"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain…

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Easter 3C, April 10, 2016, Revelation 5:11-14, Ps 30, John 21:1-19 (miraculous fish), SJE Edmonton

We continue to walk out our discipleship in these Sundays after Easter, learning about what it was that caused the growth of our faith from that small group of followers.  Today we hear another snippet of John’s Revelation and the recounting of the miraculous catch of fish, this one from after the resurrection.  I want to start with the catch of fish, because there is an important teaching embedded there, before moving on to speak about the Lamb upon the Throne.

Just to situate us in the narrative sequence, a sequence unique to John’s Gospel, Jesus has appeared a couple of times to the disciples gathered in a locked room.  The next encounter is sometimes called the ‘annex’ of John’s Gospel, as we’ve already heard what sounded like a concluding statement, that Jesus did many other signs that were not recorded.  John recounts a post-resurrection fishing expedition.  The expedition ends with the famous three-fold undoing of Simon Peter’s three-fold denial: Simon, do you love me?  Jesus asks three times, but I’m not going to focus on that.

What I will focus on is this interesting encounter with the disciples and a miraculous catch of fish.  This is a mirror event of an earlier catch of fish, when Luke recounted the calling of Simon Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, with a miraculous catch of fish, the morning after an unsuccessful night fishing (Luke 5).  Jesus stands in a boat teaching, and afterwards tells them to put down their nets once again.  Simon Peter says, at your word, I will put down the nets again and they catch so many fish that the boat and a second boat begin to sink.  Simon Peter’s faith has been answered, and his response is to fall to his knees, confessing, depart from me for I am a sinful man.  Jesus responds, come with me and I will make you a fisher of men.  Simon Peter, James and John all walk away from their old life to follow Christ.

Now we are in the days after Jesus’ crucifixion, and you can imagine the disciple’s state of mind.  There have been a couple miraculous appearances for sure, but really just party tricks.  What comes next after those three years when they had a clear mission, following this man Jesus, who is still such a mystery to them all.  We have not yet had the opening of minds that was to occur, the remaining in the city and the coming of the Spirit.  You can certainly imagine that there is much confusion and sadness, some fear, lots of uncertainty.  And we have not yet seen the glorious ascension of Jesus.  The disciples are perhaps returning to something that is still familiar, the ebb and flow of the life of a commercial fishermen.  In their confusion, restarting the family business probably seems like a good step to bring back that certainty and stability that they feel bereft of in the absence of Jesus.  I certainly know that feeling – when everything around you seems to be turning to absolute crud, finding your way back to a comfortable routine of an earlier day can bring a sort of shallow, thin comfort.  If that is all you have to keep you going, if a return to a past pattern is the best option, it’s maybe understandable that the disciples have chosen this path.  This was not, however, God’s plan for this group.

At this end of Jesus’ earthly ministry we have an encounter similar to the earlier calling of the 12, with a miraculous catch of fish because of the intervention of the God of all.  What struck me about these two accounts are the similarities, and the point I think is made in the pattern that is reinforced by a similar encounter post-resurrection.  Notice that in both fishing stories, this one in John, and the earlier in Luke 5, the fishermen have spent an unsuccessful night fishing. That is, by their best efforts, they have managed to catch nothing except a dark night of exhaustion.

This is invariably the results of our best efforts.  Sure, sometimes we succeed wondrously, but too soon thereafter we find ourselves yearning for something more.  If we can’t find that something more where we are, we move on…moving marriage, moving jobs, moving cities, moving relationships, until we can find a new success that fills in that empty spot.  What we buy through our effort is some relief from that dark night, a distraction that permits us to forget that our best efforts will ultimately only fill in that need for a fleeting moment before our emptiness again overwhelms us.  So it was for the disciples on both of those dark nights…exhaustion and empty nets after the best they could offer.  If fishing would not be their salvation, what could they possibly turn to except the same call they had heard three years earlier, “Follow me”?

It is only by the intervention of Jesus, by the supernatural bursting forth into the midst of the natural, that the nets are filled.  Once he intervenes suddenly their efforts bear great fruit, two sinking boats of fish, or in this account 153 fish and a free breakfast at the hand of the Creator of all that was, is and will be.  You can understand why they did not dare to ask him ‘Who are you?’ for they all knew and must have wondered what could this mean.  Filled with joy in the moment for it all made sense with Jesus next to them serving breakfast.  The other thing that always strikes me about this scene is the practical nature of Christ’s ministry.  After a long night on shift, on duty, standing sentry on a cold and rainy night or perhaps sitting in a military alert facility somewhere, when you’re drained of all that you can offer and want nothing but a warm bed and glorious oblivion from your failures…what more could you ask for then a hot breakfast on a beach?

This is an important lesson about dependence, about how we keep ourselves aligned with Christ in this modern age of wonder.  The reason this encounter is so similar to the one at the start of their ministry is so that Christ can reinforce this point in their minds, for he knows all too well what is to come in the years ahead.  Even before our breakfast has settled we hear the dramatic foreboding of what is to come for Simon Peter, “…you used to fasten your own belt…someone else will fasten it now…to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”  This is a second important point, that the filling of us with the food of Christ does not guarantee us smooth sailing for ever and ever Amen.  The reality is often the contrary.  If nothing else, having a vision of what the world will become gives us a particular view of the horrors that we hear on the news nightly.  Instead of just learning about another bombing in Belgium, or mass killings in Africa, we also see in each of those events the fundamental brokenness of creation and how far we have fallen from God’s plan.  A Christian, by virtue of our other-worldly perspective, bears those sorrows more acutely than a non-believer.  While we may not be called to have that belt of martyrdom placed around our waist, we nevertheless share in the burden of suffering in the world.  We are also aware of the multitude of our brothers and sisters around the world who are modern martyrs for the faith, more in recent history than all of what happened in the 1,900 years before.

It is only through Christ that we may find the food that fills us up so that we hunger no more, and only through Christ that we find the true abundance.  There are two more things to pull out of this teaching moment.  First, that the filling up that comes with Christ happens by faith regardless of what your actual personal situation happens to be at that moment.  You could be in the midst of a personal disaster or tragedy of epic proportions, and Christ continues to fill you.

Second, it is important to realize that the disciples only enter into the place where they can be filled up with the food of Christ…after the dark night of frustration and exhaustion.  I was chatting with a co-worker this week who runs the youth group in her parish, and she was complaining about the young adults in her group who have no understanding of the place of suffering, and indeed of the critical need for suffering as a force that shapes us.  She had been through a difficult family life and had come to realize how those challenges had built in her resilience and more importantly a real sense of her dependence on Christ.  By contrast, many of the youth from well-off families had never known need, and had never even considered that there might be a day of need.  When those individuals were struck with one of those crises that inevitably come upon each of us, they were left staggering because they had no idea of how to face that burden.

So, the disciples only come into that blessing of abundance, after they have walked through the dark night of effort that wins them nothing but blisters and exhaustion, and the nourishing breakfast that awaits them may just be the precursor to a martyr’s death.  But this story, even in the horrors it may contain, is blessing in the name of Christ!  That is a truly outrageous thing to say.  I was reading an atheist’s blog this week, and he was encouraging his fellow non-believers to sit in church on Sunday and challenge the clergy whenever they said something irrational and contrary to logic.  As I read about his anger and frustration it struck me that much of what I preach will fall into his definition of irrational muck.  That is one of the realities of our faith, as we’re told clearly in Scripture, that what we preach and live is foolishness to the wise (meaning those who think themselves wise).  It is only by embracing the foolishness of Christ that we can truly come into our real inheritance as children of the Most High.

Why is this view of our faith important?  It is too easy for us to succumb to despair when faced with the intense brokenness of this world, and of all those around us.  I was at a concert a few weeks back and heard the band Metric sing these lyrics, reflecting on if they had really made any impact on the suffering world:

“When I get to the bottom of it I sink
Seems like nothing I said, Ever meant anything, But a headline over my head
Thought I made a stand, Only made a scene
There’s no feast for the underfed, All the unknown, dying or dead
Keep showing up in my dreams, They stand at the end of my bed
Have I ever really helped anybody but myself?”  “Dreams so real”, Metric

These are powerful words, particularly if you think that the onus to fix all the underfed, unknown, dying or dead rests entirely on your shoulders.  It is right to ask the question, have I ever really helped anybody by myself?  But we also know the answer to that question, and that we have a path out of that state.  This is clearly stated by the poet, WH Auden in his poem, Horae Canonicae, in the section named ‘Vespers’.  All of the creation turns on one reality, as Auden writes about the meeting of two dissimilar and disliking people at the cross-roads:

…cannot resist meeting to remind the other … of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget forcing us both, for a fraction of a second, to remember our victim (but for him I could forget the blood, but for me he could forget the innocence) on whose immolation (call him Abel, Remus, whom you will, it is one Sin Offering) arcadias, utopias, our dear old bag of a democracy, are alike founded: For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.

For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.  While we can ask ourselves the question, “Have I ever really helped anyone but myself?” the answer to that question, and indeed to all of our yearning questions about why and when is that final line: For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.

That foolishness continues when we look at what is happening in John’s Revelation.  I had forgotten the depth of the power of John’s account of his vision and found several times as I was reading the text that I was reduced to tears by the power and beauty he recounts.  In fact, it is important for us to realize that rather than Revelation being some puzzle that needs to be unlocked to learn when it is exactly that the head of the European Union will become the anti-Christ, or if Obama is really ushering in the end times, Revelation is fundamentally a manual about how to be a disciple in a challenging world, and these two chapters, 4 and 5, are the keys to understanding everything else that John relates.

John is taken into the highest heaven in Revelation 4 and recounts for us as best he can with human language what it is he sees before him…look!  A door in heaven!  Look! A throne!  Look! One sitting on the throne! Surrounded by all sorts of heavenly creatures and elders who seem to have no other task than to sing, Holy, Holy, Holy and to constantly fall on their faces before that One sitting on the throne.  Suddenly, you know on a visceral level that everything is going to be alright, for whatever happens in the European Union, there is a someone sitting on that throne in heaven.

Now into chapter 5 and the words we heard today, for there is now one worthy to break the seven seals and to read the sacred scroll.  This is the Lion of Judah, the Root of David who has conquered…but not conquered like an army of people, but has conquered by being slain.  The Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world does so not by causing harm to wrong-doers, but rather by taking on to himself all the harm that the world can do.  This is what John sees, not a massive lion full of force and fury, but rather a lamb with the appearance of being slain, but with seven horns (representing perfect authority) and seven eyes (representing perfect knowledge).  Around that Lamb an uncountable host all singing with one voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing…”

And this is the point that any atheists wanting to catch me in irrational and outrageous statements should jump up and call me a phony…

The song of praise continues, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!” At which the living creatures utter “Amen” and the elders once more fall on their faces.

Now, what we are to take from this image is unfortunately cut off of the reading snippet for today, because it is the prior verse that outlines exactly what the impact of this Lamb that was slain has on all of us:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev 5:9-10, ESV).

By that slain Lamb, we have become a people ransomed, and moreover have had for us made a kingdom, and further in still, have been made priests of the Most High.  Amen, amen and amen.

We continue to walk out our discipleship in these Sundays after Easter, learning about what it was that caused the growth of our faith from that small group of followers.  Today we hear another snippet of John’s Revelation and the recounting of the miraculous catch of fish, this one from after the resurrection.  I want to start with the catch of fish, because there is an important teaching embedded there, before moving on to speak about the Lamb upon the Throne.

Just to situate us in the narrative sequence, a sequence unique to John’s Gospel, Jesus has appeared a couple of times to the disciples gathered in a locked room.  The next encounter is sometimes called the ‘annex’ of John’s Gospel, as we’ve already heard what sounded like a concluding statement, that Jesus did many other signs that were not recorded.  John recounts a post-resurrection fishing expedition.  The expedition ends with the famous three-fold undoing of Simon Peter’s three-fold denial: Simon, do you love me?  Jesus asks three times, but I’m not going to focus on that.

What I will focus on is this interesting encounter with the disciples and a miraculous catch of fish.  This is a mirror event of an earlier catch of fish, when Luke recounted the calling of Simon Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, with a miraculous catch of fish, the morning after an unsuccessful night fishing (Luke 5).  Jesus stands in a boat teaching, and afterwards tells them to put down their nets once again.  Simon Peter says, at your word, I will put down the nets again and they catch so many fish that the boat and a second boat begin to sink.  Simon Peter’s faith has been answered, and his response is to fall to his knees, confessing, depart from me for I am a sinful man.  Jesus responds, come with me and I will make you a fisher of men.  Simon Peter, James and John all walk away from their old life to follow Christ.

Now roll forward three years, and we are in the days after Jesus’ crucifixion.  You can imagine the disciple’s state of mind.  There have been a couple miraculous appearances for sure, but really just party tricks.  What comes next…after those three years when they had a clear mission, following this man Jesus, who is still such a mystery to them all.  We have not yet had the opening of minds that was to occur, the remaining in the city and the coming of the Spirit.  And we have not yet seen the glorious ascension of Jesus.  You can certainly imagine that there is much confusion and sadness, some fear, lots of uncertainty.  The disciples are perhaps returning to something that is still familiar, the ebb and flow of the life of a commercial fishermen…at least it was something they knew.  In their confusion, restarting the family business probably seems like a good step to bring back that certainty and stability that they feel bereft of in the absence of Jesus.  I certainly know that feeling – when everything around you seems to be turning to absolute crud, finding your way back to a comfortable routine of an earlier day can bring a sort of shallow, thin comfort.  If that is all you have to keep you going, if a return to a past pattern is the best option, it’s maybe understandable that the disciples have chosen this path.  This was not, however, God’s plan for this group.

At this end of Jesus’ earthly ministry we have an encounter similar to the earlier calling of the 12, with a miraculous catch of fish because of the intervention of the God of all.  What struck me about these two accounts are the similarities, and the point I think is made in the pattern that is reinforced by a similar encounter post-resurrection.  Notice that in both fishing stories, this one in John, and the earlier in Luke 5, the fishermen have spent an unsuccessful night fishing. That is, by their best efforts, they have managed to catch nothing except a dark night of exhaustion.

This is invariably the result of our best efforts.  Sure, sometimes we succeed wondrously, but too soon thereafter we find ourselves yearning for something more.  If we can’t find that something more where we are, we move on…moving marriage, moving jobs, moving cities, moving relationships, until we can find a new success that fills in that empty spot.  What we buy through our effort is some relief from that dark night, a distraction that permits us to forget that our best efforts will ultimately only fill in that need for a fleeting moment before our emptiness again overwhelms us.  So it was for the disciples on both of those dark nights…exhaustion and empty nets after the best they could offer.  If fishing would not be their salvation, what could they possibly turn to except the same call they had heard three years earlier, “Follow me”?

It is only by the intervention of Jesus, by the supernatural bursting forth into the midst of the natural, that the nets are filled.  Once he intervenes suddenly their efforts bear great fruit, two sinking boats of fish, or in this account 153 fish and a free breakfast at the hand of the Creator of all that was, is and will be.  You can understand why they did not dare to ask him ‘Who are you?’ for they all knew and must have wondered what could this mean.  Filled with joy in the moment for it all made sense with Jesus next to them serving breakfast.  The other thing that always strikes me about this scene is the practical nature of Christ’s ministry.  After a long night on shift, on duty, standing sentry on a cold and rainy night or perhaps sitting in a military alert facility somewhere, when you’re drained of all that you can offer and want nothing but a warm bed and glorious oblivion from your failures…what more could you ask for then a hot breakfast on a beach?

This is an important lesson about dependence, about how we keep ourselves aligned with Christ in this modern age of wonder.  The reason this encounter is so similar to the one at the start of their ministry is so that Christ can reinforce this point in their minds, for he knows all too well what is to come in the years ahead.  Even before our breakfast has settled we hear the dramatic foreboding of what is to come for Simon Peter, “…you used to fasten your own belt…someone else will fasten it now…to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”  This is a second important point, that the filling of us with the food of Christ does not guarantee us smooth sailing for ever and ever Amen.  The reality is often the contrary.  If nothing else, having a vision of what the world will become gives us a particular view of the horrors that we hear on the news nightly.  Instead of just learning about another bombing in Belgium, or mass killings in Africa, we also see in each of those events the fundamental brokenness of creation and how far we have fallen from God’s plan.  A Christian, by virtue of our other-worldly perspective, bears those sorrows more acutely than a non-believer.  While we may not be called to have that belt of martyrdom placed around our waist, we nevertheless share in the burden of suffering in the world.  We are also aware of the multitude of our brothers and sisters around the world who are modern martyrs for the faith, more in recent history than all of what happened in the 1,900 years before. This is the cross of Christ.

It is only through Christ that we may find the food that fills us up so that we hunger no more, and only through Christ that we find the true abundance.  There are two more things to pull out of this teaching moment.  First, that the filling up that comes with Christ happens by faith regardless of what your actual personal situation happens to be at that moment.  You could be in the midst of a personal disaster or tragedy of epic proportions, and Christ continues to fill you.

Second, it is important to realize that the disciples only enter into the place where they can be filled up with the food of Christ…after the dark night of frustration and exhaustion.  I was chatting with a co-worker this week who runs the youth group in her parish, and she was complaining about the young adults in her group who have no understanding of the place of suffering, and indeed of the critical need for suffering as a force that shapes us.  She had been through a difficult family life and had come to realize how those challenges had built in her resilience and more importantly a real sense of her dependence on Christ.  By contrast, many of the youth from well-off families had never known need, and had never even considered that there might be a day of need.  When those individuals were struck with one of those crises that inevitably come upon each of us, they were left staggering because they had no idea of how to face that burden.

So, the disciples only come into that blessing of abundance, after they have walked through the dark night of effort that wins them nothing but blisters and exhaustion, and the nourishing breakfast that awaits them may just be the precursor to a martyr’s death.  But this story, even in the horrors it may contain, is blessing in the name of Christ!  That is a truly outrageous thing to say.  I was reading an atheist’s blog this week, and he was encouraging his fellow non-believers to sit in church on Sunday and challenge the clergy whenever they said something irrational and contrary to logic.  As I read about his anger and frustration it struck me that much of what I preach will fall into his definition of irrational muck.  That is one of the realities of our faith, as we’re told clearly in Scripture, that what we preach and live is foolishness to the wise (meaning those who think themselves wise).  It is only by embracing the foolishness of Christ that we can truly come into our real inheritance as children of the Most High.

Why is this view of our faith important?  It is too easy for us to succumb to despair when faced with the intense brokenness of this world, and of all those around us.  I was at a concert a few weeks back and heard the band Metric sing these lyrics, reflecting if they had really made any impact on the suffering world:

“When I get to the bottom of it I sink
Seems like nothing I said, Ever meant anything, But a headline over my head
Thought I made a stand, Only made a scene
There’s no feast for the underfed, All the unknown, dying or dead
Keep showing up in my dreams, They stand at the end of my bed
Have I ever really helped anybody but myself?”  “Dreams so real”, Metric

These are powerful words, particularly if you think that the onus to fix all the underfed, unknown, dying or dead rests entirely on your shoulders.  It is right to ask the question, have I ever really helped anybody by myself?  But we also know the answer to that question, and that we have a path out of that state through Christ.  This is clearly stated by the poet, WH Auden in his poem, Horae Canonicae, in the section named ‘Vespers’.  All of the creation turns on one reality, as Auden writes about the meeting of two dissimilar and adversarial people at the cross-roads:

“…[we] cannot resist meeting to remind the other … of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget forcing us both, for a fraction of a second, to remember our victim (but for him I could forget the blood, but for me he could forget the innocence) … For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.”

For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.  While we can ask ourselves the question, “Have I ever really helped anyone but myself?” the answer to that question, and indeed to all of our yearning questions about why and when is that final line: For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.  The very glue that holds the creation together is Christ.  We are called to be intercessors in the creation, but the obligation to repair all the brokenness does not rest on our shoulders.

That foolishness continues when we look at what is happening in John’s Revelation.  I had forgotten the depth of the power of John’s account of his vision and found several times as I was reading the text that I was reduced to tears by the power and beauty he recounts.  In fact, it is important for us to realize that rather than Revelation being some puzzle that needs to be unlocked to learn when it is exactly that the head of the European Union will become the anti-Christ, or if Obama is really ushering in the end times, Revelation is fundamentally a manual about how to be a disciple in a challenging world, and these two chapters, 4 and 5, are the keys to understanding everything else that John relates.

John is taken into the highest heaven in Revelation 4 and recounts for us as best he can with human language what it is he sees before him…look!  A door in heaven!  Look! A throne!  Look! One sitting on the throne! Surrounded by all sorts of heavenly creatures and elders who seem to have no other task than to sing, Holy, Holy, Holy and to constantly fall on their faces before that One sitting on the throne.  Suddenly, you know on a visceral level that everything is going to be alright, for whatever happens in the European Union, there is a someone sitting on that throne in heaven.

Now into chapter 5 and the words we heard today, for there is now one worthy to break the seven seals and to read the sacred scroll.  This is the Lion of Judah, the Root of David who has conquered…but not conquered like an army of people, but has conquered by being slain.  The Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world does so not by causing harm to wrong-doers, but rather by taking on to himself all the harm that the world can do.  This is what John sees, not a massive lion full of force and fury, but rather a lamb with the appearance of being slain, but with seven horns (representing perfect authority) and seven eyes (representing perfect knowledge).  Around that Lamb an uncountable host all singing with one voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing…”

And this is the point that any atheists wanting to catch me in irrational and outrageous statements should jump up and demand I return my engineering license…

The song of praise continues, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!” At which the living creatures utter “Amen” and the elders once more fall on their faces.

Now, what we are to take from this image is unfortunately cut off of the reading snippet for today, because it is the prior verse that outlines exactly what the impact of this Lamb that was slain has on all of us:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev 5:9-10, ESV).

By that slain Lamb, we have become a people ransomed, and moreover have had for us made a kingdom, and further in still, have been made priests of the Most High.  Amen, amen and amen.

——————–

I’ve based portions of the material on Revelation off of Darrell W. Johnson’s excellent book, Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation, Regent College Publishing, 2004, and specifically Chapter 12, “Reigning with the Reigning Lamb”.  In particular the three-fold message of discipleship that comes from the Lamb upon the Throne (which didn’t literally make it in, but coloured my reading of everything).

Also thanks to Metric for an awesome show, and for bringing me to understand the song, “Dreams so Real” in a way I had never heard it before.

Thanks to my daughter for asking me to include WH Auden as it led me to Horae Canonicae, a wonderful poem.

The stuff about fishing is my personal musing.

Thanks be to God for continuing to bless me with these musings, and for holding the flood of images back enough that my mind can grasp a small fraction of what is streaming through my soul.  May I continue to be as irrational as God calls me to be.

 

 

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Written by sameo416

April 9, 2016 at 6:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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