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.