Do you ever notice how mysterious dusk and dawn often are in the Bible? It seems that there is something particularly sacred about these transitional times of day. The Easter journey is full of key events at these particular times, Peter denying Jesus as the rooster crows, Jesus is hurried down from the cross before the Sabbath sun sets, Jesus appearing to the disciples at day break, etc.
Perhaps it the fleeting nature of those times of day, or the uncertainty of transformation. At dusk, the day runs away from us, the vibrant colours flow slowly into the horizon, as darkness marches relentlessly, chasing the sun in vain. Do you ever stare at the setting sun? If we squint hard enough, we can imagine the divide between the earthly plane and the heavenly plane dissolve for brief moments. In the midst of the onset darkness, the nocturnal world comes to life, including heightened human fear and imagination. A rustle in the bushes takes on a whole new meaning in the night.
Early in the morning, as the sun announces itself with ceaseless ambition, it is the darkness that retreats as the colours return and spill out over the horizon. The majority of the world awakens with boundless hope and optimism for the new day. Singing birds, rustling animals, whistling winds begin to rise up as the sun warms the air. We have been blessed with one more chance.
Why do you suppose these times are so important? In the ancient world, night was not just a time of darkness. It was a time that was full of fear and danger; where demons and evil bred, plotting against the light of the world, seeking to corrupt the hearts of men and women, boys and girls.
The dread of the night was very real and present in biblical times. We have largely lost touch with that darkness. We, who are surrounded by artificial light and wifi signals around the clock, have lost the sense of being dependent on the natural order of creation to provide the rhythms of our lives. We are the only species to have created our own order and our own rhythms. The world has gotten so complex. It is no small wonder, then, that spending time in nature relaxes us and grounds us, brings us closer to God.
In our Gospel reading today, we find the disciples camped out on a beach by the Sea of Tiberias, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. Picture if you will, the Roman town of Tiberias, situated on a mountainside overlooking the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee. On the northern shore of the sea rests the town of Capernaum, the Jewish settlement where Jesus performed much of his ministry, including the Sermon on the Mount. On the Eastern shore are the arid mountains of the Golan Heights, and to the south the mouth of the Holy Jordan River, though it does not appear so Holy anymore (explain). Somewhere along that sea, Peter and six other disciples camped out on a beach, trying to catch fish. Trying to make sense of their new reality.
I wonder what feelings the disciples were experiencing that evening and that morning. Even though Jesus has already appeared to the disciples twice, the Gospel writer seems to convey a sense of hopelessness among the group. Jesus had transformed their lives while he was with them, he taught them to fish for people instead of fish, yet here they were, trying to pick up the shards of a broken life, totally lost, not knowing what to do, where to go next; back to square one. perhaps it was all just a dream, or a nightmare.
In any case, they fall back on their former lives, the lives they once knew before Jesus came and charted for them a new path, they fish for fish. How ironic, or symbolic that they catch nothing. Were they lousy fisher people to begin with, saved from their ineptitude by a mysterious stranger in the dawn? Had they forgotten their trade altogether traipsing around Galilee and beyond? We’ll never know. This idea does, however, serve a larger spiritual point.
Jesus appears to the disciples and gently highlights their failure to catch fish. So he guides them, he shows them where to cast their net. He nourishes and comforts them with the charcoal fire and prepared fish and bread. This series of acts speaks to God’s grace and gentleness.
After breakfast Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three times if he loves him. By the third time, Peter gets hurt by the question. How many times have we had our best intentions questioned? We can all relate to Peter’s pain in that moment, no matter how tough we are, no matter how strong our emotional armour is, when someone we love, someone who’s confidence we greatly desire, questions our motivations, it hurts.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter to tend to his flock. Then he delivers to Peter this message
“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
What do you suppose Jesus meant by this? If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the message to Peter is that there is not a lot of time left to fish for people. Not a lot of time to do the things that need to be done, not a lot of time to prepare the way for those who are to come after him, to build a church. The futility of the disciples’ night of fishing gives credence to this idea and reminds us that every week we gather here and confess that we have left things undone.
Jesus himself models for Peter what he is asking him to do. First he teaches, and later he steps aside when his time had come, Jesus left his ministry to those who seem wholly unprepared to carry out that great responsibility. Yet the church lives today because every generation since has brought new life into the church. He gets out of the way so others can enter in and fulfill their role. There is great wisdom in this. Peter’s time had not yet come, but it will soon. Make hay while the sun shines they say.
This is an imperative lesson to ponder as we struggle with the demographic realities of today. If we are to grow as a church, if we are to allow ourselves to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, we need to be collaborative, open to communication and hospitable. We must trust our youth and newcomers to teach us about what we have left undone, even if they seem to us wholly unprepared for the responsibility.
In closing, I would like to share one more observation about this text. The Bible is often a mysterious book, and sometimes I am blown away by how relevant a reading can be on any given Sunday. What really speaks to me personally in this reading is the patience of Jesus. He doesn’t stand on the beach yelling at the disciples to get their act together, he’s not micromanaging their every move. He does not lose his cool when the disciples fail over and over. How many times does he have to say the same thing over and over to the disciples, and they still don’t get it. It must have been exhausting.
I consider myself to be a very patient person, but I have been tested lately, at times overwhelmed. I found great comfort in today’s reading, a reading that came to me when I needed it most. I suppose like Jesus came to the disciples when they needed it most. Like God is revealed to us when we need it most.