April 29th, 2023
Before we hear our Gospel reading, I’d like to set the scene. Today’s narrative is the third time the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and it’s at the very end of the Gospel of John. Actually, scholars consider this chapter the epilogue of John’s gospel. One scholar says it’s as if John’s account has ended with the previous chapter, curtain closed, but just to make sure we don’t misunderstand the gospel’s message, an actor comes back out on the front of the stage for one more story.
This third and final post-resurrection Jesus appearance takes place back on the Sea of Galilee with the disciples fishing – where it all started. As the epilogue, it’s full of flashbacks that would be ringing in the original audience’s ears, and I want to recall some of them to our collective memories.
Presbyterian Campus Ministry had our spring retreat two weekends ago near Asheville and 28 of us studied a few key stories in Peter’s life – each important background for today’s text. Jesus called Peter and the early disciples when they were fishing and had caught nothing and Jesus told them to go out a little deeper and put down their nets and the load of fish began to tear the nets. [Luke chapter 5] Later, Jesus walks on the water to the disciples, and they think it’s a ghost, and then Peter in bold faith gets out of the boat and walks on water toward Jesus. [Mathew 14]
Listening to this epilogue narrative, we may also be reminded of the time on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when folks gathered to listen to Jesus teach, and all the sudden the disciples realized lunch time was approaching and there was no way to order enough Med Deli take-out, and Jesus feed the 5,000 with two fish and 5 loaves of bread. And as we meet the disciples today on the Sea of Galilee, and it’s not been all that long since the Last Supper.
With all that ringing in our ears, let us listen to God’s word to us today from the Gospel of John, Chapter 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 his outer garment, for he had taken it off, 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.
With the college students at Presbyterian Campus Ministry, one of the primary messages I feel called to underscore over and over again is reminding our students who are deep in the grind of the academic pressures of Carolina, is that their identity is fully secure as a beloved child of God. In almost every other sphere of their lives these students get bombarded with messages that they are not enough, and that they will be measured by what they produce – the grades they make, the jobs they land, the friends they gather … or the salary we make, the educational degrees we collect, the cars we drive or the homes we buy … it’s pervasive in today’s culture.
While the circumstances were certainly different, as we met these early disciples they are still trying to make sense of the previous weeks – Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the Passover Festival with images of the return of the glory days of Jewish political heyday during King David’s reign – rolling in their minds and expectations. Not that long ago, they disciples were arguing about who will sit at the right and the left of Jesus in his kingdom.
Our college seniors discuss what job offers they’ve received or what prestigious graduate program they got into. Our confirmands talk about their sports teams and who is on top this week. The rest of us size one other up based on socio-economic class or educational degrees. We’re not that removed from those original disciples arguing about seating arrangements in their imagined places of worldly power.
And then the dramatic twists of events very quickly led to the arrest and crucifixion of their friend and leader. And their world is turned upside down. The bottom has fallen out and nothing seems stable. And so, while their world is spinning and they can’t find solid footing, we find the disciples back where they started. Peter and his companions went back to what they knew – fishing on the Sea of Galilee.
The fog of grief is heavy upon them when we meet the disciples. John simply tells us:
“Gathered there together were the disciples.” There they are, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the place that was familiar and comfortable for them –“And Peter said – Well I’m going fishing”
Of course, all we have are the written words, and so we don’t know Peter’s tone, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were a “desperate, worn out, I’m not sure which way is up, but I do at least know how to fish”…kind of a tone.
I could imagine Peter and his companions thinking “there’s something about being out on the water that feels comfortable and familiar to me … and dadgummit, I can at least catch enough fish to make sure I eat something today.
I can’t tell you what makes comfort food comfort food, but it’s got something to do with familiarity and memories. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee for these fishmen who grew up doing it has got to be comfort food.
All the text says is “Peter said to them, “I’m going fishing.” And they said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat … but that night they caught NOTHING. It seems to me like this just went from really bad to worse! A few years ago these fellas left fishing to follow Jesus, Jesus was executed by the state, and now they can’t even catch a single fish after a full night of fishing!! What the heck.
If this is John’s epilogue, it’s as if this final story is inserted by someone who knows what it’s like when the rug is pulled out from under you. When your world is turned upside down.
I’m not sure what it has been or what it will be in your life, but I am certain that life will ask some REALLY hard things from all of us.
There will be heartache and grief. Following Jesus in the flesh didn’t prevent that heartache and grief from overwhelming those early disciples. The gospel never promises an easy life. These failed fishermen probably also felt like failed disciples after the month they’d had – denying Jesus and then watching him be crucified and their hopes dashed. They are all out of places to turn. Even the comfort food has lost its taste.
Maybe you know what that’s like.
But what happens next? Jesus has a charcoal fire going on the beach, gets a warm breakfast ready for them, and when there is barely enough dawn light coming over the eastern horizon, the risen Lord walks to the edge of the water and calls out to them: “Cast your nets on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some fish!” Not only does Jesus come to them and meet them right where they are, and prepare a hot meal for them, he even helps these failed fishermen haul in a boat load of fish!
That’s just like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus meets us right where we are and offers us nourishment in our darkest hour – or in this case maybe the morning after our darkest hour. No doubt it was a tough night out on the Sea. Peter and the other disciples have gone back to what they know to try to make sense of the incomprehensible that just happened. Through the night they toil, through the night they grieve, through the night they spiral into dark places. And just after daybreak, the Gospel tells us – just after daybreak, when the light that shines in the darkness which the darkness did not and cannot overtake – that just after that light breaks forth, Jesus stood on the beach, and called out to them:
“Come on over boys, I’ve got a fire going. Warm yourself and let’s have breakfast together!”
The epilogue’s actor has come out after the curtain of John’s gospel has closed to make sure that we know – in narrative form – what the psalmist has known all along: Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – I will fear no evil, for you are with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.