Listening and Leaping

John 21:1-13Hebrews 10 & 11

What does it mean to take a risk?

It was a year and a half ago. Elizabeth and I were in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. I chose to spend the afternoon on the high ropes course. Don’t ask me what high ropes has to do with making peace, but it sounded fun, and I gave it a shot. Have any of you done high ropes courses before? There’s wall-climbing and tightrope walking while swinging from ropes, all at about thirty feet in the air. The whole time, you’re tied in and sturdy people with sturdy gloves stand on the ground to hold your support rope just in case you slip. I loved the high ropes – that is, until I got to the trapeze.

From the ground, I climbed up this thirty-foot tall telephone pole. That was no problem – just like climbing a ladder. When I got to the top, I remembered to take a moment and soak in the incredible vistas of the Southwestern topography; that is, until the wind began to blow. The pole, which now has my fingernail marks in it, began to sway ever so subtly. The next step was the most terrifying, however: to move from a position where I had my hands on top of the pole to standing upright on top of the pole. The whole way through, those on the ground reassured me and shouted their encouragements. Every muscle in my body shook in anxiety and anticipation. But I made it. And from there, I had to leap out to grab a trapeze which was probably no more than a few feet but seemed like 1000 miles away. I took a few deep breaths and then jumped...

Now here’s the thing: I knew that the people on the ground had me securely in their grasp. Through each of the high ropes’ challenges, they let me know that they were supporting me. And I knew that the equipment was reliable. And had I been climbing a pole that was three feet high, I would not have felt the terror I knew at thirty. So in essence, it was purely a situation of mind over matter, of casting aside the reality of being so high up in the air and unsteady in my footsteps in the blowing breeze and trusting the voices of those below who held me safely.

What does it mean to take a risk? And what does it mean to take a risk in the ministry that we do? I’m not suggesting bungee jumping for Jesus or anything like that, although it does sound fun. But I do wonder if there is something to be said for listening to those trustworthy voices that hold us steady and being willing to leap out and take that chance?

It strikes me that there is something to be learned in our lesson from the gospel of John this morning. It is mere days after the crucifixion and resurrection, and seven of the remaining eleven disciples have retreated back north and gone back to their old work, casting nets and catching fish. It seems likely that they would be disillusioned and disappointed at this point in time. The kingdom that they had expected has failed to materialize. And even though Christ has miraculously risen from the dead and shared meals with them in Emmaeus and Jerusalem, this still isn’t what they signed up for. He was supposed to be the earthly king, and they were destined to be his royal court. Their three years of ministry with him have proven to be a failure, and so they have hung their heads as much in fear as in shame, have treated back home, and gone back to fishing. And they’re not even any good at that any more. They’ve been at it all night, and have not caught a single fish.

It is then that Jesus appears, standing on the shore, suggesting they try the other side. They listen to him, and take that chance, the resulting catch is miraculous in its size and immediacy, they recognize it is Christ, and they return to shore to share a meal once again with their risen Lord.

Some have suggested that Jesus had a better vantage point standing on the shore, and that he could see what the disciples could not: that the other side of the boat was teeming with fish. That may be the case, but that’s not really the point that John is trying to convey. Instead, it should call to mind for the disciples when Jesus first called them from their task. The moment was almost identical: an all-night failed fishing expedition, a simple suggestion of casting the nets in a different spot, and a miraculous haul. And the response that first time? They dropped their nets, left their boats, and followed him. Jesus comes again to these disillusioned, disappointed, dispersed disciples and reminds them of the ministry for which they signed up in the first place. He pulls them from their failed fishing venture and puts them on the path of the witness to which he had originally called them.

Do you ever find yourself in a rut? Do you put yourself through the motions, keep your head down, nose to the grindstone, stick with the familiar not because it’s working, but because it’s what you know? Is risk even a part of the picture right now, or is even the mere thought of it beyond the realm of possibility?

I met Don a few months ago when he came and spoke to our Brookhaven Christian Ministry fellowship. Don is a member at Brookhaven Methodist on North Druid Hills, leading a weekly ministry for men and women in recovery and struggling with painful addictions. But getting to this place of witness has had its own share of risks and ruts.

sermonsMarthame Sanders