William James Dawson, Congregational preacher and evangelist, was born in Towcester, Northamptonshire, in 1854. He was educated at Kingswood School, Bath, and Didsbury College, Manchester. He has long been known as an author of originality and pure literary style. In 1906 he received the pastorate of Highbury Quadrant Congregational Church, London, and accepted an invitation to do general evangelistic work under the auspices of the National Council of the Congregational churches of the United States. He now resides in this country.
Born in 1854:
CHRIST AMONG THE COMMON THINGS OF LIFE
[Footnote 1: Reprinted by kind permission of Messrs. Fleming H. Revell & Co., New York.]
As soon then as they were come to land they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. -- John xxi., 9, 12.
I can not read these words without indulging for a moment in a reminiscence. Not long ago, in the early morning, while all the world slept, I stood beside the Sea of Tiberias, just as the morning mist lifted, and watched a single brown-sailed fishing-boat making for the shore, and the tired fishermen dragging their net to land. In that moment it seemed to me as if more than the morning mist lifted -- twenty centuries seemed to melt like mist, and the last chapter of St. John's gospel seemed to enact itself before my eyes. For so vivid was the sense of something familiar in the scene, so mystic was the hour, that I should scarce have been surprized had I seen a fire of coals burning on the shore, and heard the voice of Jesus inviting these tired fishermen to come and dine.
Now if I felt that, if I was sensible of the haunting presence of Christ by that Galilean shore, how much more these disciples, in whose minds every aspect of the Galilean lake was connected with some intimate and thrilling memory of the ministry of Jesus.
Christ once more stands among the common things of life; the fire, the fish, the bread -- all common things; a group of tired, hungry fishers -- all common men; and He is there to affirm that in His resurrection He had not broken His bond with men, but strengthened it -- wherever common life goes on there is Jesus still.
I. Notice the words with which the story opens, and you will see at once that this is the real clue to its interpretation. "When morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus." A strange thing that! Why did they not know Him? Because they were not looking for Him in such a scene. It had seemed a natural thing, if Jesus should appear at all, that He should appear in the garden, a vision of life at the very altar of death. It seemed yet more probable and appropriate that He should appear in the upper room, that room made sacred by holiest love and memory. If any words of Christ yet lingered in the mind and had power to thrill them, they were surely these words, "Ye shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven," glorified, triumphant, lifted far above the earth and its humble life. And so, if they were looking for Christ at all that morning, I think they watched the morning clouds, expecting Him to come down the resplendent staircase of the sunbeams to call the nations together and vindicate Himself in acts of universal judgment. And behold! Jesus comes as a fisherman standing on the lakeside, busy over a little fire, where the morning meal is cooking; and behold! Jesus speaks, and it is not of the eternal mysteries of God, not of the solemn secrets of the grave, but of nets and fishing and how to cast the nets -- the simple concerns of simple men engaged in humble tasks.
No wonder they did not recognize Him. Once more the Son of Man comes eating and drinking, and even the eyes that knew Him best can not see in this human figure by the lakeside the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. They looked and saw but a fellow fisherman, cooking his meal upon the shore, and they knew not that it was Jesus.
II. Think for a moment of the earthly life of Christ, and you will see that it was designedly linked with all the common and even the commonest things of life.
If you or I could have conceived the great thought of some human creature that should be the very incarnation of God, what would have been the shape of our imaginings? Surely we should have chosen for this earthly temple of the Highest some human form perfected in grace and beauty by the long refinements of exalted ancestry; the child of kings or scholars; the delicate flower of life, in whom the elements were so subtly mixed that we should recognize them as special and miraculous -- so we might think of God manifest in man. But God chooses for the habitation of His Spirit a peasant woman of Nazareth, humble, poor, unconsidered.
If we could have forecast the training of such a life, how should we have pictured it? Surely as sheltered from the coarseness of the world, delicately nourished, sedulously cultured; but God orders that this life should manifest itself in the house of the village carpenter, out of reach of schools, in a little wicked town, under the commonest conditions of poverty, obscurity, and toil.
If you and I could have imagined the introduction of this life of lives to the world, how should we picture that? Surely we should have pictured it coming with pomp and display that would at once have attracted all eyes; but God orders that it shall come without observation, unfolding its quiet beauty like the wayside flower, which there are few to see and very few to love. Commonness: that is the great note of the incarnation and the purposed feature of Christ's earthly life.
He reaffirms His fraternity in common life. The disciples could not imagine that as possible; nor can we. And why not? For two reasons, one of which is that we have forgotten the dignity of common life.
1. Dignity is for us almost synonymous with some kind of separation from common life; it dwells in palaces, not in cottages; it inheres in culture, but is inconceivable in narrow knowledge; and to the great mass of men it is, alas! the attribute of wealth, of fine raiment, of social isolation. But we have not learned even the alphabet of Christ's gospel unless we have come to see that the only true indignity in human life is sin, meanness, malevolence, and small-heartedness; and that all life is dignified where there are love, purity, and piety in it, whatever be its social category.
I read the other day that it is probable that the very mire of the London streets contains that mysterious substance known as radium, the most tremendous agent of light and heat ever yet discovered by man; so in man himself, however low his state, there is the spark of God, an ember lit at the altar fires of the Eternal, and it is because we forget this that we forget the dignity of common life. For we do forget it. We may make our boast that a single human soul is of more value than all the splendors and immensities of matter; but in our actions we treat the boast as a mere rhetorical expression. There is nothing so cheap as men and women -- let the lords of commerce answer if it be not so. But Christ acted as tho the boast were true. He deliberately inwove His life into all that is commonest in life. He has made it impossible for us, if indeed we have His spirit, to think of any salient aspect of human life without thinking of Him. Where childhood is, there is Bethlehem; where sorrow is, there is Gethsemane; where death is, there is Calvary; where the toiler is, there is the poor man of Nazareth; and where the beggar is, there is He who had no place where to lay His head. There is not a drop of blood of Christ, nor a throb of thought in our brains that is not thrilling with the impact of this divine life of lives. And so the true dignity of life is this, that Christ is in all men, faintly outlined it may be, defaced, half-obliterated, but there, and the Church that forgets this has neither impulse nor mandate for Christ's work among men.
2. And then, again, there is a second reason: we have not learned to look for Christ among the common things of life.
"Let us build three tabernacles," said the wondering disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the speech betrayed a tendency of thought which was in time to prove fatal to the Church.
The Christ without a tabernacle, the free, familiar Christ of the lake or the wayside was everybody's Christ; but the moment Christ is shut up in a church or a tabernacle He becomes the priest's Christ, the thinker's Christ, the devotee's Christ, but He ceases to be the people's Christ.
I remember five years ago standing in the great church of Assisi, which has been erected over and encloses the little humble chapel where Francis first received his call. You will scarcely be surprized if I confess that I turned with a sense of heart-sick indignation from the pomp of that splendid service in the gorgeous church to the thought of Francis, in his worn robe, going up and down these neighboring roads, touching the lepers, calling them "God's patients," pouring out his life for the poor; and I knew Christ nearer to me on the roads that Francis trod than in that church, which is his mausoleum rather than his monument. And as I felt that day in far-off Umbria, so I have felt to-day in England; my heart goes out to Catherine Booth; to Father Dolling, to these Christs of the wayside, and it turns more and more from the kind of Christ who lives in churches and nowhere else. My brethren, you will let me say that we do but make the church Christ's prison when we forget that all the realm of life is His. Oh, you good people, you do love your church, but often think and act as tho the presence of Christ can be found nowhere else. Lift up your eyes and see this risen Christ, a fisherman upon the shore, busy in no loftier task than to have a meal prepared for hungry fishermen. Unlock your church doors, let Christ go out among common people; nay, go yourselves, for it is here that He would have you be. Remember that wherever there is toil, there is the Christ who toiled; and there you should be, with the kind glance, the warm hand-grasp, and the loving warmth of brotherhood.
Christ stands amid the common things of life; where the fire is lit, there is He; where the bread is broken, there is He; where the net of business gain is drawn, there is He; and only as we learn to see Him everywhere shall we understand the dignity and the divinity of human life.
III. "And Jesus said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes."
Here is another strange thing. Christ knows more about the management of their own business than they do. They had toiled all night and caught nothing; is not that a significant description of many human lives? "Children, have ye any meat?" asks that quiet Voice from the shore, and they answer "No." Is not that yet more pathetically significant? All the heartbreak and disappointment of the world cry aloud in that confession. Oh, I could fill an hour with the mere recital of the names of great and famous people who have toiled through a long life, and as the last gray hour came over their dim sea of life, "brackish with the salt of human tears," have acknowledged with infinite bitterness that they have caught nothing. Listen to the voice of Goethe, "In all my seventy-five years I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being;" to the confession of our own famous poet,
My life is in the yellow leaf,
to the ambitious and successful statesman who says, "Youth is folly, manhood is struggle, old age regret"; to one of our most brilliant women of genius in our own generation, wife of a still more brilliant husband, who cries, "I married for ambition, and I am miserable." Surely there is some tragic mismanagement of the great business of living here. Oh, brother, is it true of you, that after all the painful years happiness is not yours? You have no meat, no food on which the heart feeds, no green pasture in the soul, no table in the wilderness, and the last gray day draws near and will find you still hungering for what life Has never given you.
Learn, then, that Christ knows more about the proper management of your life than you do. "Cast your net on the right side of the ship," speaks that quiet Voice from the shore. And you know what happened. And it is so still. Just because Christ stands among the common things of life, He knows most about life, and, above all, He knows where the golden fruit of happiness is found and where the secret wells of peace.
And to some of us whom God has called to be fishers of men the issue is yet more solemn. We have the boat and the nets, all this elaborate organization of the Church, but have we caught anything this year? Where is the draft of fishes? Where are the men and women saved by our triumphant effort? I will make my humble confession this morning, that for five-and-twenty years I have cast the net, but only lately have I found the right side of the ship; only lately have I discovered how easy it is to get the great draft of fishes by simply going to work in Christ's way. I do not believe in the indifference of the masses in religion; the indifference is not in the masses, but in the churches. You will never catch many fish if you stand upon the shore of cold respectability and wait for them to come; launch out into the deep and you will find them. Go for them -- that is Christ's method. Compel them to come in, for remember Christ's ideal was, as Bishop Lightfoot so nobly put it, "the universal compulsion of the souls of men." And if your experience is like mine, you will find that there is strangely little compulsion needed to bring men and women to Christ. I stood but lately in a house where fifty fallen women lived; I went there to rescue three of its unhappy inmates. When the moment came to take these three women from their life of sin, their comrades lined the passage to shake my hand; there were tears and prayers, and messages like these, "Be good. You'll be a good woman," "We wish we had your chance"; and these poor souls in their inferno wished me "a happy New-year." Compulsion! There was small need for compulsion there! I believe I could have rescued all of these fifty women at one stroke had I known where to take them. But to the shame of the Free Churches in London I confess that, with the exception of the Wesleyans and the Salvation Army, I do not know a single Free Church Rescue Home in London. And I put it to you this morning whether you can any longer tolerate that omission? I ask you whether you really want a great draft of fishes, for you can have them if you want them. Christ knows the business better than you do; and if you will come out of the cloister of the church and seek the people in His spirit, I promise you that very soon you will not be able to drag the net for the multitude of fishes.
IV. "And Jesus said unto them, Come and dine."
Dine on what? Not the fish which they had caught. They had caught one hundred and fifty-three great fishes; but notice Christ's fire was kindled before they came. Christ's fish was already laid thereon, and all they had to do was to come and dine. It is all you have to do, all the churches have to do. Did not Christ so put it in the parable of the Great Supper? -- "Come, for all things are ready." Is not the last word of Scripture the great invitation? -- "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come, and whosoever will, let him come, and take of the water of life freely." Many a church can not say to a hungry world, "Come and dine," because it will not let Christ prepare the meal. It will not live in His spirit, it has no real faith in His gospel, it does not understand that its true strength is not in elaborate organization or worship, but in simple reliance on His grace. And so there is the table covered with elaborate confections, which are not bread, and when it says, "Come and dine," men will not come, for they know that there is nothing there for them. Let Christ prepare the meal and all is different then. When He says, "Come and dine," there is "enough for each, enough for all, enough for evermore." And as Jesus spoke, I think there flashed upon the memory of these men the scene when Jesus fed the five thousand, and by that memory they knew their Jesus. No one else ever spoke like that, with such certainty and such authority. And the same Voice speaks even now to your hunger-bitten soul, to your famished heart, "Come and dine."
V. "Then Jesus taketh bread and giveth them, and fish likewise."
There is no mistaking the act; it was a sacramental act. Here, upon the lake shore, without a church, without an altar, the true feast of the Lord was observed. For what does the Holy Supper, which is the bond and seal of the Church's fellowship, stand for, if it is not for this, the sanctification of the common life? Bread and wine, the commonest of all foods to an Oriental, are elements indeed, because they are necessary to the most elementary form of physical life, things used daily in the humblest home. By linking Himself imperishably with these commonest elements of life, Christ makes it impossible to forget Him. Once more the thought shines clear, Jesus among the common things of life.
And then there comes one last touch in the beautiful story. While these things happened, the day was breaking. Is there one of us long tossed on sunless seas of doubt, long conscious of failure and disappointment in life? Are there those of us whose sorrow lies deeper than that which is personal -- sorrow over our failure in Christ's work, pain over a life's ministry for Christ that has known no victorious evangel? Turn your eyes from that barren sea to Him who stands upon the shore; He shall yet make you a fisher of men. Turn your eyes from that bleak, dark sea of wasted effort where you have fared so ill; it is always dark till Jesus comes, it is always light when He has come. There is a new day breaking for the churches -- a day of widespread evangelistic triumphs that shall eclipse all the greatest triumphs of the past, if we will but go back to Christ's school and learn of Him how to save the people. And to each of us He says to-day: "I am the living bread; I am the bread of life come down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever." "Come and dine." Will you come?