UNDER A CLOUD Acts 9:1-6; John 21:1-19
We are all under a cloud at the moment. Some are grounded and cannot do
anything except sit tight and wait until it is safe to travel once again.
For some, of course, it may be more than inconvenient – they may
be anxious about getting back home. For others, it might mean camping
out in an airport or having to spend extra on more accommodation. But
it’s amazing how much is affected by a natural occurrence like volcanic
ash erupting from Iceland and drifting south east across Europe.
Peter and Paul
The two stories from Acts and John in today’s readings may seem
unconnected, but in fact, they share some common features which tell us
something about their roles in the early Church. Paul is stopped in his
tracks by the blinding light on the road to Damascus. Thinking he is doing
the right thing, he has a crisis and the shock grounds him completely
for three days. He is temporarily unable to see, losing his appetite and
utterly dependent on his companions. He has to recognise that he has been
following the wrong way: as he begins to “see” where he has
gone wrong, his physical sight returns. It is really Jesus whom he has
Peter, still trying
to fathom what the empty tomb means, is back in Galilee as Jesus has bidden
them. But Peter is still under the cloud of denying Jesus, of completely
failing his Lord, whom he tried to follow all the way. He goes back to
his old ways but fishing all night produces nothing and the men are staring
hunger and a lack of market produce in the face. Dawn breaks and across
the glassy surface of the water a semi-familiar voices calls out. It begins
to occur to Peter that being encouraged to try again on the other side
of the boat after a fruitless night’s fishing is not the first time
this has happened. When the nets come in full of fish Peter’s heart
leaps in his mouth: “It is the Lord!”
From failure to following
Peter and Paul in their own ways have to learn from failure. In their
own ways they have to realise what it means to follow the right way: to
follow in the footsteps of Jesus. By the time these early apostles have
told their stories many times and these stories begin to form part of
the greater story told in and through the Church, two of the great rituals
of Christianity are already beginning to emerge: baptism and the eucharist.
Baptism is the beginning of life in Christ and the eucharist is the way
in which that life is nurtured. Paul is baptised by Ananias when the scales
fall from his eyes – when the way to Damascus ceases to be a pursuit
of Jesus’ followers and begins to be a pilgrimage with Jesus.
The simple breakfast
by the lake is a type of eucharist. Notice how John says, “Jesus
took bread and gave it to them,” not simply that Jesus gave them
some bread. Taking and giving was the action of Jesus at the Last Supper.
Jesus also invites the fishermen to bring what they have to offer –
the fish they have just caught through the provision of the miracle. In
the eucharist we bring what we have to offer and God transforms it. God
is the host, inviting us to join him in a sacred meal. Peter and Paul
are pillars of the early Church, but we often think of them as rivals.
They clash, have different approaches, are very different men, but they
are complementary: baptism and eucharist are all part of the life of the
Encounter with the
What lies at the heart of it all is the encounter with the risen Lord.
Peter, Paul and all the other disciples may be very different kinds of
people (not forgetting Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the Virgin Mary and the
other women). But what is absolutely vital to being a Christian is meeting
the risen Lord Jesus. This meeting, this encounter is real. The Damascus
road experience for Paul was real enough to turn his life around form
persecutor to promoter.
John’s gospel, in the detail of this story, points to how real it
all was. Let us look at some of those details. We hear that there were
153 fish in the net. It is a precise number and that in itself tells us
a number of things. Only a fishermen would have taken the trouble to count
the catch. For a fisherman it is his business. Others might have simply
exclaimed: what a lot of fish! A fisherman would sit down and count them
so that they can be fairly divided up between the crew and then taken
to market, each having their own share. This detail tells us that it was
an eyewitness account – not just a colourful story dreamt up by
the early believers.
But the accuracy of
that number tells us other things. Gradually the early Church began to
see that there was meaning in this event. For all their experience, they
could not see where to put their nets down. From his perspective on the
shore Jesus perhaps saw where shoals of fish lay. To their credit, the
fishermen follow Jesus’ directions. The net is full, but contrary
to expectations, it did not break and thus lose the precious catch. Listening
to God brings blessing. God wants to provide generously, beyond our expectations:
but we have to put down our professional pride and listen to his way.
The exact number seemed
to be significant, too. St Jerome, who lived 300 years later, translated
the Bible into Latin. Apparently he lived in a cave in Bethlehem to get
a real feel for the land so that his translation could be more accurate.
He discovered, speaking to Galilean fishermen that there was a huge variety
of species of fish in the lake: 153 altogether! Jesus called the fishermen
to go and catch people for the Kingdom of God. Nobody then knew how many
different tribes of people there were in the world, but the completeness
of this number is meaningful. It says that there is room in the Church
for every variety of person. The net of the Church is not full until every
variety of people is included. It is not broken by such a variety of races
Under no illusions
We may be under a cloud and grounded for the time being, but through their
experiences Peter and Paul were under no illusions as to what following
Jesus would mean for them. When Peter was first called, the excitement
of a miraculous haul of fish encouraged him to follow the travelling preacher
who worked wonders. But a great deal had happened since those heady days.
Peter had proclaimed faithfulness to the last, but had failed at the crucial
moment. In fact only Jesus had gone where he had to: alone to the cross;
alone to win salvation for the world. But now, from reaffirming his love
for Jesus, Peter receives his commission. It is a way that will not always
spell freedom. When he is old the way will take him where he would rather
not. Glory, fame and success are not the way of Jesus. But following because
he loves his Lord and taking care of the flock of God from pure love are
the way Peter now accepts.
Paul who thought he
saw so clearly has to let go and learn to see with different eyes. Paul
later commented in a letter that all he could take pride in, both in his
family heritage, his religious education and his status as a Roman citizen,
were as rubbish compared to knowing the Lord Jesus. Paul learnt to give
up all for Jesus. He also learnt to love and accept those he had formerly
thought of as mistaken and worthy only of bringing to judgement in chains.
For both men changed names indicated changed lives. Jesus asks Simon if
he loves him. It is Peter who will feed the flock. Jesus challenges Saul
about what he is doing. It is Paul who will travel so far with the gospel.
God calls to each of us by our name. From time to time in our lives we
are under a cloud: a crisis comes upon us. Listen for the voice of God,
calling out to us. From being grounded, from being stopped and having
to wait, a new way will emerge. A new way where we know ourselves better
and follow the Lord in more realistic and deeper ways. Sometimes it is
only when we are stopped in our tracks that the right direction can be
© Rev Paul Smith