“SOLE FOR THE SOUL” Rev. Standiford
Let's look at today's gospel story with a sense of humor for a moment. I think Peter's credentials as a fisherman are overstated. Lloyd C. Douglas wrote a novel entitled The Big Fisherman about Peter, but there are several stories in scripture that cast doubt on his reputation.
The first thing we are told is, the disciples are fishing on the wrong side of the boat. Some landlubber standing on the shore can see it, but Peter can't. The person standing on the shore, Jesus, says, "Pull up your nets and put them down on the other side of the boat." They do it, and they draw in more fish than the nets can hold. (Now I ask you, isn't Peter's reputation a bit inflated?) Let me ask you this. What fisherman that you know of, out with his fishing buddies and seeing somebody on the shore, would jump in the water and swim to the person on the shore, leaving his buddies behind? I know of no fisherman who would do that. And what fisherman that you know of would quit fishing for breakfast? I mean, come on now. Is this really a fisherman that we have in this story? We may question Peter's credentials, but what we know is that it is really a fisherman's story. There is no doubt about that. Can't you just hear the original storyteller's voice? "They drew in the nets, and they were so full they were overflowing. They couldn't even get them in the boat. There were 153 fish in those nets, and the smallest one was this big."
There is a humorist in our church office. She volunteered this week that probably when the disciples gathered on the shore, they sang together, "My Lord, What a Morning." Well I'm not sure about that. Probably they sang Psalm 30, since "My Lord, What a Morning" is an African-American spiritual.
Psalm 30 is a great psalm of praise to God. Psalm 30 has been used in numerous ways through the generations. It was most likely used in corporate worship in the Jewish tradition at the remembrance of the Exodus in the Passover event each year. It was also used by individual Jews when they had recovered from an illness, or had been delivered from some form of sickness. It was a personal thanksgiving to God, a prayer of gratitude toGod.
It is most appropriate that Psalm 30 be read in the Easter season because it praises God for God's life-giving power, and it praises God for the gift of life itself, which the psalmist sees as a good gift. So in the season of Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrection, the Church through the generations has used Psalm 30 to say thanks to God for the gift of new life in the Resurrection.
There is that wonderful line in the psalm, "Joy comes in the morning." It fits all those situations. It fits the story of the Exodus. It fits the story of individual deliverance. It fits the story of praising God for the Resurrection. It fits every time we come to God in praise, that we can rise up and say, "Thanks be to God. There is joy in the morning."
When I was in seminary, our preaching professor was Dr. K. Morgan Edwards. He was a very accomplished preacher himself, and a very effective teacher of preaching. He was one of the first in any seminary in the United States to integrate disciplines within the seminary. He worked with professors of other disciplines to help students to learn to integrate their learnings.
Morgan was a Wesley scholar. His one tenant that he preached in class after class was that if you were going to be a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, there needed to be three elements in almost every sermon: there ought to be judgment, there ought to be grace, and there ought to be obedience. Those three elements are all in this story from John's gospel. Let's look at the element of judgment first.
Gail O'Day, who is professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, says that when we read that the disciples have gone back to fishing after the Resurrection, we can assume that they have intellectually agreed to the Resurrection, but they have not allowed it to change their lives yet. It has not been a transformative experience for them. They are saying "yes" with their heads, but not with their hearts and their hands. That is a judgment against them. They have gone back to their old way of living. They haven't been converted yet. They aren't doing new things with the new life that is theirs. Also, when Jesus says to Peter three times, "Peter, do you love me?" most of the scholars say these questions hearken back to the three times that Peter denied Jesus during the trial time.
These two elements are the elements of judgment. They judge us as well. When in our lives have we kept the faith at an intellectual level, but not allowed it to transform us? When in our lives have we said "yes" to the faith, but we have lived the old ways still? When in our lives have we denied our Lord by our words and/or our actions?
The second element is the element of grace. It abounds in this passage. It is there graphically. It is there olfactorily. It is there deliciously in Jesus fixing breakfast on the shore. Can't you imagine? A preacher today would go out to the shore and yell out to those fishermen, "Why are you fishing? You shouldn't be fishing. You should be out preaching. Get in here. Get down on your knees and repent." Maybe after all that the fishermen might have gotten some food.
Jesus doesn't do that. Jesus feeds first. The prominence of grace, nourishing, nurturing grace, is so evident here. He feeds them, and then calls them again. In Jesus' threefold questions to Peter, "Do you love me?" he provides the opportunity for Peter to say, "Yes Lord, I love you." He provides the opportunity for Peter to reaffirm his faith. He provides the opportunity for Peter to turn and go in a different direction. That, my friends, is grace. Love that lets us turn. Love that lets us start over a second time, and a twenty-second time. Love that will not let us go, but keeps offering to us the new life of Christ.
The third of those elements, obedience, is certainly here. You hear it in the threefold command of Jesus to Peter, "Feed my sheep." He says it in different ways, but he means the same thing each time, "Feed my sheep." It's clear that he is expecting the head and the heart and the hands to work together. He is expecting the love that Peter has professed now to be love in action, going from him out to other people. But it is not just in the threefold statement of "Feed my Sheep." It is also in those very last words of Jesus in the text, "Follow me."
Remember last week we preached on the text that took place on Easter evening. On Easter evening Jesus appeared in Jerusalem to the disciples. At that point he said, "I send you." Listen to the difference between "I send you," and "Follow me." To be "sent" means you go out alone. It means you are on your own. To "follow" means that the risen Christ is there, leading the way, accompanying you, giving you strength all the way. Oh there is obedience that is called for, but it is gracious obedience. Jesus says, "Follow me."
The "sole for our soul," the spiritual food for us, is judgment, grace, and obedience, all three. They abound in this passage. It takes all three for a holistic diet, for a nutritional diet of spiritual food for our lives. We cannot have only one and none of the others, or we will become anemic. We need all three: judgment, grace and obedience.
Nikos Kazantzakis returned to Crete, his home. He was walking down a street one day and an elderly woman came toward him. She had a big basket under her arm. There were fig leaves lying over top of the basket. When she got right in front of him, she stopped, parted the fig leaves, and reach down inside and pulled out two of the most beautiful figs he had ever seen. She held them out to him. She said, "Here, these are for you." He looked at her, and said, "Woman, do you know me?" She said, "Boy, no. I don't know you. Do I have to? Do I have to know you to give you something? Aren't you a human being? I am too. Isn't that enough?" 1.
In that short dialogue is judgment, grace and obedience. The wholeness of the gospel presented from one person to another. It's our calling to offer each other "sole for our souls," spiritual food that will nurture us on the road of faithfulness.
Ernest T. Campbell was for a long time the preacher at the Riverside Church in New York City. He is now in his eighties, and has been married fifty years. A friend of his, a fellow pastor, visited him not long ago, and told of this conversation. Campbell was confident about the future of the world, confident about the Christian gospel, but somewhat perplexed about his own personal future. He said more than anything else he didn't want to go into a retirement home where there was assisted living. His wife overheard the conversation. She said, "Ernie, you've been living with assisted living for fifty years."
How many times has grace abounded in our lives and we haven't even seen it? How many times has there been an infusion of grace into our lives, day after day after day, and we have ignored it, turned the other way? Grace abounds in our lives. There is joy, new every morning.
Bob was a pastor. One of his parishioners was an avid fisherman by the name of Richard. Bob was called by the bishop to travel about five hours to another community to make a special presentation. He decided he would drive in the afternoon, speak that night, stay overnight, and then drive back the next day.
About the same time that all this was going on in Bob's life, Richard lost his job and he found out that he had lung cancer from asbestosis. He called his pastor and said, "Can I ride with you?" Bob was anxious for company, and said, "Sure, by all means."
They took off around noon on this particular day. They drove into the mountains. It was late afternoon now and the sun was nearing the horizon. They saw a small lake right beside the road. Richard said, "Can we pull off and just fish for five minutes?" So Bob pulled off. Richard went to the back of the vehicle, pulled out two poles, and thrust one into Bob's hand. Bob had never fished a day in his life. "How do you do this?" Richard said, "There's nothing to it. You just go back, and you go forward. That's it." So Bob went back, and promptly snagged the tree right behind him.
Richard had to go back and begin to untangle Bob's line. Anything Bob did, Bob did very well. It was really tangled. As Richard was working on it, he muttered something under his voice that sounded something like, "Blasted preachers. Can't take them anywhere but what they embarrass you." Bob just stood and watched. Finally Richard looked up. There were tears on his cheek. Bob said, "Richard, what's the matter?" Richard pointed to the mess in the tree, and he said, "You line, and my life, are the same. They are a snagged up mess, and I can't clean up either one."
Richard worked a few more minutes. Finally Bob said, "Richard, when the line gets so tangled up that you can't do anything with it, what do you do?" He said, "I cut it and I get a new one." Bob said, "Richard, I think when life gets so messed up, that is what God does too. He cuts out the mess and sets it aside, and says, 'Here's a new life. Start over.'"
"Do you really think so, Bob?"
"Yes I do."
Richard immediately left the mess, grabbed his pole, went over to the shore and cast the line from his own pole out over the water. That line went out, and it just hovered on top of the water. As it began to rest on the water, something hit it just like that. Richard began to reel in. Bob said the lake turned from absolute glass to this thing that was alive and thrashing. As Richard reeled in, Bob said it was beautiful to watch the man and the fish work with and then against each other. When Richard had that fish in his hand, he turned to his pastor, and said, "My old life is like the tangle in the tree. My new life is like this." He held up the fish. He stroked it very gently twice, and then knelt down at the edge of the lake and released it back to the lake.
"Sole for our souls."
"Do you love me? Feed my sheep." "Follow me."
"And there will be joy in the morning."
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Thanks to Eugene Winkler for this and the Campbell story.