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Avoiding the Default Position (John 21:1-14)

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

(John 21:7–8 NRSV)

Learning Motorcycle Safety

As some of you know, I purchased a Honda Shadow a few weeks back from my good friend, Alivia Biko. I had to have Cole Bridges drive down with me and ride it back because I didn’t want my very first time of riding a motorcycle to be an hour-long ride of the 5.

The deal that I had to make with Alivia, Peggy and Emily was that I would wait to get serious about riding until I took the motorcycle safety course.

A photo posted by C. Wess Daniels (@cwessd) on

Well, that course was this past Thursday and Friday. So look out!

Even though I’ve had my endorsement and been riding a scooter for 4 years, I am amazed at how much I learned from the course.

For instance, I learned that in a swerve you never brake because you could lock up your tires.

Or if you front brake locks up you let go of it and progressively reapply, but if your rear brake locks up then you need to keep it locked until you come to a stop or slow down enough that everything is under control.

I learned the importance of keeping your head up at all times and how the secret to a good turn is to look through it.

I also learned, by observing some of my other classmates, that there are some people who are on motorcycles that I would trust behind the wheel of a minivan, let alone a “crotch-rocket.”

Going Back to What We Know

Another thing seems quite obvious: there are many ways in which riding a motorcycle is not at all like driving a car. You can’t sit on a motorcycle and act like it is a car, things won’t go well for you if you do. This is why we have things like a safety course where you practice quick stops over and over, learning how to use the front and right break together and smoothly, and how to do safe turns.

I think these texts about Jesus showing up at the resurrection are a lot like shifting from driving a car to riding a motorcycle.

After you’ve been through this whole ordeal with Jesus there’s a drastic shift in what you’re doing, a new outlook, new skills are needed. Taking seriously the resurrection of Jesus changes everything in our lives. Living a life of faith moves us from a more comfortable ride to one where getting comfortable can be detrimental to our well-being.

Peggy Morrison, puts this more eloquently in her book “Miracle Motors:”

When you trade in your car for a motorcycle, you are trading in your buffer zone. People get motion sick in cars because your eyes tell your brain you are moving very fast and your butt thinks you are sitting in an easy chair. There is no such confusion on a bike. Every part of you understands what is going on. You can daydream while driving a car. Some people do that on motorcycles, but then they die. Riding requires awareness.

Riding requires awareness. So does faith.

And so I think this passage this morning can teach us something not just about transformation but that it can teach us something about how Jesus wants his disciples to respond in his absence.

In the Vacuum

Jesus’ death left a huge vacuum for his disciples. Sure he showed up to them a couple of times in a resurrected form and showed then that he somehow, mysteriously, was/is still present, but his day-to-day physical presence was gone. It’s just not the same at all. And so there’s this vacuum after his leaving where the disciples to have to figure out the question, “what next?”

I’d like to name some possible ways the disciples could respond to this shift in orientation, from Jesus’ presence to absence:

Rebound

One way to respond is to try and quickly replace that person with someone like him or her. We see this as the rebound effect. Break up, get a new boyfriend or girlfriend quickly. Get a divorce, find someone to fill the space immediately. The disciples could have said, “Okay, Jesus’ revolution failed, so let’s go and find another revolutionary leader to follow.”

Reaction

Another way is to go in the exact opposite direction of the way you were headed when that person was there. “That’s it, my spouse of 20 years left me, so I will never love again. That way I will never open myself up to being hurt again.”

The disciples could have done this by saying “Jesus was wrong.” “His whole thing didn’t work out because he was wrong, so instead they decide to become Pharisees or zealots.”

Default Position

Another way we can respond to the vacuum of the individual is by going back to our default position. We simply go back to what we know prior to that person, or community, being in our lives.

I have a friend who had never gone to church, but then he started to come with us and got very involved. However, after a few transitions and shifts in the community, he stopped coming and went back to living as though he had not had some of the very profound experiences we witnessed with him while he was a part of that church. I think he was going back to his default.

And this is what the disciples do. They go back to their default position. They go back to fishing. They were fishermen before they met Jesus and now that Jesus has left a vacuum in their lives they’re going to be fishermen again.

AS. THOUGH. NOTHING. EVER. HAPPENED.

To go back to our default position is to refuse to allow the transformation that began in those moments, or relationships, to works the whole way through.

It’s like being sick but only taking half the bottle of antibiotics because you’re sure it’s not doing anything, only later to realize in fact maybe it really was.

To return to our default position after a major disruption or a death is to keep that life and story from integrating into your own in ways that radically change it. It is to say that I am unwilling or unable to do the work required to integrate these two threads together in some meaningful way, and so I’m just going to take the easy way out.

That’s why I think the guys went back to fishing.

The prospect of integrating the learning and experiences of having been with Jesus were too much. Everything is moving along just fine and dandy and then wham, Jesus is murdered. That doesn’t seem like a real viable long-term goal for the disciples, “Okay, me next.”

When we go through an experience like this and then face a major vacuum and instead of letting God work that new experience within us, we often want to go back to what we know, because there is less ambiguity there or less pain or whatever it may be.

When I get onto a Motorcycle but drive it like a car I betray my lack of discernment. I am now on a different vehicle that requires a very different set of skills, and reflexes.

When I witness what God can do in me, or in my community, or when I am like Peter and I see the empty tomb or like Thomas and touch the open wounds, but then I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, I am riding a motorcycle like it’s a car.

Moving back to the default position isn’t necessarily bad, but what is critical is that you recognize that you are there and begin looking for ways to do the work of integration the change that has occurred.

This is why you take a motorcycle safety course, you have to practice and keep practicing being in a different space, you have to very intentionally work at realizing that you are both on a motorcycle and that motorcycle now requires a whole new set of responses in order to be safe.

And I think that a Quaker meeting for worship is like that motorcycle safety course for our spiritual lives. We come each week learning how the we have traded in the buffer zone and what that means for us now to live lives in a way that reflects the new reality of faith.

Q: What do you think some of your default positions are? When are you most tempted to go back to them?

Discerning Grace

So there’s one last way that we might respond in the midst of the vacuum Jesus left, or our own losses, or disruptions, and that’s to look for the grace in this new moment. Where and I being asked to respond? What is God calling me to do now that things have changed?

Instead of the rebound, or the reaction of going the opposite direction, or returning to our defaults, we take these moments to carefully and patiently ask God what it is that God wants from us next. What is it that God wants to add to us, where is God leading us now.

And it is important that we ask this question from the assumption that if Jesus was being faithful in his response to God by going to the cross, then we can assume that there is grace in his absence just as much as there was in his presence.

The resurrection is a reminded that God can in both presence and absence.

Two Possible Responses to Grace

Look at these two response of the men in the boat. Peter jumps into the water and swims for the shore. He has no buffer zone so to speak, no master plan and without first checking with everyone else in the boat, he responds to Jesus by jumping in.

Now the temptation is to scold Peter for leaving behind those on the boat. “You’ve got to help your brothers out.”

The other temptation is to say that those in the boat weren’t “risky” enough.

But again, if we’re trying to avoid the rebounds, opposite reactions, and going to our defaults, we instead want to look for the grace in the moment, and what it is that God is calling me to respond to. There is no reason to think that one response is any better or worse than the other.

When Peter gets to the beach he finds a charcoal fire waiting for him. You know where the only other charcoal fire is mentioned in the new testament? In John 18, Peter is standing around a charcoal fire when he denies Jesus three times.

There is grace in the moment for Peter and he responded faithfully. He did what Peter was supposed to do. He came to see that Jesus was already working to forgive him, and to help him see that his life is now forever changed. He can no longer go back to his default position.

And there is grace in the moment for the other disciples as well. As they come ashore, Jesus has been waiting for them too. He asks them to come and “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” They did just what they were supposed to do.

This little boat represents the community that is tempted to see itself as being left behind, but Jesus reveals to them quite clearly their own abundance, that he too has grace for them as well.

The movement of God works in both presence and absence by inviting each of us to find what we are being called to next.

In each case, there is a faithful listening, and a faithful response. That’s what God wants out of them, and that’s what God wants from you. In the midst of the changes and the transitions and the absences that we all face, what God wants from you more than anything else is to remain open to his voice and to say, “What Does God want from me now in this place?” “Where is there grace in this moment too?”

May you have the courage to live into the risk of faith and continue to discern God’s role for you wherever you are.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.