When I was serving in the Diocese of British Columbia as Congregational Development Officer, I received a call from a priest friend in another Canadian diocese. He got right to the point. “Gary,” he said, “I am thinking of leaving the ministry.”
I was shocked. I had known this man since divinity school. He was a faithful priest, someone with a genuine love for the Lord and a deep commitment to the Church. I couldn’t believe what he had just told me, so I asked what was prompting him to make such a drastic decision. His answer surprised me. It wasn’t any sexual scandal or financial crisis or even his relationship with the bishop.
Gary,” he said, “the simple truth is: I became a priest to fight dragons and I have ended up swatting flies. I thought my job was to further the kingdom of God and change lives for Jesus, but it seems the parish is more interested in strawberry teas and antique shows. I tried to begin parish council meetings with a brief Eucharist, but members objected that it was a waste of time – they were there to do the church’s business and not to pray. When we got down to business, meetings would last three or four hours as members debated the minutest details of every issue. God never came up in any discussion. On top of that, we would have the most heated debates on everything from the shape of the candlesticks on the altar to how many pot luck suppers to have each year. One discussion got close to a fistfight as two members went at each other over a proposed church sign. I just can’t it anymore. It’s not why I became a priest. So I’ve decided to go back to accounting.”
Maybe you have a sense of what my friend was feeling when he spoke to me that evening. We all have moments of discouragement that what we do seems futile; makes no sense, and lacks any overarching purpose to sustain us through the tough times ahead. It’s in moments of discouragement when we feel that everything we are doing is in vain that we are tempted to run away, to escape to some ideal past, to flee the challenges and changes of our present circumstances and return to a simpler way of life, one that is less emotionally draining, less stressful.
Do you ever feel that pull to run away, drop everything and go fishing? Well, you’re not alone.
As we first see Peter and the disciples in today’s Gospel, they are on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. They are still dazed and confused by all that has happened in the last several weeks. They had seen Jesus nailed to a cross. It was the lowest point of their lives. They had invested everything they had in following Jesus – including three years of their lives. But on that first Good Friday all their dreams seemed dashed.
Then the women went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday and found the stone rolled away and the body gone. Jesus was alive, but what did it all mean? It was too much for them to deal with, mentally and emotionally. These ordinary fishermen were overwhelmed by the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. So they left Jerusalem, went north to Galilee and tried to sort things out. Peter suddenly announces, “I’m going fishing.” The others reply, “We’ll go with you.”
Going fishing: What did Peter think he was doing by going fishing? Was he fishing as some of us do – to get away from something, to escape problems, or boredom, or stress? Did he go fishing to laugh and sweat and tell stories and just be with the guys doing something familiar – you know, like those beer commercials on television? Did he, like us, just need to be with someone in his confusion and grief?
Maybe, just maybe, this going fishing had an even deeper meaning. Was this Peter reverting back to an earlier stage of his life? Was this Peter saying, “I’m through with this disciple stuff? I’ve had enough of this chaos and confusion. I’m going back to my earlier life – the life I knew, the life of routine where things are simple and predictable and certain. I’m going fishing.”
Like my priest friend who was thinking of leaving the ministry, we’ve all had those “going fishing” moments in our lives, haven’t we? There are times when we just throw up our hands in desperation and want to run away. We’re not happy with the way things are going in our life, and so we decide to escape from God, and maybe even from the responsibilities God has given us. There are moments in our lives when going fishing seems the sensible thing to do.
And so, Peter and the disciples grabbed their net, untied their boat and launched out. But, by the end of the night, their net was empty. Just as the day was breaking and they were ready to call it a night, they see a stranger on the beach. “Having any luck?” he calls to them. “Afraid not,” they call back. “Cast the next on the other side of the boat,” the stranger replies, “and you will find some fish.” And they did, and this time their net was teeming with fish. At this point, John turns to Peter and says, “It is the Lord.”
It was time for Jesus to confront his disciples about their responsibility. God doesn’t want us to escape from life. God wants us to face it, and when we do, God promises to be right there alongside us. Yes, life can be tough, the challenges can be formidable, but God wants us to stick it out, persevere and hang in there. The disciples wanted to go fishing, but Jesus wants them to fish for people.
Sometimes Christ comes to us, confronts us and calls us to responsibility – to stop sulking or feeling sorry for ourselves and to get on with the job of living a faithful life. It’s easy to bemoan our situation but God wants us to rise above our feelings and get on with the job of making a better world.
I remember a First Nations gathering with Anglican Church leaders in the Diocese of British Columbia. One member of the diocese got up and profusely apologized for the treatment of aboriginal people in the native residential schools. She went on and on, emphasizing how guilty she felt as an Anglican, even crying as she spoke. It was a highly emotional display. When she finished, one of the First Nations leaders stood up and said, “I appreciate your feelings, but I don’t want your guilt. I want your responsibility. Apologies are fine but what we need now are actions.”
Jesus does something like that with the disciples. The disciples simply wanted to go back to their boat, but Jesus came to them and challenged them to take responsibility for the ministry he would entrust to them. He offered them a challenge – a challenge that would change their lives forever.
He turns to Peter and asks one of the most important questions in the Bible, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” Three times Christ asks Peter this question – once for each time Peter denied him. “Lord, you know I love you,” Peter replies. After each reply, Jesus instructs Peter to feed his lambs and then his sheep.
Then Jesus does one more thing. He gives his disciples a charge: “Follow me.” This is his final instruction before he leaves them: “Follow me.” Isn’t that where the issue rests for all of us? Do we try to escape from life and do the equivalent of whatever it is to go fishing, or do we follow Jesus and share our lives with others?
Several weeks ago I read the remarkable story of Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who is the founder and Executive Director of Homebody Industries in Los Angeles, which is the world’s largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program. Father Gregory is an incredible innovator and social entrepreneur who runs a $15 million dollar enterprise, but most of all, he is a man of deep spiritualty and faith in God.
You would think in this kind of work ministering to some of the most difficult and toughest people anywhere, it would be easy to burn-out. After all there are so many intractable problems and tragedies in his job. But Father Gregory says, “I used to think my job was saving lives. But now I think saving lives is for the Coast Guard. Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And if you savor the world, then somehow it’s getting saved.”
How does Father Gregory go about getting rival gang members to connect with one another rather than shoot at each other? He says it’s about discovering “the gift of who each person is, then invite people to live into each other’s hearts. And hope that people will not only discover their gift and their own goodness but that they will live out that place with each other, because as human beings, we’re just astoundingly hard on each other.”
Mature spirituality is about tenderness, he says, and tenderness is about discovering connection with one another. It’s the thing that joins people together. It’s recognizing that, “This other person is more the same as I am than different.”
Of course, Father Gregory understands that even our best plans and intentions don’t always work out. Failure and disappointment are bound to occur. Not everyone who enters Homebody makes it. Still, Father Gregory says, “I feel that we are called to be faithful and not successful. Somehow, you land on an approach that you say, ‘This is good and true and right and just,’ and then you don’t care what the outcome is. You’re just doing what you can, and what you’re doing is true and right and just to the best of your ability.” (1)
That’s a lesson for all of us. None of us can do everything but all of us can do something. Sometimes we will succeed and sometimes we will fail. But if we do what we believe to be right, we leave the outcome to God. I like the way the 16th century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avilla put it: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people.”
When asked, “How much money have you raised for charity?” comedian Bob Hope would always reply, “Not enough.” An amazing answer, when you think about it, because Bob Hope traveled an estimated 10 million miles to entertain American GI’s during his career. Even at the age of 86 he spent 190 nights booked on the road, mostly for charitable causes. And yet, maybe even Bob Hope understood those words from Isaac Watts’ famous hymn: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
I go back to my friend who left parish ministry. The good news is that he eventually returned to parish ministry, serving in a different church with renewed vigor and inner conviction that the Church was still worth his effort, because it was the community of the resurrection and the last, best hope for the world.
How about you? What we need in the church today are people who live with a triumphant spirit. After all, the body of Christ is a body with bounce. It’s life with a lift. Do you love Jesus? Will you follow him? Right now Jesus is calling your name: “Tom, Sue, Peter, Jane…do you love me? Then care for my sheep.”
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
April 10, 2016
Text – John 21:1-19
Easter 3, C
1. “Gregory Boyle: Save the World or Savor It?” and “Gregory Boyle: Homeboy Industries is a belonging place where ex-gang members’ lives are transformed” in Ministry Matters, February 23, 2016. Father Boyle is the author of Tattoos on the Heart.