Sermon on John 21:1-19
Recently as part of some Sacred Conversations on Race, I learned a few new concepts about transformation and change. Often when we are introduced to new ideas, or when we experience trauma, or even just in our regular day to day lives, there are three different zones, if you will, that we tend to inhabit – comfort zones, panic zones, and brave spaces.
Maybe the most familiar of those zones to us is our comfort zone. We love our comfort – our comfort food, our comfyclothes, cozy homes. We like to stick to ideas or patterns or routines that make us happy, feel familiar, and where we have a fairly good idea of what is going to happen when. But of course, we also know that though our comfort zones may feel good, we often don’t grow or change because there is no motivation to do anything differently. Change requires us to be uncomfortable. The cliché, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” comes to mind or “A comfort zone can be a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there” or even “Outside of the comfort zone is where the magic happens”.
The danger is that once we get outside that comfort zone, we have no protection from the fear and pain of life. So sometimes we end up going straight from the comfort zone to what is called the panic zone. In the panic zone, you also don’t grow or change, not because you feel insulated against the pain, but because you feel so scraped raw by it that you simply cannot think or reason or do anything other than stay in fight or flight mode. Anxiety hits. Shame hits. You become paralyzed and sometimes even extremely defensive as a protection measure.
In order to change and take new risks we need to find somewhere between these two extremes. We need to find what I have heard referred to as a learning zone, or uncomfortable zone, or stretch zone. But my favorite way to understand this space came from Destiny, our Mission and Social Justice Team leader who called this space “brave space”. In brave space we know we are going to be uncomfortable, but we also are prepared to be changed by it, transformed by it. We become willing to risk. We know anxiety will be present, but we will stay open to new possibilities that present themselves and we will do brave things despite our fear. In brave space we don’t have to feel guilty or be consumed by shame, but we do have to be honest. In brave space we can listen and respond to God’s call on our lives.
In our gospel story from John we have some disciples who have some experience with these zones and spaces. I have to hand it to them, they had at least gotten out from behind their locked doors where they seemed stuck in their panic zone. When last we left our beleaguered heroes/disciples they were still in hiding. Having heard the miraculous news about Jesus and some even seeing the empty tomb themselves, they had hidden out of fear. They had felt the fight or flight response, and they had chosen to flee. Then Jesus showed up in their midst a few times and that must have convinced them that they could finally stop locking themselves away and move out of their panic zones. But clearly they didn’t exactly know what to do next.
So they did what so many of us do when life gets stressful or the path forward seems unclear, they returned to the familiar, their regular routine, the thing they knew, the people who they were before they had taken this crazy journey with Jesus, their comfort zone. They had been fisherman, so quite simply, they went fishing. For us this is a bit of a facepalm moment. They had seen the risen Lord, what were they doing going back to fishing?! Surely Jesus hadn’t been mentoring them all along just so they could go back to being fisherman? But perhaps Peter thought returning to fishing would be easy, would help him to make some sense of what had happened, would provide him with the sense of the familiar that he desperately needed to feel grounded again. To have your world turned upside down, to have experienced intense fear, guilt, grief, and then the unexplainable, it’s no wonder that Peter and the others returned to something that they hoped would help them make sense of their world once again.
But Peter learned what many of us have also learned over time: sometimes comfort is hard to find, especially when you’ve gone through some major life changes. Sometimes you can’t easily go home again. The disciples go fishing, but despite their going at the right time and doing all the familiar things, nothing works quite as it should. They don’t catch any fish. Despite the desire to return to some form of normalcy, their nets are empty. It’s almost as if creation itself is saying, “You can’t go back to being who you were before.” You can’t simply hang out in the comfort zone or the panic zone.
How frustrating it must have been for them. The very thing they hoped would give them solace, the return to comfort and the familiar, is yet another bust. Until a stranger calls out to them from the shore. “You haven’t found any fish, huh?” “No” comes the reply. “Well move your net to the other side of the boat and they will be there.” Following the stranger’s advice they move the net to the other side and of course, they find fish. And not just any amount of fish but 153 fish which is possibly a reference to the numbers of different species of fish found in those waters. Another words, all the fish. They symbolically catch all the fish.
They had only ever experienced such abundance in the presence of one man, Jesus. They had only ever been reminded that their lives were so much bigger than just fishing for fish when they followed their Lord. They immediately know that the figure just a few hundred yards away on the beach is their teacher and leader. Peter jumps in the water and swims to shore. The others follow in the boat with their incredible haul. They eat a meal Jesus provides. The experience of this abundance and Jesus’ calm presence helps them to relax, to let go of the fear and pain they have been either running from or trying to mask. In that letting go they can finally abandon the comfort zone and enter in to brave space. And brave space is just what they need, because Jesus has something for them to do and they will not be able to do it unless they transform their lives and stay out of the comfort zone and the panic zone.
Jesus knows Peter is thrilled to see him, but he also knows that they have some unfinished business. Not for Jesus, but for Peter. Jesus has already forgiven Peter for denying him, now he wants Peter to do the same. To forgive himself. To be restored. So Jesus asks Peter if he loves him and tells him three times, to feed and care for his sheep. This does two things. It erases Peter’s denial of Jesus during his trial. But it also reminds Peter that staying behind locked doors and hanging out in comfort zones is not what Jesus asked him to do. If you love me, Jesus says, then it’s time to let go of your concerns and your ego and focus on serving people. I will provide the abundance, Jesus seems to be saying with his incredible gift of all the fish. But I will need you to go out and connect with my people.
It’s as if Jesus in this brave space is saying, to follow me means your life is going to change because you must become like me. Faith is tied to action. Jesus says to Peter, “If you love me, do something about it. Love my people, care for them, and feed them physically, psychologically and spiritually.” The love of Jesus is transformative- it changes you and makes you show that love to others through concrete action. Jesus’ love creates brave space. It should move you out of your life before Jesus, not lead you back to as if nothing happened.
This is perhaps the most important lesson the disciples must learn after Jesus’ death and resurrection: God’s love is transformative and abundant. Jesus’ whole ministry was calling people to repent, to literally turn around and turn their lives towards God and towards their fellow humans. While he had lived that way, he had also died that way. Having seen Jesus respond non-violently to threats and death sentences, having watched as Jesus died with dignity and offering forgiveness, having experienced the Risen Christ, life could never be the same for Peter or the other disciples. Try as their might to stay in their comfort zones, they found they could not.
We in the church often struggle with this. Sometimes people seem to want to come to church on Sunday, feel good for a few minutes, and then return to the rest of their lives. They want to return to their comfort zones where nothing is expected of them. But a church seeking to follow Jesus would do well to listen to Jesus’ admonitions to Peter. Feed my people, take care of my people. If you love me, love my people. And ideally people walking out of church on Sunday will be able to do this because they too will have experienced the risen Christ, they too will have experienced abundance, and they too will have been challenged to share that abundance with the world. They will have inhabited brave space for at least a short time and time in brave space will change them. In the church Jesus makes it possible for us to inhabit brave space. He facilitates it by reminding us we have nothing to fear, not even death. We have already been forgiven, so we don’t have to live in shame. And we have been given to one another to feed, so we don’t have to do it alone. The church’s brave space is made possible because we follow Jesus and we are all in this together in community.
But here’s maybe the best part of the whole story, if we get stuck in comfort zones or panic zones and forget how or why or what it means to follow Jesus, it’s okay. Jesus doesn’t take Peter and the others to task for having retreated to panic or comfort zones, he simply offers them abundance and reminds them what they are supposed to be doing. Because the truth is that just like Peter, you and I will all too often end up either locking ourselves behind closed doors in fear or going back to the old comfortable routines. Despite our best efforts, we will walk out of church on Sunday, and want to be different and want to make a difference, but then the phone will ring, work duties will pile up, the house still needs cleaning, the kids or pets will need to fed and taken care of, the email inbox will still be overflowing, and we will forget. We want to inhabit brave space, but sometimes we just get stuck in panic, or we retreat to comfort, and sometimes beyond both of those we just find ourselves in tired space. We get out in our boats and throw the nets over half heartedly and find ourselves empty.
When this happens, look around for the stranger offering you a new perspective, watch out for unexpected abundance, experience forgiveness, and be reminded. Jesus’ love transforms so feed yourself, take care of yourself, and challenge yourself. Jesus’ love transforms so tend to the least and lost, the broken and hungry, offer hospitality, and be the face of God to another. Jesus’ love transforms so be healed and go on to heal others. Jesus’ love transforms so fight for justice and speak truth to power. Jesus love transforms so when we forget this, and we will, we can start again.
The beauty of God’s brave space is that it’s always there, just waiting for you to visit. Like Jesus on the shore, just making breakfast. No shame or guilt, no admonition or taking to task. Just an offer of abundance and a request to try again to follow. Resurrection is found in brave space. Our resurrection is found in brave space because our continued transformation is possible there. Our transformation in Christ and to Christ. Our rebirth. Our new possibilities. So that we can be fed and so that we can feed others. Let us together move from our comfort zones, our panic zones, and even our tired zones, into brave space. Let us be transformed and let us transform the world. With God’s help. Amen.