By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
May 1, 2022
John 21:1–19 (ESV)
1 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 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. 4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net on 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 of the quantity of fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. 9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
I do not know how many times I read a passage of scripture and suddenly my mind is transported through time and space. If you ever wondered I have an overactive imagination. There are times while I will be sitting in prayer with scripture and during those moment, I can almost smell flowers on the air or taste bread that is being passed around a table. This week’s passage is a bit different. I was not transported into my little personal first century cinema but to my own personal history.
The past few weeks have been spiritually difficult for me. As you all know I spent a couple of months in Ukraine when I was in college. That time in my life was transformative. It was in Ukraine where God began to crack the hardness of my heart and show me that there was something more that he wanted me to do. Ukraine is important to me. I know that it is not the perfect nation, but for me it is a sacred place. I have been in conversations over the past couple of weeks and there are times where I have not been as tactful as I should have been. I may have even said words that are not becoming of a pastor. And I must confess that the peace testimony that Friends hold has been a bit shaky in my spirit, because in my mind and heart I want to make someone pay for the pain they have cause to people I love. It is irrational and I know it. But that is often the thing with emotions. God gave us emotions for a reason.
When the tanks and armored personnel carriers began to cross the boarders of Ukraine, when I began hearing about the missile strikes and the displaced civilians. It felt as if my entire life was beginning to fall apart. I began to sense my call into ministry in Ukraine. Some might think that is crazy and who knows it might be. I cannot fully explain it but while I was there, things within my life began to change. I was always a painfully quiet person, I am still quiet, but while in Ukraine the shell around me seemed to begin to crack. I began to talk more. I began to listen more. I began to interact with people, share my own faith and encourage others in theirs. I began to emerge into the person I am today.
Then the invasion happened and I began to question my own purpose in life. Everything I thought I knew about my life and the foundation I thought I built my life upon seemed to be shaking. And then I began to face other struggles. Stresses that I really cannot fully disclose but I will say that I have questioned everything I thought I knew in my life. My understanding of faith, church, my own nation and even myself. I have sat in my blue chair and wondered if my life has been a lie.
The problem with an overactive imagination is that at times you can get stuck within your mind. Why do I say this? Why do I admit to you all that I as a pastor and spiritual leader struggle? Because we all struggle. We ensnared in emotional traps and face an existential crisis that may cause us to take steps down a path we might not intend to travel.
This is what I see in today’s passage. The disciples went to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the most important feasts of the year. They went with their closest friend and the man they believed would usher in the kingdom they all longed for. They went with hope and joy. They knew that that Jesus was controversial but he offered them a different kind of life, and they wanted it with everything their being had to offer.
They went. They watched as the crowds hailed Jesus as a king. They watch as Jesus rode a donkey, and they wondered as Jesus overlooked the holy city in tears. They shouted with the crowds as they marched to the temple. They looked with confusion as Jesus washed their feet. They questioned their dedication when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him, and they wondered if it would be them.
They then watched as soldiers arrested their teacher, they looked at his broken body after Pilate and Herod decided to use cruelty as entertainment. They followed Jesus as he was wrongfully executed on the cross.
These disciples sat locked in a room wondering. Then different stories emerged. One of the women among them began proclaiming that she had seen their Lord. And this confused them. And then Jesus had visited them in the very room they were locked in. This happened again and they physically touched him, ate with him and they did not know if they were just seeing things or if it was real.
Eventually they left the holy city and they returned home. They began leaving in small groups because they did not know what was going on and did not want to attract attention. They were afraid and confused. They thought they had their life course set, and all at once everything they thought they knew toppled around them.
We look at these stories and we see them a simple news report. We do not often consider the emotions that they would be feeling. We do not even think of the people involved as actual human beings. They are just little bits of information. These were men and women. They lived lives. They experienced the same emotions and feelings we experience. And their lives can speak to our own.
Their leader was falsely accused of crimes and executed for those crimes. And they were his disciples. They had seen the risen Lord, but the facts still remain, they were potentially wanted men. They did not know what any of this meant. The confusion they experienced is far beyond anything I have faced. What does their future hold? What does all this mean?
They are back in Galilee. Commentators have a few theories about why they are back in Galilee. Some say that they have falling back into their old lifestyle. Some say they were commanded to return. I fall into the idea that they simply went home. You cannot really stay in the rented room in Jerusalem forever. But they slowly make their way to Galilee. And seven of them are together. Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee, and two others. And Peter says, “I am going fishing.”
Are they returning to their old lifestyle? Maybe. Are they turning their backs on Jesus? Possibly. We do not know. All we know is that Peter was a fisherman. His life has been turned upside down. He is going back to something he knows and understands. He is going back to the basics.
We have all been there. Life throws us for a loop and we are back at square one. In the twelve years I have been here, I have had to restart my 2nd job several times. I will begin, work my way up, then something will come up and I will have to make a decision that would require a sacrifice for church or work. And then I start over. I worked from entry level to management and went back down to entry level a few times in twelve years. I was faced with a dilemma, choose to keep your job and miss a church meeting, or change jobs so you can attend a meeting. That is a tough decision to make. But we make them. We choose to decline a promotion, we choose to move to a different location, or we choose to immigrate. We are constantly making decisions and at times those decisions bring us back to square one. We are forced to start over.
Peter is sitting at home and he finally decides, “I am going fishing.” And the others say we are going with you. Notice who are with him. Thomas, good old doubting Thomas. He had just proclaimed the divinity of Jesus, and here he is on a fishing boat. Then Nathaniel, John has not mentioned this guy since the beginning of his gospel account. Nathaniel was the man that Phillip came to get and Jesus proclaimed in John 1:47, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” Why is it these seven?
It is as if everything is restarting. We have the fisherman, the no names, the doubter, and the guy barely mentioned. It is as if they are going back to the initial calling. They go out and they fish all night and then there is this guy on the shore calling out to them. “Hey children (or friends) do you have even a morsel of fish?” It is almost hilarious if you stop and think about it for a bit. I wonder if any of them felt as if they were experiencing a glitch in the matrix. The seven are probably laughing in their frustration. No, they say. Not even a bite. Then this man says, “why don’t you throw your net on the right side.”
This scene has played out before. Early in the ministry of Jesus these men, at least some of them, had been in this very boat before having a similar conversation. The previous conversation played out a bit differently. Previously Peter did a little arguing, “I have been out all night and have caught nothing but for you I will do it.” This time, there is not a single discussion, they just do it. Why?
They have been working all night and they know that the fish just are not where they thought they would be, but they throw out the net. They humor the man on the shore because what is the worst that could happen? They either catch fish or not. They can then come to shore and have a little chat with this guy and laugh together. But something happens, the net is full. The beloved disciple, who I believe is John, recognizes the scene. This has happened before. He turns to Peter and says it is the Lord.
Then without a moment of thought, Peter grabs his clothes and dives off the boat, leaving everyone else struggling with the net. He swims to the shore. The funny thing is in the wording. There is no indication whatsoever that Peter’s rush to get to the shore got him to shore any faster than if he would have stayed in the boat to help bring in the net.
I want us to just consider the scene and consider your own life. How many times have we faced a life changing challenge that made us feel as if we were starting all over again? How do we approach it?
The disciples returned to their old life, and many have said that they were wrong in doing so. But I want us to think about something. They were changed. The response that Peter gave from the first miraculous catch to the second is different. He is less arrogant. He is more apt to humor those around him. Did you notice that? He is no longer the same person he once was. He is still very much Peter; we see that when he jumped into the sea without thinking twice. And you almost get the feeling that even though Peter left the six other disciples without help, they were more gracious. John, or the beloved disciple, told Peter who it was knowing full well what would happen.
When they get to shore, they see that Jesus has already prepared a fire and started cooking a fish. He asks them to bring some more from the catch. This tells us that they are real fish, 153 real fish. That is oddly specific. It is so odd that several people have made attempts to explain why it is so specific.
Ammonius a theologian from Alextandria in the 6th century says: Peter drags the dragnet with the others, bringing the catch to Christ. The hundred can be understood to mean the fullness of the Gentiles. The fifty refers to the elect of Israel who have been saved. And the three set one’s mind on the revelation of the holy Trinity, to whose glory the life of the believers who were caught in the dragnet is naturally connected. Fragments on John 637.
Augustine of Hippo says: When to the number of 10, representing the Law, we add the Holy Spirit as represented by 7,25 we have 17. And when this number is used for the adding together of every serial number it contains, from 1 up to itself, the sum amounts to 153. For if you add 2 to 1, you have 3 of course. If to these you add 3 and 4, the whole makes 10, etc. … All therefore who are sharers in such grace are symbolized by this number, that is, are symbolically represented.
Jerome, the man that first translated scripture into Latin makes the claim that they caught one of every type of known fish, which he believes represents the redemption of all creation. Each of these ideas are remarkably interesting, while also most likely being completely bogus. Why would John write the number? Because they were wanting to split them equally. It is still odd that they would be so specific with the number. This is where the symbolism comes into play.
The disciples returned to their livelihoods. There is nothing wrong with that. Working for a living is an honorable thing. When the voice of the Lord spoke, they responded. They exhibited their faith. Everything was falling down around them yet they still listened to the call and responded. Jesus asked them if they had any fish. When he asked that the word means if they had a bite, he did not necessarily ask if they had caught their livelihood but if they had caught something to eat at that moment. Jesus asks knowing full well they had not caught anything and that he had already cooked their breakfast.
They responded out of faith. They did the work even though it did not make sense in the moment. They looked at their broken life and they continued to move forward. And the result was that they were given an abundance. There were seven of them and the catch if divided equally would result in approximately twenty-one fish for each plus six to cook now. Jesus had one fish already on the grill so each of them would have taken home twenty-one fish and eaten one. God will provide.
As they ate, Jesus takes Peter off to the side to talk to him. He speaks to Peter because he knows that Peter is struggling more than most. Peter loves Jesus and wants more than anything to follow and serve. Yet, in Peter’s mind he is a failure. He set out to serve and yet in the time of greatest need, Peter denied Jesus, just like Jesus said he would. He failed, and yet Jesus still blesses him. This tells us a great deal about hope and grace. God does not expect us to be perfect, he only wants us to live for him in obedient faith. God will provide for our needs if we trust him. If we listen and respond to his word, we will realize that he has provided even more than what was necessary. I am not saying that God will bless us because we have given to the church. I am not promoting a health and wealth theology. What I am saying is that when we trust Him, when we respond and walk in faith God will provide. Even when we stumble and make a fool out of ourselves and him, God will provide. Even if we feel as if we are a complete and utter failure, God will provide in some way.
We might not notice it nor understand how but God will provide. In the past twelve years, I have had to restarted my career outside the church four times. I sat at home wondering how we could possibly stay when I could barely pay for gas to get to work. It has not been a walk in the park, but I have never been without.
Paul teaches us in his epistles to be content with what we have. He says that he will praise God when he has plenty and when he is in need. He will praise God in health and in illness, in his freedom and in his bondage. It is our attitude that is important. It is where we place our faith that is important. Is our faith placed on ourselves and is our attitude focused on our own needs and desires, or are we focused on Christ? Peter went fishing because they needed to eat, but when they came up empty and he heard the voice of God he responded even though he did not realize who was speaking. We have great opportunities all around us. Maybe God is calling you to give it a shot. Maybe he is calling you to take a step of faith. What would it hurt? Well, we might end up back at square one. No, we have more experience and a different perspective. And we have a greater story, and hope.
Before we moved back to Kansas City, my wife Kristy was finishing her Fine Arts degree at Wichita State University. She was working late into the night trying to get her final project completed. She had built this amazing statue constructed out of ceramic triangles put together in various formations. This all symbolized the various aspects and experiences that make each one of us uniquely who we are.
She was placing all these pieces together, and eventually it began to take on a form that would resemble a person. This thing was nearly as tall as she is and it was looking amazing. She had one piece to complete the structure, she needed to put on what would be the head. As she was putting this one piece in place, she did not have it centered properly and the adhesive we were using to hold the pieces together failed causing everything to come crashing down. An entire semester’s worth of work was now a pile of ceramic shards, and the final presentation was in less than six hours. What do we do? We have failed. Life has crumbled around us.
Jesus took Peter aside and asked him “Do you love me?” He asked him this and Peter answered until he came to the revelation. God does not require perfection he wants us to abide in him and grow from that. Kristy’s symbolic life had crumbled to the ground and all we could do is sweep it into a pile and take what came. A couple of weeks later she had an art show the weekend before we moved. People walked through her exhibit that was an abstract conceptual self-portrait and some who visited were moved to tears as they began to understand what she was saying through her art. Everything was in shards mere days before and yet at that exhibition the triangular structure that had fallen was present for all to see. A different approach was taken and different materials were used but the message was still there.
Peter thought he failed. Peter felt as if he was being forced to return to the life he had before. And Peter was willing to accept that. But he heard that voice. And he threw the net. He got a taste once again of the hope he once knew. And then Jesus his Lord and his God, took him aside and asked do you love me? And he asked this until Peter knew that the only thing that really matters is to Love God, Embrace the Holy Spirit, and to Live the love of Christ with others. That is our mission. That is our call. It is not about being perfect but helping one another through another day. Helping each other find the strength to begin again, through and with Jesus. Our mission is to listen to Jesus as he calls out to us, “Follow Me!”
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