David A. Davis
April 22, 2018
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That night they caught nothing. Nothing. Zilch. Squat. They caught nothing. All night long they were fishing. Nothing. They weren’t fly fishing. They were using those big old nets. These were fishermen. This was not grandparent and grandchild sitting on the dock in the lake in the middle of the day. This wasn’t those guys at the Jersey shore who try to look like they know what they’re doing, surf fishing, casting a line dangerously close to where people are swimming, and catching nothing. This wasn’t a grizzly bear swiping a paw for a salmon. They were fishermen. They would have known if it was too hot or to cold. They knew that Sea of Galilee, that lake, like the back of their hand. This was their livelihood and they were out there all night long and caught nothing.
The Bible doesn’t say how long after that first Easter morning it had been. According to John, Jesus showed his hands and his side to Thomas one week later. All John records here is that it was “after these things.” Sometime after these things. “These things” being a sort of understatement for Jesus rising from the dead. Jesus calling Mary by name. Jesus breathing Holy Spirit on the disciples. Jesus appearing a week later in the same room for Thomas. “These things.” “After these things.” The next day? Another week? A few weeks later? A handful of the disciples were together when Peter announced he was going fishing and the others decided to join him. All night long. Nothing. It turns out fishing isn’t quite like riding a bike.
Interestingly, in the Gospel of John, this is the first time fishing comes up in reference to the disciples. Tending nets, dropping nets, leaving nets, fishing for people, another miraculous catch, that’s all in the other three gospels. And John doesn’t tell the reader whether Peter was bored or hungry or needed some money. John doesn’t imply that he was waffling on the being sent part, on continuing with proclaiming and living the gospel Christ had taught them. He just said “I’m going fishing.”
But it’s not like fishing was a hobby for them. He wasn’t saying “let’s go play a few holes and take our mind off everything for a while.” The disciples going fishing to relax and blow off steam would be like a bus driver on a day off telling the other drivers he was just going to hop in the bus and drive around a while, or a faculty member in the summer telling some colleagues, “You know, I have missed grading papers, I’m going to go look for some.” No, it wasn’t just looking for something to do. John’s gospel is full of symbols and metaphors and images. Everything means something. If fishing doesn’t come up until now, until after all that resurrection excitement, it has to mean something.
The disciples are no longer in Jerusalem. They are not out on the road. They are back home in Galilee. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee is life. Life, day and night. Everyday life. They’re back at it. Whether that night of fishing was going to be a one-off right from the start or whether a few of them thought about going back to fishing for fish instead of people, they are back at it. Back home. Back to life. Even if just for a moment, back to the everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill life. Back to fishing. And… it doesn’t go so well. “That night they caught nothing.”
They were back to the grind. That night they were back to the routine, the back-breaking, sweaty, “cast a net all night long and have nothing to show for it” kind of grind. They didn’t just turn back the clock and go back to their trade, that night was a slice of the hardest, emptiest, soul-draining part of life. Maybe it wasn’t a dark night of the soul kind of thing. But it was a dark night of nothing. A big old cup of nothing. An empty net of life.
And that’s when he showed up. That’s just when the Risen Christ appeared. With the dawn, with the coming of the Light, with the promise of a new day. Christ standing on the shore. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” It would not be very Christ-like for that inquiry to be a bit of a taunt, or some trash talk. “Haha, you didn’t catch any fish!” So how about this, what if it sounded like this: “Hey guys, that really stunk, didn’t it? That was a long night. I’m sorry. Can I help?”
It’s not what first comes to mind when you read that question from the Risen Christ, it’s not what pops into your mind when you hear the tone of his voice in your imagination. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” It’s not your first thought, but that question — his question to the disciples, who rather suddenly found themselves back to the grind, up to their eyeballs in the grind — that question, it’s really a promise. A promise because of his presence. Forget the miraculous catch of fish. Before the miraculous catch of fish, we showed up. Christ showed up. Right then. In the grind. Of course that’s when he showed up. You bet that’s when he showed up. After… these things, and just on the edge of a long dark night of life’s nothing, he showed up.
Years ago I received an email from a Presbyterian ruling elder thousands of miles away from here. Her son was student at the university. He was a junior, a varsity athlete. Things weren’t going well with his playing time, she wrote. He and the coach weren’t getting along. A nagging injury was holding him back. Mom had hunch that maybe class work wasn’t going well either but he wouldn’t talk about it, he wouldn’t talk about anything, really, At least with her. She just knew he was really struggling. “I just want him to know that someone out there cares for him. I want him to know we love him no matter what. I want him to remember that God loves him and that God will see him through.” Her email was less about asking me to do something and more of her offering a prayer. That her son would know God’s presence, God’s promise amid the grind.
A member of my first congregation was a retired gasoline truck driver named Walt. He drove the truck for 30 years. He was a World War II veteran captured at the Battle of the Bulge. He raised five sons. Lost one to death way too young. Those years when I served as a pastor Walt’s rough edges were being worn down by his grandsons who lived a few doors down. They called him Pop. Walt is the one who told me once he wouldn’t buy a new car with automatic windows: “If I am too old to wind down my own window, I’m too old to drive.”
I once stood with him and his wife at his hospital bed while a cardiac surgical resident presented what they needed to do. I offered to leave rather than invoking some kind of pastoral privilege. Walt told the doctor I should stay. He told the doctor I was his son. The doctor then rushed through a conversation about his upcoming by-pass surgery, including drawing pictures, a technique the doctor clearly had not perfected in medical school.
After the doctor left, I ask Walt and Alma what they were thinking, how they were feeling about tomorrow’s surgery. First Walt said, “I didn’t understand one thing the doctor said.” And then he looked at me with some tears in his eyes, and he said, “Davie boy, I learned a long time ago that God is able.” It was his faith statement paired down, chiseled out, weather-worn by the grind of life. His way of telling me God would be with him, no matter what.
I’ve lost track of all the faith statements I have heard from the children of God over the years that had little to do with doctrine and a lot to do with clinging to God’s promise, God’s presence. Saints in the community of faith, a great cloud of witnesses who have seen and lived more than their share, people who know the world’s shine has long since worn off, the beloved in Christ who rise every day to give a witness to the presence and the power and the meaning of the Risen Christ in their lives and in the world, those who have known the struggle, who have been up to their eyeballs in the earthiness of it all, who know how hard it can be, people who have come face to face with the world’s darkness, who have lived through a long night of nothing and, yet, experienced his presence. “It’s been a long, long night. I’m so sorry. How can I help?”
I just finished teaching Presbyterian Worship this semester over at the seminary. The day we discussed baptism I discovered a wonderful quote from the Directory for Worship, the Book of Order, the Constitution of the PCUSA. A quote about baptism. It said, “No one comes to it alone.” It is an affirmation of the role of parents, family, friends, and the congregation in nurturing faith, supporting the baptized, and surrounding them with our prayers. Part of our prayer, every time we gather at the fount and dip into God’s grace afresh, part of the prayer, it ought to be that you, O Child of God, would know that God is able. That you would carry that promise all of your days.
Today the one being baptized is Edith. An Eastertide baptism. Edith, that you would know on your best days that Christ is risen! Edith, that you will cling, on the hardest days, to the promise, Christ is risen! Edith, on the most ordinary days, amid the routine, when the days fly by and nights are too short, and the pace of it all just flies by, right then, that you would hear that Christ is risen! Edith, that when a day comes or the night lingers, and you’re not sure, or you don’t remember, or you can’t bring yourself to say it, or believe it, or accept it… plenty of folks around here have been there and done that, and we’re going to say it for you. Christ is risen! God is able, child, God is able.
Easter Sundays come and Easter Sundays go. They add up. They all smush together. Sort of a big Easter shout. Christ is risen! But the resurrection promise that lasts forever? God’s promise you will never forget? The promise from the Risen Christ that you cling to and claim and maybe even tell someone about? It’s the one that comes in the grind after Easter.
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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