This morning’s reading is one of my favorite stories in the gospel of John. I just love the everyday ordinariness of this story. A complaint about the gospel of John is that Jesus is so holy, so closely connected with God, that some of the stories seem unreal. It can be hard to imagine things playing out the way John describes them. But this story is easy to imagine. It is so regular and so mundane and therefore so very close to our own experience of the risen Lord.
The way John tells the story; there was that first Easter morning, and the evening appearance behind locked doors. Then a week later Jesus again appeared to the disciples and Thomas, a story which we discussed last week. But now, who knows how long it’s been. John just says “after these things”. It could be a few weeks or it could be a few months. No matter how long it was, things are starting to return to normal.
We see that with Peter. “I’m going fishing” he announces, one of my favorite lines of scripture. I imagine that the disciples simply didn’t know what else to do. After following Jesus around for a few years and being caught up in the movement, now they didn’t know what to do. Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t tell them what to do with it. So, Peter is going back to work. He is doing what he knows how to do. “I’m going fishing” and the others join him.
People like to make a big deal of this return to fishing; like the disciples have failed Jesus or given up on the mission but I don’t see that. I think they are just returning to what is familiar, they are seeking out old routines. Psychologists will point out that this is normal behavior for folks who have experienced an emotional overload. Those final weeks with Jesus, from last suppers to arrests, from trial to crucifixion, and finally to the miracle of resurrection certainly qualify as emotional overload. The disciples are seeking comfort in routine. It is a normal response to stress, and you and I both can see this mirrored in our own lives. Something amazing happens or something traumatic happens, and we don’t know what to do but we have to do something. So we return to routine, “I’m going fishing.”
It is a fruitless night, and in the morning the disciples have nothing to show for their work. As the sun rises, the disciples notice a lone figure on the beach. He calls to them to inquire about a catch and they report their dismal night. The reader knows the stranger is Jesus, and he tells them to cast the nets to the right side of the boat and of course the catch is so big they can’t haul it in.
I wonder about this bit of the story. Did Jesus call the fish to that side of the boat for them, or were the fish there all along? Is there some method of only fishing off of one side of the boat so they literally hadn’t tried the right side all night? It is an odd detail but it makes me wonder about parts of our lives. Oftentimes like the disciples we are simply going through the motions and not paying attention. That is the danger of returning to comfortable routine. “Cast the net to the right side” is the original “think outside the box”. Where do we need to think about casting the net to the other side in our churches and in our lives?
After they are overwhelmed with fish, the beloved disciple recognizes that this is a miracle catch and that the stranger on the shore must be Jesus. I love that he doesn’t shout out the news to everybody; he simply leans over to Peter to declare “It is the Lord!” Peter is immediately overwhelmed and for good reason. He is surely still stinging from that horrible three-fold betrayal event. This could be his chance for redemption.
He is overcome by his desire to see Jesus and he is frustrated to be so far away out in the water. So he got dressed and jumped in for a swim. This is another part I wonder about. Did people normally fish naked? Why would you do that? Some commentators claim that he had a loin cloth on, but others make the counterclaim that it wouldn’t have said naked if it didn’t mean naked.
So Peter is engaged in naked night fishing. Sounds more like a UCM prank than a Bible story! Peter is so excited to see Jesus that he can’t wait so he jumps in to swim to shore. But rather than skinny dip, which might make more sense in the situation, he puts his clothes back on so he looks presentable when he is face to face with Jesus. He puts his clothes back on and then he jumps in the water. I love the details of this story, because it makes it so much more believable. I can totally imagine someone doing this in their excitement and confusion. Like those times in life when we say “You can’t make this stuff up!”
Eventually everyone meets onshore and Jesus invites his friends to breakfast. He has bread and fish ready to share with them, and they of course have 153 fish to add to the meal. No one will go hungry that morning. The group dines together in companionable silence, a moment of peace and fulfillment. I imagine this as really being the resurrection because here everything is back to normal; Jesus is with them again in a comfortable familiar way. It’s not magic time with touching wounds and breathing the Holy Spirit. This is ordinary time, where folks just sit together and share a meal like they used to.
John writes that no one asked “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Again, I love this detail. I imagine he looked different, and that’s why they didn’t recognize him right away. He looks different but he feels the same. No one asks “who are you?” which is what you would ask a stranger. They know it is him, because it feels like him, not because it looks like him.
I see this in our own experience of God. What does God look like? We don’t know. We don’t recognize an encounter with Jesus because we recognize him with our eyes. No, we feel an encounter with Jesus. We recognize it with our hearts. This is the risen Lord we experience. We know it is God, even if our eyes are looking at a stranger. We meet God at table, we are fed and nourished, and we recognize God in the same rituals even though the faces around the table may change.
After the meal Jesus leads Peter aside for the “love” conversation. Much has been made about the various words for love used in this passage and while some mine that for sermon fodder, others see it as simply a form of Greek linguistics. I think the point is just as clear in English as in any other language. Jesus asks three times, “do you love me” and Peter responds “yes”.
We all recognize Peter’s desire to erase the denials of the past. The three-fold pattern of love is a three-fold pattern of redemption for him. Apart from that, I recognize Peter’s desire to serve. As Jesus asks over and over again, I imagine Peter becoming flustered in his attempt to find the “right” answer. “Tell me what to say Jesus, and I’ll say it.” Peter is clearly displaying a heart for service, so it is no wonder that upon this rock the church will be built.
Then there is that strange little bit about belts. Jesus offers Peter a vision of the future that is frightening. He will suffer for this cause and he will no longer be in control of his own life. Others will tie his belt around his waist and pull him to places he doesn’t want to go. Even though suffering looms on the horizon, Jesus’ call to Peter is clear, “Follow me.”
I know this is about the death that Peter will suffer but every time I read it I have to admit that I think of this as being about old age. I spend a lot of time in nursing homes and I frequently see people having other people literally tie belts around them and taking them to places they don’t want to go. That is what old age looks like for a lot of folks, and I think for many that is a period suffering. It’s just my crazy mind but when I read this I am reminded that while we may not suffer the death Peter suffers, we will all experience suffering and humiliation at some point in our lives. And yet Jesus’ call to us is the same, “Follow me.”
I love this story so much because it describes the resurrected Christ that I have experienced. Last week we had that great story about Thomas touching the wounds, but I’m probably not going to touch the risen Lords’ wounds. That is out of my realm of experience. But this risen Lord, this appearance by the seashore is one I know.
I know what it is to return to routine, and to seek comfort in the familiar. I have had times when God called to me to cast the nets to the right side of the boat, to think outside the box, and to try something new. I have dined with friends and family around this communion table and around tables in homes and I have seen Jesus there without having to ask “who are you?” I have felt the voice of God asking again and again after my love and like Peter I have given every “right” answer I can think of, as well as some wrong ones. I have thought of a future that includes hardship and suffering, and I know that is coming in some form for me, but I am not afraid for I know that God goes with me there. The call is to follow, and the resurrected God of love will lead us, as we journey on this road of faith together. Amen.