This is the sermon on John 21. A warning - I typed this without using very many capital letters. So pretend that i was channeling e.e. cummings or something, O.K.? Thank you.
A few years ago - five years ago - this text served as the basis of our worship for every Sunday between easter and pentecost. i preached on it 6 times in a row. and those were some good sermons, if i do say so myself. so when i saw that the lectionary was again pointing us to this text, my first thought was . . . i’ve said it all. every single solitary thing that the holy spirit might like this congregation to know has already been covered. we’ve been there, done that.
then, at lectionary, i heard the story read aloud. and noticed that one sentence that had never captured my attention would not let me go. this is, in case you ever wondered, one of the ways preachers try to discern what God wants us to preach about. what aspect of the story do we find ourselves thinking about as we drive to the grocery store? what verse do we want explained as we dig through commentaries? what phrase or image are we reminded of as we read news stories, and make hospital calls, and get our taxes ready to mail? this is how we think God nudges us to put together a sermon that the Spirit can use to speak the Gospel to some of you, at least, on Sunday morning.
and this is the verse that i think God wants us to think about and do something about this easter season: after the Risen Christ appears on the shore to his disciples as they finished a long night of fishing, and he helps them catch something, it says, “the net was full of large fish - one hundred fifty-three of them.”
it worked on me, that verse. why does John say, 153 fish? what about that number matters?
There are lots of theories about the odd little number 153. some scholars have said that it was the number of fish species known in the ancient world. so it meant one of each. that’s wrong. ancient authorities only knew of 74 species of fish. other biblical interpreters suggest that it is the number of nationalities or races. wrong. some say it refers to a VERY obscure prophecy in Ezekiel (and ezekiel is probably one of the more obscure books in the old testament. I ought to know, i took a senior seminar with a reknowned OT scholar of the book and he would often tell us about some controversy and then just shrug. who knows what it means, he’d say.) that seems like not a good answer. others try to make something of the fact that 153 is the triangulation of 17 - which makes me wonder how faithfully we can approach the Word of God if we treat it like a mystical sudoku puzzle. Most of the really hot shot high powered theologians through the ages have not improved on what Augustine said in the 4th century: The number is one of the great mysteries of the Gospel of John. Though the number itself was a mystery, he took it as a sign of the abundant number of those brought to God.
Everybody agrees that the fish in the net represent those who Jesus and his disciples would gather up into the church. So if the quest for any mystical or symbolic meaning leads to a dead end, then why DID john specifically note this number? why not just say, “a whole bunch”??Well. maybe it because somebody counted the fishes. every one fo the fishes.
I’m not the first person to consider this possibility:
In "The River Why", by David James Duncan, a novel which tells the story of fly-fisherman Gus Orviston. From the chapter titled "Concerning Statistics": "Like gamblers, baseball fans, and television networks, fishermen are enamored of statistics. The adoration of statistics is a trait so deeply embedded in their nature that even those rarefied anglers, the disciples of Jesus couldn't resist backing their yarns with arithmetic: when the resurrected Christ appears on the morning shore of the Sea of Galilee and we learn that the net contained not 'a boatload' of fish, nor 'about one hundred and a half,' nor 'over a gross,' but precisely 'one hundred and fifty and three.' This is, it seems to me, one of the most remarkable statistics ever computed. Consider the circumstances: this is after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; Jesus is standing on the beach newly risen from the dead, and it is only the third time the disciples have seen him since the nightmare of Calvary. And yet we learn that in the net there were 'great fishes', numbering precisely "an hundred and fifty and three.' How was this digit discovered? Mustn't it have happened thus: upon hauling the net to shore, Jesus and the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting 'one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . .' all of the way up to a hundred and fifty and three.”
The person who wrote the gospel of john wanted us to know and to notice that for someone there, every one of the fishes counted. Someone counted them. And john wouldn’t have recorded the total if he didn’t think that we, his readers, should be paying attention to the importance of every single one, too.
When we meet the Risen Jesus - every one counts. Every one matters. The difference between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and fifty three is that in the former case those three fish aren’t counted. but in the light of Jesus, every one counts. Every one is vital. Everyone is equally important to the total.
Counting is a funny activity. It makes you focus on what’s important, even when the important thing isn’t the number. The denomination counts congregations and members - 10,751 congregations and 2,140,165 members in the Presbyterian Church. Some people count their money. Some count the miles they travel transporting their children. Some count meals at home. At one point in my life I counted the number of loads of laundry I did in a month.
That’s why I count the number of you who show up for worship.
But you know what number i’m more fascinated by? how many of us are out there living your faith in some significant way during the week. how many instances of forgiveness? how many acts of mercy? how many different expressions of loving concern for each other and for God’s creation? that’s a harder number for me to come by. Impossible for me to know. but not for God. God knows. And every one of our attempts to live our faith and share God’s love counts with God.
sometimes, something we say or do may matter far more than we can know. Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, writes about how events and ideas often behave like infectious diseases: they start with only one person, then explode into a huge phenomenon, that seems out of proportion to their “cause”. he likens it to chicken pox - first one child has it, then 4 or 5 more, then the whole class. Kindness, gentleness, generosity . . . these, too, are contagious. Love of neighbor is contagious. tolerance of differences is contagious. And the results can be almost incalculable.
Sometimes, starting with something that you can count leads to results that are beyond your ability to calculate. Here’s an example:
There is a documentary film called "paper clips" about how a middle school class in a small town came to understand the killing of six million Jews under the Nazis by collecting 6 million paper clips. they couldn’t come to grips with the magnitude of the historical event, until they came to grips with the actual counting of six million something. And sort of a miracle happened when they began to count. it soon became clear that six million was too much for one class to calculate. So the whole town became involved. And the word got out. People began sending them paper clips, with letters about people in their family, people they knew of, who had perished in the camps. The paper clips came with names. They came with pictures. They came with stories. The project became a way for people to tell those stories and pass on the hope and the dream of a world in which every life mattered, and was honored and respected and no life was snuffed out in ignorance and hate.
counting helped the students and their whole town and later on the world, know that every life counts. numbering them teaches us to value lives - even lives different than their own..
The Good News is each one of us counts to God. We are the fish. We count.
And challenge is that those folks who we might think "don't count" DO count to God, too. Every single one of them. And we have to keep letting God remind us of that. because, on our own, we forget. As Sara Miles’ writes in her new book, (p. 19) Because it is so tempting to believe there are good people, who should be rewarded, and bad people, who deserve their problems, and that God will sort things out fairly according to our own ideas about justice.
And yet Jesus’ very life tells us something different. . . . (p. 10) In the public works that follow his baptism and call to those first followers (peter and the lot were hardly prime candidates for spiritual enlightenment, by the way) Jesus, the itinerant teacher and healer, keeps making the point that salvation doesn[‘t depend on worldly status, or even on religious observance. In a whole series of stories, jesus demonstrates that God deliberately chooses the strange, the outcast, the foreigner, the sick and unclean - in short the wrong people - to show the scope of his love.
We model our lives on a guy for whom poor people, as well as rich people, sick people, desperate women as well as the quiet ones, children, tax collectors and sinners, the socially ostracized, the guys that smell like sweat and like fish - these folks count. So the challenge of this passage is for us to count these folks, too.
I know that you know people who Jesus would like to “catch” in his net of grace. One person. Every one counts. If you want to experience the Risen Christ in your life this week, count that one person. In your prayers, pray for them. In your thoughts, consider their situation and their point of view. In your actions, find one small way to include them. Tell your God, “I know this person counts.”
You will be blessed with an experience of knowing the Risen Christ and his Resurrected Life within your own life. As the dawn was breaking, you will recognize him, waiting for you. He’s waiting to say to us, “you count. and you count. and you count.” And he is waiting to count with us those he has gathered, “you count and you count and you count. every single one.”