Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | April 15, 2016

The Net is the Church

ff404c50dabff6e795e82bc5c1f6fee9This is the text of my homily for the Third Sunday of Easter 2016, offered in the midst of the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Before proceeding, I recommend that you read John 21:1-19, the appointed gospel message for the day (Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary).

Did anything in today’s gospel narrative leave you scratching your head? Here we have seven of the disciples engaged in their ordinary daily work of fishing. Nothing odd here … except for the fact that in the chapter immediately preceding this one they have just discovered the empty tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning; the evening of that same day they are startled by an appearance of Jesus who entered a locked room, and not by way of the door; and doubting Thomas (one of the fellows who is now fishing) has probed the death-wounds of our Lord’s own body with his finger. All of this has just occurred in the narrative … yet that very evening they decide to go fishing. They fish all night in the dark, with no success.

How typically human. Presented with unlimited, new possibilities by the grace of God, given the chance to see life in clearer and perhaps more authentic ways, we humans, unsure of how to proceed, often fall back into familiar patterns: “I’m going fishing,” says Peter. “OK, we’ll go with you.”

At dawn they see Jesus on the shore, but they do not recognize him until he addresses them as “Children” and then proceeds to provide them not only enough fish for breakfast, but a completely miraculous catch. The Greek word which is here translated as “children” would better be understood as a nickname that guys use among themselves with friends: something like “fellas” or “buds.” It is only after this term of endearment and the great load of fish that they recognize Jesus.

In our translation Peter is described as fishing in the buff … or, as we say in the South, “he was nekkid.” Oddly enough, he puts clothes on in order to swim to the Lord. Again, the original Greek is probably better translated as saying that he was not naked, but lightly clothed, and that he tucked or secured his garments in such a way that he could better swim to his Savior. A more traditional way of describing this might be to say that he girded his loins in preparation for the task ahead of him. (In this case, that task was to swim to Jesus.)

Then we have the presence of a rather quirky report in which we learn that exactly 153 fish were caught in the net that Peter dragged to shore, even though Jesus already had fish cooking on a charcoal fire when the disciples first reached the land. Oh, and by the way, did you note that the 153 fish are described as “large,” and that their number and size did not split the net?

The question for us, of course, is what do all these interesting details mean? These particulars are like an early Christian code, but not one that is hidden. They are a symbolic code right out in the open. To get the multiple layers of significance we have to let go of our analytical, logical left brain and exercise the symbol-loving right side of our brain with its preference for intuition and imagination. These delightful narrative tidbits do three things for us: they tell us who Jesus is … how he forms us into community … and what he expects from us as a communion of believers.

Jesus is the Messiah because he is able to feed, by miracles if necessary, those who are hungry … hungry in body and hungry in soul. In our story he builds a fire, prepares bread, and cooks fish for the disciples. He isn’t recognized until there’s talk of food and an invitation to dine. It’s a reminder of an earlier chapter in John: chapter 6, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

The net is the church. It is full and remains untorn … in other words, in Greek, it is “without schism.” That word “schism” is the exact same word used to describe community turbulence, communal discord … those times when church people are at odds with one another, when their communities are torn by strife. The number 153, according to rabbinic sources, can symbolize fullness and perfection. Christ, you see, has caught us in his own net and formed us into a community that is called to be without strife, without schism, without the tears that will send our fellow fishes swimming away from us in horror. Once caught, we are not eaten … we are fed, strengthened, and given responsibility for inviting others to allow themselves to be wrapped up in the net of Christ. Metaphorically speaking, we are both the fishes of the Lord AND the fisher people of the Lord, called to share the joy that comes with life in such a grace-filled net.

But don’t be fooled. Don’t romanticize this story. The background is important. You see, the community that left us the Gospel of John was a church in crisis. Surprised? It was a church overwhelmed by dissension, disagreement, and alienation. This “net of the Lord” was torn … and badly so. It needed loving attention and serious repair.

It was a community that argued over several urgent issues: Who is a true Christian? What is the nature of resurrection? How are we to live the Christian life together? What is ministry? Who’s in charge?

The Community of the Fourth Gospel was a community racked with pain. It was hurting. The fish in this net were so divided that they could no longer live together in harmony. If scholars are correct in their close scrutiny of the Gospel of John, this community—more than once!—had been decimated by the departure of some of its leading members. And the departure was not a pretty one.

In the wake of this communal agony emerges the beauty of our gospel narrative for today. It is a pain-filled, yet hopeful call from our forebears: “Do not let the net be torn. Let there be no strife among you. Do not break communion. Avoid schism.”

It is an appropriate message for today. We Episcopalians are a passionate people. We are also a diverse lot. There are many things about which we do not agree, and in this we are like every other human community. What is the advice of our gospel narrative for those in such a situation? Symbolically, we have our answer before us:

Like the disciples who fished all night but caught nothing—in spite of having just seen the risen Lord the day before—our efforts are fruitless if we fail to keep our eyes on Christ. He feeds us, he directs us, he empowers us, but to receive these gifts freely given we must be willing to accept them. CHRIST must be the center of our lives, not our own egos. We must feed on the bread that is CHRIST instead of feeding on the bread of always needing to win an argument. The net that is our community must be tended and preserved with words and gestures of kindness, patience, and charity.

None of us is perfect. None of us has all the answers. No moral position, no political solution, and no ideology is more important than our identity as Christians. None of these is as important as Christ. They are not more important than our shared life together. Moral convictions, political convictions—these are a natural part of the human experience. They must be shared humbly. They must be shared in love, not in anger. We must speak of such things in a way which recognizes that our own vision is limited and needs testing and dialogue.

Now we can see the reason for the final part of today’s gospel: Peter’s conversion, his renewed commitment to Jesus. Remember how Peter, encouraged by the Beloved disciple, insisted on being first to get to the Lord? How typical … Peter always knows what to do or what to say, doesn’t he? Or so he thinks.

Peter’s mistake is that he too often “put the reality of himself”[1] before the new reality offered to him by Christ. “Peter,” Jesus asked, “do you love me more than these other things in your life? If so, then feed my sheep.” Jesus could just as easily have said, “then feed the other fish in the net. And never let it tear.” And what about us? Shall we surrender to the divisions that sometimes arise among us, trusting our own efforts, or shall we prefer Christ and the strength that comes from our shared life as a community? After all, it’s only as a community that we can scoop each other from the deep, dark sea of life and feed one another with the bread that is Christ.[2]

[1] Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles (William B. Eerdmans Publishing 2001), 235.

[2] The closing image is taken from a suggestion provided by my insightful former student, Austin Khamiss. He has the makings of a fine homilist!

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Responses

  1. wonderful   I hope you will publish more of these.  thank you John.   a great Easter present. 

    • Thanks, Nick. Patsy and I hope you had a great birthday. We look forward to seeing you and Christy soon!

  2. These ARE trying times in our “net”!
    Wonderfully said, John! We needed these reminders to refocus our vision and realign our purpose.
    A not so old adage–WWJD, how would He have us respond?


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