Sunday, 30 October 2016

The parable of the playhouse

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

30th October 2016 11.00am

Biblical Buildings Series: The first temple
1 Kings 6.1-10; 7.51; 8.1, 12-13
Revelation 21.1-4, 9-11, 22-27

The parable of the playhouse.

There once was a man who wrote plays,
          and not just any old plays,
                   but the most exciting, daring, and innovative plays
                   that had ever been written in his native language.

He re-told the stories of his national history in new ways,
          bringing the foundational myths of his people
                   to life in new and vibrant ways.

He took risks, and despite the fact
          that his audiences included Kings and Queens,
he raised questions about royal power,
          and the rights of the common man.

He made people laugh,
          he made people think,
                   he made people cry.
He even shaped the language and society of his people
          for centuries to come,
          such was the power of the stories he told.

Originally, he and his troop of actors performed in halls,
          and in the open air, and in rented theatres.

But so successful was he,
          that in time he acquired his own theatre,
                   as a permanent home
                   from which his stories could shine across the city.

And it worked – the theatre was a success.

People flocked to it,
          the poor standing in crowds near the stage,
          and the rich and noble sitting high up,
                   away from the stench of the commoners.

He told his stories, and performed his plays,
          and became rich and famous,
          and then he retired and died.

For a while, the theatre carried on much as before,
          performing his plays in rotation,
                   packing the house with people
                   eager to be inspired and entertained
                   by the daring vibrancy of the stories and the language.

But in time, the building started to show its age,
          as did the plays.
Those who wanted to see them, had seen them,
          some of them twice or more.

And so the crowds dropped away,
          apart from a few die-hard fans,
                   who would still come to anything
                   just so long as it reminded them of the glory days
                   when the playwright was still alive.

But eventually the theatre closed,
          and passed into the mists of memory and history.

But here’s the thing.
          The plays lived on.

The playwright’s words continued to inspire,
          to provoke, to entertain, and to challenge.

New generations discovered them,
          and they brought fresh light
          to contexts far removed from the city where they had been written.

The words just wouldn’t,
          perhaps they couldn’t, die.

In time, after many centuries,
          some of those who loved the words of the playwright
          said that whilst innovation and contextualisation
                   had got everyone this far,
                   and a jolly good thing that was too,
          we were now a very long way from where we had started.

And perhaps it might be interesting
          to try and strip away the centuries,
to hear the words as they had originally been heard.

So they built another theatre, a replica of the original playhouse.

And it was brilliant, it was exciting,
          the plays came to life again
          as they hadn’t done for many years.

People flocked to it,
          the poor standing in crowds near the stage,
          and the rich and noble sitting high up,
                   away from the stench of the commoners.

It was like nothing had changed, and everyone loved it.
          People became rich, and famous, and retired on their reputations.

But then, slowly, it started to feel a bit stale.
          All the plays had been performed, some of them twice or more.
And people started to worry that the crowds might drop away,
          leaving only a few die-hard fans
                   who would come to anything
                   just so long as it reminded them of the glory days.

So, because this is capitalist London,
          and the market was now king,
          they decided to innovate.

They brought change to the new playhouse.
          A new artistic director, a woman in a man’s world;
                   and she changed the staging, the lighting, and the sound,
                   and she asked for gender balance amongst the actors.

Some loved it, and many new people came.
          But some, who had been there for a while,
                   and loved it the way it used to be,
          hated the change and the innovation.
They wanted the playwright’s words
          to be heard as they had always been heard,
          at least since the new playhouse was built.

And so Emma Rice was asked to leave the Globe.

And the blogger on the theatre website said:

“Make no mistake:
          this isn't an argument about electric lighting and amplification,
                   whatever the Globe board says.
                   It's much deeper than that.
It's about who gets to make Shakespeare,
          for whom and how.
If we insist on doing things as they've always been done
          – and what's original practice if not that –
          nothing will change.
We'll get the same people
          making the same theatre
          for the same audiences forever.”[1]

To which I would only add,
          that is why Solomon’s temple didn’t last.

The greatest building in ancient history,
          constructed as a house for God himself,
to shine for all time as a beacon to the city of David,
          of the eternal words of the Lord of heaven,
was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians
          a mere four centuries after it was constructed.

Except, paradoxically,
          in a strange kind of way it did last.

The building that Solomon built
          may have only endured 400 years,
but the idea of the temple
          far outlived its original embodiment.


Just as the idea of the playhouse endured
          as a permanent home for the playwright in the parable,
so the idea of the temple
          as a permanent home for God
has echoed down the millennia to the present day.

But it had all started with such good intentions,
          this plan by the wisest man who ever lived,
          to build a permanent house for the Lord,
                   the God of the whole earth.

It was a credible attempt,
          one might even say a wise attempt,
to answer that most difficult of theological conundrums:
          of where, on earth, is God to be found?

Different cultures, and different religions,
          have supplied an almost infinite variety of answers
          to this question of where one might go to find God.

The early animist religions
          held that God was everywhere and in all things.
More a divinity arising from the natural world
          than a transcendent deity
          in some way separate from creation.

So, in those early days, the divine could be found
          at the top of the mountain,
or in the spring arising from the ground,
          or in the sea, or in the crops,
          or in the sun, or the thunder,
or, in fact, anywhere that people chose to see the divine.

By this understanding,
          all one had to do to find God was to go outside.

And it was only one small step
          from there to the question
          of how one might recognise God when one finds him,
and so people started to manufacture physical representations
          of the various expressions of the divine
          that they had sensed in the world around them.

They made clay figures, or carved wooden statues,
          to represent the gods of this place or that,
and they came to the practice
          of worshipping these representations of the divine spirit of creation.

So if you lived in the ancient near east,
          you might have a collection of household gods,
                   which you would take with you if you went travelling,
                   and which you could leave to your children when you died.
          And every day you would make a small offering to them,
                   praying for the safety of your children,
                   or for the success of your crops.

And here, I think,
          we can trace the first attempts to build a home for God.

The wild divine spirit of creation,
          the God of the whole earth,
                   the God of the mountain and the valley,
                   and the spring and the sea,
                   and the thunder and the earthquake,
          became housed within idols to be worshipped.

It’s not that those worshipping the idols
          were necessarily even worshipping the wrong God,
          it’s just that it’s a view of God that is too small.

It’s the process of containing the infinite other
          and reducing God down to the size of something controllable
          that ends up being condemned as idolatrous.

And so we come to the great insight of Abraham,
          the father of the Jewish people,
                   and the spiritual ancestor of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

His revelation was that there were not many gods,
          but just one God.

He saw through the idols,
          and beyond the fragmentation of the divine,
          to a greater vision of one God of the whole earth.

Not just the god of a particular place, of a specific household,
                   or even of a chosen nation,
          but one God of the whole earth.

And he heard a promise
          that if his descendants gave faithful witness
                   to this one God of all creation,
          then all nations and all the earth would be blessed.

But then, in time, the God of all peoples
          became the God of the Jews.
And the God of the whole earth
          became the God of the promised land.

And the process of shrinking God down
          to a size that could be understood, managed, and controlled,
          began all over again.

And so we come to Solomon’s temple,
          the first great Jewish attempt to contain God in a building.

I don’t know whether Solomon thought to put a plaque
          on the wall of his new temple when he’d finished it,
          but I like to think he did.

In my head, it might have read,
          ‘The Temple: Built to the glory of God, and in memory of Solomon’,
                   like the many plaques that so often adorn
                   the churches and cathedrals of our own age.

Because here’s the thing: a building of this magnitude,
          a building of such status and beauty,
          is never just built to the glory of God.

After all, the story of the Tabernacle tell us that
          God used to live in a tent, and seemed quite happy with that.

No, these grand buildings that we put up
          are always, either implicitly or explicitly,
                   dedicated not only to the glory of God,
                   but to the memory of the builder.

If I were really cynical, which I am, let’s face it,
          I’d turn the wording of the plaque round the other way,
                   and have it read:
          ‘The Temple, Built to the glory of Solomon, and in memory of God’.

Because the attempt to contain God in a grand building,
          to force God to live at an address of our choosing,
          is always the work of those
                   who are, at some level, seeking to control God.

In the case of Solomon,
          the construction of the temple
                   was the culmination of the project begun by his father
                   to unify the disparate tribes of Israel
                             into a single nation with secure defined borders.

What Solomon discovered
          was that trying to draw people together in this way
                   was somewhat harder than it might at first appear,
          and so he built the temple, in the city of his father David,
                   as the grandest of all possible statements
                   that the sons of David rule at the behest of God,
          who is now pleased to dwell, exclusively, in their city.

It was the perfect fusion of religion and state,
          and it’s a winning formula that has been replicated
          down the centuries from Jerusalem, to Rome, to London.

It’s a view of God where God belongs to the king,
          lives in a house that is owned by the king,
          and becomes, in effect, the King’s slave.

And as the state takes control of God,
          and as God is domesticated to the service of the powerful elite,
the move away from the wild, free,
          uncontrollable God of the animist religions, is complete.

The God of organised religion is both controlled and controlling
          And the big vision of God that Abraham glimpsed
                   becomes, by degrees,
                   a desire for a far more parochial deity.

It’s almost an inverse correlation:
          the grander the building built to house God,
          the smaller the view of God that lies behind it.

And this is because, theologically speaking,
          the building of a temple, or a cathedral, or a church,
is very revealing, both of the view of God held by the builder,
          and of the view of the people of God that will worship there.

I’ll put that another way:
          you can tell a lot about what people believe
          by looking at the buildings they put up.

And this is because buildings don’t come cheap,
          and they represent a substantial investment
          of time, effort, and money.
So people will only build
          what they believe to be important.

Think, for a moment, of the churches known to you,
          and how they speak of the theology of those who worship there.

Take, for example, London’s own great house for God,
          Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a photo from my family album,
          of the coronation of Elizabeth in 1963.
The arrow points to my great-grandfather,
          William Gwynne Woodman,
who was Messenger Sgt Major of the Yeoman of the Guard
          and so took the lead place in the personal bodyguard of the monarch.

You can clearly see in the architecture of this building,
          how it was constructed to keep people apart from each other:
with the priests at the far end beyond the screen
          having exclusive access to the holy altar,
whilst the laity are confined to the area near the door.

This is a view of God where God is the preserve of the privileged and holy few,
          it is the God of the king, the God of the Archbishop,
          the God of the priests and the professional worshippers.

The God of the architecture of Westminster Abbey
          is the God of the state,
          and the building reflects that fusion,
something seen most clearly, of course,
          in the photograph of my great-grandfather,
where we have just had the new monarch
          crowned by none other than the archbishop of Canterbury.

Whereas a different sanctuary, this one for example,
          here at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
          takes a very different approach.

Here, the most important thing in 1848 when it was built,
          was that a very large number of people
          could sit and listen to one man speaking.
And so we ended up with the shape and design
          that we find ourselves siting in today.

At Bloomsbury, as in other Baptist churches,
          God is encountered through the preaching of the word,
          as the scriptures are opened and God is revealed.

The God of Bloomsbury is the God of the people
          not the God of the state,
and is accessible to all,
          not just to the elite few.

You see how the building reflects the theology
          of the people who build it?

And so, as we consider Solomon’s temple,
          built to the glory of God and in memory of Solomon,
we have to realise that what he was constructing
          wasn’t just a house of prayer, or a house for God.

He was constructing an idea,
          and the idea was that God can be contained,
                   constrained, and even confined,
          by the efforts and activities of the people who bear God’s name.

And this is an idea that has life far beyond
          the temporal historical buildings
          that the idea caused people to build.

Temples may be destroyed, cathedrals crumble to dust,
          but we still build houses for God,
ostensibly to worship him,
          and to proclaim his glory among the nations;
but all too easily the desire for worship and glorification
          becomes a desire for control and constraint
                   as we make the God of all nations into our God,
          and as the God who made us in his own image
                   becomes an image fashioned after our own likeness.

So here we are, in our wonderful building,
          and the builders still haven’t finished our latest renovation,
          although we’re getting there.

And the question before us as a church
          is what do we have this building for?

Is it so that God can dwell with us,
          and so that we can be his people in this place?
Does God live at 235 Shaftesbury Avenue?

I really hope not.

The book of Revelation offers us an alternative picture
          of God dwelling not in an earthly temple or building at all.

The new Jerusalem, which is the people of God, the bride of Christ,
          is described as a city with no temple.

God dwells not in any building or in any place,
          but rather is known and encountered
          through the Spirit of Christ who is sent out into all the earth.

The heart of the new Jerusalem is not a temple,
          but a river and a tree bearing fruit.

God is known not through a building or an idol,
          but through nature and direct revelation.

In many ways, this is a return to the animist religions
          where it all started.

There is no such thing, it emerges, as a holy place,
          there is no such thing as a sanctuary,
because all of life is holy,
          and all of creation reveals the nature of God.

As with the words of the playwright in our parable,
          the words of the story of God revealed in Christ
          cannot be contained forever within one structure.

This story is bigger than any building,
          bigger than any theology,
          bigger than any attempt to own or control it.

It can flourish in a temple, or a cathedral,
          or a church, or a chapel.
But the story of God will not remain there.
          We have no monopoly on the presence of God.

As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan,
          ‘he’s not a tame lion, you know.’

My friend Noel Moules puts it rather well:

He says that Jesus did not come to start a new religion.
          But that rather, he came to offer a universal spirituality
                   so integrated into daily life, and so connected with creation,
          that the very idea of religion becomes virtually meaningless.

The vision of the city with no temple
          is a rediscovery of the vision of the story of the garden of Eden,
where God is walking with people
          and the walls that keep people from God have ceased to exist.

As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans (1.20):
‘Ever since the creation of the world
          God’s eternal power and divine nature,
Invisible though they are,
          have been understood and seen
          through everything God has made’

Or to quote again from the Book of Revelation (5.13):
‘And everything created in the skies, and on the earth,
          and under the earth and on the oceans,
and all things that are within them,
          I heard singing …’

The words of life are far bigger than our buildings,
          far wider than any structures, physical or symbolic,
          that we seek to put around them.

Because the God of Abraham is the God of the whole earth.

Our task is, perhaps, simply to learn to recognise God for who he is,
          to seek him wherever he may be found,
          and to resist the temptation to seek to own him and make him ours.


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Breakfast on the Beach

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 October 2016 11.00am
John 21.1-17
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, 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 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.  15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."  16 A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."  17 He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.”

Ezekiel 47.1, 6-12
6 Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.
He said to me, "Mortal, have you seen this?" Then he led me back along the bank of the river.  7 As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other.  8 He said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh.  9 Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.  10 People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.  11 But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt.  12 On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."

Revelation 22.1-2
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Let me tell you a bit about Simon:

He's always full of bright ideas,
          which seem to him, in the moment that he has them,
                   to be brilliant and compelling;
          and he can’t quite understand why everyone else
                   doesn't follow his lead immediately.

Experience has shown him that more often than not he's on the money
          with whatever insight or idea has just popped into his head,
but that just sometimes he's heading off down a dead end,
          and will need to back track to get back on the right course again.

But that doesn't stop the ideas coming,
          and it doesn’t make him any less enthusiastic about today’s big plan.

The thing you need to know about Simon,
          is that what it is that he's doing now, is never enough,
                    and so he's always running on ahead in his mind
                   to what comes next.

And another thing: Simon likes to perform,
          he likes to do well, and to be seen to be a leader,
          or at least at the centre of things.
And actually, he does very well in most things he turns his hand to,
          and he ends up as the leader of a significant church.

But there’s a brittleness there that it can be hard to spot at first glance:
          the competent confident veneer
                   hides a fear of failure that can be all consuming,
          because deep down, Simon is afraid
                   that he can only be loved for what he does,
                   and not for who he is.

And so he needs to learn that being is more important than doing,
          and even though he is often successful in what he does,
                   and even though the Lord is with him
                   in many of his projects and ideas,
          sometimes he has to learn to let go of all the effort,
                   to relax, and discover that he is loved
                   not for what he does but for who he is.

Does this sound like anyone you know?

I’m talking, of course, about Simon Peter in John’s gospel.
          And any similarity to anyone else, living or dead,
                   is purely coincidental.

In today’s sermon we come to the last in our series
          looking at the meals of Jesus,
          which has taken us on our journey up to and through harvest.

And we have seen how Jesus disrupted power structures
          by eating with the wrong kind of people,
          and by sitting people in the wrong places at the table,
          and by allowing the wrong kind of activities to take place around the table.

But today’s meal, the breakfast on the beach
          with just a handful of disciples,
          is a different kind of story.

Here we meet Jesus in a far less public, and more intimate setting.
          Just him and some of his friends,
                    quietly having some fish and bread
                    early one morning on the shore of the sea of Galilee.

We don’t even know the names of all those present,
          but there’s surely some significance in the fact that there are seven of them,
                   because this is John’s gospel, and the way he writes,
                   the little details always carry levels of significance beyond the obvious.

So if seven is the Jewish number of perfection,
          then the seven friends who sit on a beach with Jesus,
          are probably to be understood as in some way representative
          of all those who would be Jesus’ followers.

And here, immediately, with this little clue,
          we start to find ourselves invited into the world of this story.

If the seven friends on the beach stand for all disciples,
          then they stand for us.
And we are invited, in our imaginations,
          to begin to picture ourselves sat on the beach with Jesus,
                    perhaps as one of the unnamed disciples,
          whose identity has been omitted by the author
                    so we can fill the gap with our own face.

Or perhaps we see ourselves as one of the named disciples,
          maybe Simon Peter, or doubting Thomas.

Maybe we see in their reaction to Jesus,
          an echo of our own personality,
          of our own response to Jesus.

The story of the breakfast on the beach sits,
          within the narrative structure of John’s gospel,
                   as part of a concluding section,
          where a number of loose ends are wrapped up.

Immediately before it we meet doubting Thomas
          getting to put his finger in the wounds of the crucifixion on Jesus’ body,
          with his doubts being finally answered.

And immediately after it, we have Simon Peter
          being brought face to face with the abject failure
                   of his three-fold denial of Jesus
                   around the charcoal fire of the high priest’s courtyard (18.18-27),
          as Jesus speaks to him over a charcoal fire on a beach,
                   and three times forgives him and commissions him for further service.

And these two key characters, the doubter and the denier,
          Thomas and Simon Peter, are both present in the boat,
and they, with the other five disciples,
          are those who get to share breakfast with Jesus on the beach.

I think it is these two characters, and what they represent,
          who provide us with the key to understanding our passage from this morning.

And it’s a strange little story,
          which almost feels comic in the way it’s told.
I mean, it’s almost impossible not to have a laugh
          at the idea of Simon Peter sitting there naked,
          and then deciding to throw on his clothes before jumping into the sea.

It’s typical Simon Peter, isn’t it?
          It just seemed like a good idea at the time.
The naked part wasn’t so unusual,
          as apparently on a mild night fishing from a boat,
          it was quite usual to strip off if you were in and out of the water.

But the decision that if that’s Jesus on the shore, he’d better put some clothes on,
          followed immediately by the decision to jump into the water
          and swim to shore rather than wait for the boat to paddle in,
is classically Simon Peter in its planning and execution.

And in fact, Simon is the driving character
          in this narrative, with his personality and character,
          moving the action at every turn towards its conclusion.

It starts with Simon and the others gathered in Galilee.
          We’re not told why they’re there,
          but we know we’re a week or three after the resurrection,
                   and it seems that some of the disciples at least
                             have made the journey north from Jerusalem
                             and back to Galilee where it all started.

And then, suddenly, kind of out of nowhere,
          Simon announces, ‘I’m going fishing’.

It’s like he can’t sit still.
          The waiting is killing him, so he jumps up and sets off.

And I wonder how many of us are like Simon?
          As you will have gathered from my introduction to the sermon,
                   I know I have tendencies in that direction.
Sometimes, any activity is better than no activity,
          because ‘doing’ is infinitely preferable to just ‘being’.

And because Simon is a natural born leader,
          where he goes, others tend to follow.
So the other disciples set off with him.

And of course, for a character like Simon Peter,
          the success of a night’s fishing will be determined
          by how many fish have been caught.

I’m told that there are those who go fishing for the tranquillity of the experience,
          to sit still beside a lake contemplating the beauty of creation,
          and meditating on the delights of solitude.

There may even have been those on the boat that night with Simon,
          who were happy enough just to come long for the ride,
                    regardless of whether any fish were caught,
          because it was a warm night and they wanted the company.

But Simon is definitely there to catch fish,
          to be productive.
He’s stripped off ready for action,
          and if there’s any diving in to be done, he’s ready to do it.

And after a night on the lake, he’s caught nothing.
          From Simon’s perspective, this is failure;
          and failure, in Simon’s world, is the ultimate in shame.

And then, as darkness turns to light,
          Jesus appears on the shore, unrecognised at first.

Now I can’t tell whether he says it with a sarcastic tone or not,
          but his question, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’
                   is certainly a rhetorical question,
                   designed to prick away at the moody failure of Simon and the others
                             to be productive in their task of fishing.

Their sullen, single-word reply of ‘No’,
          highlights the humour of the moment.
They’re like sulky teenagers
          owning up to something shameful.

And then, in an echo of a story from Luke’s gospel (Luke 5.1-11),
          Jesus tells them to let the nets down on the other side.

We’re not told how Simon the experienced fisherman responded
          to this instruction shouted by a stranger on the shore,
          and I can imagine he was muttering something about grandmothers and eggs
                   as he gave it one last go on the other side of the boat.

But I think it says something about Simon’s desire to succeed at all costs
          that he was willing to give it a go.
The little voice that sometimes won’t let us give up
          even when we know we should have walked away long ago,
          encouraged him to give it just one more try.

And, lo and behold, a net full of fish.

Ta-Da! A miracle.

But more than this, from Simon’s point of view:
          Success! A result!
For Simon, the night is redeemed,
          his decision to lead them out into the lake fishing is justified,
          he’s done something worthwhile,
          and his value is restored.

And we could leave it there, but because this is John’s gospel,
          there are layers upon layers in this story
          which we need to unpack to get at the heart of things.

Firstly, there’s the whole metaphor of fishing.

Yes, at one level it’s a story where Jesus does a miracle,
          and the disciples recognise him.

But fishing is not a neutral image in the gospels,
          or indeed within the Jewish scriptural tradition.

In both Mark and Matthew’s gospels, (Mt 4.18-20; Mk 1.16-19)
          Jesus’ calling of Simon and Andrew to be his disciples
                   is accompanied by a promise that they will leave their fishing nets
                   to become ‘fishers of people’.

And in the prophetic writings of the Jews,
          fishing was an image used for bringing people to judgment,
          like fish caught in nets (Jer. 16.16; Ezek 29.4-5; Amos 4.2; Hab 1.14-17).

So we might say that fishing here is a metaphor for mission,
          and that our story from John’s gospel invites its readers
          to reflect on their own experience of fishing for people.

It is of some small comfort to me
          that it seems to have been the experience of the early church
that it was possible to spend all night fishing,
          and come back with no results.

I mean, I long for a full church, I really do.
          I long for a world where we extend to many people
                   the love and acceptance of Christ,
          and where we join together in bringing the good news of liberation
                   to a world where so many live in darkness and pain.

And I feel the lure of the program driven approach to mission,
          where we adopt the right formula,
          implement the right systems,
          and see the results come flooding in.

I have the little voice on my shoulder encouraging me
          to give it one more go, to try letting the nets down again,
          because this time it’ll be different.

And who knows, it might be!?

I mean, Simon Peter had a night of darkness and no results,
          and then netted a great catch on the final throw of the dice.

Who’s to say we won’t be the same?
          Who’s to say we won’t suddenly find ourselves
                   with 153 new fish by the morning.
          Who’s to say that our failure may not yet be redeemed by success?

But this story challenges such ways of thinking.
          Because it turns out that it’s not about the catch at all.

When Simon Peter gets to the shore,
          fully clothed and soaking wet,
          leaving the others to haul in and count the fish,
he discovers that Jesus has already got a fire going,
          with fish roasting and bread ready.

The catch, impressive though it is, isn’t the point.

And in a world where we are what we do,
          and where we’re only ever as good as our most recent achievement,
the story of the breakfast on the beach
          causes us to stop and consider whether Jesus actually needs us
          to put in all that effort to be successful,
                   either as individuals or as a church.

What if, actually, we’re loved for who we are,
          and not for what we do.

What if we’re loved whether we’re successful or not?
          What if we’re loved whether we have 53 or 153 on Sunday morning?

What if our fixation on productivity and effectiveness
          is irrelevant to love that God has for us and the world?

What if the sea, and all that is in it,
          already belongs to God,
          and our efforts at fishing are, at best, tangential to his greater purposes?

Evelyn Underhill, the spiritual writer from the early twentieth century,
          said that we spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs:
                   to want, to have, and to do.
          While the fundamental verb of the spiritual life is ‘to be’.

What if our desires, our possessions, and our actions,
          are nowhere near as important as they seem to us,
and our being in God is all that ultimately matters?

What would it take for us to learn to let go?
          To set aside our desire for success,
                   our drive to achieve?

For Simon Peter it took a moment of great failure,
          followed by a moment of great love,
to learn that he was valued for who he was, not for what he did.

The denial of Jesus in public, in the courtyard of the high priests house,
          was the moment of ultimate public shame and failure for Simon Peter.

For a man of his personality to be caught out in this way,
          would have been a disaster of unimaginable proportions
          as his self-image was destroyed before his eyes.

And yet, from his failure came his forgiveness by Jesus,
          and his recommissioning over the bread and fishes on the beach.

And Simon learned that lesson that can only be learned by going through it,
          which is that failure sets you free
          to be loved for who you are, rather than what you do.

Faithful discipleship is not about achievement or productivity,
          it is about faithfulness.

And the vision of a net full to the brim but not breaking,
          is a vision of the kingdom of God where all are welcome
          with no-one feeling threatened by anyone else’s inclusion.

The vision of Ezekiel that we read earlier
          offered a vision of the world transformed,
where the dry and dusty land between Jerusalem and the Jericho
          is brought to life,
with the salt waters of the Dead Sea teeming with fish,
          and the barren banks verdant with trees.

The kingdom of God is about the transformation of the earth,
          it is about the salvation of all things,
          and the healing of the nations as creation itself is redeemed.

And this is not about successful church growth,
          and it is not about personal or corporate achievement.

The transformation of the earth comes about, in Ezekiel’s vision,
          through the pure clear water which flows from the temple in Jerusalem.

It is the people of God who are the source of life to the earth,
          and that blessing flows through us to bring renewal and refreshing to all.

It isn’t something we can manufacture or perform,
          rather it is the gracious gift of the love of God,
which invites us to discover what it is to be truly loved for who we are,
          so that others may discover what it is to be truly loved for who they are.

And any religion or form of faith that requires any of us
          to be something other than that which we have been created to be,
is ultimately a hollow shell of a faith
          that brings judgment and not blessing.

We are loved.
You are loved.
I am loved.

This is the gospel of Christ, who invites us to discover new life with him,

          as we join him for breakfast on the beach.