May 5, 2019
Each of the gospel writers gives us a slightly different take on the events surrounding Christ’s Resurrection. In Matthew, there’s an earthquake as an angel of the Lord rolls away the stone and gives a message for the disciples to the women who’ve come to the tomb. Go tell them to meet Jesus in Galilee, the angel says.
In Mark, the angel sends the women away with the same message – tell the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, and he will meet you there. Only Mark leaves the women so afraid that they don’t tell anyone anything.
Luke gives us the story of the disciples who encounter the risen Christ on the way to Emmaus, and as soon as they get back to Jerusalem to tell the others, Jesus appears in their midst, and asks for something to eat to prove he isn’t a ghost. They give him some broiled fish. John tells us about Jesus appearing to the disciples while Thomas is out of the room, and then re-appearing a week later, just for Thomas.
Do you notice how each of these stories is a little different from the others, but there’s some overlap? We are getting bits and pieces of the story, told from different vantage points. Not everyone remembers the same details. No detail is remembered in exactly the same way.
Yet, together, they give us a more complete picture of the events that followed immediately after Jesus rose from the dead. And apparently, somewhere along the line, the disciples decided to head home to Galilee. Just as the angel said, they meet Jesus there.
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. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 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. 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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.” 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.” 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. 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:1-19)
There are really two stories in today’s reading. One has to do with fish, and the other with sheep. Today, we’re going to concentrate on the fish story. We’ll get to talk about sheep next week, I promise.
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. Time and again, the people who knew Jesus best fail to recognize him when he shows up. And here, we see them spending an entire night fishing, but coming up empty. It’s not exactly a flattering picture, and that’s one reason we can believe this story is true.
They’ve fished all night, and now it is morning. The sun hasn’t come up yet, but in the gray light of early dawn, they can see a charcoal fire on the shore. And even though they’ve caught no fish, they can tell that someone is 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?” It’s less of a question and more of an answer to their unasked questions, the ones that have been bothering them ever since the crucifixion.
What’s the point in following Jesus, if he’s just going to leave us? We thought he was the One – how could we have been so blind? What meaning can we find in our lives now, without him?
And while all these questions are swirling through their heads, they haven’t caught a single fish. They also haven’t caught a single thing Jesus tried to teach them about death and resurrection. They are like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the ones Jesus called foolish and slow of heart. (Luke 24:25) Here, he calls them 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. “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.”
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)
So now, as the boat brings in this large haul of fish, John realizes who that person is up there on the shore. He tells Peter, “Hey, it’s the Lord!” And Peter throws on some clothes and jumps into the water. He swims to shore while 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. The hillside where Jesus fed 5000 with bread and fish is not very far away. It’s possible this coincidence is not lost on the disciples, any more than the similarity with that earlier fishing trip.
This meal of bread and fish is the closest John’s gospel ever gets to describing what we have come to know as Communion. Instead of a supper before Christ’s crucifixion, John gives the disciples a post-resurrection breakfast with Jesus. Instead of an ending, this meal is a beginning.
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 what we bring, and adds it to the work he is already doing in our lives. He invites us to share in a feast that he has already prepared, including whatever gifts we can contribute. Jesus doesn’t need our fish, but when we follow his commands, he can multiply what we have to offer, and include it with what he offers us.
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.
We might learn that “the way we’ve always done things” maybe doesn’t work so well anymore. We might learn that we have to go in the opposite direction of where we’ve always gone, in order to reach the people Jesus wants us to reach. We might learn that there are a lot more fish out there than we realized, and a lot more than we can actually handle on our own.
We might learn to listen to Jesus, as we’ve been trying to do all through the season of Lent. Only now it’s Eastertide, and his voice might be harder to recognize, especially when it tells us things that seem to contradict what we thought was right, what we thought was important.
Jesus is going to pull Peter aside after breakfast, and ask him three times “Do you love me?” Three times, Simon Peter will say yes, and the guilt of denying Jesus three times will be erased. Jesus will end that conversation the same way he invited Simon and the other disciples to join him at the beginning of his ministry. “Follow me,” is all he says.
“Follow me,” Jesus calls to us now. “Follow me,” whether we are fishing or tending 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.