Fish and Sheep – Sermon on John 21:1-19

Easter 3C
April 10, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
An updated version of this sermon can be found here.

Many psychologists will tell you that there are two things all human beings need in order to live happy, productive lives: we need a sense of belonging, and we need a sense of purpose (David Lose). By “belonging” I don’t mean “fitting in.” In fact, fitting in might be the exact opposite of belonging. When you try to fit in, you adapt yourself to a group’s expectations. When you belong, you don’t have to change a thing. You are accepted the way you are. Being accepted as we are by a larger group gives us a stable view of ourselves, and helps us shape our individual identity, according to the psychologists.

And a sense of purpose gives us a reason to get up in the morning. We need to believe that what we do matters, that we make a difference in the world. Our sense of purpose drives our decisions about the way we spend our time and energy and financial resources. Believing that your life has meaning and value can motivate you to face challenging circumstances with courage and perseverance, even joy.

We need to feel like we belong, and we need to feel like we have a purpose in life. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus offers us both.

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 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.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

There are really two stories intertwined in today’s reading. One has to do with fish, and the other with sheep. Let’s take a look at the fish story first.

New Testament experts often point out that one way we can tell the resurrection stories are true is that they don’t always show the disciples in the best light. If the disciples of Jesus had made up the story, they would surely have given themselves a more faithful response to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Their own part in the story would have been more heroic and flattering. Instead, we read about their disbelief, their failure to accept the women’s eyewitness account as anything more than an idle tale. And here, we see them spending an entire night fishing for …. nothing. Nada. Zilch.

And some of these disciples were expert fishermen. They were pros! Even so, after a long night of casting their net, they’d come up empty. And now it was morning. The sun had not come up yet, but in the gray light of early dawn, they could see a charcoal fire on the shore. And even though they had caught no fish, they could tell that someone was cooking fish up there on the rocks. They aren’t far from shore, and the person cooking calls out, “Children, you haven’t caught anything, have you?” “No,” they answer. “Well, try throwing your net off the other side of the boat.” And suddenly, the net is full of fish. Large fish. 153 different larger fish.

This sounds a lot like the story in Luke 5, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, where Jesus climbs into Simon’s boat to put some space between himself and the crowd that is pressing in. “Put out into deep water and let down your nets,” Jesus tells Simon. “Okay, if you say so,” Simon answers, “but we’ve been fishing all night and haven’t caught anything.” According to Luke, when the nets come up full to bursting, Simon falls on his knees and confesses his own sinfulness and Jesus as his Lord. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will catch people instead of fish.” (Luke 5:1-11)

But this time, on this post-resurrection fishing trip, John tells us “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is the one who first recognizes the figure on the beach. As the boat gets closer to the rocky shoreline, John tells Peter, “Hey, it’s the Lord!” And the first thing Peter does is throw on some clothes and jump into the water. He swims up to the rocks that line the lake and climbs over them to get to Jesus. The others bring in the boat, with the net full of fish.

Jesus says, “bring some of the fish you have caught,” and Peter jumps back into the water to haul in the catch. Then they all sit down to breakfast. Grilled fish and broken bread. It’s the closest John’s gospel ever gets to describing the Lord’s Supper. Instead of the last meal before his crucifixion, Jesus offers a post-resurrection breakfast to his disciples.

There are two little details we need to be sure we notice here. First, Jesus doesn’t need their fish. He is already cooking while their nets are still empty. But when they follow his commands, he invites them to add their fish to the food he has already prepared. Jesus uses our God-given talents and adds them to the work he is already doing in our lives. He invites us to share in a feast that he has prepared, using whatever gifts we bring him.

Second, when the expert fishermen have come up empty using their own methods, Jesus gives them a simple command to change the way they do things, and they are suddenly blessed with abundance.

Whole books have been written about the significance of the 153 fish that fill their net. The most commonly accepted interpretation of this number comes from the 4th century theologian Jerome, who writes that there were 153 different species of fish known in first century Galilee. The net wasn’t just filled with 153 fish, but 153 different kinds of fish, symbolizing the extent to which fishing for people would go – to the whole world.

Maybe Jerome got it right, maybe not. But one thing is certain. The net was empty all night long as the fishermen used their tried-and-true fishing techniques. When they followed Jesus’ direction to do things differently, the net was full of large fish, and it didn’t break. Their capacity to catch fish grew with their obedience. We might learn something from that.

After breakfast, Jesus and Peter go for a walk down the beach. They have a short, but repetitive conversation. Three times, Jesus asks, “Simon, do you love me?” and three times, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Each time, Jesus responds with a command to care for his sheep. “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep,” Jesus says.

It is easy to see the connection between Peter’s earlier three denials and these three professions of loyalty and devotion. It is also easy to see why Peter is hurt when Jesus asks him a third time, “Do you love me?” “You know everything, Lord. You know that I love you,” Peter insists.

What might not be so easy to see is the way Jesus draws Peter into a new relationship through this short conversation. Keep in mind that when Peter was in the high priest’s courtyard, he didn’t deny the divinity of Jesus or Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. What Peter denied was his own relationship to Jesus (Karoline Lewis). When he is asked twice, “You are one of his disciples, aren’t you?” Peter says, “I am not.” When he is challenged a third time, he denies knowing Jesus. (John 18:17, 25, 27)

Now, as they walk together beside the lake, Jesus not only restores that relationship, but creates a new one between himself and Peter. By the third time he questions “Simon, son of John” he is asking for more than general compassion or affection. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me like a brother? You claim me as your friend; can I claim you as my friend?”

Peter’s distress is almost as important as his words. “You know everything, Lord. You know I love you. You know all my failings and my weaknesses, and you know my sin. If you still want me as your friend, I want to be that friend to you.”

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus tells him. Up to this point, Jesus has portrayed himself as the Good Shepherd. Now he entrusts the care of his flock to Peter. It isn’t that sheep have replaced fish in importance, but shepherding has been added to fishing. Jesus ends the conversation the same way he began his relationship with Simon and the other fishermen back at the start of his ministry. “Follow me,” he says.

“Follow me,” Jesus calls to us now. “Follow me,” whether we are fishing or herding his sheep. “Follow me,” when he calls us to change the way we’ve always done things, so that he can bless us with abundance. “Follow me,” as he prepares a feast for us that combines what he provides with what we offer of ourselves. “Follow me” into such a close friendship, such a deep love, that all can be forgiven, and all can be made whole.

Jesus calls. Will you follow?

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