Sunday, May 5, 2019
REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Acts 9 and John 21
We read in the Gospel lesson that Peter decides to go fishing. “I’m going fishing – want to come?” And Thomas, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee – James and John – say “We’re in!” They get in the boat and go out into the water aways and just like old times, throw their nets over the side and wait. And they wait all night long, and no fish.
It’s strange how they’re back fishing again – weren’t they supposed to have left their nets behind them as they began to follow Jesus? Aren’t they supposed to be fishers of people? Why are they right back at fishing again? Are they staying in their comfort zone?
At daybreak, after a night of no fish in the nets, Jesus appears on the shore – although they do not recognize him. And he shouts across the water to them – ‘No fish? Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ And they cast their nets to the other side of the boat and they catch precisely 153 fish.
First Century zoologist Oppianus Cilix, who wrote in the time of Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor 161-180) estimated the total number of species of fish in the seas as 153. So, by using the number 153, the gospel writer alludes to the fact that God’s net was capable of holding everyone in this world – everyone was included and no one was excluded.
So by doing the opposite of what they routinely did, the disciples were greatly rewarded. By listening to the voice of Jesus on the beach, and throwing their nets to the other side, their nets were filled. In leaving the way they’ve ‘always done it’, they find new possibilities.
The phrase ‘fishing on the other side’ is popular within the United Church of Canada. It was the name given to the 2014 national church’s Comprehensive Review, which resulted in a paper of the same name, ‘Fishing on the Other Side’. This paper encouraged congregations across Canada to look to the other side when thinking about your purpose and your role in the local community and in Canadian society. Inspiration for our recent visioning work at Stouffville United Church has been found in the work of United Church minister John Pentland, especially in his book, ‘Fishing Tips’. John was moved specifically by this passage, in Jesus’ directives to the disciples to fish on the other side. He writes, “We are so accustomed to doing things the way we have always done them, often blindly assuming our way’s the only way … What the call from the shore opens, however, is the way into possibilities and other options … What if we feel the inklings of something new, a new voice asking us to do new things, and even suggesting how? How do we respond to that call?”1
Jesus fished on the other side of everything during his entire ministry – on the other side of town, on the other side of politics, on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of authority. His ministry was on the other side – and truth be told is the side we don’t easily recognize, the side we don’t consider ‘our side’. Jesus is on the shore telling us to look to the other side. Where is the other side for Stouffville United Church? Where is the other side for you as a Christian? As a church, how do we fish on the other side? How do we turn to the other side of our comfort zone? How do we move to what is unknown, to what is unfamiliar, to what is very different?
Ananias is a disciple, or a follower of the ‘Way’ as it was called then. One day, God comes into his life and changes everything. God gives Ananias a vision, to go to a house on a street called Straight. And look for Saul, who will be expecting you. Think back to the beginning of our Acts passage today, where we read that Saul is ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples’, and you can imagine Ananias’ skepticism – you mean I have to stand in front of this man who kills people like me? And yet, God continues to push. God says to Ananias, this Saul will be an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. Could there be anything farther from the truth for Ananias at this moment? That this murderer will now be God’s champion?
Ananias is asked to ‘fish on the other side’. Go where you’ve never gone before – go to the other side of your comfort zone. Ananias trusts in God and he goes to where Saul is, places his hands on him and says what God told him to say – “Brother Saul, Jesus who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy spirit.” And then scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and his sight is restored.
But that’s not the end of it. God isn’t finished with Saul yet. For we read, ‘he got up and was baptized’. Did Ananias baptize him? Did this baptism hold all the joy that we’ve heard about when the Eunuch was baptized by Philip? Or when Jesus was baptized by John and the dove appeared and the words came from heaven, this is my beloved? For someone who had such a spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus, this tiny note about his baptism is almost missed. For this was the moment when Saul gave his ‘Yes’ to God. This was his moment of conversion. In my Baptism materials for United Church of Canada, it says, “Baptism celebrates God’s initiative and our response. It is God’s “Yes” to us, and our “Yes” to God.”2
Saul’s conversion did not happen when he fell down blind and stunned by the voice of Jesu. It did not happen while he waited for 3 days, and it did not happen when Ananias placed his hands on him. But it did happen in the moment of Baptism, when Saul went under the water, and Ananias baptized him, and then, that was when he was filled with the knowledge that he was God’s beloved. In the moment of baptism, we are called and claimed as children of God. This was the moment of Saul’s conversion.
Canadian Theologian Alan Roxburgh writes about the emerging church, in his book, “Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time”. He proposes that the emerging sense of being church will mean that “ … life with Jesus isn’t primarily a private affair or even primarily a church-centered affair … It calls us away from ecclesiocentrism (meaning church-centered) and church questions, and toward a whole set of disruptive questions about what God is up to and how we can join.”3
Disruptive questions. Our scriptures today are filled with disruptive questions. Jesus calls from the beach – Catch any fish?” and then adds, “Try the other side.” Ananias says, “Really?” when God tells him to go to this ruthless murderer of Christians and lay your hands on him. “I’m supposed to do what?” And Ananias will baptize this man in a moment that barely finds ink on the page of the bible. Jesus calls out to Saul, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ And in answer, Saul’s life is turned upside down, and the persecutor will become the persecuted. Saul will become Paul, and he will look to the other side, and find new life there.
All three stories today – the disciples trying to fish; Ananias in his reluctance to follow God’s leading; and Saul on the road to Damascus – all of these stories end in a change of direction, asking for a major change in one’s comfort level. It is an undeniable call to move to the other side of the comfort zone.
The disciples throw the nets to the other side of the boat and their nets are filled to overflowing. Ananias trusts God and walks through his fear and stands before the one who has killed his friends. And Saul, now embraces those who he would have murdered.
When God calls, we can trust we won’t be misled. When God throws disruptive questions our way, it means new life, not the end of life. When God calls, maybe start looking in a new direction.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Fishing Tips, xii.
 Celebrating God’s Presence, 321.
 Alan J. Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time, (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), ix. ffff