May 5, 2019

Come Have Breakfast

Passage: John 21: 1-14

Synopsis: Small churches are wonderful places for creating relationships that enhance our lives. But that takes time, which is in short supply as we find ourselves constantly multitasking in our American rat-race. Young families especially feel the squeeze. Jesus’ disciples most likely felt similar pressures that led to the decision to pull an all-nighter fishing on the sea of Tiberius.  After a demoralizing night of not even catching enough for a decent breakfast, let alone some to sell, they meet a stranger on the beach (who they eventually recognize as Jesus) who tells them how to catch a net full of fish and invites them to breakfast on the beach. It’s a heartening story of grace and provision when we feel that things couldn’t get much worse.


I love small churches. We have a special place in God’s kingdom—perhaps we should say “God’s kin-dom” because we’re so good at creating relationships that enhance our lives and serve our community. But the millennial generation is not supporting the church to the degree that older generations have. Melissa Florer Bixler, pastor of a small Mennonite church in Raleigh, North Carolina, writes:

I’ve bought into what a lot of church professionals have told me: people are too busy, too irreligious, too selfish. But I don’t think it’s any of those things; I think it’s actually that congregants are exhausted. My parishioners scrounge for health care, drown in student debt and create spreadsheets of day care costs to see whether they can afford to have children. This economic system is not one from which my congregants can extract themselves; it’s a force that controls their lives.


Sure, there’s the constant struggle for money and our economy makes it tough to be a small church. But the bigger challenge is having enough time, which is actually a more precious resource. Melissa explains:

Small church doesn’t take a lot of money, but it does take a lot of time. Instead of professionalizing worship and fellowship through paid leadership, we put in what we have, our gifts and talents, to form a community. It’s relationships, showing up for one another across generational lines and theological differences, that make this possible. That’s the richness of small church. We belong to one another because we’ve come to discover that every person is needed. And that takes time.[1]


It's true that our churches can no longer sustain many of our institutions. Among other things, seminaries are merging and some are forced to close because of dropping enrollment and budget concerns. Last week I saw a report that our denominational magazine The Mennonite is merging with the independent publication The Mennonite World Review. It’s a tough slog for all publications in our digital age. They need to downsize and combine resources to survive.


Most church institutions including seminaries, mission boards, publishing houses, and denominational offices were created in the early twentieth century. The struggled for decades due to the great depression and then the Second World War.  They then flowered in the booming American economy and population growth of the 1950s and 60s.


Until then, most churches in our denomination had unpaid lay pastors without a seminary education. Now most of us would hardly consider such an arrangement because having a single, fulltime pastor has become the default setting (larger churches have multiple staff). I’m not necessary criticizing. This is mostly a good thing, but it’s expensive.


A friend who’s the pastor of an emerging church recently told me that he needs to cut his salary and is considering becoming bi-vocational. He’s looking into chaplaincy as second part-time occupation. This certainly isn’t ideal. They have three young children and his wife would like to work less but she’s now the primary breadwinner for their family. Still, he and his wife are committed to their church for the long-haul and are determined to find a way.


Melissa Florer Bixler is right, young families are feeling the squeeze. Yet, we forget that churches have survived and thrived like this for centuries. I’m guessing that Jesus’ original disciples didn’t receive salaries with retirement benefits. Life was downright precarious. I suspect that’s why Peter decided to go fishing and six other disciples ended up joining him.


It wasn’t that they were copping out on their calling even though it kind of appears like it. I’m guessing they really needed the money not to mention the food. They’d put in an all-nighter on the lake and hopefully pull in a nice catch of fish. We know the story; they fished all night and didn’t catch a thing. Not even enough for a decent breakfast, let alone fish to sell for some much needed cash. Things couldn’t get much worse.


Then they see this stranger on the beach waving and shouting at them. “You didn’t catch anything did you?” (People always ask you how much you caught when you're fishing.) “No,” they shouted back, “Not a thing!” The stranger responds, “Then throw your nets on the other side.” What a strange command. Why would there be fish on one side of the boat and not on the other?


I imagine the disciples looking at each other with perplexed looks on their faces. So, do we just ignore this fellow? They had thrown that net hundreds of times that night and nothing worked. Let’s humor him. We can throw it one more time, “Now remember, on the other side of the boat.”


Then all pandemonium breaks loose! Their net is so full of fish that they can’t haul it in. Not just any fish, mind you. Big fish! John, the beloved disciple, recognizes the stranger on the shore as Jesus and tells Peter, who then quickly pulls on his clothes because he was naked and jumps into the sea. We’re not sure why he was naked or why he jumped into the sea. No explanation is given. The rest all drag the whole boat and the net full of fish ashore.


To accentuate the chaos, consider that net full of slippery, jumping fish—not an easy thing to deal with. When things finally calm down they notice that Jesus already had some fish roasting on a charcoal fire—there’s also bread. He asks them to add more fish from their haul. Hum, bread and fish. That’s what Jesus multiplied when he fed the crowd of five thousand. There appears to be a symbolic connection between these stories. Each portrays God’s extravagant provision.


Notice also the common thread in the post-resurrection stories of Jesus appearance to his disciples. They don’t recognize him even though they followed him and they all lived together for three years. At the empty tomb, Mary mistook him for the gardener. The two disciples walking to Emmaus only finally recognized him after they had convinced him to stay with them and then, at the dinner table, he took the bread, blessed, it broke it and served it to them.


What do we make of this? Why is it that the disciples don’t recognize Jesus in his resurrection body? Is it the aftermath of their shock at seeing him crucified—like not recognizing a friend that I happen to meet in a totally unexpected place because I’m so sure he or she couldn’t be there? I don’t think so. It has to be more than that. I love Barbara Brown Taylor’s comment on this, “How wonderful of him to come back undercover, so that even the people who know him best had to look, then look again, before they got the crawly feeling that they had seen him someplace before.”[2]


So often God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace is hidden from us. It’s right there in front of us but we fail to see it. We can’t see it until God takes the initiative to reveal it to us. I’m guessing that something like this is happening when the disciples fail to recognize Jesus. Even when they do recognize him it’s as though it’s too good to be true.


I love Jesus’ gracious invitation to his startled disciples, “Come, have breakfast.” That had to be so appealing to those hungry fishermen who had worked all night and frustratingly had not caught anything before this stranger (actually Jesus) appeared on the shore. Notice the uncertainty in how they respond after the invitation. None of them dared to ask him who he was but they knew it had to be him. It’s just too good to be true!


Let’s return to where we started, the trials and tribulations of being church in our day. It’s not as desperate as hungry fishermen fishing all night and not catching anything. But it can sometimes feel like that, can’t it? We’ll want to also include our more mundane struggles of paying mortgages, student debt, affording childcare, and caring for sick and elderly loved ones in relation to helping support the ministry of our church. Sometimes it’s just too much.


Can we really do this or have we taken on a commitment that’s beyond the money and time we can contribute? Are there other ways to go about being church that don’t fit the conventional paradigm? Our pastoral transition creates energy and enthusiasm coupled with anxiety in new ways. It’s a creative time but also an anxious time. We don’t know what the future holds.


That’s why I love this story of Jesus’ undercover presence in the guise of a stranger cooking fish on the shore and inviting his disciples to breakfast on the beach. It can’t get much better than that after a very frustrating night of throwing the net and coming up empty handed. One hundred and fifty three fish is an awful lot of fish when we least expect it.


We’re giddy with such an overflowing abundance of grace that we need pinch ourselves to make sure we’re not dreaming. Can it really be true? Karoline Lewis, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, writes, “When all hope is gone, when you wonder what you’re doing, when you think there’s no future, when your well has dried up, when you doubt that grace is true, when you question if grace is for you. This is the resurrection story we need.”[3]



[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (HarperOne, 2019), 200.


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