“This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
It was all still sinking in for the disciples. If you have ever lost someone that you were very close to, then you know how different that makes your world. You feel lost emotionally, sometimes you can’t cry and sometimes you can’t stop crying. Time fluctuates between seeming to stand still and flying by so fast that you are not sure what day it is. There are times when it all seems more like a dream than reality and you think that any moment you are going to wake up and life will be back to normal. But then reality sets in and you know that life will never be back to normal.
All of that is a natural part of the grief process and no doubt the disciples were experiencing some or all of that over the death of their Master. But now add to that the women telling them that they went to His tomb but found it empty and Mary Magdalene claiming to have talked with Him. And what did He say to Mary? “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
What was that supposed to mean? Does that mean that He is going away, that we will never see Him again? Maybe the women in their grief were mistaken about what they saw and heard.
But that night, Jesus appears in their hiding place and pronounces peace to them and breathes on them the Holy Spirit. Thomas was not there and did not believe their testimony so that next Sunday Jesus appeared again behind their locked doors. Once again pronounced peace and showed Thomas His hands and His side. This was the second time He revealed Himself to them.
The weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread was over and the disciples returned home to Galilee. But more importantly, we are told in Matthew’s Gospel that they went there because both the angel at the tomb and later Jesus told them to meet Him in Galilee. It would be on the mountain in Galilee that Jesus would give them what has come to be known as The Great Commission.
So they did as they were told but things were still not clear to them. Where was He? How long were they supposed to wait? Peter announces “I’m going fishing.” The way I interpret this is that Peter meant it very differently than if Steve Thompson said, “I’m going fishing.” Peter was not going to pop into the Galilee Wal Mart, get some bait and Vienna sausages, and go bass fishing to kill some time until Jesus showed up. Fishing for Peter was not a hobby, it was a career. When Jesus found Peter he was fishing and now Peter was back full circle. I have no doubt that Peter considered himself unworthy and disqualified to be one of the twelve after having denied Jesus a few days earlier. What was left for him to do but to go back to his old job?
In biblical days fishermen fished at night so that they could sell the fish fresh at the morning markets. So the others joined Peter and they fished all night but to no avail. As morning breaks, Jesus is standing on the beach and asks, “Children you have no fish, have you?”
Even as a hobby fisherman it stings a bit to spend a whole day fishing and get skunked. But some of these guys were professionals so they must have been their ego’s bruised. And here is where we see the nature of Jesus shine through. This was a perfect time for a divine ‘I told you so.”
“And the reason that you didn’t catch any fish is because you did not follow my orders. Did anybody tell you to go fishing? Did the angel at the tomb perchance lend you a net? Did one of you guys get 30 more pieces of silver and decide to buy a boat? What were you thinking?”
But Jesus does none of this. He does not chide them or rebuke them or even question them. He simply tells them to put the net on the other side of the boat and they catch so many fish that they cannot not haul them all in.
To me this is a great illustration of Jesus meeting us right where we are. He had spent over three years of His life pouring Himself into these men, and especially to Peter, James and John, and when He finds these apostles fishing instead of spreading the news of His resurrection, what does Jesus do? He helps them to fish.
When I was younger I used to worry a good deal about missing the will of God for my life. Someone invites me to a meeting and don’t really want to go but what if God had planned for me to meet someone there who could change my life? What if I pick the wrong college or choose the wrong major or pick the wrong career? For whatever reason I thought that it was all up to me to discern the will of God and then get where He wanted me to be or I would miss the boat. But as my understanding of God’s nature grew I realized that it did not all fall on me. He is the One who is all powerful and all knowing and He is the One who is love. And I can expect Him to deal with me in love, just as Jesus dealt with his fishing apostles.
Sure I needed to seek guidance, to read Scripture, to pray to do His will but in the end I’m just a sheep. It’s up to the Shepherd to get me to green pastures and quiet waters. My responsibility is to obey the Shepherd’s voice but it is the responsibility of the Shepherd to get this dumb sheep where He wants me to be. So peace comes when I realize that if for a time I am headed in the wrong direction, if I am fishing instead of preaching, that He will meet me where I am and get me where I need to be.
I have always loved that this passage gives us the exact count of fish. The text does not say “about 200.” It says “153.” If you research it on the web you will find about as many theories of why the number 153 is used as you will about the number 666. And like the theories on the number 666, most if not all of them will be wrong.
St. Jerome of the 4th century said that there were 153 types of fish in the Sea of Galilee and so catching one of each was an illustration that the Gospel would catch people, as we heard in the Revelation lesson, from every tribe and language and people and nation. While I have doubts that the good saint was accurate about the number of species of fish in the Sea of Galilee, I think he is on to something. The abundant haul and the unbroken net is a foreshadowing of when Jesus sends them out to be fishers of men, that the nations will come into the Church and the Church will not only be able to contain them but will thrive from them. The true treasure of the Church is that we do indeed have people from every family and language and people and nation.
One commentator that I read saw another lesson being taught by the 153 fish that they caught after Jesus told the apostles to put the net on the other side of the boat. He called it “the secret of effective mission” and that secret is the connection between obedience and effectiveness. That should be a no brainer but look around and witness how easily the Church loses that connection.
When we were a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, our diocese was one of the few dioceses in the nation that was growing and we were growing primarily through church planting. The National Church put together a large task force to figure out how to grow the church and they flew down to interview us to find out our “secret.” Since I was a church planter at the time the Bishop ordered me to meet with them. He had to order me because I did not want to go because I knew that they were considering all kinds of silly gimmicks and some downright heretical things to grow the church. A hip hop Mass, giving communion to pets, lay people presiding over the Eucharist, offering communion to the unbaptized, performing same-sex marriages, the crazy list goes on and on.
I thought back to a professor whom Fr. BE and I shared in seminary. He recently died. His name was Don Armentrout and he had a wry sense of humor. He was a Lutheran and chided us for having a required course on pastoral theology. He said, “I’ll tell you how to provide pastoral care. You bring them in and tell them the story. Then you give them some body and some blood and you send them out and you go home and have a beer. Next week you bring them back and do it all over again.” What in his own way he was telling us to do was to be faithful and to be obedient. So that in essence was what I told the task force we were doing. There was no secret and we didn’t need gimmicks. We just needed to do what Jesus told us to do. Some of them did not like what I had to say but as I was getting into my truck an Australian Bishop ran outside, threw his arms around me and said, “Thank you. I don’t know why we have to make it so bloody difficult.” The large haul of fish was a consequence of the apostles doing what Jesus told them to do and while the Church should not be in a numbers game, we should be concerned about being effective for the sake of the kingdom.
Our lesson stopped too short today. After Jesus blesses the apostles with an abundance of fish, He had breakfast with them. As in the case of showing them His hands and His side, He is proving to them that He is not a ghost or a spirit, but that He is resurrected. They are going to die for that truth so He is gracious to prove it to them again and again.
But where it stops short is it leaves out His exchange with Peter. As they were finishing breakfast “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’”
I have heard sermons on this that emphasize that Jesus and Peter were using different Greek words for love here but I think that the overarching point is that Jesus had Peter confess his love three times to restore him after denying Him three times. It was a way to let Peter know once and for all that the slate had been wiped clean.
And we believe that Jesus offers to each of us a clean slate as well. It is offered to us every time we come here and confess our sins and receive His absolution. The same resurrected Jesus that revealed Himself to those men and fed them on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is present here to reveal Himself to us and to feed us with Word and Sacrament. That is what makes us an Easter people, and like those first disciple, we know beyond a shadow of doubt, that He is risen indeed. Amen.