I have been reflecting these days as we begin tentatively to emerge from the lockdown on how best we do this. Two scripture pieces have been my companions during this reflective time. The first is the story recounted in the Gospel of John, Chapter 21- it’s my favourite Gospel passage, full of the intimate and personal love of God for all of us. Why not read it here. Right at the end of the fourth Gospel, it tells of a day when the apostles were gathered by the Sea of Tiberius and were lost for what to do next. They had witnessed the death of their friend, Jesus, and had even seen him resurrected. But still, they were confused about what was happening as they faced into difficult times ahead. Peter breaks their silence by announcing that he is ‘going fishing’, which had been their old way of life before they met Jesus. He wanted to go back to something familiar, the old ways. He encourages his friends and together they go back to the old ways. But Jesus had other plans…
The story goes that they encountered the risen Christ when out in the boat, although they did not recognise him at first. Having spent the night fishing without a single catch, Jesus speaks to them in the morning and encourages them to throw the net again. This would have been a challenge to Peter who ‘knew’ that you don’t do things that way. No-one threw their nets out in the morning.
But Jesus was right. Of course, Jesus was right! Rather than encouraging them to simply return to how things had been, Jesus was ‘doing a new thing’ through them, with them and in them. They needed challenged not to go back to the old ways, but to see how best to carry out the mission Jesus had set for them as fishers of women and men.
In the face of difficulties and crises it is a natural instinct in us to yearn for the old ways; to want to say, ‘I’m going fishing’ in whatever way that presents itself. And indeed the old ways are often good. His brings me to my second scriptural companion. In Jeremiah 6:16 we read,
This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’
On first reading this looks like an exhortation to always return to the old ways. However, let’s break it down a little. Firstly, we are encouraged to stand at the crossroads and look. This is a call to adopt a stance of discernment, not to rush ahead on a quickly chosen path from the crossroads. As a wise friend said to me recently as we prayed with this verse, for every path we choose at the crossroads, there may be three or four we don’t choose. Choosing well takes time, energy, prayer and consultation.
Our verse then encourages us to ask for the ancient paths- to ask for the wisdom of tradition perhaps. Having done that, though, are we to choose the old ways? Perhaps, perhaps not. The next words in the verse are, ‘ask where the good way is, and walk in it.’ Having stopped and looked, and having asked for the wisdom of tradition, it seems we are to discern from all of that which is the ‘good path’. And not only are we to see the good path, we are to walk in it. This is the way to find rest for our souls.
Peter chose the ancient path straight away. He went right back to what he always did and what had always worked for him. Jesus moved to correct him and set him on another path- the good path Jeremiah speaks of.
In what now feels like a prophetic word for our current situation as we begin to emerge from the lockdown provoked by the spread of Covid-19 with all the ramifications it has had for all walks of life, not least the life of the Church, in 2015 Pope Francis said that the urge to do things the way we’ve always done them, simply because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done them is a deadly attitude’. A report in America Magazine from the time tells us that he ‘encouraged the faithful, “To risk, with prayer, and then, with the humility to accept what the Spirit,” asks us to change.’
We are at Jeremiah’s crossroad right now facing Peter’s dilemma- what do we do now? Do we go back to the old ways as were? Do we go back to the old ways but do things differently (throw the net out to starboard)? Do we do as Pope Francis asks and take the risk of asking through prayer what the Spirit would have us change as we move forward?
My sense is that it may well be a combination of all of these! My deepest sense is that unless we create space to discern what the Spirit is asking of us at this time, we will move in haste to seek out the old, comfortable paths and in doing so we might just miss that voice calling from the shore calling us to refocus on the mission ahead.
What is God’s call in our lives?
What is it we cling to that inhibits this call?
What might the Spirit be calling us to change at this time?
What would be the implications of this for our families, communities or churches?