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15th May 2022

Stranger or Saviour

Passage: John 21;1-14


OK- think of a project on which you have worked for hours and hours and hours, and it is still not coming right. You are utterly exhausted, at the end of your tether and this stranger wanders by, asking “how are you getting on?” Through gritted teeth, you answer, “not well.” Then the stranger says, “why don’t you try doing it a different way?” How do you respond? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear. I know what I would say and, you do not want to hear that either. “Go away and mind your own business.” Or words to that effect…..

The story we just heard is two thousand years old, and even Biblical scholars cannot agree as to whether it was written down as an historical account of something which actually happened or as an allegory-a story with a hidden meaning. I can’t say but I have learned that stories included in the Bible are there for a reason and especially this one because it seems to have been “tagged on” to John’s Gospel after the book had been finished. Someone said “hold on. You have forgotten the story about the fish; people need to hear that.” So, it was tacked on, not very expertly. But why is it important?

A thought of mine is that it is about Jesus interfering. His friends were fishing, and he interferes in what they are doing. That is something we do need to think about, especially as children are baptised and dedicated to God. We have invited God to get involved (to interfere) in these children’s lives. We have committed ourselves to doing everything we can to make this happen. And IS this really what you want?

I shall always be grateful to my parents for giving me a Christian upbringing- teaching me to pray, to trust God, to explore faith. It has been the shaping and fulfilling of my whole life. But the church in which I grew up was very exclusive. Apart from school, children never went anywhere other than to that church. They were discouraged from making friends outside the church. My parents were thought dangerously radical for allowing me to join a Brownie pack which was affiliated to the Methodist Church. Very few families had televisions or even radios. It was felt that the best way to ensure children remained close to God was to keep them separate from the world. The result was that most of us, when we had to encounter the “real world” were like caged birds released into the wild: struggling to survive. I would not wish that on any child here today.

Is it better then, that faith remains a private matter; only about what is going on in your own personal head and heart? Faith as something to be dabbled in when you feel a need and not committed to a church? A lot of people in the UK today have rejected organised religion but do claim an interest in personal spirituality. They look for books and online gurus and speakers who will help them to nurture their “spiritual side” without becoming part of a faith community.
Might that be a healthier existence than being committed to churches that (a) demand a great deal of your time and money; (b) can leave you confused when you cannot get your head round what they are telling you; and (c) stress you out when they seem to be out of touch with real life? Maybe.

There is also a deep fear of organised religion being allowed to affect civil society: school inspections are being tightened up right now, preventing children from being seriously influenced by any religion; prison chaplaincies likewise. Street preachers are watched and arrested if they say anything which might cause offence. And I think we all know that a change in our monarchy is likely to have a significant effect on the “official” relationship between Church and State.
In the aftermath of the civil wars -Cavalier and Roundhead – which tore Britain apart and had a lot of religious loyalties at their root, Thomas Hobbes, a political philosopher, declared that there was nothing more important than civil peace and that civil peace was not the natural gift of religion. (He might have a point there) Religion, then, must be contained by and obedient to civil power if it is not to pour out in violence and bigotry. The object of a good civil society, he says, having been created without reference to religion, is to enable a safe space in which people can make their own room for God.

Another fair point. But I just thought of the politician William Wilberforce campaigning against slavery, the journalist William Stead protesting about the legal sexual abuse of little girls, Florence Nightingale fighting the system to get proper nursing for wounded soldiers, Paddy and Carol Henderson setting up the first Foodbanks, Desmond Tutu standing out against apartheid, the Quaker family chocolate businesses (Frys, Cadbury, Bournville) creating beautiful model villages for their workers, in sharp contrast to the slum conditions in which many other factory workers had to live - all of these people had, in some way, encountered Jesus saying to them, “see what is going on? You need to do things differently.”

Jesus himself never wanted to create some kind of “holy empire” with himself in a place of totalitarian power. Yet somehow, he persists in his habit of interfering! And, thinking about those people I mentioned and the influence they have had on our civil society, would we really want him to keep at a discreet distance from our children’s lives?

Three important points about this story to remember: first, one scholar pointed out that Jesus was giving his disciples fairly specific advice about their fishing- put your nets down on the other side of the boat- and this suggests that he has specific and expert knowledge. He knows what they need to do in order to catch fish. If Jesus is-as Christians believe- the Son of God- then surely he must have expert knowledge not only on fishing but on farming, buying and selling, creating and marketing, local and national politics, teaching, healing, protecting…. He might even be able to get his head round IT. So, if we want to live in the real world, there is no reason to suppose that he cannot teach us how to handle it and how to get the best out of it, no matter what our profession or lifestyle.

Second: you notice that this story is about people who are in a frightening place. At that time, with little more than natural light to see by, they were scared of the dark and of the bad things that might happen under cover of darkness. There was also a very deep fear of the sea- it was believed to be filled with malignant demons, creating sickness and chaos. Add to all this the stress of working hard in that space and achieving nothing and you come pretty close to where many of us have been through the pandemic. Life can be scary and there will be times when our children find it frightening. The hope and the promise that Jesus Christ will be there for them in the darkest and scariest places is a precious gift to hold out to them.

And third, no-one recognises this new Saviour as Jesus at first. It is the one disciple-John- who says to the other- Peter- it is Jesus. Many people have only recognised the presence and power of Jesus Christ in their lives in retrospect. Maybe others have been praying for them; maybe something has happened which has changed the way they look at life. But they need someone to point them in the right direction, to say, “it is Jesus.” And this is where the church comes in.
A church should be a space where children and their families can come to think about what is happening in their lives; to share their stories with others; to be pointed in the direction of Jesus Christ; to find fresh inspiration and strength week by week, to make their lives work. It is not a place to hide from the world but to be equipped for the world. It is not a place in which we deny our everyday lives but in which we come to make sense of our lives.
I can see why it was thought so important that this story was added on at the end of John’s Gospel. Because it is not about some impertinent stranger interfering in people’s lives but about a Saviour coming to the rescue of struggling, frightened lives. And if we keep the promises we have made today, then, by the grace of God, Nancy and Lilah will find and recognise this Saviour who is there for them.