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 you finish the last verse of chapter 20 in John’s Gospel, it sounds as though you’ve come to the end. It’s time to close the cover and start another book.
“These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” That about sums it up. What a great ending!
Yet just when it sounds like it’s all over, there is still one more story.
It’s like a play, when the curtain comes down and the applause rises, and an actor steps out on stage in front of the curtains to deliver an epilogue. You wonder, what’s going on? Here comes a postscipt to the drama that has already been revealed.
There seems to have been some concern on the author’s part that we might not have gotten the full meaning of all we’ve seen and heard, so one more unforgettable story is given to us, with enough imagery, mystery and meaning to keep us busy for days…but don’t worry, we’ll do this in minutes!
The scene appears to be straightforward enough…but there’s a curious contrast of detail and lack of detail that leaves room for us, with all our questions, to be part of it all…to get ourselves very involved in this story.
To begin with, Jesus will be making this visit not in Jerusalem, not in the Upper Room, or on the road to Emmaus, but rather lakeside in Galillee, bordering Gentile territory.
You have to wonder if this puts us on the edge of something new…Then seven disciples go out to fish before sunrise and catch nothing. Where are the others? Why just seven? (Ever wonder about that?)
Simon Peter had decided on his own to go fishing and the others followed. They went out at night, under cover of darkness, often a good time to fish, but not this time.
Jesus, the Light of the world, appears at daybreak, but they don’t recognize him. Jesus calls to Peter from the beach to throw the net out on the right side of the boat. And Voila! The catch is so great that it strains the net but doesn’t tear it.
And Peter, realizing that it is the Lord who has spoken to him, throws on some clothes (or, he tucks in his tunic, the Greek is a little fuzzy there) and he swims to the beach followed by the other disciples who bring the boat ashore. There they have breakfast, with fish already prepared, during which the risen Jesus eats fish and breaks bread with the disciples. It’s really quite a scene!
On the one hand, this is a story likely heard by John’s church as a sign that when they gathered at the Lord’s Table, Jesus was present with them. It was also encouragement that large numbers of others would be added in time as they welcomed a growing and diverse community into their midst, Jews and Gentiles together.
And last but not least, it is probably a story remembered to counter the early Gnostic heresy which proposed that Jesus’ risen form was ‘ghostlike’- an apparition, some kind of phantom, incapable of eating or handling material things.
So a resurrection appearance in which Jesus eats and cooks and knows the good fishing holes pretty much put the Gnostics in their place.
Still, questions remain… and I’m convinced that John left the gaps in this story on purpose.
Maybe you have more questions than I do, but I’m convinced that these continuing questions lead us closer to who Christ is for us, and they help us discern what he’s asking from us, now.
So here are some lingering questions, and where they might lead us… there are three.
First, I still wonder why the disciples were fishing in Galilee, considering they had already been privy to some pretty astounding resurrection appearances. After all, shouldn’t they have already packed their bags and been on the road on their first evangelistic crusade?
Thomas had had an opportunity to touch the wounds in the hands and side of the risen Lord. Others had already eaten with him. They knew that Jesus wasn’t dead anymore. So why go fishing?
My partial answer is that they were still emotionally down in the dumps over Jesus’ death and couldn’t absorb the truly good news of Christ’s resurrection. That’s the best I can do with this…
It was still too much for them to take in; so they had to get away to process it by doing what they knew best: and that was fishing. Maybe it wasn’t that they disbelieved- but rather that they hadn’t fully digested the news, been commissioned with instructions or empowered by the Spirit enough to do what needed doing.
What this tells me- what my ‘takeaway’ from this is, is that Jesus appears to us, too- not always when we’re in celebratory mode, on cloud nine after a big Easter service, but just as often we are met by God’s Spirit when we are still trying to figure things out; still processing, still working through the miracle of God’s love- even for us.
I wonder, what’s your experience with this? –
Does God’s Spirit come to you mostly in ‘high and holy’ moments, or sometimes unexpectedly, when you’re still sorting out and working through things?
Think about it….
Another question I have is about this throwing the net over the other side of the boat thing. What’s that all about? Was it easier to throw to the left than to the right, up wind rather than down wind, closer to shore rather than farther- who knows?
I think the point must be something about doing things a little differently, breaking with the routine- and following Jesus’ directions, consciously or not. That means at least a few things, doesn’t it?
In the Gospel account, it is only after the disciples cast their net on the right side and they pull it up, teeming with fish – wiggling and writhing – that they suddenly recognize Christ on the shore and realize there is a connection between him and what has just happened. Similarly, maybe it’s only after we’ve helped someone out, somehow- because it was the right thing to do, that we look back and see that maybe God had a hand in what we were doing. It’s not so likely that we think about Jesus first, and then do the right thing (even though that would make good sense), but rather we see what the right thing is to do, figure out how we can be part of it, and then in hindsight recognize the ‘God’-part of it all.
Does that fit with your experience?
Somehow, God is behind the good we do, sight unseen- and we work together to help make God’s kingdom come (when we are at our best.)
The point may be that the lake of our lives is deep- and we are never left on our own. God is with us in more ways than we are aware, and Jesus encourages us, sight unseen, to do the right thing.
The last question I have about this passage is about the 153 fish; not 154 or 152….”and though there were so many the net was not torn.”
What is it this all about?
Novelist David James Duncan in his book The River Why puts on the lips of his character Gus Orviston this description of what it might have been like that day by the Sea of Galilee.
“…upon hauling the net to shore, the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…’ all the way up to a hundred and fifty-three while the newly risen Lord of Creation, the Sustainer of all their beings, He who died for them and for whom they would gladly die, stood waiting, ignored, till the heap of fish was quantified.”
You can’t begin to imagine how much Biblical scholarship has been focused on the question of the meaning of the 153 fish. Or maybe you can.
The precision of the number is just too good to leave alone. Such venerable doctors of the church as Augustine and John Chrysostom in the 5th Century, preached and wrote at great length about this number.
But I’m going to venture the guess (and this is not risking much) that John never really wanted us to worry that much about the 153 fish. Sometimes something is there that is hidden in plain sight, and you look at it and become fixed on it and it distracts you from the larger matter at hand. 153 fish is that kind of detail.
It’s just a large number of fish. It’s a big haul; maybe enough people to start a church, and by the first century’s standards, a big church.
Maybe it was John’s church of 153 members. I don’t know. Your guess really is as good as mine.. My takeaway is that it is a quirky number It’s a quirky number, different, unusual, like each one of us, unique in our own way. And we’re left wondering about it as a way for God to engage us in our wondering, giving God a little bit of our curiosity to work with; for God to take hold of us, for starters.
There is room left for us, with all our questions, to be part of it all…to get ourselves very involved in this story; to be drawn to Jesus by our questions, and then even more, by our living.
It’s all part of God’s plan for us not to reduce Jesus’ stories to pages of the past, but to have the stories live in our hearts; to affirm that Jesus is the light and darkness will not overcome anything that Christ blesses. The risen Jesus calls to himself doubters and questioners to a common life and ministry.
So, in the end, the curtain may have come down on John’s account, but the real life drama of Jesus continues – with us.
Everything we’ve been told about Jesus is true, and more, as we pay attention and walk with him into the stage of life. Amen.