Encountering God: An Ordinand’s Sermon Pt2

I call this An Ordinand’s Sermon Part 2, because it follows on from a sermon I preached to my formation group at college in February last year. It’s funny, because whilst this sermon is not on the same passage of scripture, it seems (to me, anyway) to be the perfect part 2. God’s funny like that, isn’t he?

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

(John 21: 1-19)

“I’m going fishing,” says Peter, utterly fed up and craving normality. Life has not turned out the way he had thought, when he said ‘yes’ to following Jesus 3 years earlier. He had said ‘yes’ to becoming a fisher of men, ‘yes’ to being taught, ‘yes’ to an adventure with Jesus. And yet, here he was, despondent. “I’m going fishing.” Peter’s urge is to get back to normality, back to reality. So, he goes back to what he knows best. Fishing.

But God has other plans. As they are fishing on the boat, having caught nothing all night, someone calls out from the shore, “Put your nets out on the other side.” They do. And the fish fill the nets. And then it comes. The whisper. “It’s Jesus.” Overjoyed at the sight of his friend, his teacher, his saviour, Peter jumps out of the boat and rushes to meet Jesus on the beach. The others follow as quickly as they can. They drag their enormous catch ashore, but there’s no need… Jesus has already prepared some for them. He smiles and says, “Alright lads… fancy some breakfast?”

They sit and eat, and then we see the remarkable encounter between Peter and Jesus, with Peter’s reinstatement mirroring his denial of his friend. It is beautiful to see Jesus once again stretch out a hand and ask Peter to follow him. And nerving, no doubt, as Peter is told that one day he will go where he is led, and not where he wishes. Still, it’s clear. In the person of Jesus, Peter encounters God on that beach. And in that encounter he is transformed once more, before being sent out.

But this isn’t the first time. If we look back at John 20: 21-22, Peter encounters the risen Jesus and he transforms him with God’s peace and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Encountered. Transformed. Sent.

When I preached previously from Luke 5: 1-11, we saw how Peter had an encounter with Jesus, that led to his transformation and a sending out. There is no doubt, that Peter has already been called out of his old life, into a new one. It’s like an old pair of boots that have been worn out and are no longer wearable. We get a new pair of boots. But we can’t put the new boots on over the top of our old boots, nor can we put the old boots on instead of the new boots. They might feel comfortable at first, because we’ve worn them in, but our old boots are no longer fit for the purpose for which they were made. They’re broken. Our new boots, as strange as they might feel, these are the boots which are fit for purpose. Peter went back to the old, back to the comfortable, the fishing. But he is no longer a fisherman. His old life is no longer fit for the purpose for which he has been transformed.

Encountered. Transformed. Sent.

Of course, the same goes for us here today. We were all called to St Mellitus in September 2018. We could have gone to countless other colleges, or put training on hold a few more years. But we didn’t. God called us to train together at the same time as each other. And in that training he has been forming us. Of course, the forming and transforming continues, but this time together has been key to forming us for ordained ministry in the Church of England. The late night bar chats, the 2am McDonalds runs, the worship, the prayer, the tears and snot, the dodgy vegetarian options and the mind-melting bogglement of theological education have all formed us. And if just 1 of us hadn’t been here for the journey, it wouldn’t have quite been the same. We were called together for this time, we have been transformed, and now you are being sent.

So, as you leave college – some of us have another year, because we need that extra bit of formation – and step out into your new lives as ordained disciples of Jesus Christ, shake off your old boots and slip into the new ones. Your old lives are no longer fit for the purpose for which you have been called. And when the discomfort hits, as it usually does with a new pair of shoes, remember Jesus’ words to Peter: “Someone else will take you where you don’t want to go. Follow me.”

I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the

heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat I couldn’t steer.
(Mary Oliver, If I Wanted A Boat)

That is my prayer for us all. As we encounter God, he transforms us and sends us out. May we follow him, even to the rocks. May we get into that boat that is his alone to steer.

Amen.

Psalms (again)…

Today at college we’re learning about the Psalter (collection of psalms) in the Bible. They’re so rich in language and imagery. In fact, Tom Wright argues that to ignore the psalms is akin to taking someone to the top of Table Mountain and them refusing to look at the view, preferring to stare down at their phone.

In their richness, they give us language to approach God with all of our emotions… particularly the bad and the ugly.

When I was at my lowest point postnatally, I wrote a psalm myself. It felt appropriate to repost it today. So here it is.

Enjoy.

Luke 5: 1 – 11 … An Ordinand’s Sermon

In this passage we see Jesus, as ever harangued by the crowds, getting into a boat and asking a fisherman to push it out into the lake a little. Along the edge of the lake were small alcoves where, if you were out in the water, there would be an amphitheatre effect for those on the shores. He teaches the people who have come to hear him speak, and when he is finished his attention is turned to the fisherman: Simon.

We can ask ourselves why he turned to Simon. What was it about him? Had Simon been listening intently? Had he questions to ask? Or was it simply because Simon had been obedient when Jesus climbed into his boat? Actually, he had been at Simon’s house previously, as can be seen in Chapter 4. As Jesus began his public ministry of healing and teaching, news about him had spread and, at invitation from the family, he went to their house and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Simon had already witnessed the incredible power of God, before he came to have Jesus in his boat.

Jesus the carpenter tells Simon, the experienced fisherman, to let his nets down for a catch. Simon, no doubt raising an eyebrow, explains that they’ve been busy doing exactly that all night… and yet, he agrees to do as Jesus asks. With much astonishment, Simon’s nets begin to fill at an alarming rate… at such a rate that their nets begin to break. Quickly they call for the other boat to come and help and yet even then the catch of fish is so great that the boats themselves begin to sink.

Simon, awestruck by what he has witnessed has only one response: to fall on his knees, fully aware of his sin, fully aware of Jesus’ holiness. Jesus, in his kindness, looks at him and utters the words: “Don’t be afraid, from now on you will fish for people.” Jesus’ reaction to Simon’s declared unworthiness is to speak a word of cleansing. Whatever had troubled his heart is let go as Jesus calls him to a new path and empowers him for a new work in the Kingdom. And so, he (and his fellow fishermen) leave everything, family, possessions, nets and all, and follow Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared: “When Christ calls a person, he tells them to come and die.” In our church history lectures we have learned about Julian of Norwich and the Anchorite life. Our lecturer told us of how many Anchorites and Anchoresses had the Office of the Dead prayed over them as the they entered their cell, in order to signify their death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God. And here, in this passage we have Simon’s action of leaving all behind in order to follow Christ; an act of freewill made in faith and obedience to Jesus.

So why did I choose this simple passage to speak from today? Well, it was Sunday’s Gospel reading, and I was leading Sunday School, so I missed the sermon in my placement parish. What an opportunity, I thought, to use what I’d gleaned from my time with the children this weekend, as they are often so wise. However, when I began to look closer at the text, I realised that a group of ordinands probably already know that Jesus calls us all to partner with him in spreading the Gospel and being fishers of men. Instead, then, I thought I would share four ways this reading speaks into our lives as ordinands.

1) Stop with the imposter syndrome…

Simon declares his sinfulness, and Jesus calls him anyway. We can find all the reasons why we might not be a good fit for ordination in the Church of England… but Jesus call us anyway. Simon doesn’t question Jesus, he just obeys.

It is hard. I am the ultimate questioner, long term sufferer of imposter syndrome, especially when it comes to my vocation in the Church of England. “Really, God? Me?” is often how many of my prayers began until fairly recently. His reply, always, “Yes. You. Really.”

2) We’re not in this alone…

Jesus calls us, and we go WITH him. I hope that is obvious to us all, as ordinands and future church leaders. Simon went WITH Jesus. And as we are called, we go WITH Jesus.

But, just like Simon, we also go with others we can lean on and learn from. Hard as it may be for those who have met me to believe, I suffer from social anxiety, specifically surrounding going to new places alone where I don’t know anyone. Starting at a new college, where I knew there would be people there who did know each other (staff and returning students) and that I did not know anyone, and knowing I would have to sit on the train for 2 hours alone, and then walk into Liverpool Cathedral alone was almost enough to put me off.

I prayed so hard about this particular anxiety as September approached and my prayer was answered in an unexpected way. Not that my anxiety disappeared, not at all. But in the provision of a lovely friend, Anna, who was also new, starting that term and also getting the train from the same station as me. I didn’t have to be afraid of walking in alone, because I had someone to walk with and talk with.

We go with God, and we go with each other.

3) We need to put our nets out into the deep…

We may have walked with Christ for many years, but now is the time, I believe, more than ever, for us to trust Him and put our nets out into the deep. Because, when we do go deep with Him, He equips us and empowers us. He emboldens us to follow Him. When talking about the story with children yesterday, what they were awed by was how faithful Simon Peter was. They asked, did he follow him forever? Yes, until Jesus died… and then Simon followed him until his own death. “Wow! Simon must have really liked Jesus.”

Jesus called, equipped and emboldened Simon then and he does the same for us today. But we need to meet him in the deep. We need to step out in faith, as Simon let his nets down in faith, and know that God will astonish us with things we could never have dreamed of.

4) We need to leave ourselves behind…

Finally, as we go into this new life with Jesus, we need to leave ourselves behind. Steven Furtick, pastor of a mega church in the US, has written about how “It’s less about me than I think.” And that poses some questions.

If it is less about me than I think then why am I trying so hard?

Why do I feel so responsible for success?

Why do I feel so responsible for failure?

If it’s less about me than I think, I can take my time. I can breathe. I can live in the moment. I can allow life to happen around me without trying to control every activity and every outcome. If it’s less about us than we think, leaving ourselves behind is a natural outcome, and we get to go deeply into who God calls us to be.

 

And yet, at the same time, it is about us, because God has called us: me, and you, specifically. He has called all of us to be trained for ordination as deacons and priests in his church. He has called us with our experiences, our passions and our skills, our wildly different personalities and our similarly messy lives. We just don’t know how he will use them to further his Kingdom, just as Simon doesn’t know what awaits him as he leaves everything and follows Jesus.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton speaks a truth which is raw, as he reflects on the necessary humility that should lie at the core of how we approach a sense of vocation, which I’d like to use to close. Perhaps you might use it to consider how God is calling you today, just as Jesus called Simon then.

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost (and in the shadow of death).
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.
Amen.

 

The first month of training

What can I say, other than, how has it been only a month since I started my theological training?

The conversations, the sea of new faces, the breadth of new information and the seemingly endless possibilities of what my future may look like… all of it stretching out in front of me, almost a never ending reminder of all the reasons why I should quit whilst I am ahead.

During my first residential weekend away, my daughter had stopped sleeping. She was affected by my absence more than we could have thought in advance. And so, on the Monday morning, I was ready to pack it all in. How on earth could God have called me at this point in my life? How could I do this to my darling child?

Yet, that day was filled with encouraging conversations and the smell of my mum’s lasagne cooking in the oven when I came home. And by the end of the week she had started sleeping again. She has seemingly forgotten the betrayal of my going away. It’s a good thing to, as it’s only a fortnight until I go away again – this time for a week.

I have hurt my brain through reading, lost much sleep comforting my child, spoken to 100s of students about trying church, and told toddlers how much God loves them. Whilst being utterly exhausting, this month has also been incredibly encouraging and life giving.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 3:14

“Don’t aspire to be normal…”

The freeing words uttered to us this morning, our first day as ordinands at St Mellitus College in Liverpool.

In a world where people aspire to fit in, whilst also wishing to be accepted as they are; to conform to what society says is valuable and good, and to look dimly upon those things which are out of fashion, these words are refreshing and oh so very freeing.

Despite the fact that I read the bible and pray, the fact that I know who God says I am and wishes me to be, identity and acceptance is something I have forever struggled with. Almost like weighing scales, I tip up and down as I wrestle with who I am. Though I no longer feel the crippling fear of walking into a room of people, like I once did when I was much younger, I do still find new social situations tougher than people imagine I will.

But today was different. I was in a room with people who were like me, but also so different. And when our tutor said those words, it was as though a wave swept over me and all of my past worries about who I am.

I am me. I have things which are wonderful about me, and I have flaws too. I have hobbies and passions. I have dislikes and things which do not interest me in the slightest. I have mistakes in my past and, no doubt, mistakes in my future. But I am still me.

God has called me to this point. God has not made a mistake. God knows all of what makes me me, and he wants to use it all. He doesn’t want me to fit in or to try and be like someone else. He doesn’t want me to aim for ‘normal’.

He wants me to aim for him, and let him make me extraordinary.