A little girl who lived in a remote part of the country was receiving her first bible instruction at the hands of her elderly grandmother, who was reading to the child the story of creation. After the story, the little girl seemed lost in thought. “Well, Dear,” said the grandmother, “what do you think?”
“Oh, I love it. It’s so exciting,” exclaimed the youngster. “You never know what God is going to do next!”
In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples certainly are caught unaware. Actually it is a double whammy: first there is the totally unexpected catch of fish, then they discover it is their Lord who is the stranger among them. (Don’t you find it strange they don’t recognise the man with whom they had spent the previous three years, day in, day out?)
Surprises; life is full of surprises, but are you ever surprised by God? Do you even expect to be surprised by God? Remember, our God is a God who creates out of nothing; out of emptiness, hopelessness and despair. Surprise is God’s middle name, yet surprise is not a quality of God we usually sing about, pray about, talk about. Why not? I think it is because, for most of us, life is too good.
Fritz Kunkel, a German-American psychologist, is known for his attempt to integrate psychology, sociology and religion into a unified theory of human being. He spoke of life as moving between +100s, the mountain top experiences, and the -100s, where one is bereft of all hope. On the positive side of the ledger, where one is in control of one’s life and experiencing the best life has to offer, God doesn’t have much chance to be heard. But when life goes bad, especially at -100 where one’s resources are completely exhausted, all resistance is gone, and one can do nothing to help oneself, then one is open to God’s in-breaking.
When will we learn that God is not able to surprise us and reach us effectively in the good times of life, but rather in our moments of weakness and even failure; those times when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable?
Through Jesus, God reached out to the despised, the lonely, the sick and transformed their lives. He was rejected by the safe and secure in their big homes; he was rejected by the religious establishment. And so it goes on today.
If God is going to surprise us today, it likely will not be while we rest stable on solid ground, but while are tossed on the rocky sea, plunging like Peter into the depths of the unknown and taking risks for the sake of God’s kingdom, for the sake of one another and for the sake of ourselves. This is where the miracles happen, and where we discover life in all its fullness.
Back in the 1990s, when I was minister at Belmont, I was asked to write an article for the Geelong Advertiser on the subject of Easter. It attracted a fair bit of criticism from the faithful, including a letter to the editor, coincidently, from a Rev. Bob Thomas, the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Geelong at the time. They were reacting, presumably, because I didn’t proclaim the resurrection in the traditional way. However, consider that at least 90% of the people out there are not regular church attenders, and talk of a man returning from the dead is not only meaningless to them, to a great many it is so absurd that it is dismissed as a joke. But the reality to which the story of resurrection points is most certainly within the realm of experience of many people, and it this reality of a God who surprises; who brings life in the face of death, joy amid grief, and hope in midst of despair that is universally available. This is the good news of the gospel.
When we make the story (Jesus’ return from the grave) more important than its message, when we make the symbol more important than that to which it points, we not only disempower it, we are guilty of exclusivism, claiming that Christians have the definitive answer, and only our beliefs, our language, our stories bring truth.
The sort of vulnerability required to experience the surprises of God includes a radical openness to the future that comes from a faith which does not cling to any particular form of religion. What most people call the Christian faith is really a religion: a human construct, a set of beliefs which, if they are working the way they should, guide us into a a living faith, which then in turn, allows us to eventually let go of those beliefs.
Religious beliefs are like crutches, which we use while a broken leg heals. When we are strong we can throw the crutches away. While faith is young and developing it is useful to have things to lean on. Our belief system helps us to choose the right actions and teaches us the elements which will give the strength to put our trust in a higher power.
Jesus’ resurrection is one such belief. From it we learn about the God who surprises, and for whom there is no barrier, even death. We use it (inappropriately) to extrapolate hope for ourselves: i.e., if God did this for Jesus, God can do it for us. However, as long as we need this belief, we do not have real faith, because we are using this belief to shape our own hopes and to define God and how God works. With our beliefs we are trying to maintain control of life; we are still self-interested. In fact, beliefs which are not expendable are idols, and we all know what the Bible has to say about idols. Dogmatism in any form is not allowing God to be God, not giving God the freedom to come up with something totally new.
It is when we cease worrying, even about our beliefs, and give up all self-concern, that God can truly act freely and surprise us. When we can give up our religion and simply place ourselves in God’s hands, not knowing, or even pretending to know, what this means, then we may experience the freedom of living in faith.
God’s work for us is the work of faith. Our proper work, in whatever activity we may choose to perform it, is the reaching out in faith on behalf of the other and gathering together all people for the glory of God. There is certainly a tendency to want to know what the future will bring, particularly at this time as you look ahead to a new minister. It is typically human to want to plan, and be reasonably certain of the outcome. But sometimes it is necessary to step out in faith, in the face of doubts and fears, even though you may be old or tired, toward the dreams which God has put in your hearts. Yes, have doubts, ask questions, be afraid, but don’t underestimate the power of God to surprise. For, as the little girl in my opening story said, you never know what God is going to do next.