Sermon 10th April 2016
John chapter 21 verses 1 – 19
Maggie Cogan – Reader
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord our strength and our redeemer
Many years ago, I used to go to the Outer Hebrides with the children – fishing. And there was no greater pleasure for the children and for me than to go out in a boat – with the clear blue sea below fishing for herring. A long line of tackle with hooks on the line – watching it enter into the water – all the way down until you could not see the end of the line – and then wait – Sometimes we would wait quite a while – other times the herring would soon be on the line and a large number of fish would be brought to the surface. Then there was the joy of cooking some of the fish on the beach. As fresh as you could get it – delicious
Over the last few weeks we have come each Sunday to hear the amazing story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. For many of us these two events – death and resurrection – are enough to base our entire faith on.
The two main stories in our gospel reading for today provide mixed metaphors. The first is about fishing and the second about shepherding. When we put the two together, we will come up with “fishing for sheep” or “shepherding fish.” The metaphors may be mixed, but together they can provide a wonderful balance for our church’s ministry.
Seven of the disciples were gathered together in one place and they were probably still confused about what they should be doing. They had no idea how they were to carry on their ministry after Jesus’ resurrection. Even though Jesus proved his resurrection to them, things were obviously so different that they didn’t know quite what to do. Perhaps they had a conversation like this:
Nathanael might have asked, “We saw nothing of Jesus from Sunday to Sunday during that first week after the resurrection, and now he has disappeared again. When do you think we will see him again?”
Peter must have replied as only Peter could, “I have no idea. In fact, I’m getting a bit frustrated with his absence. It was easy to follow Jesus around during his earthly ministry, but what are we supposed to do now? How do we function when he pops in here and there, now and then? And, furthermore, I’m tired of sitting around waiting! I’ve got to get out of this place. I’m going fishing!”
The other disciples were as frustrated with Jesus’ absence as Peter was, and they all probably said, “We will go with you.” They were all eager to return to what was familiar to them.
These disciples had been fishermen before Jesus called them from their nets. Perhaps this night of fishing meant that they had given up on their new vocation and were returning to their previous way of making a living. I prefer to think they just wanted to get away for a while. Often a fishing trip is just a way to leave the stress of the workaday world behind and return to nature.
The seven of them then spent all night fishing from the boat. We can imagine them with a lantern hung over the side to attract fish and each of them taking turns throwing the circular nets into the water. After each throw, they came up empty handed.
If the disciples were anything like me, I think they must have been even more frustrated by daybreak than they were the night before. They had fished all night and caught nothing. No fish!
In the morning midst the fog, they heard a voice calling to them from the shore. They couldn’t make out the lone figure, but they heard what he said:
“Children, you have no fish, have you? Cast your net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
Like most fishermen, they were tireless in their pursuit of a fish. Even today, fishermen seem to like nothing better than trying a new type of bait. Their tackle boxes are filled with thousands of varieties of fishing flies, lug worms etc. These early fishermen were just as willing to try a new spot. So they cast their nets on the other side of the boat.
That’s when they snagged the surprising catch – 153 fish! It was a miracle that the nets did not break with such a load.
By now the early morning mist was beginning to lift. The miraculous catch caused John to look closer at this mysterious figure on the shore, and he finally recognized that it was Jesus. When he exclaimed, “It is the Lord!” Peter immediately grabbed his clothes, jumped in the water, and began to swim toward Jesus. The other disciples struggled with the boat and the heavy net of fish, until they brought them both to land.
What shall we make of this post-resurrection fishing expedition? It seems to reflect back to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he found some fishermen and said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fisher for people.” This analogy represented Jesus’ earthy description of the work he was calling them to do. They were fishermen; he called them to fish for people. These disciples had likely felt this was an apt description of their ministry with Jesus. People flocked around them like schools of fish in a feeding frenzy.
But what would be their job after the resurrection? They were confused with Jesus’ off and on appearances. What were they to do without him?
The message is that they were to continue to fish for people. And their post-resurrection catch would be larger than any they had during the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Notice from the text that someone bothered to count the exact number of fish at 153. Many ancient scholars attempted to decipher the meaning of the number of fish caught that day. Cyril of Alexander said it was a symbolic number – 100, meaning the fullness of the Gentiles, plus 50, representing the remnant of Israel, and 3, representing the Trinity.
I prefer St Jerome’s suggestion. He said there were 153 fish because there were 153 different kinds of fish in the Sea of Tiberius. Some of the fish are still caught today – Musht also called a St Peter Fish – Barbels a type of carp and Kinneret Sardines. Therefore, the catch was a symbol that the Gospel is for everybody, every kind of person in the world.
If we accept Jerome’s idea, then this fishing trip meant that the disciples were to become missionaries to the whole world. And that is, in fact, what they did. They still fished for people, but their catch now included every kind of person, and their catch was miraculously large.
Today we are still called to be missionaries, wherever we are. Our number one task is to find creative ways to cast the net and draw people to Jesus Christ.
The second metaphor comes while the disciples are enjoying the wonderful breakfast of fish and bread that Jesus has prepared for them.
I suspect that Simon Peter was a bit uncomfortable during this meal. He was still wrestling with his own guilt over betraying Jesus three times before the cock crowed on that Friday a few weeks before. That’s when Jesus addresses him directly.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.
“Feed my lambs.”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Tend my sheep.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Three times Peter affirms his love, and three times he is charged with the personal care of Jesus’ flock. This triple set of questions corresponds to Peter’s three denials.
Much has been made of the verbs used for “to love” The conclusion often drawn is that Jesus is asking for a more noble love, while Peter offers simple friendship as all that he can give – and ultimately Jesus accepts the lower form of love.
In asking the question three times, Jesus is asking if Peter will be his disciple and follow him no matter what the cost. Jesus is alluding to the price of discipleship both in the word “love” and in the use of the shepherding metaphor. By entrusting the care of the flock to Peter three times, Jesus is bringing up the full range of duties that a shepherd has: pasturing, protecting, searching out the strays, caring for injuries, providing shelter.
The church today succeeds or fails based on how it does with these two mixed metaphors – fishing and shepherding. A church cannot live past one generation if it doesn’t go fishing. Without the work of evangelism any church will wither and die, just as a body without nourishment will die.
Most churches are better at shepherding than fishing. Ours is no exception. We do very well at feeding the lambs, tending the sheep, and feeding the sheep. We care for one another, we minister to the congregation. In fact, we get concerned when certain people miss several Sunday’s in a row.
What about our fishing? Wasn’t it lovely to see so many here on Easter Sunday. We wish for a catch of 153 fish. We have many opportunities to catch our fish – back to church Sunday – Harvest Festival – the schools services all the Christmas services or just talking to people about our faith. You never know where the fish are hiding!!
This story should convict us because we haven’t taken the first step. Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” The other disciples said, “We will go with you.” How many of us are willing to go fishing for people? Our church would grow if we all caught one fish. But we don’t catch fish if we don’t go fishing.
The two stories might be seen as mixed metaphors, but they provide a healthy challenge for our church. Shepherding and fishing – that’s what the church is all about. Let’s covenant together to “fish for sheep” and “shepherd the fish.”
The children and I may have had to wait a while for our fish to be caught — but it was a wonderful feeling to have caught so many