Communion on the beach

John 21:1-14
1 Corinthians 12:12-26

Noah started building several arks for various parts of animal kingdom. One was a split level job for all the fish – a multi-storey carp ark

So, today’s gospel story is all about fish – many different kinds of fish – and a barbecue on the beach.  What an exciting meal – a barbecue on the beach is great if you’re the people eating it, rather than smelling it all second hand.

It’s no co-incidence that we’re thinking about this shared meal on the same week as our Holy Communion service.  So much of what Holy Communion is for us is derived from the last supper and Paul’s writing about that in 1 Corinthians 11, even though that’s a fearsome passage we rarely read.  Yet, we believe Christ is alive, and so our communion cannot really be a memorial to one who is still alive, and the last supper wasn’t the only meal Christ shared with his disciples.  At the last supper, when Jesus said, “do this to remember me”, I think what he was meaning was more along the lines of, whenever you share a meal, remember I’m with you, rather than an instruction to replicate as closely as possible the last supper.

Five thousand were fed, in Christ’s presence, by bread and fish.  Wine flowed in Christ’s presence at that notorious wedding.    At Emmaus the risen Christ’s presence became known in the breaking of bread.  And of course there’s the meal we heard about today, where Jesus and the disciples share barbecued fish on the beach.

What is it that makes all these meals in the gospels special?

1. The Presence of Jesus
Not remembrance, not sacrifice or thanksgiving, nor commitment nor unity – all of which are relevant and play their part in Communion – but simply the presence of Jesus.  Charles Wesley put it like this:
Thy presence makes the feast;
Now let our spirits feel
The glory not to be expressed
The joy unspeakable

When Jesus walked in Galilee he could be seen, heard, and touched.  To be with Jesus, to eat and drink with him was the privilege of the first century inhabitants of Palestine.  The presence of Jesus is basic to meals shared in the gospels, so that they become a meeting – a special meeting – with Jesus.

2. Shared Elements of Food and Drink
The second aspect is the specific mention of elements of food or drink taken and shared by Jesus and others.  Only four elements of food and drink are specifically mentioned, and these always with a sense of deliberation: bread, water, fish, and wine.  So, elements thus became ‘Jesus-food’ and `Jesus-drink’ in the minds of Chris­tians.

3. Signs
The food and drink are used symbolically.  The bread and wine at the Last Supper, nothing of themselves, are used by Jesus and matter because of the significance provided by Jesus himself.  In all the meals in the gospels there are overtones – some different aspect of the communion is emphasised and brought out so that our appreciation and joy at Christ’s Table is the less if it is never included.

What I’m suggesting to you is that there is much more to Communion than just the last supper, that the other meals Jesus shares have something to contribute to our experience of Communion, and one of those meals is the breakfast on the beach, that we read today.

So, what might this story have to say to us and our Communion?

Because it’s in Galilee that makes it off-centre.  Galilee was close to the border with pagans and gentiles, and that border was indistinct.  Jesus spreads his table at the edge, to warn against setting firm boundaries.

This meal reminds us we only succeed under the guidance of Christ.  Only he is in a position to anticipate where the harvest is likely to be reaped.  The specific advice of Jesus to throw the net on the other side of the boat suggests that a radical change in direction was essential for success.

The number 153 must be symbolic.  It’s a good catch, but hardly enough to engender the element of miracle and surprise the story suggests or to cause problems for skilled fishermen.  It’s a triangular number, and stands for imperfection.  We need to remember that although there were many fish the net was not torn, and there is plenty of room for more.

Fish reminds us of the Resurrection presence of Jesus, and is also the symbol of those new, fresh, gleaming Christians brought in from right outside the Christian community.  If our church never has any of these to offer, we should ask ourselves whether it’s time to try the other side of the boat.

Jesus is the host at the meal, as he is in every Communion.  He issues the invitation, “time for breakfast”, just as he invites us to come and eat at his table.  The language is clear – Jesus ‘takes’ the bread, ‘gives it’ to them, and the fish ‘in the same way’.

I’m not suggesting we start putting fish on the plates with the bread, but I’s worth remembering that fish was part of this meal, which was one part of what makes up our Communion, and the oldest Reformed church in the world, the Waldensian Church, in Italy, used fish in their Communion for hundreds of years.

The most astounding feature of this meal shared with Jesus is that the guests, without exception, thought themselves failures.  They had forsaken their leader and abandoned his ideals at the critical moment.  That they could not make a decent catch of fish until Jesus turns up seems to symbolise their failure, yet the good news is obvious – come as you are to Christ’s banquet and receive the assurance of his love and acceptance.  Jesus accepts us as we are, and then begins his work of grace.  We may be different parts of the body, but we all have a part to play.

There’s an old story from Scotland of a woman of dubious reputation who chanced to enter a Kirk at the time of a Communion service.  When the bread was brought round to her she sadly shook her head.  The Elder recognising her, pushed the plate in front of her, “Och, take it lassie, it’s for sinners”.

There’s a new hymn, which we might learn another time:

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star over head.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding to share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that’s fair.

For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, the right to belong.

For just and unjust, a place at the table.
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mind-set of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.

And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice, and joy.

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