Jesus speaks to us today from the edge of the shoreline. His voice, although we often mistake or mishear or misunderstand it, carries over from shore to sea, from heaven to earth. I know that for the souls gathered here today, that voice—His voice—makes life worth living. Within earshot of His voice there are no merely ordinary nights or days or catches of fish or meals or questions or answers or friendships or loves or losses. Within earshot of His voice there are no merely ordinary moments. When the Master calls from the shoreline, “children…have you…cast the net…bring some fish…have breakfast”, no one who hears will dare ask, “And who are you?” We dare not. For we know. Jesus speaks to us today from the edge of the shoreline.
His disciples stumble through all the magic and grit of a fishing expedition. Many of us still find some magic in fishing, though fewer of us have had to develop the skill, courage and endurance of a real fisherman who depends on the catch for sustenance. Still—we know the thrill of it! And the disappointment. The roll of the boat with each passing wave. The smell of the water and the wind. The feel of the fish, the sounds of cleaning, the sky, a scent of rain: this is our life, too. All night long, dropping the nets, trawling, lifting the nets with a heave. And catching nothing. The magic comes with the connection of time and space—being at the right place at the right time. How every fisherman would like to know the right place and the right time. It’s magic! The tug on the line! The jolt to the pole! The humming of the reel! A catch. And woe to the sandy-haired, freckle faced girl or boy (age 12 or 90) who cannot feel the thrill of being at the right place at the right time!
John Stewart Mill once wrote that understanding the chemistry of a pink sunset did not diminish at all his profound sense of wonder at sunset beauty. In fact, we might add, real understanding heightens true apprehension. In such a spirit, we might note that chapter 21 in John, the breakfast chronicle, is probably not original to the gospel. A later writer (he leaps out in the first person singular in vs. 22) has added this breakfast scene. (Three such additions were also made to Mark, as you know) So, you veteran John readers have reason to scratch your head in chapter 21. The gospel has no use for sacraments. Chapter 21 is a Eucharistic feast. The gospel has no happy place for Peter. Peter stars in Chapter 21. The gospel champions the beloved disciple. The beloved disciple is less beloved and less disciple in Chapter 21. The gospel abounds in a philosophical vocabulary: light, life, spirit, love, knowledge, truth. Chapter 21 counts fish—153. The gospel makes nary an ethical claim upon its reader. Its voice is indicative. Chapter 21 is a command wrapped in a directive shrouded in an order. Its voice is imperative. The gospel ends in 20:31, “these things are written that you may believe”. Chapter 21 is an ending without an ending.
Our inspired writer stands in a long tradition of concern for relationships and fellowship. Jeremiah thrashes his hearers for drinking polluted water, drawn from what does not feed and does not slake, apart from relationship with the living Lord. The psalmist gives a divine voice to a plea for the basis of relationship, a listening ear, a trained capacity to listen, in love. The gospel of Luke again arranges the concerns of the religious life around a common table. Who is excluded? Invite them. Who is humbled? Exalt them. Who is disgraced? Honor them.
John is a meta-gospel. His is a gospel’s gospel, a gospel in which themes like those in Luke are reprised. John is in a way a gospel about the gospel, a concluding gospel in which the nature of the gospel and of written Gospels is addressed.
Yet this chapter 21 has been roughly—crudely?—added to make a wondrous point, to underscore John 3:14, ‘the word became flesh’. Real religion is about relationships, too. Prize them. You will find a beloved pastor, sometime in your life, someone with whom to share an intimate breakfast. At least one of your siblings may become a friend, or an approximation thereof—a breakfast looms. Hardly a student escapes college without befriending or being befriended by a teacher. This happened even way back when before Facebook. Breakfast fodder. Who is to say whether you may fall in love this autumn? Take the boy to breakfast.
Don’t you ever wonder when the preacher goes on about such a topic—relationships, for example—whether she or he ever had any such? You look at the preacher’s Facebook page and he has only three friends, two of whom are relatives, paid to sign up. It makes you wonder.
Well, thirty years ago, some of us were befriended, if from afar. A former chaplain at Williams, become Yale Chapel Dean had then come to preach near our seminary. It is, I note, he who first in my hearing used the sermon title pronounced today, ‘Breakfast with Jesus’. I have not a single memory of the content of sermon, but the title stuck. And I have only a smattering of memories of actual events and deeds in those years. But the friendship, the sense of having been befriended, from a venerable pulpit, by a good preacher, in a true way, the relationship remains. Even post-mortem. At the end of this Eucharistic homily, I shall quote from his book CREDO. What William Sloane Coffin meant to one generation, we can mean to another. But it does not happen without relationships.
Autumn is the start of the New Year, in Judaism and in Academia, and in University congregations and communities like this one. Welcome home choir! This is a day of new beginnings. The promise of resurrection is upon us. Its harbinger is Holy Communion. Resurrection disarms fear. Resurrection ignores defeat. Resurrection displaces and replaces loneliness. Resurrection will not abide the voice that whispers, “There’s nothing extraordinary here. There’s no reason for gaiety, excitement, sobriety or wonder.” Resurrection will not abide the easy and the cheap. Resurrection takes a daybreak catch, a charcoal fire, a dawn mist, fish, bread, and hungry, weary travelers, and reveals the Lord present. Resurrection takes bread and wine and makes an encounter with God.
The failing of this world, whether we see it more clearly in the superstition of religion, the idolatry of politics, or the hypocrisy of social life, has its root in blindness to the extraordinary. But hear—and today taste—the good news! The King of love his table spreads. And the humblest meal –breakfast—the worst meal of the day the worst hour of the day and everyone at there worst–becomes—Breakfast
Therefore Christian people, as we take this sacrament, as we enjoy the gift of this day, and as we work and fight, play and pray this week, let us resist with joy all that cheapens life, all that dishonors God, all that mistakes our ordinary sin for the extraordinary love, power, mercy and grace of God.
As an old friend, William Sloane Coffin wrote (CREDO, in passim):
There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse—to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies—is not only more tolerant but far more Christian.
Clearly, the trick in life is to die young as late as possible.
I am a little clearer now on the issue of hypocrisy. Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not anything we are not. Generally we try to pass ourselves off as something special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching.
The longest, most arduous trip in the world is often the journey from the head to the heart. Until that round trip is completed, we remain at war with ourselves. And, of course, those at war with themselves are apt to make casualties of others, including friends and loved ones.
Relationships—not facts and reason—are the key to reality. By entering those relationships, knowledge of reality is unlocked (P Palmer).