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. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
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. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
A man slipped quietly into the back pew of a large sanctuary on the Sunday after Easter. Motionless, he sat there for the entire service. He didn’t sing or take part in any of the responses. As everybody else left, he passed by the outstretched hand of the minister.
“Are you a visitor?” asked the pastor.
“In a way,” the stranger replied, “I am.”
“Well, would you like to become part of this church?” asked the minister.
“No thank you!” the visitor said with a smile. “I’m an atheist. Every Sunday after Easter I look for a church where I can go and find people who say they have faith, and see what they’re doing. I try to tell whether they really have experienced that powerful and wonderful event that possessed them last week. It always reassures me that I haven’t missed anything.” And off he walked.
We gather here this Sunday after Easter, the Sunday following the occasion most central to our church. Today is often described as a low Sunday in terms of attendance. From the beauty and energy that filled our services last week, with the flowers and wonderful music, the church now returns to business as usual.
What IS so different about the Sunday after Easter? All the out-of-town relatives have gone home. Many people won’t be seen again until Christmas Eve. Usually the weather is a bit warmer, and Mother Nature has certainly outdone herself with the temperatures this past week!
But in general, we’re back to regular old Sunday again. And once again we try to find a way of reminding ourselves of the resurrection experience that happened just a week ago. We try to recall its meaning for our lives for all the rest of the year. The cynic might ask “Why do people go through this year after year?” If Easter and your faith mean anything, there should be something visible to show for it.
What that critic is missing is the profound truth of our faith: Within death and resurrection, within loss and victory, life still goes on, and so does faith.
We don’t celebrate the promises of Easter on one day alone. Easter is the reason for our worship every week of the year. Our church is blessed with a lot that’s visible to show how much Easter and our faith mean to us. But there are still critics and skeptics among us, and many who are worn-out or doubtful. How do we keep our faith, and Easter’s meaning, alive every day of the year?
Our lesson today picks up with an appearance of Jesus to his disciples. Let’s put ourselves in their place. If you were in, say, Peter’s place, what would you have done in those days between the loss of your Master and a fishing trip?
Peter had denied Jesus and he may have been there to see him crucified. Peter may have viewed the agony of death, and he may have watched Jesus being placed in the tomb. Would you have behaved much differently than Peter? Would you be just as inclined to go fishing and forget that the whole thing had ever happened? Would you want to run away as quickly as possible and deny that you had given three years of your life to a man who had amounted to nothing? Would your world have come to an end, and ended so abruptly? Peter was overtaken with a sense of emptiness.
Many other people, many of us here, have also experienced their world coming to an end. Many of us know the tragedy of living an empty life as if we were looking into the center of the earth and finding a vacant cave. An empty life takes place when all the fullness of life is gone — not just hidden, but really gone. The fullness might have been there once upon a time, but the pressures and the repetitions, our dedication and our dreams have somehow, somewhere, been stolen, wiped off the map of our souls, and there’s nothing of that vital spark left.
What can we say when our world comes to an end, and there’s a void where there had been something to make it full? After the trip to the cemetery where we leave a part of our own lives, or after the judge says that it’s final and the marriage is really over, or after the faith and sense of promise for the future that you used to have dries up and dies for you — at those times, God seems to quietly slip away. Our own world lies there, lifeless, while the rest of the world goes on totally oblivious to our sorrow. What will we do?
The reality of life is that we, too, have to keep on keeping on. So, after the funeral, it’s back to an empty house to fill hollow days. After the divorce, there’s still the rest of the family to be cared for. After faith has died, Sunday morning still comes around, and it needs to be filled with something. O God, we pray, fill it with something.
After Jesus died, Peter tried to go back to the life that he’d known. “I’m going fishing. I’ve had enough.” And the others said, “Let’s go too.”
When our lives are emptied out and our faith is gone, we know that dark night of the soul. Our fears and insecurities haunt us. We’re stretched and pulled in so many ways that we’re afraid we’ll never function as a normal human being again.
Emptiness comes when we don’t have the energy to stand between having lost something and finding something new to take its place. We desperately want something new, but deep down everything that’s familiar keeps drawing us back, and prevents us from reaching out to the new, the different, the risky.
Peter felt that old pull. He knew that something powerful and mysterious, and even frightening, had happened to him. He tried to pull back into himself, into that old familiar life as a fisherman. He wanted to do something that he knew, with familiar surroundings and people. The disciples too would now join him, as if nothing had happened.
In fact, when they were back fishing, something was so strange about either their activity or their appearance that when Jesus spoke to the disciples, he called them “children,” a translation of a Greek word used to describe those who are unfamiliar. In this story it’s not just Jesus who’s unrecognizable; it’s also the disciples. Their lives were empty. That’s why when they went fishing they found nothing. But the gospel is clear in telling us that in the midst of all that emptiness, Christ comes to us. He comes into our lives even as an awkward stranger.
In the emptiness we experience in our lives, where do we turn? To our friends? Our families?
Unfortunately too often we first withdraw into ourselves. Don’t bother me, we say. I’ve had enough. I don’t want anything from anyone. Heaven help the strangers who try to walk into our lives when we’re empty.
But Christ doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. He comes there anyway, often when we least expect him, often when we don’t want him, and often as an awkward stranger. But it’s just those awkward statements from people we hardly know that can be the grace that fills an empty life.
A middle-aged man once walked out the doors of a business from which he had been fired. He wandered aimlessly for a while, trying to decide who he should blame for his loss of both employment and identity. He stumbled into a small restaurant near his old office and ordered a cup of coffee. A rather disheveled, bearded man took the empty seat next to him and ordered a cup of coffee. The two sat in silence for a while, sipping their drinks. Finally the bearded man turned and said, “Nice day, isn’t it?” That was all the man needed. Out came all of his anger — at his employer, his society, himself, even his family. The bearded man looked up from his cup and said, “I’m sorry for you. My life’s empty too. But with the help of God and of other people, my life’s going to be full again. Ask yourself: Is it everyone else, or is it YOUR life that is empty? If you want to put your life back together again, say to someone, ‘I need help. I’m having trouble with this.'”
A couple of days later, the man DID say to himself, to God, and to other people, “Yes, I need help.” It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a lot better than sitting and stewing, in angry isolation. In later years, he regained his self-esteem and stability, and he wondered about the man who had spoken to him those simple, significant words so long ago.
In the midst of our emptiness, God comes, perhaps in different places and in different ways, but God is there. Never forget that in order to be filled, we must first be empty. Being fulfilled and having a changed life is a process that’s difficult to describe, and what reversed or revitalized my life might be different from what touches yours. The way our faith grows and expands is a personal journey, but it’s real.
Jesus spoke to his disciples and they were filled. When the morning came, he spoke to them as he speaks to us. They followed his command, filled their nets, and on that cool morning he broke bread and ate fish with his disciples, and they were filled.
Jesus walks with us in our emptiness and calls us as he called the disciples on the shore. God tells us to cast our nets where God commands, and there our souls will be filled. Amen.