St. John's Episcopal - Georgetown

Fishing on the Wrong side of the Boat

The Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-6

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-9


Fishing on the Wrong Side of the Boat


"Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some."  John 21:6


There is no more interesting and thoughtful story-teller than Luke, the author of the two-volume series called Luke-Acts. Luke tells some of the best remembered stories from the life of Christ.  It is Luke who remembers the best of Jesus parables: the despised-yet-good Samaritan and the prodigal-yet-beloved son. And it is in Acts that we find the stories of the first Pentecost, the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and the conversion of Paul today's first reading. The conversion of Saul to Paul is a story that we often in talking about our own experience. Few of us are comfortable talking about our own experiences of God and, if asked, we might say something like, "not a Road to Damascus."


Speaking for myself, I wish that I did have an experience like Paul, it would make it so much easier to explain my commitment to God as revealed in Christ and the church. It would be certain proof that God does exist and that God cares about our lives and how we live them to stop us in our tracks and wake us up. But of course that is not how it was and not how it is for most of us. Or is it? Could it be that God is constantly trying to get our attention, but that we are too distracted to notice? Or could it be that those occasional "Aha!" experiences are precisely experiences of divine enlightenment.


For example, one day the disciples went fishing. I find fishing to be boring, but I don't think that the disciples were bored. Perhaps they were disappointed maybe even depressed. Or perhaps they were afraid. After all their teacher, their mentor, their leader had been crucified and then he was with them again, but then he was gone. So I suppose they did what fishermen do -- they went fishing. But it wasn't a good experience as they fished all night and came up empty. Until Jesus told them that they were fishing on the wrong side of the boat. That was when they saw the light.


The beach scene in John's gospel is full of metaphorical references In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples were able to find five loaves and two fish, just enough for everyone with plenty left over. So it is on the beach, except, in Jesus hands  there are not two fish, but many. There's been a lot of ink spilled over the number 153 but none of it is persuasive, so we can read "lots of fish." And so, what is recounted here is the feeding of the disciples. It has Eucharistic overtones, doesn't it, just as does the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus takes the bread and gives it to them. You will hear that again shortly. And this story of Jesus on the beach concludes with the three-fold command: to feed his lambs; tend his sheep; feed his sheep. The  journey of Peter in the gospel ends the way it began, "Follow me." And of course, Peter does follow Jesus to the end of his life along with so many other followers of the Way those who were persecuted by Paul/Saul.


So here's my question: Why did the disciples of Jesus, those who had been with him from the beginning not recognize him         while Paul who was breathing threats and murder against him suddenly change his entire life around on the road to Damascus? Perhaps it was simply that the disciples were fishing on the wrong side of the boat. I do that all the time, perhaps you do also. It's terribly easy to get distracted, even by the ordinary things of life; like fishing or whatever your work is, even if, like me, your work is the church.


The church has often been accused of fishing on the wrong side of the boat. There are many who think that Christianity lost its edge when it became official. In some real sense the established church can easily become the lost church. When the church becomes a club for people like us           instead of a motley collection of souls in search of meaning and purpose, it is fishing on the wrong side of the boat. When it becomes a glorious architectural relic, instead of a house of worship for everyone who seeks a closer relationship with God, it is fishing on the wrong side of the boat.


To paraphrase from Jacob Heschel: "When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past;  when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”[i]     and we're fishing where there are no fish.


So the question is: how can the church remain true to the faith of our forebears and still fresh for the twenty-first century? One thing is absolutely clear - the value assumptions of 50 years ago are not those of today; therefore the way people assess matters of faith is different than it used to be. My upbringing was all about deferred gratification. When could I have dessert? After I ate my spinach. When could I watch TV? After my homework was done. You had to earn everything. It was applied Puritan work-ethic. There's nothing wrong with any of that,  it was the value assumption that was in place.


And the  theology of the church supported that value assumption. Why was one confirmed?  In order to take communion when you were the right age. Why would one go to church?  To assure a place in heaven some day. And it was possible to find Biblical texts to support that point of view.             "…anyone who does not enter (the sheepfold) by the gate is a thief…" [John 10:1] Those who seek to go to the head of the line will be last. Then there is the matter of the sheep and the goats and I certainly didn't want to be a goat. And so I was taught to work harder and plan ahead so that my entrance into heaven, if not assured, would at least be possible.


But now deferred gratification is a thing of the past. You can blame it on credit cards if you like, beginning in the last 60's. They didn't exist when I was a child but today…. if you want something you simply go get it. Again, I' not making judgment about these things, they are simply part of life. The world in which we life is less patient and more demanding. The National Organization of Women was called NOW for a reason. Anyone suffering from economic or social injustice refused to be patient.


And applied theology changed to meet the people where they were. This is not to say that the basic tenets of faith changed, but the way they were applied No longer was church about going to heaven, but about the presence of God in our lives here and now. Again the Bible provides lots of affirmation. "This generation will not pass away until these things come to pass" [Matt. 24:34, also Mark, Luke] "The kingdom of God is among you" (or within you) depending on the translation [Luke 17:21]. In seminary this was the difference between future and realized eschatology. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God was he talking about some future event or a present reality?


In the latter part of the twentieth century, preaching deferred gratification was like fishing on the wrong side of the boat. There were not many ears to hear. And today? There is little doubt that the church is changing again. Sometimes change is slow and incremental and sometimes its pace is more rapid. This is one of those latter times and it makes people uncomfortable.          To be clear, I'm not just talking about the Episcopal Church, but all three Biblical faith traditions. What will emerge is not clear yet, but let me point out a few indicators  of where we might be headed. All this falls under the broad description of emerging church. If you want more, try a web site called Anglo-emergent.


(1) First and foremost: within virtually every Christian congregation, denominational difference matter little to the people, though denominational heritage is a gift valued in every congregation.   To a large, but diminishing extent, the Catholic Church may be an exception, though I know a number of cradle Episcopalians who attend a Catholic Church. (2) The emerging church is much more interested in participation and dialogue about worship and scripture. We want to talk about more than be told about it. (3) The emerging church is deeply interested in the earliest church. What did the apostles do and say after Pentecost that gave the church such vitality? (4) The same interest applies to worship; how was it in the earliest days and what can we do to recover that? (5) The emerging church does not think that the clergy have all the answers, but that the church should be more like a open-source network rather than a hierarchical system.


There's much more, but let me leave you with this:           the emerging church eschews labels of any sort. No more liberal and conservative or high and low church. Labels erect walls, but the church is about building bridges. Wouldn't you like to rise above the labels?


Some day within the next hundred years or so, the tectonic plates of faith will settle down for a time and we will understand the shape of the church that is just now emerging. Until then, if we take faith seriously, we much look and listen carefully for its signs. Paul/Saul had seen Christians in action, including the martyrdom of Stephen, and perhaps it was beginning to dawn on him that matters of faith were changing before his eyes. But he couldn't really see it until his eyes were opened on that fateful day when on his way to Damascus with murderous intent that his eyes were opened and his to his blindness. And he began to realize that all this time he had  been fishing on the wrong side of the boat.


May God also open our eyes as the church is reshaped. We don't want to be found fishing in the wrong place.



[i] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, p. 3.

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