April 18, 2010
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our reading from John 21 is very strange – and for a couple of reasons. First there’s the fish-fry. You would think they would’ve wanted to discuss more religious matters. And then there’s that count of the 153 fish. Now both of these seem of no value at all!
Those Pesky Fish
Maybe so, but not for Christians. For they have thought long and hard about both of them. For instance, since the time of St. Augustine (354-430 AD) this fish-fry has actually been imagined to be some sort of special version of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (John 21:13) – with Jesus taking the bread and giving it to the disciples, along with the fish, in a sacramental way (Matthew 26:26). “Mystically,” Augustine wrote, “the broiled fish is Christ who suffered. And he is the bread that came down from heaven,... [in] this great sacrament” [John 11-21, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (2007) p. 384]. But be that as it may, it is actually the count of the 153 fish that has been most baffling (John 21:11). Why be so persnickety about this exact number, we ask? And what’s the point of writing it down? Should anyone really pay particular attention to it?
Now there are many ways of explaining this number 153 –some even
verging on spooky numerology. Take for example,
The Real Kicker
But these two fishy matters aren’t what’s most significant about John 21. The real kicker in this passage – which goes far beyond these two fish problems – is the fact that the disciples were afraid of the risen Lord Jesus. Now just think of that! John 21:12 says that none of the disciples dared to ask him who he was since they knew he was the Lord (see also Mark 9:32; Luke 9:45). This has been described as a “peculiar feeling” on the part of the disciples [Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971) p. 709]. For you would think they would have been drawn to Jesus rather than repelled by him – especially since they knew who he was. But that’s not the case. Instead they seem to be saying, “Is it really you?” – a question and hesitation probably due to some “peculiar partition wall... erected between them” (Bultmann, p. 710). What this shows, then, is that everything wasn’t hunky-dory between them as we usually suppose, given the fish-fry and all.
No, there instead was a wall between them. But exactly how imposing it was is up for grabs. Some say it’s flimsy and came down easily when the disciples started eating with Jesus. But recall their earlier fright – how they hid out, behind closed doors, for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). So this fear of Jesus could actually have been more substantial –like the fear they had for the Jews.
But if that’s so, this could be quite disconcerting. For Jesus is supposed to dispel our fears rather than stir them up. He is our friend, after all (John 15:15). He has compassion for us (Mark 6:34). He welcomes children (Mark 10:14) and defends mistreated women (John 8:11). And most of all he saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). For he is our good shepherd (John 10:11). So how in the world could he possibly frighten us? That just doesn’t make sense. So what’s up, then, with these fraidy cat disciples?
His Angry Glance
Well, matters may not be as puzzling as they look. For just maybe being afraid of Jesus is actually part-and-parcel of our encounter with him – and not some aberrant distortion of his life and gospel. Maybe it’s true, after all, that to be in the hands of the living God is a terrifying and troubling experience (Hebrews 10:31)!
But if so, exactly how is that the case? What would be the nature of that fear? Martin Luther (1483-1546), the progenitor of our little corner of Christendom, which we call the Evangelical or Lutheran church – he knew that Christ can cast “an angry glance” at us (Luther’s Works 22:198)! But how so? What authorized him to say that? In John 15:14 Jesus says “you are my friends if you do what I command you.” Now it’s precisely in that little word if that the justification hangs for Luther’s attribution of anger to Christ Jesus our Lord. For if we don’t follow Christ, then he isn’t our friend. Then anger sets in – and quite appropriately so (Mark 3:5). For as the Lutheran confessions (1529-1580) clearly state [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 563], we’re forbidden from sinning “against grace” and abusing “the grace of God.” So the freedom Christ brings, by way of the forgiveness of sins (Galatians 5:1), doesn’t allow for any such abuse. And when we abuse that grace we provoke Christ to anger. For he is our judge who can send the damned screaming to hell (John 5:28-29)!
And that is quite likely what those early disciples feared in John 21 – for when Jesus needed them the most, they left him (Matthew 26:56). And remember, they were the ones who had promised they would never do that (Matthew 26:35) – even after being warned how difficult it would be to stay (Matthew 7:13-14, 16:24-26, 20:22)! Now Luther expands upon this disregard and abuse in the preface to his Large Catechism (1529), so that we might better understand how even we can be so abusive. There we read that
the common people,... like pigs and dogs,... remember no more of the Gospel than this rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty. [They] take the Gospel altogether too lightly.... Besides, a shameful and insidious plague of security and boredom has overtaken us. Many regard the Catechism as a simple, silly teaching which they can absorb and master at one reading. After reading it once they toss the book into a corner as if they were ashamed to read it again (BC, pp. 358-359).
In this upsetting passage, Luther provides three clues to help us understand how this abuse could even take root in us:
l. Lacking Seriousness.
First he says we take-the-money-and-run. That is to say, we learn about
grace – the forgiveness of sins – and we suppose this means we can now
sin with utter abandon. But that would be taking God too lightly. When
asked this very thing in Romans 6:15,
2. Bored & Secure. Next we abuse God’s grace by suffering from the insidious plague of security and boredom. This means that we don’t ponder the good news of Christianity with any intellectual care. We’re not fascinated by its depths – or its “existential consequences,” as Kierkegaard (1813-1855) put it (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, ed. Howard & Edna Hong, 6:6726). If we were fascinated, we then wouldn’t be bored. And we wouldn’t also be so secure – because we would then be working out our “own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
3. Ashamed of the Gospel. Finally we sin against the grace of God by wanting Christianity to be sophisticated in the wrong way. We wish Christianity were theoretically complex instead of being ethically demanding – as it rightly is (Matthew 7:14). For we would rather theorize about the conceptual basis of Christianity, instead of laboring over just how to conform to its teachings (Romans 12:2). So because it is theoretically thin, we’re ashamed of it – and toss it into the corner, as Luther says, and thereby abuse the grace of God and jeopardize our souls in the process (Mark 8:38)!
I Shall Not Want
Are we then doomed because we fail to live lives that are worthy of Christ our Lord? Will Christ only be that terrifying, fierce one – coming after us with whips (John 2:14-17) – to chase us out of the temple of our Lord and God? Well, if left only to our own resources, that’s indeed what we would have. For the fact that we’re all sinners (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23), leaves us in quite desperate and dangerous waters (Romans 7:24). Indeed, we cannot save ourselves (Psalm 49:7-9; Ephesians 2:8-9). That’s our predicament – plain and simple. But that leaves unaddressed what lies outside of us – or extra nos, as Luther liked to say (LW 51:28). And that is good news, because there is an “alien righteousness” (LW 16:120; 22:157; 26:170, 387) lying beyond our capacities and achievements that can save us from ourselves.
This is “the Crucified One,” who indeed saves me from myself – that I might not “inclose myself in myself with... anxiety for myself” (Kierkegaard’s Writings 17:280). Of him we sing:
You, Christ, are worthy... for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every... nation (Revelation 5:9).
There we have it – finally! Christ’s blood ransoms us so that we will not be punished for all of eternity because of our great and many sins against God and one another. That wickedness sets us up for eternal damnation. But Christ’s blood washes us clean (Revelation 7:14) – as odd as that may sound. And this he does by being punished in our place (2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Peter 2:24; LW 26:284). That makes him our grand and glorious substitute (LW 22:167). Therefore because of him, our salvation is secured – provided that we believe in him and entrust our lives to his care and keeping. Believing in him entails confessing that without him we would most certainly incur “eternal wrath and disfavor, the devil and all hell” (LW 24:164). That’s because through faith in Christ – and in him alone – we hear him speaking to us in words like these:
I shed My blood for you, unlocked heaven for you, broke hell asunder, reconciled the Father, and gave you everything through My body (LW 24:163).
Yes indeed, for without Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, God’s wrath would consume us (Romans 2:5, 5:9; John 3:36). His hatred for us would burn with fury forever (Psalms 5:5; 31:6; 101:3). But in great mercy Christ draws that very divine hatred into his own body on the cross (Isaiah 53:4-5, 10-11) and thereby moves the Father to mercy for the likes of us sinners (LW 51:277). And by believing in that ghastly sacrifice, we are saved from our sins.
Then Christ indeed is your good shepherd. And “if you have that, you have all; but if you lose that, you have lost all... [For] apart from Christ you will not find God.... [For] God has poured all His gifts, His will, and eternal life into Christ and has directed man to Him” (LW 23:55). Therefore all Christians sing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). Just think of it! – I shall not want. That’s right. With Christ all our major problems in life are settled. Nothing else needs to be done – for Christ shouts (LW 25:312) from the cross of our salvation, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Therefore we can say, “I shall not want.” And so we must say it all our days. Don’t skip over this opening line in our beloved Psalm 23 – in order to favor those later verses regarding green pastures, still waters, the overflowing cup and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. No, be sure to settle into that opening line and say with gusto, “I shall not want.” This is an abiding word, a good word – it’s a salutary word of contentment and peace.
But it’s often missed because it’s reduced to material provisions. And surely they’re included. But Psalm 23:1 is “chiefly” about “spiritual possessions and gifts that God’s Word provides” (LW 12:157)! So, as Luther carefully elaborates,
if you hold fast to them, you will be tempted neither by the devil’s wile, the world’s disfavor and raging, nor by your own weakness and unworthiness. You will go straight forward to speak freely: “Let the devil, the world, or my own conscience oppose me as violently as they may. I will not for that reason grieve myself to death. It must be so and it shall be so, that whoever is the Lord’s sheep will surely be assailed by the wolves. Be it with me as it may, let them boil or roast me, it shall be my comfort that my Shepherd has given His life for me. Moreover,... He comforts me and says that I shall... have eternal life (John 10:28). And he will keep this promise, no matter what happens to me....” This alone is the golden art: to cling to God’s Word and promise, to make judgments on the basis of this Word and not on the basis of the feelings of the heart. Then help and comfort will surely follow, and absolutely nothing will be wanting (LW 12:159).
So when friends betray you, do not despair, but sing out, “I shall not want.” And do the same when investments fail or when you lose your job or when your popularity wanes – sing out, “I shall not want.” Sing that out even when loved ones fall ill, suffer or die. Sing out those words not because those losses do not matter and do not hurt (KW 16:27) – but solely because you have something better that can’t be taken away. You have treasures in heaven – that neither moth nor rust can consume, nor thieves break in and steal or destroy (Matthew 6:20). And so sing out, “I shall not want.” Let that line be your contentment (Philippians 4:11; LW 21:18); your joy (John 16:20); your peace (John 14:27).
Now, not only are we to believe all of this, but
we also are to do good deeds in the name of Christ our Lord (Colossians
3:17). Let our good work this week then be to follow the example of
But that will take some doing, for in our time the intellectual climate is such as to keep us away from such clarity and certainty – and supposedly because of Scriptural warrants! (see Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, 2009). For the fact that we’re limited creatures (2 Corinthians 4:7) and defiled by sin (Mark 7:21-23) means – we’re told by these critics from within the church – that we must always be provisional and guarded and unsure about what we say and think about Jesus. Anything else would be arrogant and lacking in any and all humility. And this humility is most certainly required of us all by the Bible itself (Luke 18:14; James 4:6) – but with, we might add, just a small bit of irony, since that certainty is the boogey man in all other regards, according to this supposedly sophisticated, hermeneutical critique.
Luther faced this same charge in his day. The humanists of his time thought that he too was far too certain – and even disgustingly arrogant (LW 23:330). But Luther balked. He was not moved by their indictments. That’s because he believed they overlooked what he called “the arrogance of the Holy Spirit” (LW 24:118; 15:275). This pivotal consideration enabled him to circumvent their charges. His understanding of godly arrogance was built upon the distinction between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26). Now as fleshly creatures it is true that we must be cautious regarding our own opinions. For this fleshly certainty is “foolhardy... boldness,” which is only “actuated by vainglory” and our pride (LW 24:117). But when imbued with the Spirit of Almighty God, then we’re expected to be clear, certain, sure, confident, bold (Acts 4:13, 29-31, 13:36, 14:2-3; LW 24:294), and, yes, even arrogant – because then our voices and the word of the Lord are “blended into one” (LW 24:66). That’s why the prophets of old could say, “Thus saith the Lord” – without any hesitation or misgivings about it (Isaiah 7:7; Jeremiah 2:5; Ezekiel 2:4; Amos 1:3; Micah 2:3 KJV). So whatever ambiguity is thought to be in a Bible verse, the truth of the matter is that it’s not in the text itself – but has been imputed onto “the wholly clear Scriptures of God,... with blasphemous perversity” (LW 33:27). For the devil has made it look this way by inciting us to impose upon the Bible our “trifling and equivocations” (LW 32:237). Once that is clarified, we can then “impart... words... taught by the Spirit,... to those who posses the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13) – and with great certainty at that.
Without this certainty and boldness, our words about Christ wouldn’t be able to cut (Hebrews 4:12; Jeremiah 23:29) and knock flat (1 Corinthians 14:25) – as they’re supposed to do (LW 25:417). For they would be too blunted by our hesitancy for that – indeed, they would even be ripped to pieces by our uncertainties (LW 32:175). For if the sound of our bugle is too indistinct, no one will be able to take up the battle against the flesh (1 Corinthians 14:8). So blow away – hammer and cut! The Spirit of the Lord expects it of you. For if one is going to preach Christ, one will have to be sure about the message itself (LW 23:321)! For “whatever... is done in the church must rest on certainty” (LW 13:140).
So let the word of the Lord dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16), that your certainty and clarity may be of righteousness and not of wickedness or of the flesh. Then you will rejoice in the Lord – knowing full well that if you slide back into your own, fleshly arrogance, you will have to fear the Lord Jesus instead! Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)