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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 been persecuting.

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 Church.

Encounter with the risen Lord
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 or languages.
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 found.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Living God,
your Son made himself known to his disciples
in the breaking of bread:
open the eyes of our faith,
that we may see him in all his redeeming work;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.