Embracing the Mystery (sermon 4/10/16 – Confirmation Sunday)

campfire on beach

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 sea. 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 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.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”  – John 21:1-19

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Sometimes, when you’ve got so much on your mind that you think it’s more than you can handle, the best thing you can do is to just stop – to step away from all of those thoughts and worries and all of that processing, and just take a breather to clear you head.

They took their breather, they cleared their heads, by fishing. By this time, they’d left Jerusalem far behind and made the solid four-day trip back to more familiar surroundings, the villages along the edge of the Sea of Galilee. With birds circling in the thermals overhead, and the waves lapping at the beach covered with smooth black basalt stones, they loaded the boat with their gear, and probably some snacks, and themselves, and as they felt the warmth of the late afternoon sun on their backs, they set out for deeper water not far from the shoreline.

Maybe they’d tried hard to catch some fish and hadn’t had any luck. Maybe they weren’t really trying to catch anything at all, the whole excursion just being an excuse to get away from things and to let the whole sensory experience of being out on the lake bring them some peace and clarity. Either way, after being out all night there weren’t any fish in the boat and the snacks were almost gone and they were going to have to go back in soon, when then, in the fledgling daylight, they saw the man standing on the shore. What? No fish? Try casting you net on the right side of the boat. Since most of them were right-handed, the most natural way for them to cast their nets would have been out off to the left side of the boat. But the stranger told them to try something new, something different and unconventional – and when they did, the results were amazing.

There are people in this world who describe having had encounters with someone, and somehow they just knew there was more going on than the eye could see. There was something more, something deeper, even otherworldly about the encounter. They couldn’t put their finger on it exactly, but still they knew that they weren’t speaking to just another ordinary human being, that there was some inexplicable spiritual thing happening. It’s the same sort of thing that the scriptures refer to as having entertained angels unaware, or maybe not all that unaware. It happened with Abraham and his mysterious three human-but-not-human visitors. It happened with Jacob wrestling the equally mysterious being along the Jabbock River, and in other places in the scriptures, too. And now, this was one of those times, as they looked across the water and somehow they just knew that even though he apparently didn’t look the same, it was Jesus.

And in a rush to meet up with Jesus, Peter does the odd thing, the opposite of what a person might expect – he’s out there, naked on the boat, and he gets dressed in order to jump into the lake – proving that not every new, different, unconventional response is necessarily the smart thing to do, and leaving the others to just scratch their heads and think, Well, that’s Peter for you.

Eventually, they’re all ashore and enjoying the grilled fish together, and it’s an indescribable experience they’re having. They know it’s Jesus, but they don’t want to say that it is, or ask if it is, and they don’t want to start running off at the mouth about how great a time they’re having and that they should set up tents for everyone and they could all just stay there enjoying the moment indefinitely, the way Peter did at the Transfiguration; because they knew that the minute they started talking like that, the mood would be broken and there would be a cloud or a thunderclap or the voice of God telling them to shut up, and they’d look around and find themselves all alone again on the rocky little beach while the birds circled overhead.

So they didn’t say anything like that. They sat there enjoying the fish and the fellowship, savoring the mixture of certainty and mystery, and maybe they thought to themselves that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could hope for in this life.

Somewhere during all that, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three time in a row he asked him, which would probably be annoying to anyone, and each time after getting Peter’s answer, the response was the same: Feed my sheep. Take care of my flock. Share my story, share God’s good news brought into this world for all people, with every generation that comes after you. And that’s exactly what he and the others sitting around the fire on that beach did, until the message eventually reached us.

And now it’s our turn. Now, we’re continuing to feed Christ’s sheep, to care for his people by sharing his message with the next generation through our Confirmation process. Teaching these young adults that our faith – their faith – is one where they’ll see Jesus in unexpected places, in ways simultaneously knowable and unknowable. That their faith is a marriage of certainty and uncertainty; that wherever their faith journey takes them, they’ll still have a list of unanswered questions that they’ll carry with them all their lives.

Hopefully, through the Confirmation process, they’ve come to learn like those disciples on the beach, to savor that blend of certainty and uncertainty, and that even in the midst of that, that they are surrounded, completely enfolded, by God’s love – that they are loved, and chosen, and called, by God – and that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could ever hope for in this life.

Hopefully, Confirmands, you’ve learned that within our particular, Presbyterian tradition, we welcome, and honor that holy tension, the embracing of certainty and mystery, and the lifelong journey of faith that it takes us on.

I have to say that it’s been not just my pleasure, but my honor, to have journeyed along with you in this process, Confirmands. Each one of you is a truly remarkable and exceptional person, and I consider myself blessed to have spent this time together with you. Wherever life takes you, always – always – continue to be open to seeing God in the unexpected. Never – never – avoid wrestling with difficult questions of faith. And know that wherever life takes you, God will always – always – be right there beside you.

Thanks be to God.

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