Rev. Ben Campbell | 5.1.22

A Miraculous Catch of Fish

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 they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” [John 21-1-19]

There are at least seven different stories of Resurrection Appearances of Jesus in the Scriptures. None of them are the same. There’s no account of Jesus actually getting up and walking out of the grave. Either people find his body is not there – or they meet him outside the tomb, or somewhere else, for a brief encounter. No one who had not known, seen, and loved Jesus before his death reported that they saw him after his death.

It is not clear exactly what happened, or how to explain it. What is clear is that something happened. Something revitalized people who were in despair, and whose hearts were broken at the loss of their lord. Hope was reborn.

You can’t make that kind of hope up. It is the diamond of the psyche.

I have seen that resurrection hope. That hope can be reborn over and over again in my heart, and in yours, and in ours together. We search for it, we experience it, we proclaim it, and we seek it again.

These resurrection stories in the New Testament are pictures we have that can evoke, or mirror, the renewed hope that Christians call the experience of the Risen Christ. All of the Biblical resurrection stories are somewhat strange – but this story from the last chapter of John’s Gospel is the strangest of all. Scholars call it the story of the Miraculous Catch of Fish.

I love the title – it has a ring to it which, to me, sometimes describes life itself:

My, isn’t this a Miraculous Catch of Fish!

It’s a Miraculous catch of fish, because it happened even though the fishermen weren’t doing it right.
It’s a Miraculous catch of fish and it culminates in a party on the beach.
And this Catch of Fish is miraculous because it assures us that the kindness and calling of God are inescapable.

1. The Catch of Fish was Miraculous. They didn’t do it right and the fish showed up anyway!

I love this story. Peter and his buddies are fishing at night in the Sea of Galilee. Nothing is happening. They have their nets out. Nothing. Then, around dawn, somebody on the beach shouts at them: “Put your nets out on the other side of the boat!” They do it – why not? At least it gives variety to an unsuccessful effort. And quick as a wink, the net is filled with fish!

I think it’s hilarious. The way I see it, when you put a net in the water from a small boat it sinks down underneath the boat. If you put it down on the other side, you’re basically fishing in the same piece of water you were in before.

But for some reason – for some inexplicable reason – it worked when the disciples put it down on the other side. The net was full of flopping fish.

Have you had any experiences like this? You did your part – you worked at the task you were assigned – but your own efforts were not successful. It seemed hopeless, futile. Then something you did not plan, something you did not do yourself, came to you instead, and you found hope on the other side of the boat. It wasn’t what you expected, but it was beautiful. Life itself, and life with God, can be that way: Unexpected grace; a renewal of hope.

I had to spend a good bit of my professional life raising money for the things I was working on. I had this wild experience. I would work as hard as I could trying to find the money, — and it would come unexpectedly from another source. It didn’t come if I wasn’t working at it, but when I did work at it, it often came from somewhere else. Really.

There’s an unpredictability to God’s gifts – an unpredictability to Grace. That’s a part of its nature. We try as hard as we can and come up empty. But nonetheless, grace appears in ways we did not know. That’s the resurrection message. That’s hope. There is this miraculous catch of fish!

2. There was some kind of party going on. There was a party on the beach.

There’s nothing like this story in any of the rest of the resurrection appearances – really nothing quite like it in the rest of scripture. In this story, some of the disciples see Jesus cooking fish and bread on the beach. Peter is out in the boat, naked. He puts on his clothes and jumps into the water. The others bring the boat in and drag an enormous net of flopping fish onto the beach, joining into the cook-out. And Jesus gives them breakfast. It’s a breakfast fish fry, — Jesus is cooking and serving — a real event. And it takes some time.

There’s no other post-crucifixion story in the scripture with both this number of people and this kind of detail. There’s a passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians where Paul says that about 500 people saw Jesus at one time, after his death, but gives no details. Luke tells of a walk to Emmaus and a brief meal. But this story describes an event of fellowship over what must have been several hours, and two or three other ensuing conversations.

The solid hospitality of human fellowship; the fundamental anchoring of eating together; the basic truth that is present in human community, — how familiar, how grounding, how common, how taken for granted it is for us. And here it is, unexpectedly, with the risen Jesus present. Is this an image of how he can be present in the spirit at other meals, at other parties on the beach, at a backyard barbecue? This is their resurrection story. They saw him. We have our own stories: can we feel the presence of the spirit?

In my home as I was growing up, at the beginning of every meal we would hold hands around the table and repeat this blessing: Come Lord Jesus, be thou our guest; and bless what thou provided hast. The blessing came from my grandparents, who were Moravians from southeastern Germany. When I went to Germany to visit the home of the exchange student we had hosted, to a Catholic family, I found that they were saying the same prayer in German. It seems it was common all through the culture.

And still today we pray that Jesus, — unseen, of course – will be at table at our meal. It’s almost as if we had a picture on our wall of that breakfast on the beach. We are together for supper, and being gathered together we have the opportunity for a daily experience of the spirit of God, in the most ordinary and universal daily situation. Is Jesus the guest, or are we?

We put our nets down on the other side! There’s a miraculous catch of fish! We jump into the water. There’s breakfast on the beach!

3. The kindness and calling of God are inescapable.

In this particular situation on the beach at Galilee, after the disciples had shared their breakfast with him, Jesus spoke directly to Peter: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus repeated the dialogue three times, first asking Peter if he loved him and then: “feed my lambs;” “feed my sheep.”

The scholars will tell you that Jesus said it three times to remedy the three times that Peter had betrayed Jesus before his crucifixion.

I really don’t know about that. All I can see is the repeated, everyday miracle of Jesus’ assurance: Jesus underlines, steadies, and affirms the solidity of his loving relationship with Peter, — and the nurturing vocation that Peter has through that love. I see Jesus here as a stand-in for God. I see Jesus appearing after his death in the spirit. And it feels to me that he is speaking in the same spirit to me – to us –today.

So: It happens over and over in my life, and maybe in yours: I’m at sea. I’m in a boat all night working hard with nothing to show for it. I’m exhausted. I’m in trouble. I am losing, and insecure. …………. But then I find myself on this beach at sunrise, sinking my toes into the sand of the solid, continuous, love and purpose of God’s hope in this life. I don’t know much else – can’t answer the big questions – but I can feel the solidity of his concern. Do you love me? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. —- Feed my sheep. Now and tomorrow, until we are done.

That same language appears for us, in the beautiful prayer of Commendation in our Burial Office: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”

It is miraculous, this catch of fish.

I don’t know what you have on the wall of your psyche that brings hope, that stands up there like a resurrection appearance. I don’t know if you have a cross on the wall, or an inner picture of Jesus on the beach. Or a painting, or a photograph, or a vase of flowers, or something else that is special to you alone. It is a sign of hope, and you must have it. If you’re like me, you need it renewed day after day, like the sunrise after the darkest of nights.

But this morning, as we seek the dawning of this new week, I want to remind you of this miraculous catch of fish. We worked all night and put the net on the wrong side and the fish appeared anyway! Over here on the beach there is big breakfast going on! And after all the excitement, when we get a chance to talk with Jesus and with one another, he’ll tell us again: — that God’s kindness is ever-present and inescapable. Now and for every minute, there is the love of God for us, — and there is his calling to feed his sheep.

We have not, I think, seen our last Resurrection Appearance. AMEN.