My tastes in music are a little out of the mainstream. Programs like iTunes really don’t know what to do with me. They have categories like Rock, R&B, Country, Hip-Hop, Oldies, and, at the bottom of the list, Classical. But if you were to look at my CD collection, you would see sections for Concertos, Symphonies, Opera, Piano, Organ, Choral, and … non-Classical, which is the smallest section, and includes everything from Jazz to Barbra Streisand to Simon & Garfunkel. I like classical music, and the people I’m most likely to become good friends with will know something about classical music. Call me a snob if you want, but the same is probably true for you even if your favorite music is Country, or Classic Rock, or Big Band. It’s just the way human beings behave.
Left to our natural inclinations, most of us are going to made decisions that we feel give us more strength and stability and security. This means that we will tend to hang out with others who are like us in some way. Family members are like us in that we share a gene pool, so the bond that family members experience is usually quite strong. I have a bunch of cousins I’m now friends with on Facebook. I don’t really know them very well, or even at all, but I’m still interested in them and their lives simply because they are my cousins; we share a common set of grandparents.
Human communities invariably self-select into groups that share some sort of affinity. We divide ourselves into groups based on race and ethnicity. After decades of forced integration in public schools, walk into the lunchroom of an urban school and you’ll still usually see Asian kids and Latino kids and Caucasian kids and African-American kids hanging out with others who look like them. We divide ourselves into groups based on culture; like I said, my very best friends are going to be people who would get excited about going to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and not know what to do with free tickets to a Jimmy Buffett concert except try to sell them. We segregate ourselves into groups of similar economic status. This is pretty much done for us involuntarily. People of similar economic means, whether rich, poor, or in between, are essentially forced to live in the same neighborhoods with one another; the market just takes care of that for us. We certainly divide ourselves into groups of the politically like-minded. Who do you want to sit in a bar and have a drink with? Probably somebody who votes the way you do. And among those who profess and call themselves Christians, we seek out those with whom we are most theologically like-minded. Did you know that in the Warsaw Yellow Pages, which covers all of Kosciusko County, there are 51 distinct “brand names” of churches? Not just 51 churches, but 51 kinds of churches—and that counts all Baptists in one category, and all Brethren in one category, and the same with Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans, and you know the variations within those groups, and Kosciusko County isn’t exactly all that diverse religiously. 51!
And then, after we’ve sorted ourselves out in all those ways, we sub-divide even further into enclaves of like-mindedness within enclaves of like-mindedness: Conservative Episcopalians who prefer traditional music and conservative Episcopalians who prefer contemporary music, liberal Episcopalians who prefer Rite One, and liberal Episcopalians who prefer Rite Two, or perhaps one of the authorized experimental liturgies. Very often, these divisions and sub-divisions lead to chronic conflict within church communities. Fortunately, over the last few centuries, Christians have learned to live with conflict without resorting to actual physical violence, so nobody has been drawn and quartered or burned at the stake for heresy in recent memory. Nonetheless, when our conflicts make news, it hardly advances the cause of the gospel, does it?
So, it is in this environment of constant conflict based on our irresistible propensity to divide ourselves into affinity groups that we encounter this incident, recorded for us in John’s gospel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Jesus and his disciples. The disciples are in a boat, about a hundred yards offshore, trying to catch fish, but coming up empty. A mysterious figure on the beach tells them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. They figure they haven’t got anything to lose by trying, so they throw their net on the other side of the boat, and it immediately fills with so many fish that the net is in danger of breaking. It is at this point that they recognize the mysterious figure on the shore as Jesus—Jesus risen from the dead, to be precise. Peter gets so excited that he jumps into the water and swims to shore, leaving his colleagues with the hard work of dragging their miraculous catch of fish to shore. And it was indeed miraculous, both in the size of the fish and the number of fish, so extraordinary that they actually counted them. There were 153. This is kind of an odd detail to find in a gospel story, which leads to the question, why? Why are we told this? This is a mystery to which there is no ready and widely agreed-upon answer. But strongest speculation is that it represents the number of distinct national groups in the world as it was then known to Greek and Roman society. It is therefore a sign of comprehensiveness, of universality, of diversity.
In Matthew’s gospel, there is a similar incident on the same lakeshore, very early in our Lord’s public ministry, when he is still gathering his followers. There, as here, the activity of catching fish is clearly a metaphor for evangelism, for spreading the gospel, for Jesus’ followers casting their nets by telling others about him, and having those “nets” filled with those who respond to the Good News of Christ. So this incident reminds us that Christ captures us in one unbroken net. He captures all “153” of us—that is, even in our apparently incoherent diversity. Jesus captures us in our ethnic diversity and makes us one with those who don’t look like us. Jesus captures us in our economic diversity and makes us one with those who don’t live in our neighborhood. Jesus captures us in our cultural diversity and makes us one with those whose record collections and iTunes playlists look much different than our own. Jesus captures us in our political diversity, and makes us one with those whose perception of what public policies are best for our society is radically at odds with ours. Jesus captures us even in our theological diversity and makes us one with those whose understanding of scripture and the demands of discipleship take them down different paths than we believe ourselves called to follow.
We are captured by Christ in our baptism. Peter jumping into the water when he recognizes the risen Jesus is a sign of this. We are captured by Christ as we follow him on the path of discipleship, day in and day out, over the course of a lifetime. The disciples who were on that boat and on that lakeshore were people who had followed Jesus, and would follow him again. Inasmuch as we are disciples ourselves, we are present with them on that beach, witnessing that miraculous sign of 153 fish, a sign of God’s intention to bless the mission of his then young Church. We are captured by Christ in the Eucharist. How did the disciples fully recognize the presence of Jesus with them? By sharing a meal, which is clearly, in this context, meant to be a sign of the Eucharistic banquet—the same banquet we are about to share at this very altar. And we are captured by Christ as we engage in mission. When the disciples were discouraged at the beginning of this narrative, Peter said, “I’m going fishing,” and the others said, “We’ll come with you.” Later, in a private conversation, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these.” Perhaps he pointed at the fish nets and the boats as he said “these.” Jesus was taking the symbols of Peter’s former mission—which was to catch fish—and giving them a new meaning, as signs of his new mission of making more new disciples of Jesus, or, in other words, to grow the Church.
And the fruit of this mission to which the risen Jesus was calling his refreshed and rededicated followers is the creation of nothing less than a distinctive culture and community that stands as an alternative to the fractured and divided and segregated affinity groups into which we naturally select ourselves. To the extent that the Church is faithful in her mission, she is a shining neon sign that says, “There is a better way. Unity can overcome estrangement. The divisions of ethnicity, culture, economics, and politics melt away in the heat of the unity given us by Christ in baptism, in eucharist, in discipleship, and in mission.” Praised be the risen Christ. Alleluia and Amen.