I’m Going Fishing – Sunday Message on John 21:1-13 & The Great Commission

Shanna Terese Bude preaches at Bristol/Wesley Chapel United Methodist Churches on April 14th, 2024 on John 21:1-13

Summary: Sometimes, you just have to go fishing… In this passage, John 21, Peter and the other disciples wait for Jesus in Galilee. Unsure of the future or what to do next, Peter decides to be useful, return for the evening to something he knows he can do well, the catching of fish, which will at least feed someone. In times of uncertainty or doubt, there is nothing wrong with just falling back on what we know we can do, no matter how insignificant. Don’t just sit around waiting for God to show up. Do something – any little thing you can – to make this world just a little bit better, to reach people for God one fish, one meal, one soul at a time. Just do it, and see what happens next!

Centering Prayer:

This morning’s Call to Worship is based on Psalm 139

Lord, you have searched us and you know us. You know everywhere we will go, everything we will do. You know us completely. What can separate us, Lord, from your Spirit? What could possibly hide us from you? If we ascend into heaven, you are there. If we lay down among the dead, you are there. Even in the places no one has ever gone, in the depth of the sea or the vast reaches of outer space – even there, you will be our guide and our support, for we are your creation. We will praise you, For marvelous are your works. Search us, O God, and know our hearts, our fears, and our anxieties. Purge us of all wicked things, and lead us in the way everlasting.

Michael Card has a fantastic musical version of this Psalm. Check it out!

Message

Message Text

So after all the Easter hysteria in Jerusalem, all this “Jesus’s body is gone!” and “Oh my goodness, what happened, where’s Jesus?” and then Jesus himself coming and going through locked doors, and walking with people for miles down roads, then vanishing into thin air again, etc… After all of it has settled down, and everyone’s sort of thinking straight again… A group of disciples including Peter head off to Galilee.

And this, like the resurrection story, is a place where the witness of just one Gospel is incomplete. Where you have to put the pieces together from all the Gospels, all the witnesses, to get a full picture of what’s going on. Because not from the Gospel of John, but from other Gospels we know that Jesus or the angel or the two angels—someone on resurrection Sunday mentioned that Jesus was ultimately headed back to Galilee, and the disciples should meet him there. Which makes a certain amount of sense, because from all the Gospels, including John, we know that most of these men are from Galilee—including Jesus himself. Jesus grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, his mother’s hometown. And we also know that most of Jesus’s actual ministry, his traveling around visiting villages and preaching, happened in Galilee. And in fact, a good amount of it centered around this particular body of water, the Lake or Sea of Tiberius as it is called here in John—It is a Lake, to be clear. An inland, freshwater lake—just a large and important one for the people living in the area.

This Sea of Tiberius, or Tiberian Sea, is also known as Lake Genneserat. And also—better—known as the Sea of Galilee.

It is the place where you may remember in various Gospels Jesus first meets these men, in their fishing boats, with their fathers and their families, carrying on the family trade as everyone, themselves included, just assumed they would, forever. It is the place where Jesus first disrupts their lives completely. Turns their entire futures and every expectation they ever had in life upsidedown—“Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”—remember that call?

And now, with their lives and all their expectations of life and Jesus so disassembled and confused at this point, to this place, these men return—to the beginning, the origin story. To meet Jesus again.

And at a certain point, probably waiting for Jesus to show up again and not knowing what to do until his does, Peter—who is and kind of always has been the de facto leader of this group—looks up at the other disciples and says, “You know what, I’m just gonna go fishing.”

And the others kind of nod their heads and say, “Yeah, fishing. It’s been a while. Let’s go…”

You know, it’s interesting that at this point, I’ve heard so many sermons and interpretations—heard it literally taught in some of my seminary classes—that this is a passage about Peter et al giving up, just throwing in the towel and going back to their old lives and their old careers—abandoning the call to ministry. And so, then Jesus has to show up later in the passage and set them back on course.

The thing is, that just doesn’t actually make sense.

I think we came up with that interpretation—if I had to guess—I think it’s because we like to see Peter as a mess up. I think it’s somehow comfortable for us, in this day and age, by the wisdom of this age, to see the founder of Christianity—so to speak, at least—the first Bishop of Rome—first Pope, so to speak—as this bumbling buffoon who can never get anything right and constantly has to be shoved back on course—drag into thinking or doing the right thing.

But that’s not who Peter is in the Gospels or in Acts. Peter is the good student. He’s a good disciple and a good leader. He’s the over-eager student sometimes. He puts his foot in his mouth a lot. He’s a human being who makes some—totally understandable—mistakes. But overall, he’s put into the position of leadership for a reason.

And I dwell on this point because it has unfortunately become typical. We do this kind of character warping to more than just Peter. At some point, the Church decided we needed to make the characters in the bible “relatable” to people. And putting aside the questions of what that even means and why we would ever think we even needed to do that in the first place—you know, that’s a whole other question… More problematic, though, is how we went about doing it. Because, at some point, we got it into our heads that relatable means a person who messes up all the time.

And so we started highlighting and really exaggerating the mistakes that these famous bible characters make—then also the famous characters in Christian history after the bible. We started not only highlighting the mistakes, but making sure to present the worst possible version of those mistakes as fact, when really something, yeah, bad but less sinister is probably what happened. We really started dwelling on this, in our Sunday school classes, our youth retreats, our seminaries—my teachers in various church programs growing up and now my generation in the church—we have come to dwell so heavily on these things we have to apologize for as Christians in history, on how all of our leaders since bible times have been either complete idiots—like Peter here—or straight up horrible people. When that, first of all, just isn’t reality and the more you learn about history the more anti-reality it becomes. But also, it defeats the original purpose of it all—to make these people and their stories relatable. I mean, how many of us actually walk through life as screwups, or idiots? How many of us actually aspire to be like that? How many of us actually think stories like that should be the role models for our children? So yeah, of course we started taking the bible out of our churches, and teaching our kids about other things in Sunday school, because once you reduce all the characters in the bible to baffoons and murderers and liars—no, there’s nothing left to want to read about, let alone study. And it’s truly tragic, because these used to be characters what we looked up to, people who weren’t perfect but who tried to be—who inspired us to try to be good. These stories used to be inspiring, and they should be still.

Peter here, in John, is not giving up. He’s not just throwing in the towel and going back to his own life because it’s easy and this call to ministry thing is hard and he just wants to be a simple fisherman again. There’s a few reasons that interpretation doesn’t even make sense.

First, in the Gospel of John, Jesus never does the whole calling the disciples out of their fishing boats thing. That’s not how Jesus meets Peter in the Gospel of John—or any of the disciples. That’s not what they’re doing when they meet Jesus in John. So, aside from the question of who had it right, or how might they all have had it right, just from different angles… What matters right now, is that Peter going back to his old pre-disciple life here probably just is not the message that John had in mind when he wrote this story.

On that same note, the group who goes fishing with Peter here includes Thomas and Nathanael—who are not identified as fishermen in any canonical Gospel. So is this even them returning to their old lives—or were they something else.

And finally, the Gospels that do identify Peter and his brother Andrew and the two sons of Zebedee as fishermen are also the Gospels that tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection. Which means, the Gospels that might even suggest Peter is just going back to his old life by returning to Galilee and becoming a fisherman—the Gospels that would even suggest that are the Gospels like Mark, which we also read this morning, and which tell us that the disciples are just doing what Jesus told them to do by returning to Galilee. Jesus is the one who told them to go back to the beginning here. They’re only there to meet Jesus.

Peter is not giving up by going fishing this day—he’s doing something that should be inspiring. He’s moving on. Going on. Doing what he can do. He has a choice that afternoon—just sit around after lunch waiting for Jesus to show up… Or do something useful. Something he’s good at. Something that feeds people.

We come full circle in Jesus’s story not just geographically, but thematically, once again. Back to this idea of home and food. This connection between feeding the body and feeding the soul which is so critical to the Gospel story. Jesus’s miracles in the Gospels center around this theme of either healing the body or feeding the body. And like the two on the road to Emmaus—we talked about last week—the disciples today recognize Jesus in the miracle of food, of fish finally being caught. And their time together that day is centered, once again, around a meal.

There is some suggestion, that Communion, Eucharist, this ritual we preserve in our churches to this day, which we partook in again last week, originally included fish along with the bread and the wine. And that idea comes from these miracles involving fish in the New Testament, the use of the fish symbol in early Christianity—Early Christians would draw a fish outside their meeting places, it’s one of the ways they would identify each other. I think there are also some vague references to this in early Christian documents. And then some Early Christian art, which shows a meal including bread, drink, and fish.

Personally, I don’t think the ritual itself ever included fish. Because the ritual of Communion is established quite early in the Gospels as involving bread and wine—and then that ritual does not change in form at all for two thousand years. But it is pretty well established historically that Early Christian meetings, the precursors to our modern worship services, were based around an actual meal, a dinner. And part of that dinner involved this ritual blessing of the bread and wine, but there were other foods at the dinner. And most often, one of those foods was probably fish—because the ancient Mediterranean diet was heavily fish.

So this association that does exist in the Gospels between Jesus and his ministry and miracles and fish—it’s an important symbol, grounded again in this reality of feeding people. A symbol that carries on all through way through to the end of our passage for this morning—Jesus’s final instruction for Peter, the purpose of his ministry on earth, the purpose of the church founded by Peter, this eager student whom we are supposed to look up to. The instruction: Feed my sheep.

That’s what we’re here for. That is and always has been the whole point. To feed the world. To do what we can—even if it’s just going fishing this afternoon—what we can to make the world a better place, and by doing that, bring the world back to God, one fish, one meal, one soul at a time.

That’s what Peter is demonstrating in this whole story—the willingness to do that. The willingness, after everything, to keep trying, to not wait around and just hope something will happen, but to get back in that boat and go do what it is that he can do, even when it seems like going backward, even when it seems so far removed from the ministry that he’s supposed to have—according to someone—and even when, for an entire night, it doesn’t seem to be working. To just keep at it, because there’s nothing more worthwhile to be doing anyway. And the willingness to try something new, to throw the net onto the other side of the boat, when that opportunity or necessity appears.

A lot has been said and written about the last section of the story here—How Jesus asks Peter this question, Do you love me, three times. How Peter has to answer three times. How the word translated “love” here is actually two different words in Greek, one meaning “love,” the other which could be translated as “I am your friend/are you my friend.” How Peter gets annoyed at having to answer three times. How this all harkens back to Peter denying Jesus three times from earlier in the Holy Week/Crufixion story…

Maybe someday I’ll preach a sermon on all that. But for today, to close before we go into our next song in a few minutes here, I just want to highlight the fact that it is three times. Three questions. There answers. A pattern of three.

There’s something about the number three, about saying something three times, putting a point into a three-part pattern… They actually teach this in writing classes, in copywriting—also known as advertising… The basic structure of all ads is: presentation of the problem, amplification of the problem, presentation of the solution. All ads. That’s how they do it. That’s how they get you to buy stuff. And even when you know that’s what they’re doing—it still works. Narratives do the same thing. Every story follows the same basic pattern: Beginning, middle, end—or, fancier terminology—inciting incident, climax, resolution. Every piece of non-fiction writing, every essay, persuasive argument—court case—same pattern: Introduction/opening statement, body/presentation of evidence, conclusion/closing statement. This is world-wide. Every story. Every argument. This is how the human brain works. In patterns of three. Repeating something three times. It really is the magic number. All the evidence draws that conclusion. We drive our points how in patterns of three.

And I guess my point in all that this morning is, when you find patterns of three in the bible—first, they will probably just draw your attention naturally—but if you do notice them consciously, pay extra attention.

Jesus drives this point home, here, in a pattern of three: Love me, take care of my people. Be my friend, take care of my people. That’s what it’s all about. In Matthew today we had the great commission, Go into all the world, preach the Gospel, make disciples (that’s a pattern of three, by the way)… It’s the same thing that Jesus says to Peter here, except his words to Peter are about how we accomplish that great Commission. How do we make disciples? We feed them.

We be examples of what following Jesus means, examples that people can see, examples that inspire as we have been inspired by the stories of those who have gone before, like Peter. People who walk in the light, and just keep moving forward in the light—the type of person we are about to sing of in our next song. You know, the more I read this story at the end of John, the more I see the entire story as a parable illustrating Peter’s answer to Jesus here—the answer that yes, I am your friend, I will follow, I will continue to follow, from the start, back to the start, and beyond: because, yes, “I want to walk as a child of the light,” the title of our next song.

Closing Prayer:

Lord God, you have given to us many gifts: food and home; family and friends; work and rest. In every season of our lives, you have stood beside us, waiting on the shore, our guide and our friend. Continue to guide us now into the future. Bless these gifts that we return to you today as signs of our commitment to continue our work with you in this world, to feed your sheep, as you lead us in the way everlasting. Amen.

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