|Today’s scripture readings:
John 21:1-19, 25
In the middle of her junior year of high school, Lila Perry came out as transgender. Lila lives in Hillsboro, Missouri, a small town about an hour southwest of St. Louis. Since her birth, Lila had been living as a boy. But, she says, that was never really who she was. Lila began to realize she felt more like a girl than a boy when she was 13 years old, and in February of her junior year, she decided she was done pretending to be something she’s not. That’s when she came out as transgender and began living as a girl.
As she began her senior year of high school last fall, Lila talked with the Hillsboro High School administration about using the girls’ bathrooms in the school—the bathrooms that match her gender identity and in which she feels more comfortable. The administration consented after consulting guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that say students should be allowed to use facilities that match their gender identity. Not long after the school announced that decision, over two hundred of Lila’s classmates walked out of class in protest. While these students were outside the school demonstrating, Lila huddled inside her guidance counselor’s office with the door locked.
A few days after that, Lila’s supporters organized a rally. National lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy organizations like the Humans Rights Campaign and the Transgender Law Center promoted the event. Dozens of people from St. Louis chartered buses to Hillsboro so they could attend. People all around the country showed their support on social media using the hashtag #LiftingUpLila. Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy sent an incredible letter of praise and support. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through these past few weeks,” he wrote, “but you have navigated the pain, the attention, and the adversity with incredible grace.” Handwritten at the bottom of the letter, the Congressman told Lila, “Thank you for sharing your story. Let me know if I can help.”
Imagine how Lila must have felt. Just when she was questioning whether she would ever find acceptance, when she thought she had no future, when it must have seemed all hope was lost, a community showed up, rallied around her, and showered her with abundance—an abundance of love and support and belonging. I have to imagine that that experience of abundance gave her confidence that the forces of fear and intolerance—the forces of death that threatened to do her in—would not have the final word.
In today’s gospel lesson it’s just that kind of experience—an experience of abundance—that gives Jesus’ disciples confidence that Christ is alive and that death would not have the final word.
As this final chapter from John’s gospel begins, the disciples have returned to Galilee, where Jesus had originally met them and called them out of their ordinary lives to be part of his inner circle. And now, with the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection behind them, the disciples have apparently returned to their former lives. They’ve gone back to fishing.
It must have been a strange time for the disciples. Just imagine it. For three years they had followed this teacher and watched as he built a movement that transformed lives and disrupted the religious establishment. They had marched with him into Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, where they thought a revolution was about to take place. Instead, they watched as Jesus was arrested, condemned, and sent to the cross. They watched him die. Then they heard the impossible news of Jesus’ resurrection, and they had their own encounter with the risen Christ in that upper room—we heard that story here last Sunday. So now what are the disciples supposed to do? This story tells us what they did: They went back to what they knew. They went back to Galilee, got in their boats, and went fishing.
After everything they had been through, returning to their backwater hometowns and going back to fishing must have been a huge let-down. And what’s worse, the fishing was terrible. In today’s story we hear they’ve been out all night and haven’t caught a thing. This had to have been a low point for the disciples. They must have been asking themselves, is this really it? Is this what the future holds for us now?
At daybreak a stranger on the shore yells for them to cast their net off the right side of the boat. They do, and they’re barely able to pull it back in, it’s so full of fish. And that is the moment when they realize the man on the shore is Jesus. It’s when their need is met with abundance that they recognize Jesus is with them. It’s then that they realize that dejection and disappointment—the forces of death—won’t have the final word.
A little later in the story we hear there were 153 fish in the net. It’s kind of strange, don’t you think, how oddly specific that is, that we’re given the exact number of fish in the net—153? Scholars over the centuries have debated the significance of that number. Some have said 153 was the total number of species of fish known at that time, so the 153 fish were meant to represent the completeness of the disciples’ mission to be fishers of people. Others have pointed out—I know Pastor Lois, as a fellow math major, will appreciate this one—that 153 is the total of all the numbers from 1 through 17 added together, and 17 is the Ten Commandments plus the seven days of creation. Makes perfect sense, right? Some have said 153 is a symbol of the Trinity, but to be honest, I’m not really sure how they come up with that. Others dismiss these explanations altogether and say that 153 is just a really big number, that the point is that Jesus responds to the disciples’ need with abundance. Just when they think all hope is lost, when they think they’re going to come up empty every time, Jesus fills their nets to overflowing. A whole lot of fish, when you least expect it: That is when we recognize Jesus and know he is risen indeed and lives among us still. That is when we see death does not have the final word.
Looking out at the sea of people who had come to the rally, Lila Perry described what it meant to her to have their support: “When people talk to me and treat me as an equal I feel celebrated. When people listen to my voice and my story without judgment I feel seen. When people show up I feel celebrated, and those are the kinds of things—recognizing, listening to, and honoring each other—that we can all do for each other every day.”
Last May, the Gloria Dei congregation council established a task force to reevaluate our welcoming statement and to consider ways our congregation can extend a more specific welcome to transgender and gender non-conforming people. That task force is suggesting some revisions to our welcoming statement that we will consider at our congregational meeting on May 1. You can read more about that in your bulletin announcements insert today. The truth is, some folks have learned that churches are the last place where they will feel welcomed and accepted. As we speak, states like North Carolina and Mississippi are in an uproar about new legislation, championed by Christian business owners, that would make it legal to discriminate against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. At a time when so many people, particularly those who identify as transgender, are beginning to feel like all hope is lost, wondering if they’re ever going to experience acceptance and belonging, it is especially important for our congregation to be clear. We strive to extend an abundant and expansive welcome to each person who walks through the doors of this church, so that all people will recognize that the forces of intolerance and exclusion—the forces of death—do not have final word. For it is when the people of God encounter desperate need in the world and respond with abundance that we can see clearly: Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Karoline Lewis, “Resurrection is Abundance,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2016, accessed April 7, 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4583.
Michael E. Miller, “A transgender teen used the girls’ locker room. Now her community is up in arms,” in The Washington Post, September 2, 2015, accessed April 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/02/a-transgender-teen-used-the-girls-locker-room-now-her-community-is-up-in-arms/.
Mpowerment St. Louis, Twitter post, October 11, 2015, accessed April 7, 2016, https://twitter.com/MpowerStL/status/653245684414554112.
Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
The featured image for this post, “Small Fishes from Bucket Caught with Cast Net,” is copyright (c) 2011 Kim Seng and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.