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Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

May 2, 2021

Sermon, Sunday, May 2, 2021
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Tilapia. Of all things…tilapia. Conservative, Biblical Literalist fringe online blogs, academic, progressive scholars, and ancient world angler-archeologists can agree on one thing—it was almost certainly Tilapia![1][2][3] Sometimes in tradition called “Saint Peter’s Fish” or Muscht (meaning comb in Arabic—because its tail looks like a comb), the fish that Jesus cooked and the disciples caught at the Sea of Galilee was a species of Tilapia not significantly unlike what we can find today at Big Y. I was hoping for something tastier on a BBQ grill like Salmon or Trout, but everyone agrees that it was tilapia. I sure hope Jesus had some harissa or zaatar to add some flavor. Regardless, I love that in this day and age when we cannot even agree it seems between Conservative and Progressive Christians on the flavor of water, there remains near universal agreement on one thing: It was tilapia!

One credible source, narrowed it down this way, “According to records, there are 27 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee and of these only 10 are prized by fishermen. These 10 species divide into three categories: the muscht, the sardine, and the biny (or barbel). Of these the Sardine is out, because it is generally too small to catch in a net and they were usually reserved for pickling, and we know that the apostles cooked their fish on the fire. John described the fish caught in the apostle’s net as “large,” so we need to look at fish that are large enough to be caught in a net, while too big for the seven apostles to hoist out of the water. The biny is certainly large enough to be a candidate, as it they can grow to about 4 feet long and weigh up to 25 lbs. However, the biny requires bait to catch and thus it would require a hook and line rather than a net. This brings us to the musht, a type of tilapia that exists in five species within the Sea of Galilee. One of these varieties reaches about a foot-and-a-half long, weighing in at 4-5 lbs. A haul of 153 musht could weigh upwards of 750 lbs, which could explain why the apostles could not pull the net from the water.”[4] Okay, this quote and analysis is proof certain that people are fascinated by and study the most minute details of Scripture! By process of elimination- tilapia. 

We have come full circle back to Galilea, back to the fishing, back to Jesus feeding people (with Tilapia). We are back with the Disciples today in John 21 sitting with Jesus at a seaside picnic table and taking nutrition for the journey ahead. That is significant. We find ourselves again with Jesus and the tilapia. The Gospel of John pastorally ends with community, with food, and with a place of home. This is interesting because John is a particularly tumultuous and polemical Gospel, but it ends with peace and quiet at table with Christ. 

Unlike the earlier so-called Synoptic (or summary) Gospels, something very different is happening here in John. The Gospel of Matthew ends grandly with the very Matthean Great Commission and a spectacular ascension, the Gospel of Mark (which originally ends with the disciples literally running away screaming in terror and fear) and was altered to also be about the ascension, and the Gospel of Luke ends with, “he led them out as far as Bethany (basically out to the burbs of Jerusalem), and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…” In all three cases, ascension and distancing.

Our reading today is the conclusion of the most cosmic and other-worldly Gospel, yet Chapter 21 is most intimate and comforting. Here, The Gospel of John purposefully ends differently. Tilapia. It concludes with this intimate encounter with the Risen Christ—a reunion back where it all began at the Sea of Galilee: cooking, sharing in conversation, and eating Tilapia and bread. 

Geographically, we have left Jerusalem and its suburbs and the places of death. Easter Jesus has returned home. He reenacts the calling of the Disciples at the place where his movement began. While scholars agree that Chapter 21 of John was likely a later addition to the Gospel by the Johannine Community, it is no less authoritative in the canon and thought-provoking. Chapter 21 is the conclusion for a reason. 

I believe that Jesus returns here to “Church 101”, back to basics, back to the Shoreline for his last moments on earth for a reason. And what does he do there? He practices radical hospitality through sharing of table and making a meal: 

“When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there (we can hear the crackling, we can smell the warmth), with fish (tilapia) on it, and bread…Jesus said, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” Then, for almost the rest of the passage—small talk at breakfast, Jesus talks about love and care asking, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ What a different conclusion! What a different way to set-up the Church!

What this immediately brought to mind and to heart is the writing of the late Dr. Letty Russell of Yale Divinity School and member of First Church Guilford. In her book, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference, which I have cited before, she writes about the definition of hospitality.  Prof. Russell wrote, “What do we mean by hospitality?... Although hospitality is a form of Christian spirituality and is basic to the biblical message, the practice of biblical hospitality has fallen into disuse in our churches and society. Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis. Such action is not easy. Yet the biblical witness is clear…This practice of hospitality is the ministry of all the members of a congregation and not just church women’s groups, welcoming committees or clergy…It is a gift that transcends real differences through participation in the mission and ministry of the church on behalf of healing the brokenness of the world, beginning with ourselves.”[5]  I think this is what Ginger and Milton intended for us to think about when this next week Ginger challenges us as part of the “Renewal in Place Sabbatical Lectionary” to learn to cook something new.

We are preparing ourselves for the very real, very urgent, very fundamentally Christian need to learn how to practice hospitality again after the pandemic! The time is coming when the reservation system will go away, and we will need to offer hospitality, like what Letty Russell described in her book, with new and never before felt urgency!

And… friends… we are going to have to learn some new recipes both for food and for community. Not everyone eats tilapia anymore. I do mean that both literally and metaphorically. We need to find more sustainable recipes—more resilient recipes to show hospitality in this new and emerging world. Until mid-summer, we have to keep the reservation system, but it is time to start preparing. As Prof. Letty Russell said, this practice must begin with ourselves. “It is a gift that transcends real differences through participation in the mission and ministry of the church on behalf of healing the brokenness of the world, beginning with ourselves.”[6]

The Spiritual Practice of the Potluck, the all-come, the abundant welcome must return sooner rather than later. This is not only for the sake of institutional survival and thriving, but spiritual sustenance: the Jesus-tilapia of the soul. It is time to start practicing new recipes for healing. It is time to start experimenting with new recipes for community and Church.

In some ways this scene at the seaside with Jesus in Galilee is incredibly sad. You can almost hear the early morning silence. We don’t know how long it has been since Chapter 20 back in Jerusalem. All it says in Chapter 21:1 is, “After these things.” Is this a day after or many years after? We have no idea how long it has been. All we know is that the disciples’ great adventure of living with and following Jesus of Nazareth, The Son of God, is now past. Now they have returned to their old lives—they are fishermen again. In some ways, we imagine that they are in bereavement at the loss of the old ways, they lost their friend Jesus, and feeling the loss of the way of life with Jesus and his presence when he comes to them again as a stranger in this story. This Chapter 21 scene feels like Jesus coming to us and sharing a familiar meal in these glimmers of a new world. He is a stranger, yet we recognize him. We are sad about what was lost. We are tired. We have lost track of our sense of time, and yet we recognize the Sacred when it shows-up!

In 2018, Guilford Town Historian and First Church member, Joel Helander, wrote a fabulous article called, “Bounties from the Sea: A Short History of Fishing & Shell-fishing in Guilford.” I recommend it. In it he writes, “We often forget how much of Guilford’s prosperity depends upon the sea, with its tangy breezes and hidden treasures. [Don’t you love the way Joel writes!] Harvesting the bounties of fish and shellfish from Long Island Sound is a practice older than the old town itself. Indeed, Native Americans for 1000, 5,000, and 8,000 years before the town’s founding practiced this form of agriculture. Eastern Woodland Indian tribes established summer encampments on our shores in these prehistoric eras. They dug clams and oysters and netted fish for a mainstay of their diets. When Reverend Henry Whitfield and his company of English Puritans founded the town (1639), they found heaps of shells on the cleared flat lands or “Great Plain” of Guilford, below what is now Guilford Green.”[7] 

Tilapia, thankfully in my opinion, isn’t native to Long Island Sound. We have our own ancient food traditions, and our conservation efforts are incrementally working.

Guilford, what recipes are we called to try now? This passage from John 21, possibly added as needed later, is a timeless story of Jesus coming to find us where we are. It is a story of comfort in loss. It is a story of table talk about love. It is a story of bereavement. It is a story of the familiar. It is a story about… as it turns out… tilapia. Tilapia. Of all things…tilapia. Conservative, Biblical Literalist fringe online blogs, academic, progressive scholars, and ancient world angler-archeologists can agree on one thing—it was almost certainly tilapia![8][9][10] 

If we can start by agreeing on the kind of fish, maybe we can start cooking together again. It may, however, require us to find new recipes for common ground here on this Sacred Great Plain of Guilford where recipes for community have been enacted from the sea since forever. We are called to do nothing less as humans, as people, and especially as followers of the great Chef of Hospitality—Jesus.

What is your recipe for radical hospitality? Are you ready to get cooking?


[5] Letty Russell, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009), 19-20.
[6] Letty Russell, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009), 19-20.

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Associate Minister

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