After the Spiritual High
It is Easter season, when we keep on celebrating the resurrection. But let’s be honest: it’s doesn’t FEEL like a holiday all the time. We humans are bound by time and space, we have bodies that change, and one of the worst things we can do spiritually is to expect that we are always going to feel like we’re on a spiritual high. No matter what you do, you are not always going to be on a spiritual mountaintop. We are not static creatures. Everything in us moves and adapts and changes, including our spiritual experiences.
There’s one chapter left in the gospel of John and we’re going to spend two weeks on this story before we kick off a new series for the summer. The story we are about to read is after the resurrection. After the empty tomb and Jesus walking through locked doors. After Thomas gets the assurance he needs. After Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his followers, now known as his siblings, which is John’s description of Pentecost. After the big experience, after the spiritual high, what happens? Let’s pick up the story in John chapter 21 starting in verse 2.
Scene: “Scripture” / Use L/R Arrows to advance
Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.
Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.John 21:2-14
After the spiritual high of Easter and resurrection and having the Holy Spirit breathed into them by Jesus, what do the disciples do? They go back to work. Peter says, “Welp. I’m going fishing.” And some other guys say, “We’ll come too.” And they have one of those days at work. Where you work all day and actually get nothing done. Nothing. Fishing all night with nothing to show for it. Remember the gospel of John’s consistent use of darkness and light and night and day as important images. Fishing all night with nothing to show for it. And then at daybreak, a stranger calls from the shore, the question everyone hates to hear, “Caught anything?” Nope.
We don’t live on spiritual high forever. At some point, the holiday ends and we go back to regular work, back to regular church, back to regular life. And guess what? Jesus shows up there too.
There are a few ways to interpret what happens next and both of them are challenging. Jesus tells the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Let’s say first that they haven’t already done that. All night long they have been fishing off the same side of the boat. What are we doing, as individuals or as a church or as a culture, where we are fishing off the same side of the boat? Are we stuck in a rut? Have we gotten so set in our ways that it doesn’t even occur to us to try something different? Where in our lives is Jesus calling us to turn around, to see things from a different perspective, and just fish off the other side of the boat?
Or we could say that they have been fishing off both sides of the boat already. They’re already doing all they know how to do to make this work. They are trying as hard as they can, using all their tools and creativity and stamina. And just when they are ready to give up, here’s Jesus saying, “Just try one more time.”
Whichever way you want to read it, whether they are trying something they should have already tried or whether they are trying something they’ve tried a million times already, whichever way you read it, remember what Mary says to the servants in the story where Jesus turns water into wine. She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Whether it’s novel or whether it’s tedious, do whatever Jesus tells you, and just watch what happens. Just like in the first sign story, the water into wine story, when people do whatever Jesus tells them, the result is abundance!
In fact, this is at least the third time in this gospel John has shared a sign of abundance. The first time there was an abundance of the best wine. The next time, five loaves and two fish became an abundant feast for thousands. And this time there’s an abundance of fish, so many they can’t even get them in the boat.
In our everyday lives, even when we aren’t on a spiritual high, doing whatever Jesus tells us opens us up to the possibility of abundance. And what I find so striking here is that the disciples acted before they knew it was Jesus. They followed his directions without knowing for sure whose directions they were following. I often hear people say that they would do what God told them to do but they don’t know when God is speaking. Which I get. But this story shows us that sometimes the only way to discover if it’s God speaking is to act on it and see what happens. Trusting Jesus means we aren’t always certain before we step out. This is what I mean when I say that being a Christian is not about what we think, what happens in our heads. This is a way of life, and life includes risks and experiments. Will we always be right? We will not. But if we want to experience abundant life, we have to try.
Do you want to know how to get better at recognizing when God is speaking to you? You have to act on what you hear and then evaluate the results. It is through acting and then reflecting that we begin to learn what God’s voice sounds like to us as individuals, what God’s nudging feels like to us. Sometimes we won’t know it’s Jesus until we’ve already done what he told us to do.
The result of their willingness to experiment is that first they experience abundance and then they experience the Risen Jesus himself. The “miracle” gets their attention and when they turn towards the miracle worker they receive the invitation to “come and have breakfast,” come for a deeper relationship. Once they experience the miracle and recognize Jesus, they don’t say, “Oh that’s cool. Thanks for the fish. I’ll be back next time things aren’t going well.” They press in. They go to him and sit down with him and eat with him and listen to him.
Dear ones, let me speak a word to you as your pastor: if we only show up when we need something, and if we leave again as soon as we get it or if we leave because we don’t get it, we are always going to feel like we are fishing in shallow empty waters. A steady faith, one that shapes our thoughts and our actions, one that provides a worldview for ourselves and our families, that doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen by dropping in when we feel like it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy to see you. It’s always a good idea to come to church. This is not a guilt trip. This is a gentle reminder that if we want to go deep, we have to commit to something. It’s just like anything else that we want to be good at, or any other relationship that’s important to us. It takes time. And if we don’t give it time, we shouldn’t be surprised or angry at God when it doesn’t seem like much is happening.
As Fred said last week, there is plenty of room for doubt in our life of faith. And sometimes God seems silent or distant and we don’t know why because we have been leaning in and listening and acting. And you know what? I don’t have a good answer for that. It happens to me; it happens to Sam; it happens to Jan; it happens to Fred; it has happened at some point to every serious Christian I know. There is no God but God and God is mystery. But I can also tell you that the times I’ve heard the very least from God are the times when I’ve stopped trying to listen at all.
God shows up in our everyday lives. We are open and listening for all the surprising ways that God is still speaking. We are willing to experiment and take a risk. And when we find God there, we press in and discover the invitation to even more; not just to flashy experiences, but to a daily abiding that over time will shape us into the people we want to be. Thanks be to God.