think of two notable instances in my life when I felt stubbornly unteachable–one happened a long time ago and the other fairly recently.
The one from long ago took place while I was teaching in Switzerland–right after grad school. Occasionally, between classes I would slip over to the chapel when nobody was present and enjoy playing the piano, which for much of my life has been something I’ve enjoyed doing primarily for myself. One day I was in the chapel playing away, and the Seminary’s gardener, Herr Rosenthal, entered the sanctuary and stood at the back listening to me for a while. I assumed he was taking a break and enjoying what I was playing.
When I finished the piece, he walked up to me as I sat at the piano, and I assumed a compliment was on its way. Instead, Herr Rosenthal said something like, “You could get a much better sound if you used your wrists more; you are too stiff.” I thought to myself, “Well, even if I am, who are you to give me instructions on how to play the piano; you’re the gardener.” I remember making a decision to pay no attention whatsoever to what he said. I’d taken lessons for years; I knew how to play–though today were you to hear me play you might question that, not that you’re going to hear me!
Actually, I was an OK pianist. The problem was never that I lacked the ability to play; the problem was insufficient practice although I didn’t have what it took ever to become a virtuoso or even live in the next neighborhood over. I would say that at one time I was competent, and that’s as far as it went.
I left the chapel and went to the faculty lounge where I happened upon one of my colleagues with whom I felt free to talk, and I laughingly told him the story of what had just happened in the chapel. He laughed and I laughed. What I didn’t know for several minutes was that he was laughing at me; when he regained his composure he said, “You should listen to Herr Rosenthal; he is a concert pianist who just does gardening for the benefit of his physical health.”
The other incident, which was fairly recently, was an editorial matter. I have been an editor for 30 years. I have edited much more than I’ve written in terms of publication, and I think I learned to be a good editor, which is not to say that good editors always provide error-free work. Once a publisher hired me for an editing gig, and the contract she asked me to sign read, “…will submit error-free manuscripts on or before designated deadlines.” Hilarious! I wouldn’t sign the contract, and I don’t recall what the amended version read. I certainly do make editorial mistakes, and even the best of editors are not typically good at editing their own work.
Well, be that as it may I was asked several months ago to write four brief chapters in a book for preachers, duh, coming out next fall, and I completed my assignments and turned them in according to the process that was pretty much as it has been for years. I have written for this annual volume a number of times and kind of know my way around the process.
Three of my chapters were well received by the new editor, but the fourth he hated. Never have I been criticized stylistically for anything I’ve written. This new editor sent feedback on that one chapter, which insulted me as a writer and as a theologian.
I did not take kindly to his critique of my writing at that level or his suggestions for improvement, but I pondered the situation and the critique for a day or so and told him and the publisher that while I didn’t like how he, the editor, related to me, I wanted to force myself to be teachable in that moment. The publisher who has known me for years was stunned and speechless when she heard my response.
I was so proud of myself for being so mature. I called both of my sons to tell them their dear old Dad was mellowing. Each of them asked me what I’d been drinking.
This story is not told to brag; in fact, I share it with you because it is one of several moments in my life when I needed to be teachable, but was not. In the end, I suppose it’s the end of the issue for real, I was insulted to the point that I could not make the corrections; I couldn’t adjust the material. I’m not proud of how I responded. I was and am in the wrong in more ways than one. Chances are, I’ll be the loser because I am refusing to learn from someone who just might be a better editor than I, who just might have a better sense of what his readers want and need.
Jesus said to those disciples who were professional fishermen, “Hey, boys; try putting your nets down on the other side of the boat,” and the fishermen looked at each other in disbelief. They knew that it wouldn’t make any difference which side of the boat they dropped the net from. Why they took the stranger’s advice, we don’t know; but they did, and when they tried one more time they had so many fish they couldn’t pull the nets up out of the of the water. Had they remained unteachable they would’ve caught nothing at all, but because they were teachable even though at the time they thought it was probably an unskilled fisherman giving them direction they were more successful than they ever had been.
My friends, all of us individually and in the groups in which we are a part–whether families, churches, corporations–are rut-inclined. We will follow a workable pattern we have set knowing, probably subconsciously, that one day we’ll have to make some changes but dreading that day. New information will be discovered. Technology will advance. Our competitors in the work world will leave us in the dust if we refuse to keep up with the times, which means that from time to time we have to learn new things and make changes. What finally forces the change, if we are able to manage a change which some of us are not, is most likely when we fail miserably at what has been for us the tried and true way.
When I am critical of the church, my intent is always to be constructive, and I am ever aware that I am a part of the reason constructive criticism needs to be offered. That said, I have two questions for us.
1) Is change our enemy and routine our friend?
2) Have we already learned all we’re ever willing to learn as we try to be a church in the tough modern world?
Walter Shurden, one of the finest lecturers with whom I was ever privileged to study, wrote a book he called Not a Silent People. In that book, he wrote that the most famous LAST words of a church (that is dying) are: “We never did it that way before.”
Eventually, the seven disciples realized that the stranger was Jesus, the carpenter. A carpenter had taught them to fish successfully after which he cooked their breakfast–some bread and what else was it? Oh yeah. Fish!