In Ecuador where I grew up they play a very peculiar form of Volleyball. They use a 9 foot net, a 40-foot court instead of 30, and a soccer ball, and they play 3 men on a team. It is a highly strategic game that is physically exhausting—and very popular. As a young man many times I stood at the sidelines hoping to be included on a team. I'm not known for my physical prowess, nor my athletic abilities, but I'd watched the game so much I figured I knew the basic strategies, and as one of Gringo descent, I had height on most of the people who would be playing with me. I was never chosen to play—until I figured out the way in. Inclusion was an economic thing. You had to wager an amount of money that you figured matched your ability to play.
What does it take to be included in God's family? The Church is very clear on its membership. Baptism in the name of the Trinity, with water, by another Christian is the basic rite of Christian initiation. Some churches require other things as well, but not the Episcopal Church. Over the centuries baptism has never been exclusive in this regard. During the times of persecution in the early church it was not always clear. More than once non-believing spectators, on seeing the faith and strength of the Christians, vaulted over the barriers and died with the Christians. The Church decided there were two kinds of baptism: Baptism by water, and baptism by fire. The penitent thief on the cross by Jesus was the first to be baptized by fire. Then there is the question of people like Abraham and Moses. Hebrews 11 teaches that God accepts them as well. And how about those to whom Jesus refers when He says, "I have sheep in other folds. I will bring them also so that there will be one flock, one shepherd." Inclusion in God's family is something God does. We get the privilege of detecting and recognizing it, but we certainly don't control it.
In today's Gospel lesson two clues are given to including the stranger: First of all, the Stranger is Christ. The 7 disciples who went fishing represent the perfect number. Since Simon Peter is with them this represents the Church. It's you and me out there just doing the work of the Kingdom. They catch nothing all night. Without a greater purpose our labor is futile, we're just keeping the lights on and paying the preacher. In the morning they see someone on the bank. They don't know who it is. He is the Stranger. They get instructions to change their tactics just a bit...hardly enough to make any difference, after all, these men know how to fish. But when they catch 153 big fish, such that their paltry capacities are sorely tested, suddenly they know who it is. There is only One who sent them to fish for the souls of men and women. There is only One who is Master of the Sea. The Stranger becomes the Friend.
For us, as well, the one who is a stranger bears the potential of being the very One we seek. Christ, hidden in an unknown person, may very well be standing ready to bless us in incredible ways. All we have to do is heed them...pay attention, get to know, look for the signs offered. Suddenly our daily grind becomes our daily bread. Doing Church becomes a way to find Christ. And when you find Christ in someone chances are that person will join you here.
Every person who walks through those doors that you do not know is Christ, waiting to be known. If you have come to meet with Christ, you most surely meet Him in the Sacrament, but the Sacrament represents US as well as Christ. It makes no sense at all to expect to meet Christ at the altar rail, but not in the Parish Hall. If you are eager to meet God here the person who you do not know is part of God's response.
Secondly, the Stranger is my brother or sister. Jesus stands on the beach with breakfast ready for the disciples. It's like old times again. Jesus is back at the helm. But what does Jesus spend the time doing? What follows is traditionally called, "The Reinstatement of Peter." He takes Peter, the one who betrayed Him three times, and three times He asks him, "Do you love me?" Each time Peter responds, "Lord, you know that I love you." And Jesus responds, "Feed my sheep, feed my lambs, feed my sheep." Peter is the spokesperson, the one who represents them all, he is "every disciple," He represents us, you and me. We, too, have betrayed Him, and we, too, are re-enlisted for service. He calls us to feed one another, to care for one another, to help one another, to teach one another, and to learn from one another. Become brothers and sisters. To include the stranger means to make them a brother or sister. Overcome the strangeness with hospitality. If the strangeness is due to lack of knowledge, then share and listen, if the strangeness is due to estrangement, then forgive and re-engage on a responsible level.
A while ago I visited a church in a distant city. For a number of reasons I did not wear clericals, in fact, I was dressed rather natty. I arrived on time, was duly greeted by the usher and the greeter, but before the service, during the peace, and afterwards, only one person spoke to me before I spoke to them, and then, only in a cursory way. I left the church not necessarily thinking that they didn't want me, but that they had no idea that I was there. I was invisible to them. How tragic, yet how common! Let us not miss one opportunity to include Christ in the life of the stranger among us, and let us not miss one opportunity to share with them the life of God's family.