by Daniel Harrell
I’m continuing my survey of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in John’s gospel this Eastertide with a fish story. Moving to Minnesota, I knew I had landed in a fisherman’s paradise when the program on talk radio as I drove across the state line was about catching muskies. By contrast, a journalist I knew in Massachusetts once published an op-ed rant on catch-and-release fishing. He wrote of being appalled that people take thrill in “dragging a fish through the water by a barbed hook in its mouth…. No one would throw Fido a Milk-Bone with a hook hidden inside and then, when the barb had pierced his mouth and he was trying violently to shake it loose, drag him to a place where he couldn’t breathe. Anyone who did such a thing would be condemned for his brutality. Is it any less brutal to do it to a fish? … any sport that depends for its enjoyability on forcing an animal to fight for its life is wrong. Wrong for what it does to the fish. Even more wrong for what it does to the fisher.”
Man, I wish I’d had this article in hand as a kid whenever my Dad would drag me out of my bed at 2:30 in the morning to go fishing with him. My father is as avid an angler as they come. I sometimes wonder whether the main reason my parents had me was so my dad would have a fishing partner. That’s what he wrote in my baby book. One single sentence on the day I was born: “Now I have a fishing partner.” It was brutal: The getting up in the dark, the liver pudding sandwiches for lunch, the tangled lines, the hooks in trees, the too-often meager results, the sunburn, the mosquitoes, the numbing boredom, the obsessive insistence of trying just one more spot before quitting, the giddiness my Dad expressed at even the slightest nibble. Dad loved just being out on the water while all I wanted to do was drown myself in it. He eventually got fed up with my whining. So he and mom had my brother. Of course my brother turned out to love fishing just like my dad and they’ve been best friends ever since. Not that I’m bitter.
I was reading in the Star Tribune this week about bow fishing—how guys go after carp with a bow and arrow. That might have been cool. Though down South we probably would have just used shotguns.
As I got older I grew to appreciate fishing’s positive effect on my father—whatever that meant for the fish. When life’s stresses and strain started to weigh on him, he’d respond by simply saying: “I’m going fishing.” He found incredible solace and strength on the lake—as I imagine many in this congregation are doing as I speak. Going fishing provided some perspective with which to face life’s troubles. You obviously see where I’m going with this. Simon Peter and his disciple buddies were fishermen too—though for them it was an occupation if not also an obsession. The stress and strain Peter experienced over the course of that first Holy Week were starting to weigh on him—the fear, the guilt, the bewilderment, the amazement. Thus in verse 3 of our passage, Peter announced; “I’m going fishing.” Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and two other disciples announced that they were going too.
Simon Peter was fishing when Jesus first found him and called him to follow. Jesus was preaching on the beach and noticed Peter and his friends minding their boats. As the crowd increased, Jesus imposed upon Peter to allow him use of his boat so to address the multitudes that pressed him toward the water. After the sermon was done, Jesus turned to Peter and suggested he cast his nets one more time. Peter replied that the day’s results had been nil; nevertheless, perhaps the rabbi knew of an untapped honey hole. Few fisherman can resist one more cast. Besides, what could it hurt? Why not do it if only to appease this popular preacher. But then the nets filled to almost breaking capacity, and Peter realized this preacher to be no petty parson. He said, “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” To which Jesus responding, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” And with that, Peter stopped fishing for fish.
That is until here after the resurrection. You’ll remember the risen Christ first appeared to his disciples as they hid behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish religious leaders. Matthew suggests that they had been accused of stealing Jesus’ body. The extra-canonical Gospel of Peter reports that they “were being sought by the authorities as malefactors and as wishing to set fire to the Temple.” But as I mentioned last Sunday, I bet they were afraid of Jesus too. During their master’s greatest need, they had been cowards and traitors. If Jesus was strong enough to conquer death, what was he going to do to them? No wonder they locked the door. Yet when Jesus popped in, he pronounced peace rather than doom upon their treachery. Moreover, he breathed his Spirit on them and sent them out to be apostles.
And yet eight days later they were still hiding. Perhaps this was for Thomas’ sake—hoping recreating the scene would compel Jesus to make another appearance. Whatever the reason, at least they no longer tried to hide now. But unless being an apostle means something other than what it meant (namely, one who is sent to fish for people), going back to fishing for fish is hardly what we would have expected these Spirit-infused disciples to be doing at the end of John’s gospel.
Now this may have to do with the way every Christian reacts to what fishing for people implies; namely, the E-Word. Evangelism. Talking about your faith to unbelievers. Catching heathen for the kingdom. Granted, dropping a net on unbelieving and unsuspecting friends usually comes off more like dropping a bomb. I know that whenever I tell people I attend church, never mind that I work at one, the responses I get can range from quizzical curiosity to outright hostility. Of course, Jesus said that’s how it would be. At the same time, it is odd that we interpret catching people as evangelism since to catch a fish is to kill it (first century fishing was not yet a sport). Then again, it was Jesus who said that “The kingdom of God is like a net let down into the lake that caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Maybe this was why the disciples went back to fishing for fish. Judgment Day scenarios can be pretty scary—even when they don’t occur as predicted. Others suggest that the disciples were just hungry—they did have to eat. If they were anything like my father, they may have needed that mental break, some male-bonding time, some peace and quiet. However, since fishing was their former occupation, chances were that they simply went back to the only thing they knew how to do without Jesus. True, he had given them his Spirit, but it must have been only a partial supply. You can’t imagine the disciples after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost behaving this way.
It would be easy to chalk up what looks like apostolic reticence to pre-Pentecost realities were the same reticence not so prevalent among us who stand on Pentecost’s other side. Endued with the fullness of Christ’s Spirit just like the disciples at Pentecost, many of us still resemble this gospel version. Oh there are some days when you’re feeling fully inspired—juiced and fervently unashamed, evangelistically bold, sacrificially generous and prayerfully diligent: You know, like when you’re fresh back from a mission trip, or after a powerful piece of music at church, a great Bible study, a fabulous sermon. But life always finds its way back to the usual. Back to the real world. Back home. Back to the old job.
Was this why Jesus showed up on the beach? I imagine his arms waving as he tried to get his disciples’ attention (though I always wonder why he didn’t just walk out there). The disciples squinted but couldn’t quite make out who it was. The stranger yelled out, “Had any luck boys?” “Naw,” they yelled back. “Well,” the stranger yelled, “try the right side of your boat!” Note that Jesus did not say, “What are you doing back at your old job?” or “Get out of that boat and get busy converting people!” If they were shirking their responsibility, Jesus did not condemn them for it.
Since no fisherman can ever resist one more cast, the disciples took the stranger’s recommendation, tossed their nets starboard and—deja vu—they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. John put two and two together and said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” The impulsive and elated Peter immediately—to the confusion of all who’ve read this since—threw his clothes on (he’d been stripped down to his shorts for work) and then threw himself into the water. Perhaps he hoped he wouldn’t sink this time. Whatever the reason, there’s no confusion as to the direction he swam. Peter made a trout-line for Jesus.
Jesus had some fish frying already, along with some bread. He suggested the disciples add a few of the fish they just caught to the pan. So Peter hauled the whole net-full ashore—153 fish in all, we read. And Jesus said to them, “Come have breakfast.”
Since John’s gospel has a propensity for shrouding the profound within the pedestrian, scholars and preachers have never been able to resist trying to sort out the symbolism. For instance, why were there seven disciples present? Seven is emblematic of perfection and completion. John also makes a point that the nets did not tear. The word tear is the Greek word schism. Could that be a comment on church unity? And what about serving bread with the fish? Jesus declared himself the bread of life. There’s the Last Supper and bread as Christ’s body broken, and the feeding of 5000 where bread and fish make up a miracle. Early Christians used the mark of the fish as a sign of their identification with the risen Lord. Fish spelled out in Greek is an acrostic meaning “Jesus Christ God’s Son and Savior.” Fish adorn bumpers of Christian’s cars in our time. One blew past me in traffic and cussed at me just the other day.
And what about that number 153? St. Jerome argued that 153 was the number of fish species Greek zoologists ascertained existed in the entire world. 153 thus meant the church was to catch people from every nation. St. Augustine adopted a mathematical approach speculating that because 153 is the sum of the numbers 1-17 consecutively, the number 17 was therefore important. Were there not 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Spirit? 9 choirs of angels and 8 beatitudes? 10 Lords-a-leaping and 7 swans a-swimming (OK, so that wasn’t Augustine). There are plenty of other ideas—but it starts getting a little ridiculous. If your tendency is to get bogged down in such deciphering, please don’t miss the main point of this story; namely, that Jesus showed up. The crucified dead and buried Jesus in his resurrected flesh. We should never grow so accustomed to this that we take for granted its enormity. As you may remember the apostle Paul writing in 2 Corinthians, “the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us all into his presence. This is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
On the other hand, don’t get so caught up in the resurrection’s enormity that you lose the simplicity of this story. Jesus showed up on the beach and cooked breakfast for his friends. He could have walked out to the disciples or even floated out to them on clouds surrounded by angels if he wanted to—but I suspect he’s reserving the big splash for later.
In the meantime, Jesus’ ordinary appearance encourages us to keep on the lookout for him, not only visibly in the eschatological sense, but in the ways he shows up in the usual places of our ordinary lives —especially on those days when we’re feeling more like gospel disciples than Pentecost apostles.
I finally decided to give fishing another go a few years back. A good friend invited me to join in on a little excursion off Cape Cod in search of striped bass. My gut reaction was to make up some excuse—visions of my tortured childhood dancing in my head. But instead I determined to overcome my childish ways and “be a man.” I still had to get up at 2:30 AM. Yet gratefully, there were no liver pudding sandwiches, no trees in which to snag my line, no mosquitoes and no numbing boredom—probably due to the fact that I spent most of the day throwing up into a bucket. Here was something which I had never experienced in all of those early mornings out on the lake with my father—seasickness. My friend chartered a small skiff with which we navigated the heavy swells of Buzzard’s Bay, not unlike riding one of a roller coaster at the State Fair for six hours after eating six pronto pups. What began as mild dizziness soon gave way to stomach-churning disorientation. My noble attempt at “being a man” now looked downright idiotic. Why did I subject myself to something I was so bad at? Somehow between appointments with the bucket, wanting to camouflage my humiliation, I did manage to throw out my line. Suddenly as I was reeling in, the line jerked. I yanked and accidently hooked this sweet monster of a bass which ended up being the catch of the day; accomplished, my friend remarked, with one of the lowest catch per cast ratios he’d ever seen. We grilled it and ate it that night on the beach. Delicious.
Now while my big fish story should not be confused with the disciples’ miraculous catch, it does provide one more parabolic reminder when it comes to keeping on the lookout for Jesus. You might want to pay particularly close attention during those times in your life when troubles come and you’re called on to do the things that are hard to do.
Just last Sunday, you’ll remember Hanneke Cassel and Chris Lewis playing fiddle and guitar as part of our worship. What you may not know was how we went home after church last Sunday night to discover that Chris’ parents and family home were in the path of the
massive, historic tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri. We glared at the television and scoured the web for information as Chris frantically tried to locate his parents. He found them, thankfully, but finding Jesus in all the wreckage seemed less likely. As always, the question most instinctively ask was where was Jesus before the tornado hit? It’s a needless question. Obviously the Lord is not in the business of preventing natural disasters these days. He is, however, still in the resurrection business, and as such he’s been showing up all over Joplin. The vast outpouring of help and prayer has humbled Chris and his family. As difficult as their situation is, theirs is the story of thousands of others all around them. Consequently, a beautiful solidarity has emerged, an eagerness to be involved in each others lives; a desire to love and care in ways that would not have otherwise happened. As one Lutheran pastor wrote, “There is incredible loss and sorrow, and the church is here to witness as the body of Christ with the people of Joplin.”
The same has happened in North Minneapolis following the tornado that hit there last Sunday. Many of you have already given and pitched in to help. Christian organizations Urban Homeworks and the Salvation Army have been inundated with gifts and offers to the point of having to turn help away. It feels ironic that people come together this way only during times of hardship and tragedy. But that’s how resurrection has always worked. [And that’s why the adjectives out of so many mouths on the other side of these tragedies nevertheless have been words like “blessing” and “grace” and “hope” and “thanksgiving.” Without a trace of irony but with every trace of redemption, Chris’ parents went so far as to say that the love and compassion they’ve received “has blown them away.” “This is all for your sake,” Paul wrote, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
[To send a note or aid to Chris’ parents, you can do so at this address: Don Lewis/PO Box 1325/ Joplin, MO 64802]