Come and Eat

This is the text of a sermon preached via video for the Kingsway Baptist Church on the Third Sunday of Easter 2020.

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Happy third Sunday of Easter, Kingsway! As you can see I’m back in the sanctuary, specifically in the balcony. I wanted to give a special shout out to all the “balconites” tuning in from home, all the back row Baptists. Part of the good news of the gospel is that it’s good news for everyone, not just those up front; not just those who occupy the platform. It’s for all of us. Today’s text, in particular, is a reminder that Jesus meets us where we are. And bids us, invites us, to follow Him on from there.

Hear now these words from John chapter 21 verses 1 through 14 (NRSV):

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,[a] Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards[b] off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


Since the start of Holy Week, we’ve been journeying through John’s account of Jesus’ final days. His last hours spent teaching and eating with the disciples; His trial before Pilate, His death and resurrection, and now His post-resurrection appearances to the disciples. In May we’re going to explore the post-resurrection stories found in the other three Gospels; but this week and next we’re going to finish out John’s version of events.

John 21 is one of my favourite passages in all of the New Testament, though narratively it is somewhat strange. Some scholars, in fact, question the authenticity of chapter 21 because chapter 20 seems to wrap things up right after Jesus appears to Thomas:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It is, admittedly, a bit odd that the action would start up again after such a statement. It’s the kind of thing a composition teacher would almost certainly X out in red. But even if it’s stylistically awkward, the content of chapter 21 builds on the preceding narrative in ways that are hardly incidental. There are specific and important connections to what has already happened that prepare the disciples, and by extension the church, to receive the commission Jesus bestows upon them when He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them in chapter 20. “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you” (verse 22). We’ll dive more deeply in that commission next week when we consider Jesus’ instructions to Peter to, “Feed My sheep.” Today we’re going to dive figuratively into the Sea of Tiberias (better known as the Sea of Galilee) with Peter, where he and a subcommittee of the disciples have decided to go fishing.

Now, some preachers and commentators see in Peter’s action here a sign of doubt or aimlessness, even a recanting of his faith in Jesus because, here at the end, after the resurrection, after the fulfillment of all Jesus taught and modelled, he is returning what he knew before he met Jesus. Peter and his brother Andrew – his whole family, really – were fishermen by trade before they were disciples by faith. Personally, I don’t see anything in the story itself to support such an interpretation. Peter sounds to me like my grandfather or one of my cousins back home who sometimes just get an urge to go fishing. “I’m going fishing. Wanna come?” The others disciples say, “Sure. We’ll come with you.” If anything they seem bored, looking for something to do. Nathanael and Thomas weren’t fishermen as far as we know; and Peter isn’t suggesting they start up a business. They’re just going fishing. More significantly, Jesus doesn’t chastise Peter (or any of them) in any way when He shows up. He simply comments, “Looks like you have caught anything. Try casting your net on the right side of the boat.” Far from wavering, Peter shows himself the most eager of the group (and comically so) to get back to land to be with Jesus, putting on his clothes before he jumps into the water to swim for shore. There isn’t a shred of doubt in Peter’s words or actions in this scene. But the connection to what has come before is important. There are a few such connections, actually.

For starters, we haven’t seen hide nor hair of Nathanael since chapter 1, when he becomes one of the very first disciples. Here, he makes a cameo appearance in the boat. Jesus promised Nathanael he would “see great things,” even greater than what Jesus revealed to him in their initial conversation. For Nathanael to be present for the “great catch” of the 153 fish is thus the fulfillment of this early promise.

Nathanael’s presence also reminds us that the events of this final, concluding chapter are framed as a new beginning. It’s just after dawn. Jesus is cooking breakfast. It’s a new day even though, narratively, it’s a conclusion. What the risen Christ has for these disciples (and for all disciples – including all of us) is a deepening, an expanding of the life they (and we) have chosen in the footsteps of Jesus. “Come and see” has become “Come and eat.” Things aren’t ending or repeating; they’re being transformed – recast in the light of the Empty Tomb. There is a new abundance of life now in the world because Christ is in the world as the risen Lord of all creation. This change is not always immediately visible or apparent. But Christ can and will direct us to it, beneath the surface, on the side of the boat that it hasn’t occurred to us to try. He can and will help us to find it in places it hasn’t occurred to us to look. Including prior failures.

The two most significant allusions to past events in this story are found in the breakfast Jesus is making. It’s a simple meal of fish and bread cooked over a charcoal fire. But boy does this breakfast pack a punch. Especially if your name is Peter.

The last time (and the only other time) a charcoal fire appears in John is in the courtyard of the high priest (John 18:15-18). On the night He was betrayed, Peter and another disciple follow Jesus to the courtyard following His arrest. Peter joins a group of slaves and policemen who are warming themselves by a charcoal fire. A woman asks Peter if he is “one of them,” meaning one of Jesus’ followers, and Peter denies it – point blank. “I am not,” he tells her.

Here now, in Christ’s risen presence, Peter is confronted with another charcoal fire, this time after an endearing (if somewhat ridiculous) display of faith that has left him sopping wet. Nothing is said; no comment is offered either by Jesus or John; but John clearly specifies the type of fire to draw our attention to it. John wants us to notice it. We also need to notice what Jesus is and isn’t doing with this charcoal fire. Rather than burning Peter with it – literally or figuratively – in the hands of the risen Christ this fire, this symbol of denial and betrayal, becomes a means of nourishment. With love and grace, through love and grace, Christ uses it to feed not only Peter but also the other gathered disciples.

The food Jesus prepares on top of the fire is the second significant allusion to past events: fish and bread. The disciples’ breakfast here on the beach is the same dinner Christ offered the five thousand in the countryside. So in the context of a miracle – the great catch of 153 fish – we are reminded of another, even grander miracle: the Feeding of the Five Thousand, with twelve baskets of food left over. But that’s not all. We should also think back to and remember the Last Supper, the establishment of the Lord’s Supper, because more than any other Gospel writer John structures his telling of the Feeding of the Five Thousand to draw clear and specific parallels between the bread of the miracle and Jesus as the “Bread of Life.”

This is part of what John writes in chapter 6, just after the five thousand have been fed. Jesus withdraws because He is concerned the crowd will try to make Him king. When the disciples find Him, this is what Jesus says, beginning at verse 25: When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.

Then skipping to verse 35: Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

That Jesus prepares and offers the disciples bread and fish – cooked over a charcoal fire, no less: the cinders, the smouldering ash of Peter’s betrayal – is a truly amazing, profound, and remarkable act. An act of comprehensive forgiveness; a gift of love and grace served in the guise of breakfast. A gift of Jesus’ very self; a gift of Jesus’ faithfulness in the face of, in response to, Peter’s betrayal that not only obscures Peter’s denial but utterly transforms it.
We could easily end there. I mean, WOW. That would be more than enough for us to ponder and try to wrap our minds around. But in the spirit of John 21, there’s more. There’s at least one more thing re-cast and reshaped in the light of the Empty Tomb that we need to take note of as we seek to be the church in our day and time.

You may remember back during Holy Week, when we looked at Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and then later at Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, I commented that John links the two scenes directly through his use of language, specifically the word he uses to mean “wipe.” Those are the only two contexts in which John employs that particular verb. It’s a literary ”breadcrumb trail” he leaves to link the two scenes and nudge us to consider them together: Jesus receiving a costly and intimate act of worship on the one hand, and undertaking an act of service on the other – an act that is as powerful as it is menial. Well, I think there’s something similar at work here.

When the disciples arrive on the shore, and Jesus calls them to breakfast, He instructs them to “bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” This is a noteworthy instruction because it means that, even though Jesus showed them where to cast their net and has already baked the bread and cooked at least some fish, Jesus views the disciples as partners/participants as well as guests at this meal. A careful look at John’s word choice reveals just how significant this change is.

John describes Peter “hauling the net,” bulging with large fish, to shore. (Keep in mind Peter is the one who acts, but the instruction is given to all of the disciples). The verb we translate here as “haul” is used only twice elsewhere in John’s Gospel, and both times it is a verb used to describe an act carried out either by God the Father or by Jesus Himself. We’ve already heard the first occurrence, in that discourse in John 6 about the bread of life. Jesus says in verse 44, “No one can come to me unless DRAWN (dragged, hauled) by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Then in chapter 12 in verse 32, after Jesus has triumphantly ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, He declares, “…when I am lifted up from the earth, I will DRAW (drag, haul) all people to myself.”

That Jesus here instructs the disciples to do the “hauling”, the dragging, the drawing of the fish is a profound post-Easter expansion of agency within the world and within heaven’s Kingdom. Because of what Jesus has accomplished through His life and witness, through Cross and the Empty Tomb, we aren’t simply His servants; we are His friends (John 15:15):. We aren’t just His students; we are His brothers and sisters (John 20:17). So, too, we aren’t simply recipients of Jesus’ profound love and grace; we are called, invited, to be agents of that love and grace. That’s part of what this new day, emerging in the dawning light of the Empty Tomb, brings with it: a continuation of what we experienced with Jesus before, but also a remarkable transformation of it – and a transformation of *us* – into something more significant, more abundant. We are heirs and ambassadors of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom. We are no longer simply guests of Jesus’ at His Table; we are contributors to the meal. We are commissioned participants in Jesus’ ongoing ministry: “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.”

May the remarkable honour and responsibility of this commission affirm us and inspire us – all of us – both in the front and in the back to live into and live out the love and grace of Easter in the days ahead.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Watchman for Our Souls

On Tuesday, author and journalist Neely Tucker sat down with Kojo Nnambdi to discuss the release of Harper Lee’s new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman. I had seen the controversy over the characterization of Atticus Finch brewing online since the Wall Street Journal published the first chapter of Watchman last Friday. However, I was unfamiliar with the questionable circumstances surrounding the book’s release. Biographers, close friends, and serious fans of Harper Lee have known about Watchman’s existence for decades, according to Tucker. Yet, Tonja Carter, a lawyer from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, AL, claimed to have “discovered” the “lost” manuscript when news about Watchman first broke. As the story goes, Carter showed the book to Lee, who enthusiastically endorsed its publication after all these years, even though the aged author suffers from impaired hearing and eyesight as well as the lingering effects of a recent stroke.

These circumstances, combined with the novel’s history, yield a curious mix of fascination and bewilderment. What is this story, exactly, and why now? Chronologically, Watchman takes place twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s being published fifty-five years after Mockingbird. But Watchman was written first – essentially as a draft of the story that became To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus, Watchman is neither prequel nor sequel nor spinoff. It’s an alternate universe of sorts. Tucker compares the revelations about Atticus Finch’s prejudice in Watchman to James Bond fans learning that 007 has been a KGB double agent all along. No wonder it has many interested readers baffled.

Personally, I was planning to ignore the book. But thanks to Kojo’s interview with Tucker, I now plan to read it. I plan to read it because I’m beginning to wonder if the novel’s publication at this point in American history is, despite the controversy, serendipitous. Watchman may prove to be the book White America needs in order to have the conversation about race and racism that we need to have. Here’s the segment of the Tucker interview that changed my mind:

Tucker: “In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch has regressed, devolved from being that [heroic] character [from To Kill a Mockingbird] to being a petty bigot and racist…. [W]hile he might not have wanted Tom Robinson, the black man unjustly charged with raping a white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird…. taken out and lynched, he absolutely, it turns out in Watchman, wanted him to be and every other Black character to be kept in their place.”

“You’ll remember this last scene, it’s this iconic moment, particularly in the movie with Gregory Peck, where he fights this doomed battle to win Robinson an acquittal, and he’s walking out of the courtroom and all of the Black people in the little town of Maycomb are up there in the balcony, right, where they have to sit by segregation and Scout is up there with them at 9-years-old, and one of the people prods her and says, ‘Stand up, Scout. Your Daddy’s passing.’ And it turns out in this book that’s where Atticus Finch thought all those Black people should be. It’s incredibly bitter.”

More than bitter, the idea that Atticus Finch, of all people, could be racist is appalling to the American conscience – especially the educated, White, affluent, liberal American conscience. It’s appalling because all of us would like to think we’re Atticus Finch at heart. If we had lived “back then,” we’d have been brave and noble and not the least bit bigoted, just like him. We like to think that about our lives even now. We voted for Obama. We’re outraged at the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and countless others. We make copious use of #blacklivesmatter on Twitter and Facebook. We cheer the removal of the Confederate Flag from state capitol grounds. We read books and attend conferences on the topic of “social justice.” We may even belong to monthly book clubs that discuss such books, volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club, and participate in the occasional voting rights protest. There couldn’t possibly be a tinge of racism in our hearts or minds. #WeAreAtticusFinch

And yet, by some estimates, 90% of White US citizens have never been inside an African-American home. One study reveals that “the more highly educated and progressive-sounding US Whites are, the less likely they are to be in racially mixed churches or neighborhoods.” [1] For all our “progress,” most of what has changed in recent years is not the way we live, but the way we “speak in public.” [2]

So, yes, Watchman reveals that we are Atticus Finch. We will unabashedly give voice to the cause of justice and disavow systemic racism. But that doesn’t mean we’ve left segregation behind.

Hopefully, the disconcerting appearance of Go Set a Watchman will challenge us to look deeper into ourselves and probe uncomfortable truths concerning the subtle and sinister nature of prejudice. We’ve disposed of the “Whites Only” signs in restaurants and schools. Now, we must confront the unmarked balconies that remain attached to our souls – our individual souls, and our collective, American soul – if we wish to sustain, much less further, the cause of Civil Rights. We must be honest with ourselves that, for even the most boisterous, self-professed progressives among us, we still harbor notions that Black people “should be” in certain places and not others. When we “didn’t expect” our new doctor to be Black, or gaze with curiosity as a Range Rover rounds the corner with a Black couple inside, that’s our inner Atticus wondering what they’re doing out of the balcony. It’s a phenomenon former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey describes as “a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference now based in culture as opposed to biology, a milder yet novel version of white supremacy manifest in, for example, racial profiling, unfair and predatory lending practices, disparate incarceration rates, residential and school segregation, discriminatory employment practices and medical racism.” [3]

Perhaps if we can grapple with Atticus’ ironic racism in Go Set a Watchman, we can begin to come to grips with our own. Whether we want to admit it or not, the reason Walter Scott was disgracefully shot in cold blood is directly related to the reason why he doesn’t live next door. To abolish incidents of the former, we will have to deal with the latter.

#WeAreAtticusFinch

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[1] Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16.

[2] Ibid, 15-16

[3] Natasha Trethewey, “Lee’s ‘Watchman’ demotes Atticus from god to man,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2015.

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