Lectionary: Acts 9:1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Let us pray: Bless us this morning, O God: our ears to hear Your word, out hearts to accept and understand it, and our bodies to go out and live it. In Your holy name we pray, Amen.
I was fast approaching my last year of college; I was starting to seriously ask, “Now what?” What should I do after college? I played with the idea of something to do with biology, whether grad school or research, and signed up to take the GRE. I couldn’t decide on a specialty: so many things were interesting! How could I apply to grad school without having a speciality? (You can’t, by the way) Maybe I should work for a year or two? Do something with my German degree? I was home for the summer, earning money as a summer camp counselor without having to pay rent (thanks, mom and dad!). What kind of work would I do after school?
It was one of those moments where something good was happening–I was almost done with college, and I was so close to getting my degree–but the looming question of “What next?” drowned out the good. There were so many options and so many choices to make. What was the best next step?
The disciples are in the same place. They are asking, “What’s next?” At the moment, the answer seems to be, “Go fishing.” Jesus is risen, and they all know it–Jesus has appeared to them twice now–but hasn’t been terribly specific with the instructions. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and then disappears. When He said this before, it meant they were to literally follow Him as He journeyed across Israel, teaching and healing and performing miracles. They were to learn from Him and try their hand at miracles and prayer and knowing God. What does it mean when Jesus isn’t physically with them? There’s no Jesus to follow, no journey He’s told them to take.
So they go back to what they know. Or at least Peter does: he used to be a fisher, and so he goes back to fishing. Maybe they all needed food; maybe he just longed for the familiarity of something known and familiar, something he knew he was good at. Maybe they all did, because a bunch of disciples agreed to go with him.
They fish all night, with no success; they’re about to pull up to shore, tired and empty-handed, when a man on shore tells them to try one more time; they let their nets out again, and they are suddenly overflowing with fish. “That’s Jesus!” one of them recognizes, and Peter jumps overboard in his eagerness to see Jesus. The rest of them come ashore in a far more normal way, and they eat a breakfast of fish and bread together.
This still doesn’t quite answer the question: what are the disciples supposed to be doing? Jesus doesn’t seem to disapprove of their return to fishing; after all, He helps them catch a huge catch of 153 fish. After breakfast, Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep,” in a few different variations.
This, though, is hardly more helpful than saying, “Follow me,” and then disappearing. Sheep, sure, is Jesus’ followers–He did refer to Himself earlier in John as the good shepherd, sent to care for His sheep (John 10:1-21)–but does Jesus mean to actually give them food? or does He mean spiritual food? does He mean that Peter should care for His sheep in every way? And who, exactly, is Jesus’ flock? Every person, or only those who believe? Just after our passage, after another unrelated comment, Jesus leaves again, leaving no one the wiser.
In fact, the disciples don’t seem to figure it out right away. If we read further, going into the book of Acts, they choose another disciple. There’s no preaching, no healing. They “devote themselves to prayer,” (Acts 1:14), that is, discernment and asking God what exactly they’re supposed to be doing.
Until, of course, Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit falls on all of them, and they begin preaching. It’s only after this that they begin preaching widely, that we have reports of miracles and acts of love and churches coming together.
All this to say: discerning what Jesus is asking us to do can take time. Sometimes it comes to us in an instant, but often it doesn’t. Often it takes time. Even God’s presence, as in Jesus’ appearances to the disciples, sometimes doesn’t give us the answers we need, or we’re not ready to hear them. Now, of course, we are steeped in church language, and we know what happens in Acts, and we know that Jesus is calling His disciples to preach and perform miracles and care for people–but that wasn’t easy for the disciples to see in the moment.
Discerning what Jesus is asking of us can take time, but make no mistake: Jesus is asking something of us, of each one of us. Jesus has risen from the dead! Sin and death are defeated, and with them war and poverty, hatred and apathy. With that act, God has freed and redeemed each of us. God is remaking the world around us, re-creating it, and asking us to take part.
And so… what’s next? What is it that God is calling you to today? Is it to continue what you’re doing, continue faithfully in what God has already called you to? Is it to let go of something you’re clutching tight? To rest, and let God handle it all for a bit? To start something new? Or is it to cling tight to God’s promises?