Some of you here know what physical therapy is all about. After a particular illness or surgery or accident, often we cannot just get right back up onto our feet again. After that hip surgery or knee replacement, it takes a pretty steady regimen of physical therapy to get back up to 100%. It takes healing and restoring the body before we can just get right back out there. This is especially true of professional athletes who need their bodies in top condition in order to compete. An injury can put a halt to being in the game. But even while on the disabled list, athletes are working hard to be restored again so they can get back in the game.
We see something like that happening with Jesus’ disciples after his death and resurrection. Peter especially collapsed under pressure during the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. And he sees himself as being benched from the game, placed on the disabled list. So all this stuff that Jesus had said before about ushering in the Kingdom of God, and loving our neighbors; that’s all for someone else. Because when it came right down to it, Peter thinks he blew it. Maybe he can still have a spot on the team. But he never expects the coach to ever put him back in again. But look what happens…
Get back in the game, Peter. It’s time for you to understand the mission that Jesus gives to the church. No more sitting on the bench.
So here at the end of John’s gospel we find his version of the Great Commission. Two weeks ago we looked at Matthew 28, the passage probably best known as the Great Commission. Mark’s Gospel ends very abruptly. And Luke’s gospel is really part one of two—since Luke also wrote the book of Acts. So Matthew and John are the two gospels that give us the best glimpse at a Great Commission for the church in how those gospels end. Maybe you’ve never thought of this story from the end of John’s gospel as a Great Commission for the church, but it is. So let’s take a closer look and see what this story has to do with loving our neighbors.
John uses stories to serve as metaphors for commissioning the church on its mission. So the first thing we see happening in this passage is that the disciples decide to spend the night out fishing on the lake. But they do not catch anything. Early in the morning Jesus appears along the shoreline—but they do not recognize it is him. He tells them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. And then they haul in a catch so big they can hardly contain it all.
This is the point in the story where John, the gospel writer, recognizes that it is Jesus. As soon as he announces it to Peter, Peter jumps out of the boat and swims to shore. Picture that detail with me for a moment. Peter was the one who had the idea in the first place of going out to fish. And then when they finally get a catch beyond their wildest imagination, a catch that would require “all-hands-on-deck” to pull this net in, he abandons ship. Peter leaves his post and leave behind this enormous catch of fish. He leaves his companions on their own to do all the work of bringing this catch in to shore—without his help at all. Remember, this is not a mechanized fishing vessel. These men have to drag a net with more fish then it could really hold in a boat that needed to be paddled by oars back to shore. And Peter just leaves them. I don't know about you, but if I was one of those other disciples, I’d be yelling after Peter, “Get back over here! Where do you think you’re going? We need your help here! This was your idea in the first place!”
This story illustrates something for us. It’s not just a story about a miraculous catch of fish. Back when Peter and his brother Andrew first met Jesus for the very first time while they were fishing, when Jesus first called Peter and Andrew to be a disciples, Jesus told him back there in the very beginning that he was going to make them fishers of men. It’s no accident in this story that Jesus again returns to Peter while he is fishing. John is again returning to the analogy that making disciples is like catching fish. It is re-affirming the Great Commission that part of the gospel mission for the church is to make new disciples. Consider how that happens in this story.
It’s the disciples that are out in the boat. The disciples are the ones doing the work of fishing. The disciples are the ones responsible for casting the nets, pulling the nets in, steering the boat, and bringing the catch in to shore. But Jesus is still assisting the disciples with their catch of fish. It’s Jesus who is on shore telling the disciples to cast their nets. And the miraculous part of this story that is so instructive for us is that it is Jesus who ultimately brings the fish into the nets.
Do you see how these things work together? Jesus brings the fish into the nets. But it is the disciples who are given the responsibility of casting the nets, steering the boat, and pulling the nets in. Jesus told Peter from the very beginning that he would be a fisher of men. This is the mission of the church. We in the church are given the responsibility of casting out nets, of steering the boat, of pulling in the nets. Jesus is the one who brings the fish into the nets. We in the church are given the responsibility of seeking out those in our communities who are hurt and broken and far from God. We in the church are responsible for the work of going out and loving our neighbors. You and I, we cannot bring them into the nets. In other words, you and I cannot change people’s hearts. Only God can do that part. Only Jesus can bring them into the net. But when he does that; when God changes a person’s heart; when Jesus brings someone into the net, it is given back over to us in the church to pull that net in. It is given to us to bring that person in to the fellowship of God’s family in the church.
You see how this works? It is not completely our task to convert new Christians and make new disciples. But God gives us an important role in the process that is the primary mission of his church. So given that Jesus invites us to be a part of this mission, we cannot simply build a church building, open the doors, and say, “Okay Jesus, bring them in.” We cannot say that any more than the disciples could simply stand on the shore and say to Jesus, “Okay Jesus, you go out in the boat and you cast the net and you bring in the fish. We’ll just stand here on the shore and wait for you.” We cannot do that. We cannot have that attitude and that approach to making disciples and expect results, because that is not fully engaging the mission of the church that has been given to us.
And what about those results? The net is so full that it shouldn’t be able to hold all the fish, but it does. We’re not talking about a small catch. Jesus is ready to bring in an abundant harvest. And he is has chosen to use his church for that task. And he is looking for and he is using church congregations that get off the shore, go out in the boat, cast the nets, and pull them in. Jesus is using church congregations that take the gospel message outside of their church buildings and into their communities, church congregations that are serious about loving their neighbors.
Let me give you something a little more specific to think about for how you might be able to make this real. Because speaking in metaphors of nets and fish does no good if you cannot translate any of this into a way for us to actually do this in real life. So think about this; How did Jesus first “catch” me? What were those important steps in my own life that Jesus used to bring me into the net? This requires that I need to spend a little time going over and examining my own faith story. I need to know from my own past experience who was there with a net at just the right time when Jesus turned my own heart. Maybe it was a teacher, or a coach, or a mentor, or a Bible study leader. For every one of our stories—everyone in this room who has come to faith in Jesus—someone was there with a net at just the right time when Jesus turned our hearts. So if you’re wondering here today how you can be a disciple who casts out nets and pulls in nets, start with your own story. Think about the people in your own life that have been there and done that for you. What sorts of things did they do that were so effective in getting you onto the shore and into the church family? Go with that. If it was meaningful and effective for you; if other people engaged you in a way that resonated with your own life and your journey of faith, then there’s a good chance God can use that some thing in you to resonate in the heart of someone else.
And then put yourself in a place for maximum use. In other words, cast out the net. If in your own story you came to faith very early in life by the influence of Sunday school teachers and church group counselors, then put yourself there and cast your net. If it resonated with you to bring you to faith, then let God use you to connect with children here for that same purpose. If you came to faith in your teen years with the influence of youth group leaders, then cast your net there; put yourself in a position to be used by God to influence teens, so when God works in them and turns their hearts, you are there and you are ready. If you came to faith later in life and saw that blossom in the context of a small group or a Bible study gathering, then cast your net and put yourself there. And do that intentionally casting a net. Seek out or start up a small group or Bible study with the intention of reaching out to those who may be new, those who may be seeking out and questioning the faith.
This takes some work. In the years that I’ve been in Colorado now I’ve taken up fly-fishing. I’ve gotten into fly-fishing enough to know that I have a lot to learn. Standing on the shore with a fishing pole is not what it takes to catch fish. When I go out fishing with guys that really know what their doing I see them taking advantage of everything in their surroundings. I see them study the surroundings to see what particular kind of insects may be hatching that day so they know what kind of fly to put on the line. I see them study the water to know where the fish are likely to be, and then they go to where the fish are. I see them cast out the line and present the fly to the fish in a particular way that draws their attention. It takes work to do this. The guys that have been doing this a long time are pretty good at it, so good at it that maybe it doesn't seem so hard. But for someone like me who’s still learning, it takes time and effort. I cannot stand on the shore with bait that doesn’t match what the fish are hungry for, cast it where there are no fish, and then wonder why I’m not catching anything. We need to be people who follow the mission of the church by going out and seeking the right spot, providing the right food for those who are hungry for God, and when Jesus turns their heart, we work to bring them to shore...