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 lake. 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 and 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.
That's a Lot of Fish! John 21:1-14
Did you know that some scholars think the Thomas story might have been the original end to the book of John? It's kind of like how scholars think that Mark really ends after the women run away from the empty tomb, except we actually have a really old manuscript of Mark with the shorter ending. We don't have a version John that stops at Thomas. I found that out during my sermon prep last week. I mean, it makes sense. The last few lines of the story seem to be a good way to wrap up a whole book. "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." And, the story of Thomas is a pretty great story about building the Body of Christ. It is a story powerful enough end the Gospel and inspire us to begin to tell our own stories of Jesus. The thing is, if we finish the Gospel with Thomas, we miss something important. We miss all the fish. And, there's a lot of fish.
Scripture says that there were 153 fish, all caught in one fling of the net. That is pretty amazing. What's more amazing is that all of these fish are said to have been caught after seven disciples had spent all night not catching one single fish. That's right... just shortly after seeing a resurrected Jesus for the second time in a week, they decided to go fishing. Scholars have suggested a couple different explanations as to why they may have been fishing. Maybe these were our first bivocational ministers going back to their day jobs since they weren't sure that their ministries would be supported in the same way since most people think Jesus is still dead. These guys know how to do two things: follow Jesus and go fishing. It wouldn't be strange to imagine them going fishing. Another scholar suggested that something else may be happening here. Maybe this is one of those occasions where someone has a rich experience of the Divine, but, in time, the experience fades and they simply return to the patterns of behavior to which they are accustomed. They know that Jesus wanted to send them, as he had been sent, but they didn't yet know how to do that. So, they did the only thing they were sure they still knew how to do. They went fishing. It turns out, though, that they weren't able to even do that very well. Over several hours, they didn't catch even one fish.
As is his habit here in John, Jesus just appears, this time on the beach while his friends are still out in the boat. They are doing the kind of fishing that requires a large net and boat, not the kind of fishing that uses a fishing pole. They fish like people who have made a living doing it, trying to haul in as much as they can. Jesus, from his vantage point on dry land, sees that their nets are empty. He calls out, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" Now, they don't yet know who Jesus is. It's like when Mary thought he was the gardener. These guys must've thought he was a really great fisherman because they didn't seem to mind that he called them children. They just responded with a despondent, "No." Jesus then gives them some fishing advice. I am struck by the simplicity of the instruction. He says just throw the net off the right side of the boat. You'll catch some there. Now, throughout this Gospel, Jesus has spoken enigmatically. The disciples have often been confused. Thank goodness after this long night with no fish, they finally got a clear, plain-spoken suggestion. They understood exactly what they needed to do. They threw in the net. They caught more than they could have ever imagined.
The net which had been despairingly empty was now full of 153 large fish. It was so heavy that these men, these professional anglers, young and strong, could not pull the net into the boat. They had to drag it behind them as they made their way back to shore. This full net was exactly what they need, more, in fact, than they needed. This giant pile of fish would feed them and fund their on-going ministry. Just as importantly, it helped them figure out who the guy on the beach was. It was Jesus. They saw all the fish and they knew. Do you remember the moment when Mary knew that the gardener was, in fact, Jesus? It was when he said her name, reminding her of their close relationship. These seven disciples needed to be reminded of their relationship, too. Jesus did so when he helped provide for them in their time of need. He showed them that, even though he had died, even though he would ascend to heaven, their relationship remained, and he would continue to provide for them. He would bring them abundance so that they could follow the mission on which he was leading them. They would not have to rely on old ways of getting by. Grace was still with them, even if things looked different now. He reminded them that Holy Spirit, Jesus' spirit, was with them, and they would be loved in abundance.
In whole Gospel of John, Jesus' presence has been consistently associated with abundance and love. In this Gospel, the very first sign of Jesus living out his incarnation is when Jesus turns between 120 and 180 gallons of water into really good wine at a wedding in Cana. A few chapters later, in a slightly different version of this story than is told in the other Gospels, Jesus blesses and shares five loaves of bread and two fish with 5,000 people. The Gospel reports that there was enough leftover to fill twelve baskets! Incidentally, this feeding of the 5,000 took place alongside the very same sea where today's Gospel reading was said to have happened. Oh, and one of the seven men in the boat is a disciple named Nathanael, a disciple whom we've only heard mentioned one other time, back at the wedding in Cana. The same sea. The same disciple. The same Jesus who's is known by abundant love and consistent provision. These folks have seen Jesus in action. They know that his love and justice is best understood through abundance, especially abundance in unexpected places. When they realized how many fish they had caught, they knew that this could only be the work of Jesus. And, they went to him, Peter jumping in the water to swim his way and the rest, dragging alongside their boat the holy, impossible, fishy sign of his ongoing presence in their lives.
It really seems like this story of a heaping net-full of fish is in the Gospel to assure Jesus' followers that God will still provide for them even after Jesus is physically gone. It also reminds them that Jesus often found abundance in places of scarcity. So, when we follow Jesus, we find places of abundance and then share than abundance with others. Here is one of the best stories of abundance that I heard last week. The Missions Board of Windham Hill UCC in Windham, Maine was in the midst of discerning a missions project for the church to undertake during the season of Lent, when a member of the board suggested they serve through Heifer International. Heifer is a program that allows people to invest in families all across the world who live in poverty. For example, someone can invest $120 to pay for a goat that will then be donated to a family. The goat provides milk, helping to nourish the family, and also provides a source of income as the family can start a small business selling goat's milk, cheese, and soap. Even more importantly, this family will also train their neighbors in the healthy farming practices they learn and will donate the first female offspring of their goat to a neighbor, thereby serving others just as they themselves have been served. Because the people served also become donors and serve their own communities, Heifer estimates that each gift really has 9 times the financial impact of the original investment. Though Heifer, you can also financially support empowerment programs for women, access to water for whole communities, and agricultural education.
Windham Hill has about 70 people attend worship every week. Congregants took small household banks home and saved their pennies and dimes. The church school held a pancake breakfast. Several people made other donations, large and small. Together they were able to raise $2530 to donate to Heifer. Adding to the abundance of their gift, their donation was doubled through a grant available from Heifer during the month of March. Given that the Maine Conference has been working to build a strong partnership with churches in Honduras, Windham Hill asked that their donations be put to work in Honduras. Because of their belief in God's abundant love and willingness to serve in abundant joy, Windham Hill was able to send $5060 to Honduras, which will really be more like making a $45,540 investment in the well-being of our Central American neighbors. That's a lot of fish, and a lot of goats, and chickens, and cook stoves, and girls in school, and fresh water wells dug! Talk about God's abundance!
There is a song that says they'll know Christians by our love. Well, this story reminds us that Christians will know Jesus by his abundance... by piles of fish, by gallons of wine, by baskets and baskets of bread. This story reminds us that a life following Christ is a life confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to show us Christ's abundance in our midst, like when our own church collects enough things for 17 Church World Service school kits, 25 hygiene kits, and raises enough money to fund a whole disaster clean-up bucket. These are some ongoing signs of Christ's abundance and the greatest part is that we get to participate in them. So, let's go fishing. I'm sure that we'll catch all that we need.
Sources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2809
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4583
Sermon Brainwave: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=745
Karyn Wiseman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1619
Frank L. Crouch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=569
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
For more information on Heifer International: http://www.heifer.org/about-heifer/index.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.