Sermon: Fishermen And Shepherds
Our children are growing up in a twenty-four hour society. Twenty-four hour shop opening, the decline of the traditional Monday to Friday, nine to five job, and twenty-four hour entertainment. If I were to tell them about the days when television finished late in the evening, it would be outside their experience. Well, unless the energy crisis means a modern version of the three day week.
And you will remember from that time the way a TV station closed down with ‘The Epilogue’. Overly sincere clergymen, looking and sounding woefully out of place, delivered five minutes of holy thoughts before you went to bed. Much lampooned – I have a vague memory of Clement Freud satirising it – it went the way of all flesh.
John 21 Is an epilogue, but it isn’t one we should discard. John seems to end his Gospel at the end of chapter twenty, and that would make sense: Jesus has risen from the dead, he has convinced the hesitant among his disciples and he has either promised or actually given them the Holy Spirit as they prepare to continue his mission. Not only that, we learn that the Gospel has been written for people to find or grow in faith.
But then we get this chapter. Yet whether it’s an afterthought added by the original author or an appendix contributed by someone else, it’s an important epilogue. It’s not just that someone has remembered another resurrection appearance to cram in – the chapter ends with a confession that you would never get all Jesus said and did into a book.
No, this epilogue, this final resurrection appearance is one that fills out the identity of the Christian community. It’s a story that tells us the purposes of the church. We see it in the two occupations that characterise Simon Peter in the reading: the fisherman and the shepherd. Both of these rôles are critical in the life of the church.
Firstly, the fisherman. Here’s why I just emphasised that both of these jobs are to be seen positively in the life of the church. There’s a tradition in some church circles of judging Simon Peter’s decision to go fishing negatively. They say, in the last chapter he’s just met the risen Lord, been commissioned for mission and and either promised or given the Holy Spirit. How can he go back to his old job? It’s seen as some kind of retrograde step, and it devalues the fishing in comparison with the later conversation with Jesus where he is called to ‘feed [the] sheep’.
But there is no hint in the story that going fishing is a bad thing to do here. For one thing, does that mean we see all occupations outside of church leadership as inferior? Aren’t jobs in the world a primary vehicle of Christian mission, as Christians do their work in Christlike ways and seek to earn the right to speak about Jesus? Downgrading Peter’s fishing expedition is a way of saying that the only thing which really counts in the church is pastoral care, and the mission side is just for the enthusiasts. It’s a disastrous and wrong-headed conclusion.
For the way the fishing trip ends is so positive. The only negatives are not about the fact of going fishing, but the way the seven disciples go about it. The fishing here clearly has a deeper layer of meaning, and that is about how the church gathers more people (‘fish’) into the net.
If there’s a problem about the fishing, it’s the way the disciples set out. That may seem a strange thing to say, given that they do all the right things. They draw on their professional experience on the Sea of Tiberias and they go out at night (verse 3). That was acknowledged to be best practice if you wanted to have a successful expedition: the fish came closer to the surface at night and were thus easier to catch.
What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t work. They catch nothing by daybreak (verses 4-5). And if this is meant to symbolise the missionary call of the church, then I think this alerts us to the way in which we habitually do what we’ve always done. We repeat what we’ve learned ‘works’. We default to old habits, to tried and trusted traditions that worked in the past. Worst of all, we don’t even think about it, we barely discuss it, I might even suggest we probably don’t seriously pray about it. No: we just assume. And then we fail.
If there’s a fishing lesson here for mission, it’s a surprising one: the disciples only make their net-busting catch of fish when they listen to the voice from the shore, the voice of Jesus. It’s bizarre that he ought to be able to instruct them in successful fishing. It wasn’t his trade. He tells them to do something against their experience. And besides, how can he see from the shore that there are fish just beneath the surface of the water on the right side of the lake (verse 6)? But he must know something, because when the disciples reach him, he has already got fish that he is barbecuing on a charcoal fire (verse 9).
The simple lesson about mission in this story is that we have to listen to Jesus. it isn’t good enough to keep on doing the old things, however honourable they are and whatever great track record they have. Jesus knows where fish are waiting to be caught. Mission is a deeply spiritual exercise rather than a technical or strategic one. Only with prayerful listening and obedience following what we have heard will mission bring a catch ashore to Jesus.
So if we are serious about bringing people to Jesus (and that must be our motive – not saving our own necks) then it isn’t enough just to pull a technique down from the shelf and implement it here. It requires taking the time to tune into the voice on the shore, to listen carefully and when we are sure we have heard him, we then obey what he says – even if it goes against all our past experience.
Secondly, the shepherd. After breakfast, we get the beautiful story of Jesus restoring Peter. We know how Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, as if to overwrite the three denials. And just in case we don’t see that, he does it by a charcoal fire – just as Peter denied him around a charcoal fire. These two stories are the only places where one is mentioned in the New Testament.
So we come to this story with warm, encouraging feelings. Jesus has a way back for those who have failed him. It’s a message of hope for all of us who are keenly aware of our frailties and sins. If Jesus restored Peter and gave him a second chance, he offers the same to us.
If we understand the story that way – that it’s about Jesus pastorally caring for Peter – that’s true as far as it goes, but it misses a lot. In particular, it misses why Jesus engages in pastoral care for him. We sometimes think that pastoral care is about helping someone through a difficult situation, but no more. I have been guilty of this short-sightedness on numerous occasions.
However, Jesus has a reason for restoring Peter. “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “Feed my sheep” (verses 15-17). Jesus pastorally cares for Peter so that he can get him back on track in his calling. In fact, Peter is to share in the pastoral calling himself – “Feed my sheep”. Remember that the word ‘pastor’ is related to ‘pasture’. As Jesus has strengthened Peter, so Peter will strengthen others. Perhaps his own experience of brokenness and restoration will be important to him. As is said of Harry Potter early in the first novel in that series, “Scars can be useful.” As the early church faces pressures and persecution, Peter will know the way to bring wounded disciples back into the front line.
So when we are aware that someone in the church is facing troubles, it’s right and good that we help them through their problem, whether it be sickness, a family crisis or something else. However, it’s better if we get alongside them so that once they are over their obstacle, they can get stuck into Christian service again. If we are any kind of hospital as a church, we are like a field hospital that helps soldiers recover and return to the action if possible.
But the pastoral aspect of the church isn’t limited to crises. It’s something Jesus intends us to practise all the time. It’s not just like the times when we book a doctor’s appointment because we know something is wrong. It’s also the regular stuff we do for good health, like the discipline of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, or seeing a doctor for a general health check.
How do we do that? I believe this is where we need to get specific about the words, “Feed my sheep.” A shepherd leads the flock to the place where it will find good grass to graze on. But he doesn’t stuff the grass into the sheep’s mouth. There may be times when those who care for sheep need not only to show the sheep where their food is but actually feed it to them, but that is more likely to be if you are on a farm and giving milk to a young lamb. More often, feeding the sheep does not mean the shepherd putting the food in the animal’s mouth, but taking them to good pasture and leaving them to feed. This would especially be how Middle Eastern shepherds viewed feeding the flock, because they see sheep as intelligent beings (whereas we, perhaps, don’t).
What does this have to do with pastoral care in the church? It is not so much about an educated minister with a dumb congregation who simply open their mouths to have wisdom tucked inside. The pastoral task is to lead people to good pasture, where they feed themselves.
What feeds us spiritually? I guess the short answer is that we feed on Jesus himself, who said he was the Bread of Life. What does that mean? Again, a shorter rather than longer answer would be, word and sacrament. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Every way in which we listen for his word – and then put it into practice – is a way of being built up spiritually. Primarily we hear his word in the Scriptures, but there are supplementary ways in which he speaks to us too.
Similarly, his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, so it is incumbent upon us to take the sacrament in obedient faith that he might strengthen us there, too.
And therefore any neglect of regular listening to the word of God or of coming to the Lord’s Table is the spiritual equivalent of starving ourselves. We should not be surprised when churches that put a low premium on engaging with Jesus in word or sacrament struggle.
And so if the church is truly to function in pastoral mode, she will urge her people to find good pasture in the word and sacrament. It may be that part of that involves specialists, who, say, help unpack the word of God, but the sheep are intelligent too, and can also feed themselves. Hence it is fitting for a minister to preach and teach the word, and to lead the congregation at the Lord’s Supper, but it is not essential, not unless you treat the people of God as dumb sheep.
To conclude, then, John 21 shows us the external and internal dimensions of church life. The external is mission, where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ as Proverbs says, but listen to the voice of Jesus from the shore, and follow his instructions. The internal is pastoral care, where the flock are encouraged to feed on Christ in word and sacrament, but not sit back and have it all done for them.
It is clear that both mission and pastoral care are basic to the church. Unfortunately, we have structured our churches as if pastoral care were mandatory and mission were an optional extra. We even see that in the ‘job description’ of a minister: it is ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral charge. It’s all internal. Isn’t it time – especially given the missionary rôle we must surely now have as a minority in our culture – to be fishermen every bit as much as shepherds?