Managing expectations #2: the promise of fruit

In a previous post I introduced the challenge of managing expectations within the life of a church. In John 21 we saw the promise that God’s word is powerful.

The disciples have just reached a point where they are seeing-and-believing. But now in chapter 21 Jesus is preparing them to lead other people to the point where they are not-seeing-and-believing. Look at 20:29: ‘Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”’

The first disciples see and believe. Future generations will not see and believe. Instead, they will hear and believe.

But will this work? Will people really hear and believe without being able to see Jesus?

The evidence in our experience is mixed. As our church gathers we are the proof that people can not-see-and-believe. But we are few in number. Most people don’t believe.

Will people in your town really hear-and-believe? This is the question which is answered by John 21:1-14.

This story is the promise of fruit. It is the promise of a harvest.

John emphases that this is an impressive catch. Verse 6 talks about a ‘large number of fish’. Verse 8 talks about a ‘net full of fish’. The story describes the transition from ‘they caught nothing’ in verse 3 to a net ‘full of large fish, 153,’ in verse 11.

And John knew what he was talking about because John was a fisherman. He knew this was extraordinary.

On its own we might think this story is just another demonstration of the power of Jesus. But coming after 20:29-31 it becomes the promise of fruitfulness in mission. As we proclaim the name of Jesus, people will believe and find life is his name.

The Acts 29 church planting network is so-called to highlight the way the story of mission in Acts does not end in chapter 28. Acts is just the beginning. We continue to write the story. We’re writing the next chapter. We have the same idea in John’s Gospel. John 20 feels like an ending. Indeed some people have concluded that it’s the real ending of the Gospel and chapter 21 is later addition. But 20:30-31 are not the end of the story. The story of Jesus on earth is over. But the story of Jesus continues and we are writing it. The story of Jesus is continued through the mission of the church. So this big catch of fish is an exposition of 20:29. It is the promise that there will be people ‘who have not seen and yet have believed.’

It’s the promise that Jesus will bless our mission. As we work, Jesus will work – sometimes without us recognising that he is at work

You see, it’s the disciples who catch these fish. They’re the ones who let down their nets. They’re the ones who drag the net ashore. But it’s Jesus who gives the bounty. They are completely depend on him. In the same way, we cast out the net as we proclaim the gospel. But it’s Jesus who gives life.

Some of the disciples were expert fishermen. But expertise is not everything. They needed Jesus. In the same way, we can be expert evangelists – nothing wrong with that. But expertise is not everything. We need Jesus. He is the Lord of the harvest.

Without Jesus, the disciples were fishing in the dark – they were in the boat at night. Apparently that’s a good time to fish. But ‘night’ for John is often symbolic of life without the light of Christ. His Gospel starts with the light shining in the darkness as Jesus comes into the world (1:5) Now in this story as morning breaks Jesus appears on the shore. And through his command the disciples catch a great number of fish.

Will people really hear-and-believe? The answer is Yes. The word of Jesus produces a harvest. In 1942 a missionary called Mary Sander wrote to Barclay Buxton, the founder of the Japan Evangelistic Band, with whom she had served in Japan:

I feel, on looking back, that the way God used me to win Japanese to Christ was in the way you taught us in the use of the Scriptures, His own Word, the weapon of the Word, and His Spirit. It did the work. I remember feeling what comfort it was that not our weak words, but His eternal Word was the weapon of our warfare. It seemed like a strong friend at hand. (Cited B. Godfrey Buxton, The Reward of Faith in the Life of Barclay F. Buxton, Japan Evangelistic Band, 1949, 263.)

Think about seeds. They typically look dead – like little bits of grit. But they produce life – even if they are trampled underfoot, sometimes because they are trampled underfoot. And the Bible often says God’s word is like a seed. It may look dead. It may be trampled underfoot. But it produces life.

This story echoes another story of a miraculous catch in Luke 5:1-11 when Jesus calls the disciples to be fishers of people (see also Mark 1:16-17). So people have wondered whether the disciples were wrong now to return to their fishing. Is this a return to their old way of life when they should have been fishing for people? I’m not persuaded they were in the wrong. After all, they had to eat while they waited for Jesus meet them again.

But this is not the action of Spirit-filled people. None of them are fishing in the book of Acts! At this point, the disciples believe in Jesus, but they’ve not yet received the Spirit because the Spirit has not yet been poured out at Pentecost.

But Pentecost has now happened. The Spirit of God has been poured out on God’s people. Every Christian is in-dwelt with the Spirit.

And so now we Christians cannot return to our old way of life – at least not in the same way. A new Christian may well continue as a fisherman, builder, shop-worker. But we’re all called to be fishers of people. We return to our old life as people with new life living with a new purpose. Our workplace becomes the context for mission.

We can proclaim the name of Jesus in the expectation that there will be fruit. There will be a catch of people. People will believe in Jesus and find life in his name.

I can’t tell you how many people will be saved in 2015. Maybe it will be none. Maybe one. Maybe ten. Maybe more. But there will be a harvest. I don’t know why Good doesn’t convert more people in the UK (though he is doing so elsewhere in the world). But there will be a harvest. Dead seed will burst into life.

Our job is to obey the command of Jesus, like the disciples, and let down the net by proclaiming his word. After that, it’s over to Jesus. He gives the harvest. He will decide whether there is one convert or ten or more. The harvest is up to him. And so:

  • We proclaim Christ with confidence – because Christ promises a harvest.
  • We proclaim Christ with prayer – because it’s Christ who gives the harvest.
  • We proclaim Christ without pressure – because the harvest doesn’t depend on us.

Our job is to proclaim his name, confident that he promises a harvest.

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