Sunday, April 10, 2016

“The Simple Absurdity of Faith” (John 21:1-19)

A parable to consider:  There once was a man who was a professor who sat in his office at the university researching the scriptures.  He spent every waking moment of his life digging into the scriptures . . . searching deeper and deeper into each and every possible meaning of the nuances of the holy writings.  He wrote descriptive and highly detailed reports with lots and lots of footnotes and references to the obscure theological meanings of the scriptures . . . lots of papers and books.  He impressed lots and lots of people with his knowledge and his recitations of footnotes and quotes.  That is all that he did with his time.  Meanwhile, the world around him passed him by . . . but, he knew his scriptures.

Then one day he died.  Standing there before the Lord Almighty, God asked him, “What have you done for me?”  Of course the professor rattled off all of his impressive writings and books that he had written about the scriptures while God sat there and listened attentively.  When the professor finished, God said, “That is impressive . . . but, what did you do for me?”  Needless to say, the professor was sent off packing from the throne of God despite his best arguments . . . God didn’t want fancy words or deep theories . . . God wanted action.

In several of the resurrection stories, how is it that the disciples recognize Jesus?

As the two disciples walk with the stranger on the road to Emmaus, it is when Jesus breaks the bread that they recognize the stranger for who he is.  And, then, this morning, as the disciples are attempting to fish, a stranger appears on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat which results in a huge haul of fish . . . 153 fish in all.  Then when they get to the shore, there is the stranger waiting by a fire where he takes the bread and fish, blesses them . . . and they recognize him.  Each time Jesus does some action that opens the eyes of the disciples to see him.

Faith demands action.  God wants action.

That was the problem the professor was having in the parable.  He knew his scriptures . . . he was brain smart, but was lacking in the heart department.  He was all talk and no action.  Faith is not a noun, faith is a verb.  As a verb it has to do something in order to be expressed.  Nowhere in the professor’s life was he putting what was in his head into action . . . no, he was too busy digging at every little nuance of the words of scriptures in an attempt to understand the complexities of the faith.  He was making faith more difficult than it had to be.  Faith, in the end, is really simple . . . so simple that at times it seems almost absurd.

As you listened to our scripture reading this morning, what caught your ear?  Was it the fact that Jesus told them where to cast their net in order to catch fish?  Was it the huge haul of fish . . . so large that they could barely get it to the shore . . . with 153 fish?  Was it in them recognizing Jesus when he took the bread and fish inviting them to eat?  Was it the questioning of Peter about his faith?  What caught your ear . . . no, more importantly, what caught your heart?

I imagine for all of us we each would have a different answer; yet, at the same time, I think that there is one little curiosity that pokes our attention.  That curiosity is the number 153.  Why is the number 153 in the story?  Why was the writer of the gospel putting that specific number into the story . . . 153.  Why didn’t the writer just say, “It was a huge load of fish that the disciples caught”?  So big, that it should have torn the net, but it didn’t.  Why didn’t the writer just keep it simple instead of throwing in that little fact that now has the faithful running off, pulling every Bible commentary and dictionary off the shelf in an attempt to find the secretive and deeper meaning of that number.  If we are honest, are we all just a wee bit curious about what that number means in the story.

Well, to be honest with you . . . nobody really knows.  Nobody really knows what the significance of that number is in the story.  And, even for those who think they know, nobody agrees.  There is the argument that the fish represent all of humanity, after all, scholars have stated that there were 153 varieties of fish at the time the story takes place . . . so, surely that is what the number represents . . . all the people.  Thus the disciples are to fulfil what Jesus had earlier commanded them to do . . . to go out into the world and be fishers of people . . . all people.  Makes sense, but as I said, not everyone agrees.  Thus, for the most part, no one really knows what the number represents.

So, let me ask you a question: When it is all said and done, does that number make a difference in your faith?

In the story the disciples recognize Jesus.  They recognize the risen Lord.  But is it enough to just recognize and acknowledge the risen Jesus?  Well, I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because our story does not end with everyone just recognizing Jesus.  No, it ends with Jesus playing a modified version of “21 questions” with Peter.

The symbolism of Jesus’ questioning of Peter is not lost on any of us.  Jesus asks Peter three questions.  We all remember that Peter . . . Peter who swore he would never abandon Jesus, never deny Jesus . . . did exactly that.  Peter abandoned and denied Jesus . . . three times.  In our story, Jesus questions Peters with three inquiries . . . one for each denial.  In doing do, Peter is—more or less—reinstated into the band of disciples.  Right?

At least that is where we might focus our attention . . . in the symbolism.  But it is not the symbolism that is important in the story.  It is what Jesus tells Peter he must be about . . . it is about action.  Jesus does not want words, Jesus wants action.  Jesus does not want faith that is stuck in the head, but faith that is embedded in the heart that brings forth action.  Jesus tells Peter to care for his flock . . . to feed his flock.  Jesus wants action.  Action portrays understanding.  Faith is action.

Trust me, we should all study the scripture.  We should know our Bibles.  Yet, at the same time, we should understand that our Bibles and what is written in those pages is a call . . . a call to action.  When all the words in the scripture are boiled down we are called to action.  What is that action?  Well, it is really pretty simple . . . so simple that it is almost absurd.  We are called to love.  To love the Lord with our whole being.  To love others.  That is what we are called to do.

And, love is a verb that connotes action . . . doing something.

It is probably good that I was not the author of this gospel, despite it being named after me.  If I had put an ending upon this story . . . at least where we heard it end this morning with Peter being questioned . . . I would have had Jesus saying to Peter: “Peter, don’t say it . . . do it!”

I have no doubt that the professor in the story truly believed that he was a faithful person . . . shoot, probably no one knew the scriptures better than he did.  But, in the professor’s case that knowledge was never put into action . . . he never went out into the world and displayed the love that was the very foundation of the words he studied.  God wants action.  Among the faithful, it is not the words that are spoken that matter . . . it is the acts of love, grace, kindness, peace, and justice that matter.

Words are nice, but actions are better.  The way that we live our lives speaks louder than any words ever will when it comes in showing the world around us the love we have for God through Jesus.  In the end, Peter finally learned the lesson.  Amen.

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