Alton Parish–John 21:1-14
One of my favorite movies is an Otto Preminger film from the 1960s called Hurry Sundown. The cast includes Jane Fonda and Michael Caine, and it’s a compelling story about tense race relations in rural Georgia just after World War II. However, my interest is narrower—one might even say “professional.” Many of the characters in the movie happen to be Episcopalian, and two of the scenes take place in the church, during worship. One of these is on a regular Sunday morning—at Morning Prayer, to be specific, as it used to be done across the Episcopal Church a half century ago. The other church scene is an ordination to the priesthood. The bishop is there, and, of course, the ordinand, the new priest in the community. During the administration of Holy Communion, the chalice is offered to one of the worshipers, a black woman. She drinks from it, and then it’s offered to the next person, a white man of some prominence in the community. But instead of drinking from it, he spits in it, disgusted that he should be expected to drink from a chalice that has just touched the lips of a … well, we won’t use the word he would have used.
When I saw this, I recoiled in horror that someone would be so filled with irrational hatred so as to profane the precious Blood of Christ in such a manner. As you might expect, the priest who held the chalice, and the bishop who saw the whole thing happen, were also horrified. That anyone would do such a thing is a dramatic testimony both to the inborn sinfulness and the social conditioning of the man who did it. Such sinfulness and such social conditioning lead not only to this sort of blatant racism, however, but also to several other less obviously evil but nonetheless sinful attitudes. This is where you and I join the cast of Hurry Sundown and kneel at the communion rail next to that black woman and that white man and participate in the tension and pain of that relationship. We are sinners too. We may not be guilty of overt racism, and we are probably socially conditioned in a much different manner than a southern white male who was born in the late 1800s. But we are all sinners, and we are all socially conditioned in some way to harbor unchristian assumptions about who should be welcomed at this altar, who should be expected to “fit in” with this church family. We all stand in need of continual repentance for attitudes that fall short of what God desires for us and from us.
We gather this way every Lord’s Day because we know we need Jesus to come to our rescue. And Jesus indeed faithfully comes to our rescue each time we call on him in this way—by feeding us with his Body and Blood, after first stimulating our appetite with his Word. As we look into the word of God today, we see this remarkable story from St John’s gospel that is situated during those first weeks following our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. Peter and some of the other disciples are out fishing early one morning. In fact, they’d been fishing all night, but without any luck. Then they look back to the lakeshore, and, there on the beach is a shadowy figure whom they don’t quite recognize immediately. He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they do, and the nets are suddenly filled with more fish than they are able to haul back into the boat. In fact, St John gives us the interesting little detail that there were 153 fish eventually hauled ashore that day. What an odd thing to say! If it were simply a literal fact, there would be no need to report it. But what could the number 153 possibly symbolize? As you might imagine, there is no end to theoretical speculation, but the truth is, nobody knows for sure. I think it’s pretty safe to say, however, that—among other things, perhaps—this miraculous catch of fish symbolizes our mission to spread the gospel in the world, to ceaselessly announce the good news that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” and we can therefore face the future, whatever it brings, with hope and joy. The 153 fish symbolize both abundance and diversity—there were lots of fish, and lots of different kinds of fish. The Church’s mission is to proclaim the gospel to all people everywhere at all times, to invite all people everywhere at all times to come to Christ in faith and be reborn in baptism, to call all people everywhere at all times to join the crew of this vessel, and help haul the fish ashore.
That’s what “153 fish” means, and the notion gets a boost from a somewhat obscure phrase in the Prayer Book that is less well known now than it used to be, because of Prayer Book revision and because we no longer do Morning Prayer as the principal service on Sundays, but that phrase is “all sorts and conditions of men.” We used to pray, “Almighty God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that though wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations.” Notice how the word “all” is used without qualification—all sorts and conditons, all nations. Between the miraculous catch of 153 fish, and the unqualified use of “all” in the Prayer Book, we cannot escape the conclusion that there’s a place for everyone at the table in God’s kingdom. God does not desire that any should perish, but that all should be saved. God’s invitation is to all people everywhere at all times.
How is it, then, that Christian people are so often so blind to this basic gospel reality, and develop a mental picture—I grant you, often an unconscious mental picture, but a real one nonetheless—how is it that we develop a mental picture in which the church family is only for “people like us”—“people like us” ethnically, who look like us and talk like us; “people like us” economically—who shop where we shop and play where we play and go to school where we go to school; “people like us” culturally—who wear our kind of clothes and listen to our kind of music and watch the same movies and TV shows we watch? And please notice that I’m not singling out any particular ethnicity or economic income bracket or cultural group here. All are guilty of the “people like us” syndrome.
And the “people like us” syndrome, in turn, feeds and encourages our unchristian attitudes of smugness, superiority, and, yes, even racism—albeit in a very subtle and usually unintended form. This takes place in two directions. It certainly affects those who are on the outside looking in. I suspect there are people who merely drive by and look at [Trinity Chapel / St Paul’s Church] and feel excluded. Now, there’s not much we can do about that, but we need to always bear in mind that these are people whom God loves and for whom Christ died. There are those who would drive up to this location on a Sunday morning, and see the cars parked here, and feel that there’s not really a place here for their own car.
The “people like us” syndrome also affects those who are on the inside looking out. I’ll be the first to line up at the confessional. When I was in parish ministry, I practically salivated at the prospect of a middle class family with two or three kids of Sunday School age, where Mom and Dad are both college-educated professionals, and where everybody is physically and mentally healthy and emotionally secure and committed to Christ in the fellowship of the Church, who know their spiritual gifts and are eager to use them—I would have moved heaven and earth to make these folks feel welcome and to integrate them into the life of the parish. I was less enthusiastic about potential members whose profile departs in significant ways from this idealized description. And I need to tell you that I worked daily on repenting of that prejudice. I also suspect that I’m not the only one who is similarly prejudiced, and that even those who fall short of it are inclined to want to look past others who also fall short, and maintain this unattainable standard. We want our 153 fish, but we want to dictate to God how many of what kind and quality and size to put into the net! We are less eager to gratefully receive the fish God gives us, and be faithful in caring for them.
The attitude we are invited to have, the authentic gospel attitude, is symbolized by what happened after the disciples hauled the teeming net ashore. Jesus fixes breakfast on the beach, and invites his followers to share a meal with him. The action of taking bread and fish and breaking them in pieces and distributing the pieces is strongly reminiscent of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 that all four gospel evangelists tell us about, and also, then, and more significantly, reminiscent of the Eucharist, where Jesus, through the representative ministry of the presiding priest or bishop, takes and blesses and breaks and gives the gifts of bread and wine for the spiritual nourishment and refreshment of God’s people. God invites “all sorts and conditions of men” to his heavenly banquet table, of which the Eucharist is a down payment and a foretaste. Can we do any less than welcome all 153 of the fish that God puts in our nets when we cast them according to our Lord’s instructions? It is when we fully comprehend this profound truth, the depth and breadth of God’s wasteful love for every person in every time in every place, it is when we can see “all sorts and conditions of men” through God’s clear eyes of unadulterated love, rather than our own sinful and socially conditioned eyes, that we are energized both to accept others into the household of God who are not “people like us,” and claim our own place of acceptance among those who may not be “people like us” in the family of the Church. Alleluia and Amen.