Sermon: "Looking for God," April 15, 2018

Third Sunday of Easter
Rev. Ryan Slifka

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
— John 21:1-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

When I was maybe 11 or 12, I remember sitting in the living with my Dad watching T.V. We were watching a documentary on the Beatles. E! Hollywood Inside Story, or maybe A&E Biography. A large portion of this show was devoted to the time the Beatles spent in India, meeting various Hindu religious leaders. Meditating, chanting. Doing a sort of religious pilgrimage.

This kind of interest in Eastern religion and philosophy was big in the hippie era, but most people left it behind. Most of the Beatles, too, according to this documentary. But the exception was George Harrison. His interest in Eastern mysticism continued deep into the 70’s, into the 80’s and beyond. Even to his death in the 2000’s.

I didn’t know all of this backstory, of course. So I asked my Dad why George Harrison was so into these things. And my Dad, not a particularly religious man--an auto mechanic by trade--responded. “He was looking for God.” He said. “He was looking for God.”

George Harrison was “looking for God,” my Dad said. He was seeking, searching. He was on a spiritual pilgrimage.

Looking back, I’ve realized that this was--first of all--the most profound spiritual moment I’ve ever had with my Dad on the couch in front of cable T.V. But also, I think the idea of “looking for God” really does say something crucial about spirituality in the modern world.

The idea of “looking for God” before, say, the 1960’s would have been a relatively strange thing to say. Because most people inherited a spiritual tradition of some kind. One that would have provided them with meaning from cradle to the grave. Not much searching would be required. God, of some kind or another, would be a given. But the 60’s challenged all sorts of social norms and and traditional sources authority, including religion. These things were seen as oppressive, stifling to the individual. So the idea of inherited tradition, or transcendent meaning, or purpose, beyond what we can taste, touch and see, is no longer the majority position in the West. In Canada and Europe, especially.

But this hasn’t meant a loss of spirituality, but a sort of transformation. The renowned Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a hugely influential (900-page) book a few years called A Secular Age, chronicling this shift in perspective. Taylor, who’s both Catholic, calls this shift the “spirituality of the quest,” a result of the breakdown of received tradition and religious devotion. In this spirituality, each person is encouraged to find meaning for themselves, authentic to themselves. To undertake a kind of quest. To seek, and discover their individual destiny. Or, as my Dad would would put it, as a culture we’re looking for God. George Harrison-style.

Now, it would be easy for us to criticize this new style of spirituality. As consumer-driven. As self-centred, as radically individualistic. But there’s also something that I think lines up well with the Christian tradition. First, there’s the fact that religious faith, if passed down and received uncritically, is not longer faith at all, but becomes a kind of common sense. Rather than something that fills our lives and changes us.

But also at the heart of the Christian tradition is this idea that we’re created to seek God from the beginning. The fifth century church father, St. Augustine, prayed “our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee.” And in the twentieth century, Narnia author C.S. Lewis talked about each of us having a “God-shaped hole” in our souls. One longing to be filled. So this shift to seeing religious faith as a quest, rather than a received package of truth, this can be seen as a retrieval, a revival, of something fundamental to Christianity to the beginning. We may look for God in all the wrong places. But the fact that we’re looking, searching, questing--that’s part of being human. It’s built in to us.

And so with all of this stuff in mind, I couldn’t help but read this morning’s scripture as a questing text. A story about searching, longing for God.

Our text follows Jesus death. We’re not sure how long after Good Friday, or Easter. But here, some of Jesus’ followers are gathered together. They’re gathered together, it says, by the Sea of Tiberius. Which is the far side of the sea of Galilee. Where Jesus started his ministry. Here Jesus appeared to them, seemingly out of nowhere. Inviting them to drop their fishing nets, and follow him.

The problem is that life isn’t like it was before. It’s the same place, but it seems... empty.

“I’m going fishing,” says Simon Peter. And the rest of them agree to go along. They fish all night, it says, but they catch nothing. Zero.

The point, though, isn’t so much about their terrible fishing skills. Their lack of success reflects the reality of their situation. After this incredible adventure with Jesus, the disciples have turned in, and gone back to everyday, ordinary life. Even though they go back to what they know best, they have this sense of aimlessness.1[i] This sense of purposelessness. Without Jesus, for them life doesn’t have the same shine. Their empty nets reflect a deeper reality. Their nets aren’t the only thing that’s empty. They’re empty, too. So they head out to sea... searching.

And so, they’re wandering the sea of Tiberius, looking, searching for what’s missing. Like us, Jesus’ disciples are on a spiritual quest. Even if they don’t quite know it.

Our scripture is a quest story. But it’s a quest that has its own unique dimensions. It’s a quest that works a bit differently.

First, we don’t have to go anywhere to search.

As the disciples are heading home, this mysterious figure is standing on the shore. None of them know who it is. Eventually, we discover that it’s Jesus, risen from the dead. But at first, the disciples don’t even recognize him. “You have no fish, do you?” he asks.

Jesus isn’t out at sea where they’re searching, you notice. But he’s waiting for them on the shore. He’s waiting for them at home. Galilee. Their neighborhood. The boring old place where they live and work.

You see, I think we assume that the quest requires us heading off, doing something amazing or out of the ordinary. To go traveling to holy places. To leave and find ourselves in the big city. But here, Jesus shows up outside. Even when they aren’t actually looking for him.

Because the thing about God is that God is actually seeking us. Right where we live. Here and now. We don’t have to go out to find God because the place where God is, here and now. You’ll find her, not on the trip out to sea, but on the beach. In our neighborhood, our families, relationships. You’ll find God, you’ll find Christ in the face of poor, the least, the lost, the sick and the down and out.[ii]

Jesus says “I will draw all people to myself.” We don’t have to leave or go off somewhere special to find God. The quest begins right here. Right now. Because God in Christ is seeking us, like Jesus waiting at the lakeshore. God is already at work right where you live. In fact, we don’t just come to church to find God. We come to church so our eyes can be focused on seeing God everywhere else.

That’s the first point. The quest begins right here, right now. The second is this: the quest leads us not into a different life, but a transformation of life as it is.

Remember how they were fishing all night, and their nets were completely empty. Jesus gives them a little advice. Throw your nets over the right side of the boat instead. They follow Jesus’ directions, and they not only catch fish, their nets are full. Bursting at the seams. This is where they finally recognize Jesus. By the abundance he brings.

Not only does God find them where they are, God fills their emptiness, as they are. They’re still fishermen. Working 9-5, trying to scratch out a living. That part doesn’t change. But their lives are now marked by this sense of fullness. Christ brings them abundance where they are. As they are.

We don’t have to be special. We don’t have to be gurus, mystics, pastors. We don’t have to be uniquely spiritual or holy people to find God. We don’t become completely different people, we don’t have to become different people. But we become more fully ourselves. My friend Ed Searcy who was undergoing steroid treatments used to say “I’m just like Ed. But more Ed.” Human, but more human. Truly human, fully human, like Jesus. Where we are in day to day living. The quest is for everyone. No matter the tools of our trade, our nets can be filled by the life of God. Jesus says that “I have come to give them life, and give it abundantly.” life to the full. It’s a gift to be received, not a prize to be earned.

The quest begins where we are. It starts with us as we are, to live fuller lives. But here’s the third point: it doesn’t end there.

When the disciples pull into shore, their net so full it should be bursting, Jesus is playing chef. He’s got a charcoal fire going. With some fish and bread on it. He invites them to bring in their catch so he can serve it up. And he gathers them at table, breaks it, and serves them. He serves them a big breakfast.

But this isn’t the end of the journey. The New Testament scholar Frances Gench says that this isn’t a dinner before night time that signals the end of the journey. This is a big breakfast to give them the strength, the energy for their work ahead as his followers.[iii] The quest has only just begun. And will take their whole lives.

I think when we imagine a spiritual quest, we imagine a destination. One day when we’ll be fully enlightened. One day when we finally reach the holy grail and life is perfect as it should be. Full satisfaction. BOOM... found God. But here, the quest doesn’t work like that. They find Jesus on the shore. But it’s really only the beginning. For us, the quest has a destination. But it’s not one we’ll fully reach in our life time. The quest comes with a sense of dissatisfaction with the way the world is, longing to the coming together of heaven and earth for good. But the promise is that we’ll be filled, fed, and sustained through the trials and tribulations of life. For us, the quest has only just begun. And will take our whole lives.

Friends, we live in this strange time. The time of searching, questing after the divine. But it’s also not so new. It’s part of our make-up, or human nature.

But if you find yourself searching, questing, the good news is that you don’t need to look much further. Because the good news is that you don’t have to go far. You don’t have to be uniquely spiritual, or uniquely holy. The good news is that the quest begins right here, right now. Because God comes to us where we are. In our wandering, and in our emptiness. God comes to us as we are, and God fills our nets and feeding our deepest hungers.

Ask, and you will receive;
seek, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened to you.

God abounds in love and mercy
and welcomes our return,
for in Christ, God came to us
that we might have abundant life.

And for this, thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: Anchor Bible Commentary.

[ii] Cornelius Plantinga, “How do People See Jesus?” in Beyond Doubt: Faith-Building Devotions on Questions Christians Ask, 56.

[iii] Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John.