St Mary’s 5/5/19 3rd of Easter 8am, 10.45am
Acts 9.1-6 John 21.1-19
Preacher: Mark Hart
Will you be watching the final of the World Snooker Championship today and tomorrow? If you do, notice the 15 red balls. At the beginning of every frame they are arranged in a triangle, with one at the apex, facing baulk, and 5 at the base. That triangle is possible because 15 is a triangular number. It is the sum of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Peter could have done the same with the 153 fish he had hauled to the shore. He could have made a triangle with one fish at the apex, and 17 at the base. Because 153 is a triangular number. Add 1, 2, 3, 4… all the way to 17, and you get 153.
You say, well that was mildly interesting but isn’t it just a piece of trivia? Not really, because in the Bible numbers often have significance, and this very specific number has been recorded.
Here there are two layers to what is happening, as so often in John’s gospel. At one level this is about a group of disciples who go fishing in the Sea of Galilee and meet Jesus. At another level it is about Christ and his mission to build a Church. We immediately think back to what these men were called from when they were told ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people’.
And here Peter hauls in a net full of the 17th triangular number of large fish. And 17 = 10 + 7 which are significant numbers. Altogether, the total speaks of fullness, completeness and perfection. There have been other ways to interpret the 153, but all tend to point to this idea of fullness. It’s as if Peter is drawing the whole Church to Christ.
Except that Peter can’t take any credit. He has spent a whole night failing at fishing. Only when he hears and obeys the Lord does he have any success.
We have heard two extraordinary stories: the conversion of Paul and the restoration of Peter. Both men would become hugely influential for the establishment and growth of the church. At this stage they are naturally highly gifted individuals, and instinctive leaders. But they were not servant leaders like Jesus. They had not humbled themselves like Jesus.
Paul, or Saul as he is called here, had impeccable credentials as a teacher and a Pharisee. He had 100% confidence in himself and his opinions. And he was a fanatical, militant, religious fundamentalist who persecuted the Church and terrorised the followers of the Way.
Peter was always the first to open his mouth and he rarely thought before doing so, because he was so sure about what would come out. Here it’s Peter who has taken the lead in fishing, and the others followed. He was used to that. He was used to being right and knowing better than others. And on the night before Good Friday, when Jesus had told his disciples that they wouldn’t be able to follow him, Peter had said, ‘Lord, why can’t I follow you. I will lay down my life for you’. And that’s when Jesus says, ‘Peter, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times’.
Peter had been warming himself by a fire of coals when he denied Jesus, and significantly, here on the shore, Jesus has a fire of coals ready as he begins to question Peter. He asks three times, once for each denial, ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me more than these?’ Do you love me more than these other disciples? Peter, are you better than them? When the others left me, did you lay down your life for me, like you said you would?
And at the end of all the questions, when Jesus says, ‘Follow me’, Peter knew that this was no longer about him and his abilities and his ego. He couldn’t even fish without the Lord’s help. He certainly couldn’t build a Church.
Similarly, Paul, after being brought low, would say, ‘I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am’.
That’s what makes the difference. We’re not asked to deny our abilities or achievements. In fact, some people need to recognise their gifts more. There’s a good sense in which we can take pride in what we do. But always, it’s by the grace of God. It is through God’s free gift. It is like Peter drawing the net to the shore. Brilliant, Peter. Well done. So pleased for you that you could take part. But it’s not all about you is it?
And Peter now knew that. So should everyone who engages in Christian leadership or ministry or responsibility or activity of any kind. Ultimately, it’s not a way to build my ego. It’s not a route to feeling superior to others. It’s not a means of exercising power and control over others.
It is about the grace of God. And as I wrote in the current magazine, the point of clergy is not to set one group of people above another, but to enable us better to recognise that gift of God we all are to each other in the whole catholic Church, living and departed.
The point of wearing robes and vestments is not to mark anyone out as superior, or to draw attention to any individuals. It’s the opposite, because what is worn highlights a role not a person. It makes the person less noticeable than if their clothes changed with the fashions and seasons.
‘It is the Lord!’ cries Peter, as he looks to the shore. And here today, it is the Lord whom we wish to see, and be drawn to, and be fed by, and restored and warmed by, and given grace to follow in humble service.
Arrogance and pride and inflated egos and power trips are at the root of much of the pain and distress which human beings can inflict on each other. And none of it is the way of our Lord. It is what we are fundamentally against as followers of Jesus Christ.
Yet the Church is not immune. Panorama last Monday was entitled ‘Scandal in the Church of England’. It told part of the story of some of the sexual abuse in just one diocese. Similar stories can be told of almost every diocese, including this one. It’s not just the abuse, it’s the cover up afterwards; and the survivors of abuse who even now are not being properly heard.
But the truth has to be faced. I remember as a child finding it quite uncomfortable that Jesus was so relentless with Peter. That’s what repentance is though. It starts with seeing ourselves as we truly are or were. That’s the only way forward for the Church. To face up to the past transparently.
Peter & Paul would always be people with a past. Forgiven people, healed and restored people, shining apostles who would haul in an extraordinary harvest. But only because their past was laid bare, never by pretending it didn’t happen.
Thank God for whatever humbles you and keeps you humble. For whatever reminds you to say, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’. For by that grace, you can share in God’s glorious mission to the world.
So as you watch the snooker, whenever the red balls are racked, think fish. And tell yourself, I’m one of those fish. I’m also pulling in those fish. And I’m on the shore being fed bread and fish. And it’s all by the grace of my risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.