At some point during the week, Matt got up this old T4G panel discussion (hat tip Denny Burk) between Carl Trueman and some—both then and now—very famous pastors. The session opens with some awkward joking about how Trueman has been very critical of the so-called Celebrity Pastor and how they thought it would be fun to have a panel with him and all of them, the “them” being Matt Chandler, David Platt, CJ Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, and Thabiti Anyabwile. Trueman is invited to voice his “concerns” about the phenomenon of the Celebrity Pastor which he does most lucidly. In response, the rest of the panel, while “hearing” what he says, assure him that they are not devoted to their own fame, that they do recognize how dangerous it can be, but that the importance of being able to preach the gospel to large crowds definitely outweighs all the possible troubles. It is a bit heartbreaking to watch, honestly, because everything that Trueman warned about has essentially come to pass. Those famous pastors did not really heed the warning, nor all of us who listened to them over the years.
But it was heartbreaking to watch for another reason, and that is that in my own diocese a beloved and faithful pastor died just two days after Easter. He had to take a leave of absence last year from his church, and we in the diocese have all been praying for his recovery, and then—suddenly from my perspective, because I wasn’t there in the agony of his short and terrible illness—he is gone.
I guess the heartbreak comes not only in losing a faithful pastor and co-belligerent (the main person you wanted to sit in front of during diocesan meetings because of the clever quips and incisive commentary) but also in the contrast between his life and the posture of those famous panelists towards ministry in general. What are we all going on about? What is the task before us in this age? What is the best way to accomplish the work that God has given us to do? The answers seem rather obvious, formed as we are by technology and clicks.
But there is also the gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus is still risen, just as he said he would be, but as yet no fully formed plan has come into the heads and hearts of his disciples. He told them to go to Galilee and so they did. They are over the initial shock of having lost him and then found him—or rather, his finding them. Thomas has been folded back into the group. One can assume that the women who went away from the Tomb on Easter morning have packed up all their stuff and gone to Galilee as well, and otherwise gotten life into some kind of order. Everyone has been eating regular meals, and Jesus has been doing whatever incomprehensible thing that he does in every age.
John doesn’t tell us anything else but that at some moment Peter said to the others, “I’m going fishing.” Some of those others said they might as well go along so that they were seven in number trudging down to dust off that old work. It is their old familiar boat, on the old familiar lake. The nets, the enduring night, the frustration, the longing for something more—more fish, more interesting work, more success. It’s so exasperating to hang around laboring over the same small set of tasks with no greater, brighter all-encompassing vision to thrill the soul and enliven the spirit.
What, do you suppose, is the number of days between Adam fleeing the garden and trying to get some seeds to grow in the ground, always wishing there could be more of everything, and Peter staying up all night throwing out his net over and over trying to get fish so that they won’t all starve? Too many to count? Too many to endure.
I think a lot of life and ministry feels like rocking in that wretched boat, doing the same tasks over and over and praying desperately for better results. All those Celebrities on that stage have part of the truth. It is important that people come to know Jesus and hear the word that brings life, that folds them each into an everlasting covenant with their God. It’s not just important, it is the only thing. Some day all of us will stand before the Lamb on the Throne and will fall down, one way or another, and see that he is who he says he is. But those famous pastors only have half the picture–not to judge the hearts of people I don’t personally know, but taking their words as they say them, and the public lives they’ve lived over the last two decades. The other half of the picture is that gently rocking boat, out there in the water, and the disciples waiting for the dawn.
They caught nothing, but just as the day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore and called to them, though they did not know that it was him. See what he calls them—”children.” Not “wretched and unbelieving disciples who should not have doubted that he would rise from the dead” nor “awesome powerful ministry leaders who will certainly lead the church into mega-brilliance.” No, “children,” those same kinds of people to whom the kingdom of God belongs because they listen and obey. Which they do. When told to throw the net over the other side of the boat, which certainly they had already done several times during the long night, they do it again, and the miracle which had bound them to Jesus in the first place is repeated.
But Peter is sad and tired, still, and does not immediately see that the man on the beach is Jesus. John has to tell him. And then, in his usual way, he leaps in the water and swims for shore. And, having counted the fish and found that there were 153, they have breakfast with Jesus. After the fish and the bread, Jesus will reinstate and commission Peter, but we can’t read about that until next week because that would be having to think about too many things at once.
No, this morning we just have the breakfast. And many mornings that’s how it is. You work and work and work, and in the end, when you look up from your books, or your pulpit, or your staff meeting, or your coffee with a depressed and anxious parishioner, when all the futility and frustration and helplessness of not being able to bring about the kingdom of God on earth seems at full tilt, there, still, is Jesus, offering not fish and bread but bread and wine–his own body to nourish and sustain you.
Trueman says at one point in the interview that conferences like T4G where successful celebrity pastors “encourage” and instruct the small-time ones who pay their money and spend their time to meet together, trying to lift their eyes up past the gently rocking boat for a weekend (he doesn’t use the boat, I’m just adding it in) set up a wrong expectation for all the conference-goers. What do you think is going to happen when you go into ministry? That you’ll be such an amazing preacher that thousands of people will crowd in to hear you and you’ll have to beam yourself into another campus? That you’ll be invited to share the stage with the Important Evangelicals? That your budget will grow to include less hideous carpet in the sanctuary? Of course that’s what you expect, though you tell yourself in a thousand ways that what you’re doing is important, that it’s fine.
When really, it should be the pastor who died last week who should be your ideal. Well-read, intelligent, kind, sensible, and showing up Sunday after Sunday to faithfully preach the word in season and out of season (and boy, are so many of the seasons not a good time for this), administering the sacraments to his flock—this should be your glorious aspiration. Unless you have some other small job and are not a pastor, in which case, that job should be the job that you do, not being envious of other people’s tasks. What more do you want? 154 fish? Boats and boats full of fish and people? As the sun sets on your disappointment, it should be Jesus who you look to for all your satisfaction and pleasure. In the final reckoning, both the great and the small, the known and the unknown will all stand before the Lamb, and they will all admit that he was worthy.
But seriously, if you care about your pastor, go to church because he’s so discouraged all the time. Happy Easter!
Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash