As we inch forward in John 21, I wanted to look at the developing story from the point of view of the Man on the Beach.

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So 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. 12Jesus 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. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Notice in all the post-resurrection appearances that Jesus initiates every interaction with his disciples: he appears in the Upper Room without an invitation, he “reveals himself” in Tiberius, he hangs out at the beach making breakfast and calls out to the fishermen. The guys are heading back to the old life, but Jesus beckons them to re-enter his story and to connect some dots in the plot. [John has brought a few loose threads into chapter 21, which we shall tie up in upcoming posts.] Once again, Jesus is calling them out of the old life and into something new.

What does Jesus say? “Children, you have no fish, have you?” (Jn 21:4). I have suggested that this was a gentle tease aimed at proud fishermen after a bad night. But Jesus is also bringing up a lesson he had demonstrated before. Could it be that he was initiating a review of a previous teachable moment? Hear the story as Luke tells it:

4When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 10:4-11)

Jesus commanded Simon Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets. The professional fisherman said, “Hey, we’ve been at it all night and caught nothing. But if you insist . . .” [Can’t you just hear the sarcasm?] Peter had failed in his area of expertise, coming up empty after a full night’s effort, but he did as the Lord commanded and put down the nets. This time, to his shock and awe, they filled to overflowing! [Is the story sounding familiar now? Is it possible that the Man on the Beach is dropping hints that today’s post-resurrection lesson is a review of that earlier one?]

In both Luke and John, Jesus performs a miracle to make the point that without him they can’t catch fish. Both accounts end with a spectacular haul of fish leading to a confession of faith. In both cases, a disciple is responding to Jesus’ demonstration of power over nature, which for a Jew is definitely “God” territory!

But Jesus turns the attention back to Peter by saying, “From now on you will be catching people,” or in the more familiar translation, “from now on you will be fishers of men.”

Ah, so do you think (as Dale Bruner does in his commentary The Gospel of John) that the post-resurrection beach party is an evangelism lesson? Here is what Jesus says to the disciples on the beach:

Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish] (Jn 21:6). Jesus is teaching them that if they follow his lead and go where he sends them, they will find people who want to know the Savior. Jesus is teaching us that there are still people out there in our world who want to know Jesus, and we may very well be the ones who introduce him to them! I was summoned to the hospital awhile back by a gentleman who’s health crisis had turned into a faith crisis. Raised by an atheistic mother, he had no faith. And yet, in the last five years of her life, his mother had professed faith in Jesus Christ, and her life was transformed. He wanted to know how he could learn more about what she believed.

Bring some of the fish that you have just caught (21:10). Jesus expects that the disciples—charged with going out to preach, teach, and baptize (Matthew 28:19f)—will gather to Jesus those who believe and want to be part of the fellowship. Jesus is the one who empowers the catch, but their participation in the process is essential within God’s plan. Jesus expects that we, too, have a contribution to make toward Kingdom fellowship. Whom are we bringing into the Lord’s presence?

Come and have breakfast (21:12). Jesus invites the people his disciples “catch” to have fellowship around the table where the Lord presides. The sacramental act of sharing a meal—bread and wine, or bread and fish, or maybe a hamburger and beer—as friends around Christ’s table is sacred. We should do it more often! For the last ten years I have worshiped and assisted in a church that celebrates communion every week, and now am in fellowship at a church that conducts communion monthly. My spirit is hungry for more of the sacred meal.

Advertisements

A recurring theme in the gospels, particularly in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, is the attitude required to pursue God’s purposes. Here are a few samples:

When the ten heard [about the power squabble between the sons of Zebedee], they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:24-28; parallels in all four gospels)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24; parallels in Mark and Luke)

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. (John 12:24-26)

After [Jesus] had washed [the disciples’] feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 13:12-16)

What are the words that jump out in Jesus’ teaching? Servant, slave, take up cross, die, wash feet. Jesus exhorts his disciples to follow in his footsteps to serve others, deny themselves, adopt humility, and act sacrificially. In other words, dear readers, Jesus is asking us to step out of the way and defer to his will and Way, for the sake of the Kingdom.

This servanthood we are called to adopt is a serious commitment to the Lord’s agenda at the expense of ours. Availability to the Lord 24/7 is a way of life, rendering service that is as natural as breathing. By adopting this mindset (as well as choosing this active service) we opt out of competition, because our aim is simply to place ourselves at the bottom rung of the ladder in order to support and lift up everyone else. While it may seem so self-defeating as to be impractical if not impossible, the Lord says that if we do this we will not be defeated but ultimately honored (by the Audience of One).

But it does require “dying.” Dying to self, dying to ego, really letting go of my way in deference to the Lord’s way and possibly yours, too. This is about as easy as the mental and emotional transaction required to give up sugar permanently or to decide never again to celebrate one’s birthday. There is no question about its difficulty in the flesh, but in the Spirit we are able to die to self in order to live for God.

So what would it look like if we put ourselves into the Lord’s service? This is possible, by the way, while maintaining whatever vocation the Lord has given you. Being on call for the Lord means, in simple terms, that we are open to the ministry opportunities as they arise in a day’s time, as we go about normal business. Serving Christ means being alert to the needs of people around us, particularly those who are overlooked or intentionally bypassed by most people. A cursory look at church history demonstrates that Christians have been the ones willing to die to self, decline a fat salary in some lucrative business, and adopt a need as God’s calling upon their lives. The missionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries provide many examples in Asia and Africa.

I have mentioned in previous posts about my college roommate Alene and her husband Steve who minister in Bomet, Kenya. Well, another of my Stanford roommates Maci Berkeley now lives among and ministers to a tribe of northern Mexicans in the Sierra Madre Mountains who previous had no medical care whatsoever. About twenty years ago, she and her orthopedic surgeon husband Mike left a successful practice in Aspen, CO (let that sink in for a minute) to start a new clinic in this remote location sandwiched between the realms of two drug lords. Over the years, the Berkeleys have managed to arrange for the donation of medical equipment, pharmacy items, and even staff to run the place and now have a thriving practice among the poorest of the poor. Their ministry is amazing and at times dangerous, but they are making a difference and giving testimony to the health and justice of the Kingdom of God.

Sacrificial servanthood is a hallmark of Jesus followers. Unless a seed dies and is buried in the ground, it cannot sprout and bear fruit. May we all realize the impact of our baptism and our conversion, to see ourselves buried with Christ and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, risen to make visible the Kingdom for the glory of God!

Next post: The third characteristic of Christ’s missionary style, loyal love.

I am in a unique season in my life; I have good news to share with just about anybody who will listen. My glad tidings, as my regular readers know, is that after six months of messing around with a diagnosis of lung cancer and all its treatments (chemo, radiation, and surgery), I am now cancer-free with little expectation that it will come back. Disclosing this part of my story is coming very naturally as I am welcomed back to the grocery store where I have been a regular customer for sixteen years. My hair stylist gave me my first post-chemo haircut ten days ago, and he held onto every word of my account of the past seven months. The presumably Buddhist pedicurist was genuinely blessed when I said my doctors had God’s help to heal me. The list goes on and on. The power to witness has overflowed out of the intensity with which I experienced God in my life this year.

As we bask in the afterglow of Pentecost celebrated by the church this past Sunday, I am thinking about how that experience propelled 120 disciples out into the city of Jerusalem (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit had given them the power to witness, and their good news was that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was offering new life to anyone who would believe in him. Many of these disciples were hicks from Galilee, and yet God gave them the supernatural ability to communicate with everybody, even the international crowd. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection simply rolled out of their mouths, and nothing could stop them from proclaiming and their audience from hearing.

Christians of our century, having been reminded of the mandate and power to witness by the feast of Pentecost, are urged to recognize the uniqueness of our calling. This is a good week to go over some of the aspects of our faith that make our mission not only distinct from the non-religious world but different from other religious groups world-wide. Jesus’ teaching leading up to his crucifixion pointed to his radical expectations. Particularly in the gospel of John, the last public discourses and private instructions he gave focused on how Jesus’ followers were to conduct themselves once he was gone from their sight (the “ascension” we talked about last week). I’d like to comment on three of these requirements for the missionaries Jesus sent out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

First requirement: It is to Jesus, not ourselves, that we give witness. I’ve noticed over the years that church people are more apt to extol the virtues of their worshipping community than they are to extol the virtues of God. I think the psalmist really meant it when he wrote, “One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). When God has done something really cool, it’s hard to keep quiet about it.

And yet, many Christians are very quiet about Jesus. I can see a few reasons for this: 1) people experience Jesus as a quiet presence in the background of their lives, while in the forefront they are busy with other concerns; 2) people’s faith has waned since the first time they got to know Jesus by name, perhaps in childhood long ago; 3) people are afraid that sharing what God has done in their lives will be ridiculed or dismissed; 4) people have not actually experienced the presence of God at work in their lives, and therefore have nothing to say; and 5) people are worried that if they bring up God in conversation, somebody is going to ask them a question they can’t answer.

It is so much easier and more natural, they say, to talk about what’s going on at church or to invite someone to a concert happening there this weekend, or even to wax eloquent about feeling good and blessed without giving a hint as to the Source of that blessing. Right now, in the Presbyterian tribe, it’s easier to talk about hopes and expectations for next week’s General Assembly, which is a church activity, than to talk about the Lord of the Church himself.

Jesus made it quite clear that the outcome of our testimony would be God’s glory. Our job is to point people to what God is doing and to show gratitude for that. Of course it is possible that God is doing something in and through your church, and it is fair game to share that with others. But rather than praise the church, are we not called to praise God from whom the blessings flow and make know the mighty acts of God?

So, the first hallmark of Christian mission is that it is about Jesus, not about us. No other religious body lifts up the name of Jesus as Lord of all, head of the church, or shepherd of our souls. Some may acknowledge his teaching ability, his role as a prophet, or even his good and pure life. But nobody but the Christian bows and worships Jesus Christ as God-come-in-the-flesh to redeem the world. The power of the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to acknowledge the truth of biblical proclamation a d the mighty acts of God testified to therein. Given this first unique aspect of Christian mission, how are you doing talking about Jesus instead of yourself? What would equip you to do this better? Whom can you ask for help to develop skills or summon the courage for giving witness? Food for thought, and then power for action!

Next post: the second unique requirement for Christian mission, sacrificial servanthood.

We left off yesterday in the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension period with just a glimpse of the magnitude of the commission he was imparting to his disciples. The Savior, loved and followed, was patiently instructing them on the basics of his identity, his purpose in coming, the relational implications of his crucifixion (redemption and forgiveness), and the importance of making him known throughout the world. Peter in particular was singled out to “feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-19), but all were sent to become “fishers of [people]” (Matthew 4:19). Regardless of the particulars, the disciples heard their commission as a beyond-the-imagination undertaking, so it was a good thing that Jesus promised power to get it done.

And then he left.

“He was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Now wait. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, in their previous way of thinking. The clouds were to open and the Son of Man was to descend from the heavens to reign over all (Daniel 7:13-14). One can imagine them just looking at each other and rehearsing in their minds, “What did he say again?” They had another ten days to think about it, waiting in the Upper Room to which they soon retired (Acts 1:12f). “He wants us to do what?”

It reminds me of the heart-rending scene in Gravity [spoiler alert]. Mission commander Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) points to a distant space station and directs mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to navigate there, enter the station, and get herself home. And then Kowalski floats away to be of no help at all (or so we think). Stone’s panic, grief, and frustration are palpable. But clearly, she was commissioned to persevere and to do what was necessary to give witness to what had transpired. She had to summon every piece of training, every instruction so far given, and be fully present in the moment in order to survive.

Sounds a lot like some ministry days I have known: completely in over my head.

One time I pulled a fast one on my staff, coming down with a serious bout of food poisoning (campylobacter) just 36 hours before we were all to depart for a weekend session-staff retreat. It became clear I had a significant infection (I would be sick for almost a week) and I was not going to be able to go with the team or speak at the retreat. So I called them to a meeting by speaker phone and let them know: “I’m not going to be with you for this….you’re going to have to lead it yourselves….there’s no backup . . . here’s what you need to tell them . . . remember everything I’ve been telling you the last few weeks . . . etc. etc.” They told me later they were looking at each other wide-eyed, like deer in the headlights.

But what do you do under such circumstances? You begin to follow very carefully the instructions you’ve been given. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and met in the Upper Room. They were joined, by the way, by dozens more close friends and followers of Jesus. They waited, as instructed; they took care of administrative business in the meantime (Presbyterians are good at this). But they knew, at some point, they were going to be off on some kind of adventure that would be laid out for them soon enough.

If Jesus had not disappeared from their sight, the disciples no doubt would have hung on his every word, stayed right by his side both to protect and be protected, and otherwise keep his fellowship to themselves. They probably would not have gained too much more ground in the ministry-skills department either. I mean, when you have Jesus right there to pray over bread and fish, why do you have to go to Costco to buy provisions (or actually learn how to cook!) for a crowd on Homeless Ministry night?

You get the idea. Jesus’ goal for his followers was nothing less than to become his agents, fully empowered and equipped to make the Kingdom of God known, visible, and effective. He had taught them enough. He had demonstrated skills enough. He had given them enough practice sessions. He had given them feedback enough. Now it was time for them to stand on their own two feet (upon the wings of the Spirit, I have to add) and fully cooperate with the “program” Jesus had laid out.

Did they feel ready? Probably not. Was there anything they lacked to do the work? Only the Spirit, who was coming soon. As the Apostle Peter wrote later in his second letter:

3His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. 5For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8).

Next post: What other implications does the Ascension of Jesus hold for his disciples?

I am feeling particularly grateful for the discipline of writing this blog, mostly because I have failed to produce anything in the last week and am reminded of how it keeps me centered if I do. The good news is that my energy level is near normal and I have been busy re-entering my world, including going back to active duty (part time) at the church I have served. No excuses here, just an observation that the writer’s life is a lot harder to structure than you might think! Life happens, people call, requests come in, and whoosh! There goes a day (or two, or three).

The other factor challenging me anew is that there are just too many daily jobs that are best done “first thing in the morning.” Exercise and blogging are constantly slugging it out for priority, so that situation needs sorting, especially now that the weather is heating up. I reveal all this in extremely good humor, grateful to God for meaningful work, good health, and the joy of being his disciple.

So in all the hub-bub, I missed a timely comment on Ascension Thursday, which was last week. Because the message of that day (the Word) is so germane to Life as We Know It, I will settle on “better late than never.” Here goes:

The disciples, blown away by the news and unfolding significance of Christ’s resurrection, have forty days with him. His appearances are widespread (up to 500 people at one time, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:6) and, as noted in my previous post, there are times when he surprises them by cooking breakfast on the Galilean beach or otherwise popping in. During this five-week period, Jesus’ messages are somewhat sparse and it doesn’t appear that the disciples comprehend much of the future. So some time between Day 1 and Day 40, a Thursday as we celebrate it on the church calendar, Jesus meets up with the Eleven for a farewell speech and a charge (Matthew 28):

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and [lit. Therefore, as you go…] make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Luke tells it this way:

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke recaps the story at the beginning of the Book of Acts:

3After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Clearly, Jesus is preparing his followers for something big, but not what they might imagine. The question about restoring the kingdom to Israel reveals their Messianic script. Now believing that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, they expect he is going to take over the universe and restore sovereignty to Israel, right? Jesus deftly hands that question off to the Father, and instead gives them a set of instructions for right here, right now:

1. You have a special calling because you have personally witnessed my life, death, and resurrection. You will be my witnesses.

2. You’re fanning out from this place with a job to do.

3. That job is making disciples by two means, incorporating them into the Fellowship through baptism and teaching them everything I have told you.

4. You can’t do this job without some special help, so . . . wait for it! But then . . .

5. Once officially empowered, you will turn the world upside down.

With their prior hopes of a Messianic take-over, I suspect that the disciples figured Jesus would do all the work of ushering in the Kingdom. They could go back to their fishing or other livelihoods and bask in the glory soon to overtake them. But no; Jesus commissions them for service that would be the primary focus of their lives, whether they preached or created Christian communities or served in some other capacity along the Way. That alone is a rather staggering thought, because we of course stand—in our generation—as recipients of the Great Commission also.

As I re-enter my life, transformed though I be, I am challenged to accept the requirement of effort as part of my job in Christ’s Kingdom. No, no, my friends, not “works” earning salvation, but the role God has given me (and you!) to demonstrate and make visible the reality of Christ’s reign on earth. So no matter how busy we get with what we think is “real life,” our real calling is to live into the Great Commission and do the work that is not finished yet. That work is difficult, sometimes without visible fruit, requiring ingenuity and passion, sacrifice and service. And there is nobody else to do it besides us!

In my next post, I will explore the significance of Christ’s Ascension.