Jesus transforms our familiar places

Sermon Notes for 041016
Title: Jesus transforms our familiar places
Text: John 21:1-19     Also: Acts 9:1-6

Jesus meets us where we are, as we are, but does not leave us or the place unchanged.
When we encounter the resurrected Christ, we will be transformed, if we don’t run away.

The notes below are prepared in advance in a process of reflection on the text.
They do not represent a manuscript of the sermon.

Listen to the sermon audio here.


Jesus transforms our familiar places.

Where do you go, in reality or in your imagination, when you feel lost and don’t know where to turn? What are your safe places, your happy places, your sanctuaries? Where do you feel most comfortable, most at home?

For the earliest disciples, one of these places was on the water, in their fishing boats. Here they knew what to do – so well they didn’t even have to think about it. You know how it feels to get into that zone where muscle memory takes over and your subconscious can guide you while your conscious mind takes a break from everything? This is what happens when we drive down the highway and realize we don’t remember the last 10 miles. Often it is engaging in some kind of physical activity – gardening, yard or house work, a hobby like playing an instrument, painting, wood working. So there is a physical location, and often an activity of some kind. And there are the relationships that exist (or not) in these places and activities. The people you know, with whom you work or play, with whom you share memory, story, history.

When we don’t know where else to go, we go there. How often do people journey back to their childhood homes, in person, in memory, and in dream, to rehearse, recall, and relive formative moments? “Perhaps,” we think, “the people, places and activities that formed me once will re-form me now that I’m feeling dis-integrated.”

Encounters with Jesus, and with the God we encounter through him, can be disorienting. They can dis-integrate our self-understanding and the values that provide a foundation for our lives. The messages around and within us say to build walls and separate good from bad. God says all that I have made are good. We are taught to distinguish friend from enemy – to love the one and hate the other. God says to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. We behave as though we can, should, or must perform with righteousness and perfection so that God will love us. God says that we are beloved because God made us, and that any good actions flow from within us out of this reservoir of knowing we are loved.


And our world tells us Y.O.L.O.  – You Only Live Once! Get everything you can here and now, because this is all that counts. God tells us that death does not win, that life and love are bigger than death. We live in fear. And the Risen Jesus invites us to live in hope and faith instead.

Disorienting, indeed.

And so we go fishing, because we don’t really know what else to do. We stay busy, doing what we know, what is comfortable and feels concrete and solid.

And today’s story tells us this is absolutely OK, because Jesus will come and find us there.

It also says that Jesus will not just leave us alone. Jesus will transform us, and our familiar places.

The 4 resurrection encounters between Jesus and the disciples occur in familiar places. First Jesus appears to Mary Magdelene among the tombs where they had laid Jesus’ body. Mary thus becomes the “Apostle to the Apostles”. Next Jesus appears behind locked doors in an unspecified but familiar home (perhaps the home of the Upper Room in Jerusalem). Then eight days later Jesus appears to them there again, this time with Thomas present. And the final story takes place in Galillee, at the Sea of Tiberias where Jesus first met Simon, Andrew, James and John at their fishing boats and called them to follow him and become “fishers of men.”

All three locations were places of comfort, places of history with Jesus and with one another. They were the places that these disciples might be reminded of their previous encounters with Jesus and the way things used to be.

What are those places for you? Where might you go to remember the way things used to be? What places represent and remind you of your previous encounters with Jesus? Perhaps it is a church campground. Or your childhood church home, or your grandparents’ house, or even here, in this very space. When you arrive in those places, in this place, are you transported to an earlier time and suddenly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses? Do you see, hear, smell and touch the familiar and have your faith undergirded and your heart comforted during times of distress because of the great heritage and legacy that enfolds you?

IF so, then you understand what the apostles were doing. They were going back to what they knew. Even after they encounter the risen Jesus twice, these guys still don’t really know what to do with themselves, so they, perhaps in stereotypical guy fashion, go fishing.

Let’s pause for another moment and consider this.

These are people who have journeyed with Jesus for three years. He has been in their homes. They have heard and believed his teaching. He has given them power over forces of darkness – power to support healing and transformation in the lives of their neighbors. They witnessed his crucifixion, saw his body laid in the tomb, and now have met him, touched him, eaten with him risen from the dead. And they go fishing. Granted, many a true angler will say that few places bring them closer to God than on the water, focused and attuned to the rhythms of nature. Be that as it may, I don’t think this is what’s going on here.

They have yet to capture (or be captured by…) a vision for their future life and ministry together. And in the absence of a new vision, they just keep doing what they’ve always done. In their previous relationship with Jesus, they were accustomed to him leading the action, and then delegating specific assignments to them. “OK, Peter, I want you to go north, while James and John go south.”

They lacked not only the vision, but the power and the organization to carry out the vision. They had not as yet received the Great Commission about which we read in Matthew 28. They do not understand themselves to be empowered to take initiative in bringing the kingdom of God about which Jesus preached so frequently and for which he taught them to pray. They are still relying on Jesus to initiate and guide all of the work. The Holy Spirit’s anointing, though mentioned by Jesus in John 20:22, has not yet fully come upon them.

In some ways we may be like these disciples just a few weeks after Easter. We have had experiences of Jesus. He has taught us and led us, but we are not sure how to take the initiative. We lack the confidence to forge ahead, trusting that God’s power of resurrection and transformation will be available when we need it. We have celebrated, rejoiced, and worshiped the risen Christ, and now we so easily slip back into our old familiar places, with their activities and relationships still intact.

But the good news and the bad news is that Jesus transforms our familiar places, and the activities and relationships we know there. Jesus does not leave us alone once we have given our lives to him. He makes these old places new, and in the process seeks to make us new.

Perhaps we are like the disciples in another way. We return to the old and familiar, but things don’t work for us the same way anymore. Now that we have encountered the Risen Christ, we simply aren’t able to go back to the way things used to be. We are different, and we now recognize that the world is different, even if we don’t quite know what to do about it. We cast our nets like usual, but catch nothing. Jesus has ruined us for the old ways of being and doing. They no longer satisfy as they once did. The familiar places are transformed, because we are transformed.

And now what? I wish there were three simple steps we could take that would put things back in order. We won’t go back to how things were. The past is gone, never to return. What we do have is practices that can put us in a better posture to receive what God has for us next.

  • Keep showing up. That sounds simple because it is simple. As we saw earlier, it is ok and good and right to return to those familiar places, just don’t expect things to be as they once were. Which brings us to practice #2.
  • Open your heart and mind to something new, or to doing the old things in new ways. If we keep expecting the old ways to work, we will continue to be disappointed. Jesus calls us to something new. He proclaims, “I make all things new!”
  • Do some new things, even if they don’t seem to make sense, or even seem silly. This story represents the second time in the gospels that these professional fishermen had worked all night but caught nothing. Along comes Jesus, who is not a fisherman, and tells them, “Try casting your net on the other side.” Try the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Try it upside down or backwards. Risk failure. Risk looking foolish.

We find ourselves on familiar ground, doing familiar things, but not getting the results we need or want. We look around and realize that though we may not know fully how to walk forward into the future, we cannot go back to the past. That is at times unsettling and even scary, which is why we return to the familiar places. The risen Christ will meet us there. He will meet us here, and he transform our familiar places, and us along with them, so that we can work together to usher in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, right here in our own communities.

The Question of Ministry

“If the question is ministry… the answer is ‘Yes.’” *

1) Proclaim the Gospel – God’s “Good News”
2) Make Disciples of Jesus among all peoples

These two central tasks of The Church are also responsibilities of every local congregation. At their core, they both necessitate regularly dreaming, developing and deploying new ministries.

If “Proclaim the Gospel” is our calling and our goal, then ministry is how we do that – whether preaching, teaching, planning and leading worship, or feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and those in prison. Through time we will need to develop new ways to do these ancient tasks – as we change and the community around us changes – to meet people’s need and ability to hear and respond.

We “Make Disciples” when we help people respond to the call Jesus places on their lives to follow Him (Matthew 4), and then help them grow toward maturity in him (Ephesians 4). As a result of their response to Jesus, they will engage in ministry, and some (many?) will be led to develop new ministries or expand existing ones in new ways.

So to accomplish these most basic goals of our purpose as a church – “Proclaim the Gospel” and “Make Disciples” – we will need to be developing new ministries.

How does this happen?

  • Sometimes we will be brought or become aware of a need, and we will want to respond to it.
  • Other times we will go out, explore and ask questions, thus identifying an opportunity for ministry.
  • And still other times someone will have an interest or passion, and feel prompted to imagine a new ministry emerging in that area.

Our responsibility as a congregation is to nurture and support these developments.

How do we do this?

  • We preach and teach, promote and encourage, that people imagine and explore new ministry opportunities. “Every follower of Christ is ordained to ministry at baptism.”
  • We invite people into conversation to think about what they need to be successful.

Some questions we ask early on:

  • How does it make stewardship use of our resources and assets?
  • How can it make a positive impact in some way?
  • How can we support people as they pursue this idea?
  • How might it impact our other ministries? Confer with those leaders early.
  • How will it help people connect with God, self, each other, their neighbors?
  • Who else might want to be a part of this project?

Some questions we hold till later:

  • Do we have enough people to make this work?
  • Do we have enough knowledge or skill? Do we know how to do it?
  • Do we have enough money or other resources to make this work?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Will everyone want to participate?
  • Will everyone be happy about this?
  • Will we be able to sustain it long term?
  • Did we try it before and it failed? If so, do we know why?
  • What are the obstacles that might prevent success?

Our responsibility is not to find obstacles and reasons why something can’t or shouldn’t happen. Our task is to look and listen for the new things that God desires to do among us (Isaiah 43:19).

Some of our ministries are simply “the things churches do” –worship, teach, pray, fellowship, serve others, study scripture and theology. In these areas there is always opportunity for exploring new expressions that will touch hearts, minds and lives in new ways, even while honoring our heritage and the things that have spoken most deeply to our souls through many decades.

Others may fall outside of what we think of as “traditional” ministries. Keep in mind that Sunday School, so central to 20th century church life, was a novel and disruptive innovation in the 19th century.

Let’s remember also that you and I needn’t have any interest or ability in a particular area in order for us to be encouraging and supportive of someone else’s efforts to start a new ministry. Paul’s teaching about the various parts of the Body of Christ is particularly helpful here (Romans 12 & 1 Corinthians 12).

We are surrounded by a culture of scarcity, of limited resources, of win/lose propositions. In contrast, the Bible tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24). There is no real lack of resources. There is more than enough to accomplish all that God desires. If we will do our part, make the contribution that is ours to give, then God promises to do the rest. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. (Malachi 3:10) We have no way of knowing how, when, from whom or where God will make provision. What we do have is this promise: God can do “immeasurably far more than all we can ask or imagine, according to his power that is [already] at work within us.” (Ephesians 3).

Church, as we approach the season of Giving Thanks, and await the Advent of God’s appearing, let us hope and pray that we may be faithful, and in turn that we may…

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

* Thanks to one of my mentors, Rev. Dr. Larry Ross, for the introductory quote. I have heard him say this repeatedly over the last 15 years, and I think it is such an important starting principle for congregations, judicatories, and other ministries.