April 11, 2016

John 21: An Old Fishing Tale

Follow-up information is at the bottom. Please read and respond!

How many people here want to follow Jesus? Everybody, of course! But what does it mean to follow Jesus? Attend church? Read our bibles? Pray? Well, yes, but what did Jesus say? “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Which reminds me of an old fishing story; maybe you’ve heard it:

Once upon a time, a group of fishermen found themselves surrounded by many lakes and streams and oceans filled to the brim with hungry fish of all kinds. So many fish, in fact, that they set up a fishing headquarters to study all this. There they met, week after week, to discuss what they called fishology, learning about the various kinds of fishing gear and the best techniques and lures to hook the fish, studying fishing guides and manuals such as The Psychology of Fishing and The Needs of the Fish. They even created elaborate fishing campaigns where they recounted tales of the great fishing expeditions of old and declared “Every fisher a fisherman!” With great vision they sent their best and brightest off to fishing schools to earn a fishing license to create more campaigns and better slogans and to organize fishing expeditions to reach other fish in faraway lakes and streams.

Back home they agreed that a more fish-friendly approach was probably best because our fish are, well, more sophisticated. Our goal, they said, must be to reason with the fish, to convince them that we fishermen are really just good, land-loving neighbors who happen to love fish very much and want the best for them. Alas, while it was true that many fishermen ended up spending most of their time among the fish, even to the point of smelling like them most of the time, once in a while, secretly, they wondered why no one ever actually caught any fish.

One day they were quite stunned, and offended, when someone wondered aloud: What if fishermen who never catch fish aren’t really fishermen at all? “What?” they cried! “Are we not devoted followers of that Master Fisherman who said, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men?’ Of course we’re fishermen!” Yet, in the end, it did seem logical that fishermen would catch fish, and those without fish might not be fishermen at all, or even followers!

Folks, the stats are very clear and very sobering, and you know I’m always preaching first and foremost to myself. Most of us have never caught a single fish; most of us aren’t even fishing. A few years back regular church goers were asked in a survey: “Why does the church exist?” The number one response? Nine out of 10 people said: “To care for me and my family.” Dead last? One out of 10 people said: “To evangelize the world.”

“But I’m just not an evangelist!” we respond. Just today I was reading the evangelism guru Ed Stetzer who said 20 years ago 10% of Christians thought they had an evangelism gift or calling of some kind; today that number is 1%. The problem is that 1% are right and the other 99% of us are wrong! Because evangelism is not listed as a gift in the bible but the responsibility of the entire church, every single one of us! In Ephesians 4, evangelism is listed as an office of the church, along with apostles, pastors, etc.—for the purpose of equipping all of us for the work of evangelism!

The whole point of everything God has done, from his works of old to the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the salvation of the world—that’s the good news of the gospel! And it’s the point of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances: Easter people are Great Commission people. Sadly, we’ve turned the Great Commission into the Great Omission, and we see the results everywhere in a culture slipping further and further away from God. As Paul Harvey once said, we’re not fishermen at all; we’re merely keepers of the aquarium—scrubbing the tank once in a while and throwing some food to the few remaining fish.

I know this is a very heavy message tonight; I feel the weight of it myself personally and as your pastor. But here’s the good news: Jesus said “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” so he will do it! We’re still in the process of becoming fishers of men! He’s not done with us yet! Here at Church of the Ascension we’re just getting started, in fact! But there is absolutely no question that this is our calling. We say in our mission statement: “We are greatly committed to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission” and so it must be. As Christians, and as a church, I think we really have only three priorities: worship, prayer, and evangelism. And so we must talk about it and we must get serious about it.

Tonight our gospel reading is from John 21. It was no accident that Jesus called fishermen to be his disciples. It was no accident that Jesus’ first words to these fishermen were “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And it was no accident that the gospel of John ends with a fishing story. We’re not reading more into the text than we should by drawing lessons here on what it means to fish for people.

The first lesson, I think, is that fishing for people is very serious business. We imagine fishing like the kind of fishing you and I do: rod and reel, tackle box, fishing hat and sunglasses, six pack, and a nap. We might or might not ever catch a fish. No! Have you ever seen the TV show Deadliest Catch? That’s what we’re talking about here, not a leisure activity but deadly serious business, and hard work! How serious are we about this business of fishing for people? Is that reflected in our priorities, on our calendars, in our checkbooks?

The second lesson here is that serious fishing is not done with a rod and reel, by ourselves or with a buddy, catching a fish here or there, or not. No! Serious fishing is done with great dragnets and requires all hands on deck. We’re in this together, and God has brought us together and equipped us all in different ways for the purpose of, together, drawing this dragnet called Church of the Ascension. And if anybody is MIA (missing in action), especially in a church plant, the work just can’t get done. How serious are we about this business of fishing for people? As a new church we exist primarily to reach new people. Is that reflected in our priorities, on our calendars, in our checkbooks?

The third lesson here is that serious fisherman are under command of a captain and they follow orders or bad things happen—you’ve seen it on Deadliest Catch. Here in our gospel reading the worst thing that happens is they catch no fish—and that’s not just a disappointment for serious fishermen. No, that’s a tragedy! But cast where I tell you to, says the captain, and you’ll haul in a dragnet full—153 (somebody actually counted)—great fish! And in this there’s great news! Because if we’re simply following orders, God does the real work of putting the fish in the dragnet. Same thing with the overwhelming responsibility the disciples faced when they had a hungry crowd of thousands on their hands: “Lord, we can’t feed all these people,” they cried! “Just give me what you have,” Jesus said, “five loaves and two fish, and I’ll do the real work!” Are we following our Captain’s orders? Is that reflected in our priorities, on our calendars, in our checkbooks?

Finally, I want to suggest some specific actions that I’m asking each one of us to take as we set out together on this great fishing expedition. You’ve seen this before, because it has been on the back of our worship bulletin for weeks. Look there now, and I want to talk with you about what I call the Prayer-Share-Care-Dare lifestyle. Note, of course, that the cross is the symbol of such a lifestyle. We must die to ourselves, as Jesus put it, daily, if we are to live for God and others. And right in the center of that cross is love: for God, for one another, and for our neighbors. Come Holy Spirit and set our hearts on fire with love for God, for each other, and for our neighbors! That is our prayer here at Church of the Ascension.

First, then, I challenge you to Prayer. That’s something we’ve talked a lot about around here. I want to get more specific: I’m asking you to pray specifically for five people, five unsaved or unchurched people—friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members—not for their needs but for their salvation. Let’s bring them to Jesus and let him take care of their needs! But I want you to pray for only three of your own friends—well, pray for 50 or 100 if you want to, but at least three—and then pray for two of the friends of somebody else here at Church of the Ascension. In other words, let us all begin praying not only for our own friends but with each other and for each other. So, make a commitment to pray daily for the salvation of three of your own friends and two of somebody else’s friends.

And I suggest you use something as a regular reminder. Use the five digits on one hand to pray for each person by name—or 10 names if you have 10 digits. Or tie five knots in a leather cord and wear it around your wrist. Or, like me, carry Anglican prayer beads in your pocket and pray for each person by name on the five cruciform beads. On the 28 regular beads I pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” On the five cruciform beads I pray the Trisagion: “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us, and upon the whole world, especially…for whom I’m begging salvation!” By the way, while on the subject of prayer beads, on the cross I pray the Gloria Patri: “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be forever; Amen.” On the invitatory bead I pray a preces: “O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us!”

The famous evangelist Dwight Moody made a list of not five but 100 unsaved friends who he prayed for daily. 96 of them came to Christ in his lifetime! And the final four came to Christ at his funeral! None of us are Dwight Moody but surely we can come up with three names of people we care enough about to pray for their salvation on a daily basis? Prayer changes things; prayer changes us; prayer changes the world! Our motto at Church of the Ascension is “changing the world one prayer at a time” because it’s at the core of everything we do here.

And now let’s see how many people read this far: let me know when you’ve got your five names, three of your own, and two you’ve received by asking others, “How can I pray with you?” As your pastor-priest, the most important thing I do is pray so I’d like to pray with you too; I’m asking each of you to share one name with me. Let’s get to praying!

Second, I challenge you to Share, actively seeking to share life in a real, beyond the superficial and trivial pleasantries kind of way, with the people you’re praying for, the people we’re praying for. Let’s seek to share life together even, finding ways to introduce the people we’re praying for to each other, in a small group study, backyard BBQ, whatever. There’s actually studies on this kind of stuff: most people need to make at least five personal connections in a group before they begin to feel like they belong to the group. And, as we’ve discussed, and will discuss more in our new Celtic Way of Evangelism study, belonging often precedes believing.

And let me add one more thing while I’m at it: I’m not necessarily talking about connecting people to Church of the Ascension. That would be nice but not necessary; what’s necessary is that we’re connecting people to Christ, to the body of Christ, to God’s big C Church, not my church or your church or anybody else’s little c church. In his great prayer of John 17 Christ prayed that we might all be united as one because then the world will come to believe. One of the reasons they don’t believe us today is because we’re not one—we’re divided in every imaginable way—and oneness with God and each other is the very heart of the gospel. And though I’ve yet to find another pastor or church to agree with me, I insist that our small groups and neighborhood-based studies must be inter-denominational and inter-church! A pastor once said to me: “Interesting idea but how would it help me grow my church?” You sir, do not have a church, and neither do I!

I’m going to say more on all this soon because I think it’s so important for effective evangelism. And if there’s anyone reading this in the Triangle area of NC who’s willing to be part of such a group, please let me know; I especially invite your pastor to help me lead such an effort! “But what about our differences?” I’ve been asked. “And what if someone actually comes to Christ? What then? What would we teach them? And what church should they join?” These are valid questions but great problems to have! I’d say to a new Christian: “Here are the essentials we agree on, here are the non-essentials we don’t agree on and that’s okay, now visit all our churches and we’ll pray with you that God connects you to the right one!” We absolutely must begin thinking and sharing life together in this more Kingdom-minded way!

As we begin praying for people and sharing life together, I promise you we’ll get opportunities to Care—my third challenge to you. Because all of us carry around needs, and heartaches, and fears of all kinds, and we’re not meant to carry them alone. And let’s remember, as we get involved in people’s lives, that we’re just deckhands around here. God is the miracle worker, and when people bring us their overwhelming needs and crushing anxieties—may it be so—we can’t meet their needs or fix their problems, but we can introduce them to someone who can, our Captain!

Finally, here’s the hard part for many of us: I challenge you to Dare; dare to share the good news! Why are we so afraid to share good news with people in such a bad news world? You’ve probably heard, usually attributed to St. Francis, that we should preach the gospel always and if necessary use words? St. Francis never said such a thing and wouldn’t! Because there’s no way to preach the gospel without words! Of course we must walk the talk but we must also talk the walk! Maybe we need to pray for boldness and, in fact, that’s exactly what I’m praying for myself and for all of us. O Lord, open our lips, that our mouths might proclaim your praises! In your resurrection, O Christ, let all heaven and earth rejoice! Alleluia!

This is what I call the Prayer-Share-Care-Dare lifestyle, and I’m asking each one of us to make a personal commitment to living it out. It will change our priorities; it will change our calendars; it will change our checkbooks. As Easter people we’ve been called and commissioned by God himself to a gospel mission and wherever God has placed you, wherever you live, wherever you work, wherever you play, that is your mission field! You’re not there just to live or make a living or have fun, you’re a missionary there! You’re a Kingdom ambassador there! You’re a prophet there, a priest, a king! Right there, you are Jesus, the only Jesus some people will ever see.

The evangelist SD Gordon used to say that after his ascension Jesus was asked by the angel Gabriel: “Now what? What’s your plan for saving the rest of the world?” “You’re looking at it!” responded Jesus. “That?” cried Gabriel in utter disbelief! “That ragtag outfit of fishermen gazing up into the clouds?” “Just that,” said Jesus. Let’s go fishing Church of the Ascension, and may God grant us actual fish!

Please respond by sending me one name to pray for. And please let me know if you're willing to help us form a multi-church fishing team! You can reach me here at this blog's Contact page. Or here at our church Contact page. Or here at our Facebook page. Thank you, and may God help us spread this gospel at home and to the ends of the earth!

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