The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger for the divine service in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel on Easter Wednesday, 20 April 2022. The text is John 21:1-14.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: I wake up, shower, dress, head to the kitchen and eat breakfast. A bike ride, morning work, and chapel leaves me a bit peckish, so I have a cup of tea and a biscuit for “elevenses”. By one or so I’m hungering for lunch. A long afternoon gets me ready for another cup of tea and the evening meal. And then it’s nearly time to go back to bed and start the cycle all over again. It seems we don’t eat to live and work, but rather that we live and work in order to eat; and it was even more so in days gone by. Before we had supermarkets and freezers, we ate what dad could reap or catch and mum could prepare and cook in the time between one meal and the next. The rule of threes says that we can last no more than three weeks without food, three days without water, or three minutes without air. And this is without mentioning our need for heat and light, clothing and shelter. Have you ever stopped to wonder why God would design the human race this way?
One of the chief differences between mammals and the rest of the animal kingdom is that mammals are born completely dependent on their mothers. Little crocodiles break the shell and run off to make their own way in life before dad eats them; but piglets crawl straight to their mother’s nipple and latch on. Pro-abortion activists claim an embryo has no right to life until it’s “viable”—but when does a human child actually become self-sufficient? Like mammals, we’re born entirely dependent on our mothers, and remain so for at least a decade—some people (particularly musicians and video-gamers) for their entire lives. God, it appears, has made us fragile precisely in order to make us dependent—dependent on others, and through them on Him. Without Him we have no life. Unless He provides food and water and air, we die. And this is how God wants us to be.
The first temptation of mankind was to break the dependency. God put Adam and Eve into a garden where all their needs were provided for, and where, most importantly, they were to eat daily from the tree of life. It was the umbilical cord through which God gave all they needed to sustain them. Through it they were entirely dependent on Him—and it was good. But the devil, who had first cut the cord, convinced them it was bad. He was the older, rebellious teenager persuading his younger siblings to smoke and show how grown up they are, to stay out with him past bedtime to show they don’t really need their parents and their silly rules. To eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an adolescent act, an assertion of independence. But the devil’s pledge that they’d become like God wasn’t really true. They would, in fact, become like Satan—independent, but lost and dying. The devil was convinced this was a good thing, and he’s managed to persuade most of mankind to agree with him. The present mass exodus from the Christian church may seem like a tragic turn of events in the Western world, but it’s an instinct baked into us since Eden. It lay behind Israel’s grumblings in the wilderness—rather than receiving manna from God every day they would rather have had the fleshpots of Egypt, slavery to Pharaoh rather than dependence on God. We humans see dependency as a weakness. We spend our lives trying to set ourselves up on our own. The goal of childhood is to become independent of our parents. The goal of university is to get a good job and be independent of the state. The goal of life is to become independent … of God.
But God doesn’t want us to be independent of Him. He’s designed us to depend on others so we learn how good it is to depend on Him. That, I think, is why we need to eat—and to sleep and to shelter from the cold, and even to breathe. He gives us fathers not to teach us independence but to teach us how to rely on others—to show us what our God is like and how much we need Him. In three years of His earthly ministry with the twelve disciples, you’d have thought that Jesus might have taught them how to live without Him, especially since He knew from the start that He’d be going away. But if there’s anything today’s Gospel story tells us about that relationship, it’s that the disciples could do nothing without Him. The one thing they knew was fishing. And yet after a night of labour on their native waters, they caught nothing. Jesus speaks tenderly to them: “Children, you haven’t caught any fish, have you?” (Jn 21:5). We’re surprised to hear Him call them “children”, not brothers. But He’s taught them to see their heavenly Father in Him. And now again He teaches them what their Father is like.
The temptation in this post-Easter time is to think that Jesus has left His disciples to get on with things without Him. He’s done what He came to do. He’s defeated their Enemy and given them the hope of new life, and now they just need to deliver it to others. But Jesus doesn’t do it that way. He gives them the biggest catch of fish in recent memory. And in the giving of the fish they recognise Him as their Lord. This is how He reveals Himself to them. He is the one who gives, who not only fed them but continues to feed them. He calls them to the shore, and He has a meal of roast fish and bread already waiting for them. It seems He didn’t even need them to catch the fish. He calls them to add to the fire some of what they’ve just caught, and they might as well have sung while they brought it, “We give Thee but Thine own, whate’er the gift may be.”
Some Bible scholars think John’s Gospel had already said enough by the end of chapter 20, and they wonder what this so-called “epilogue” adds to the story. But it’s not enough for Jesus to appear risen in the flesh to His disciples on Easter Eve and Quasimodogeniti. It’s not even enough for Him to speak peace to them, and breathe the Spirit on them, and show them the wounds in His hands and His side. I think John ends His Gospel with this story to teach us what the life of the Church will be like until the very Last Day. We aren’t independent and we aren’t abandoned. We live, like those seven post-Easter disciples, from the Word and gifts of our risen Lord. To say that we can have enough of hearing His Word is like saying, “I breathed yesterday; I’ll be okay for a while.” Or to say that we’ve don’t need the Lord’s Supper quite so often is like saying, “I ate last month; why do I have to eat again?” Our relationship to our risen Lord isn’t like that. We can’t keep Him at arm’s length and just visit with Him once in a while. As the disciples in the boat discovered, without His speaking nothing we do will succeed. Instead, He calls us to Himself and He feeds us. We walk away from the meal strengthened, but soon grow hungry again. We long to hear His voice and eat from His hand. We return and He feeds us again. If we don’t, we die. It’s like the rule of threes, except that it’s His bread of life, His living water, His breath—it’s Him that we can’t survive a moment without. It’s as if John’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying to us: “Come and dine.” And none of us dares ask, “Who are you?” For we know it is the Lord. Jesus comes and takes bread and gives it to us. And so it is that He reveals Himself to us countless times since He was raised from the dead. Amen.