I don't know about you, but I feel this particular Gospel story belongs very well in an Australian landscape. Sure, the historical location is the Sea of Tiberias, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. I suspect the Gospel writer however wants us to enter into the story in any place we know and love. For the Sea of Tiberias was, after all, the place that many of Jesus’ first disciples knew best. It was their beginning place, the place they called home. So where is that beginning place for you? Where is the sea and beach you most call home? Where would you go fishing? Where would you share a barbeque on the beach with friends? Imagine Jesus on a beach near you…
Just after Easter, I had the joy of walking, and running, on my favourite beach in all the world, on the Woy Woy Peninsula. This lovely stretch of land looks out over the magnificent Broken Bay, the meeting place of five different waterways and the playground of the Darkinjung and Guringai peoples for generations: with golden sand and rolling surf, across the water from the northern tip of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, round the corner from the Hawkesbury River, and out to sea to the Pacific Ocean and the whole wide world. It is fringed by the still largely untouched trees of Bouddi national park and the fabulous lookout to Lion Island. It is, in local language, a place of rest or refreshment. And for me, that is where I most see Jesus with his friends in our Gospel story. Indeed, one Easter morning I remember sharing in an enjoyable ecumenical service by those shores, and, at another time, rising very early on a New Year’s morning to greet the coming of the sun: a place indeed for times of new beginning. Each time I have been on that beach since I have felt the same: a wonderful connection with all that has been and yet something very new and transforming, within, around and ahead of me. This, I believe, is a glimpse of God’s resurrection. Have you ever felt the same?
The beach you picture may be very different. It doesn’t matter. For literally and metaphorically, like the dawn, every seashore is what psychologists call liminal space: that is, a threshold. It is a literal threshold between land and sea, and, as we see in our Gospel story today, a metaphorical threshold between different stages of existence. So what threshold do we stand on today, I wonder? Where in our lives are we in a place of uncertainty, waiting on the edge of one stage of life for the beginning of a new one? That is all a bit scary, isn’t it? Yet our Gospel affirms for us that, despite our anxiety, the beach, as a threshold, is an ultimately safe and enriching place to be. For it is a place to meet Jesus, a place to begin again, a place to experience new life - which brings me back to fish, faith, and forgiveness…
In our Gospel story, the disciples go fishing, their old profession, but they catch nothing. Maybe that is how life has been for us lately? Perhaps we may have used our gifts and experience and caught nothing? Are we willing to risk it and try something new? This is what the disciples do. Note well, when they respond to the person on the beach, they do not recognise them then as Jesus. Yet they have faith. They take the risk and trust in the new possibility which the unknown offers them. And, as they do so, and catch so many fish, they then do recognise Jesus in the stranger. Which brings us back to our beach, and our threshold. What new thing are we being called to do, in our lives? Where do we need to launch out our nets afresh? Do we have faith? Do we trust that, in doing so, God will be there? Perhaps the disciples responded positively because they had learned that God in Jesus had come to them before in strange ways, and that, even in the face of death and defeat, God would be faithful again? Do we believe that too? What difference does that make to our lives?
Such faith in the possibility of new life flows from forgiveness. For if the disciples had been hard, proud, unyielding characters, they could never have received the new word from the unknown. Through their journey with Jesus, especially through the betrayals and death, they knew themselves to be fallible, fearful, and fragile in faith. Yet this had not destroyed them, but only broken them open to the possibilities of new life. Can we recognise God in our brokenness? Can we see that, despite anything we have done or thought, Jesus still calls to us on our beach, on our threshold? Can we too see that God in Jesus calls us, out of forgiveness, to feast with him on the threshold? For the breakfast, the barbeque, the disciples share is a sacrament, a fruiful sign of all of that. Perhaps today we share bread and wine, but it is in the spirit of the fish and forgiveness. For today is our continuing breakfast of the Lord: an invitation into deeper faith, forgiveness and fruitfulness.
Which brings me finally to being fish, as result of forgiveness. In our Gospel story, Jesus actually talks to Peter about sheep. No wonder, for sheep are a powerful biblical metaphor for God’s children and one we might explore further on another occasion. Yet I think Jesus could just as well have spoken about fish. For the fish is another powerful metaphor of what it is to be a Christian and a symbol for Christ. For fish come in so many different types, colours and shapes. This is part of the point of the counting of 153 fish earlier in the story. Much thought has been spent on trying to work out the significance of that number, with many ingenious answers. Perhaps it is enough for us to recognise that 153 symbolises great fruitfulness and great diversity. For, as flailing fish together, great fruitfulness and great diversity are the loving signs of the grace of God among us.
In our Gospel story today, Jesus, firmly but tenderly, calls back Peter to his failings. Just as Peter betrayed Jesus three times before his death, now he is asked, three times, to affirm his love for Jesus. In doing so, Peter receives both God’s forgiveness and God’s calling. For his declaration of faith not only sets him free, through God’s forgiveness. It also empowers him to fish again, with great fruitfulness.
This too is our gift and our calling. Each of us are often failing, flailing, fish. Yet each of us is forgiven by God and made fruitful by God: again and again, if we will but receive it, as we stand on the thresholds of our lives. Today’s Gospel story of resurrection can indeed happen anywhere. For it does happen everywhere: everywhere where we fish in faith, have faith in forgiveness, and forgive ourselves and others for being flailing fish…
So let us rejoice in our God who sends us fishing, who has faith in us, inviting us into the way of forgiving love: in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, for Easter 3, Year C, Sunday 10 April 2016