The Other Side
I am not a fisherman, but I understand this story.
I have a good friend who is a fly-fisherman. He works the rivers of Texas on a regular basis. He did not use a net, but he also understands this story. He began his adult life as a pastor, became an administrator, then moved to the seminary to teach theology. For most of his career, he was fishing on one side of the boat, so to speak.
But things changed at the school and in the wider culture of religion. Fundamentalism swept like a tidal wave over much of our religious networks, and he found himself out of a job. My friend Paul heard a voice telling him, “Switch over to the other side and fish there.”
It is not easy to make a career change in the middle of things, but that is what he did. He pulled his net out of the water, moved to the other side of the boat, and threw that net in the water on the other side. He signed on as a hospital chaplain, in the largest hospital system in Houston, Texas. Soon he was leading their entire chaplain training program.
Paul is now fully retired and back to the water, back to the pole, back to those lures. He leads a group called Reel Recovery. It is for men with cancer, and he uses fly fishing as a means of friendship and healing. Paul found that fishing on the other side of the boat could be a very good thing. So can you.
Let us pray this morning, as we meditate upon this wonderful story, how God might be urging us to pull our nets from the places where we are not having any success and throw our gospel nets, our gospel energy, and our gospel attention on the other side of the boat. Maybe there is something there just waiting for us to discover. Maybe the Lord is speaking to us.
During these last few Sundays, since Easter, our attention has been drawn to the various resurrection stories of Jesus. These are narratives in the New Testament that describe how Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.
You remember, he appeared to Mary of Magdala early on that Easter morning. She was perhaps the first to see Jesus. Then, he walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize him until they were eating dinner together. That same evening, he appeared to all the disciples. I spoke about that last Sunday. Remember the text? “Anything to eat here?”
Now, we come to this story, Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee, while they were fishing. There are other appearances, and I will speak to them in the next three weeks: his conversation with Thomas, who was very slow to believe; his dialogue with Simon Peter that turns on the word “love;” and the versions of what we now call the Great Commission, when Jesus stood with his disciples on a hill and directed them to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. Lo, I will be with you until the end of the age.”
These stories are very familiar to many of you. They are new to some of you. They constitute one of the great story collections in all the Bible, on par with those about Abraham, David, and Paul the apostle.
Today, our story is Jesus appearing to his disciples while they are fishing.
It happened in Galilee. Galilee is north of Jerusalem. Today, you can drive from the city of Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee in two hours. There are two ways you can travel that route: from Jerusalem west down to the coast, then north and through the Megiddo Pass, over the Jezreel Valley, to the Sea of Galilee, what today we would call a lake. The other route is down the Jericho Road east of Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, then north along the river to the Lake of Galilee. The disciples could have taken either, one hundred miles.
But Jesus had his own way of getting there. Who knows how that happened! That is not a question but a statement. Nobody knows. Nobody knows how Jesus traveled or even where he was between places. The risen Jesus had an existence difference from ours in some ways and yet like ours in some ways. He could speak and listen; he was hungry and ate; he gathered with friends and family. He remembered things and envisioned things.
But there were some new elements to his existence, his being, his self. People did not always recognize Jesus, he appeared suddenly and disappeared without notice, a sort of ancient special effects! Jesus seemed to know things that others did not. It was strange, to say the least; and the gospel records clearly reveal that his followers, the men and women who were his friends, did not understand what was happening and what it meant. Still today, we do not understand, we do not know what happened or what it means.
The resurrection of Jesus is the central pole around which our faith revolves. It stands with the Exodus as the events that have formed the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Exodus is about social justice; the resurrection is about Jesus. They are both about salvation, or shalom (to use the Hebrew word for peace). Our convictions are framed by these two events. Jesus and Justice, one writer put it, and I like that.
Today, we are focused on this dialogue between Jesus and his disciples.
There were fishermen. Again and again, fishing sits at the center of the Jesus stories. Some disciples were fishing when Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus established his headquarters, as it were, in Capernaum, near the home of Simon Peter, on the north shore of the lake. It was near there that Jesus asked his famous question, “How many fish do you have?” He took the two fish and the five loaves of bread and fed thousands.
Now, he meets his disciples back on their turf, back on the water, back doing what they were doing before they met Jesus. They had gone back to their old, familiar ways, their old, familiar space, their old, familiar tasks. They went back to fishing.
But Jesus met them with this command, “Put your nets on the other side.”
All the translations, save one, are more explicit: “Put your nets on the right side on the boat.” They obviously had been using the left side, for some reason; but Jesus told them to switch sides, to change positions, to alter their fishing strategy.
Jesus said to them, “What you are doing is not working. Change.”
What you are doing is not working. Change!
Is that a word of gospel, of prophecy, of truth for us today?
What you are doing is not working. Change!
The business Bed, Bath, and Beyond should have read this story and taken it to heart. Radio Shack should have read this story and taken it to heart. Tuesday Mornings should have read this story and taken it to heart. What you are doing is not working. Change!
It worked once upon a time, but no more! It worked when you got started, but no more. It worked before technology, before diversity, before COVID; but not any more!
Once upon a time friendships worked, but then they didn’t. Once upon a time, marriage worked, but then it didn’t. Once upon a time, a career worked, but then it didn’t.
People who do not change will whither and die.
Jesus knew this. He said to his disciples who had gone back to their boats: What you are doing is not working. Change!
Is there something in your life that is not working, not earning your living, not enriching your soul, not answering your questions? Is it time to change?
Social media is filled with short videos of people talking about what is no longer working in their religion, in their faith. We have a new word for it: deconstruction. People are confessing: the religion I used to have quite working for me. It did not answer the questions I had, it did not create the life I wanted, and it did not solve the problems I see. I need to change. I am going to throw my net on the other side. I am going to try something different.
There are lots of churches that should have read this story and taken it to heart. I think of the Flat Rock Missionary Baptist Church. They disbanded and sold their property. I drove by their building this week and got out and walked around. I thought about what had happened. I suspect sometime God tried to get their attention with some version of what he said to these fishing disciples, “Thrown our gospel nets on the other side. Try something new. Change, or die.” They did not hear.
But we must not be harsh in our judgment. Are we listening to what the Lord is saying to us, Providence Baptist Church? Are you hearing in your own mind and soul that faint refrain: “Throw your gospel nets on the other side. Refocus your attention, your energy, your resources, your soul, your vision to the other side. What you have been doing is not working. What you have done in the past will not do for the future. What you must do to fulfill your mission is to change your pattern of ministry, your mindset, your labor?
I watched the coronation of King Charles III yesterday. It was a very religious two hour plus ceremony. There were prayers, hymns, blessings, even a sermon (if you can call a five-minute oration a sermon!). One comment was made as the cameras followed the carriage from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace: were the changes made in this ceremony enough to accommodate modern sensibilities? Or something like that. What is true: this ceremony was far more religion, far more Christian than the English people. Attendance at worship in the Church of England is estimated at only 300,000 on a given Sunday, out of a population of 56 million. That is one half of one percent. Scholars estimate that less than 46% of English people profess any kind of Christian faith. That ceremony was 100% Christian.
One of the great movements in American religion today is the closing of churches. Four thousand a year. Some are just launching, but more are shutting down, often because they fail to hear the word of God saying to them, “Cast your nets on the other side. On the other side is the future. On the other side are the people. On the other side is the need. On the other side is Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.