Reading for today: John 21: 1-19
The story we have heard this morning from John’s Gospel is the fourth resurrection appearance: Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene, and then to the disciples. It comes immediately after last week’s Gospel reading about Jesus’ appearance in the locked room, to the disciples, firstly without, and then with Thomas present. Last week we also heard (from the Acts of the Apostles) the tremendous transformation that Peter underwent after Pentecost, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, we are not yet there in the post resurrection story. This is before Jesus ascends and the Holy Spirit arrives.
The disciples are still in a state of shock and grief. I have been trying to put myself in the place of the disciples and imagine what they had been through. To do that I have been trying to think about the events of the days immediately preceding this story on the beach, through the lens of my own friendships. I invite you to try to do this for yourself as I talk through the process. If it helps you could close your eyes.
Think about a friendship group that you are part of. I have been thinking about my book group, a group of about 15 women who meet regularly with a common purpose; sharing our love of books. We have come to know each other very well, including being able to predict individual reactions to the books that we read together! In addition to our shared love of reading we have become close friends, supporting one another and sharing celebrations and griefs over the years we have been together. It is not an overstatement to say we have come to love one another. Maybe you have been blessed with a similar friendship.
Now try to imagine how you would feel if the leader of your group suddenly died, and your common purpose rendered meaningless. What terrible sorrow and trauma you would suffer.
It is not the same situation at all, but sadly one of my book group friends, Nikki, did die, most unexpectedly, a few years ago. I can clearly remember the physical jolt I felt when I read the message conveying this news. It was made worse, if that is possible, by the fact that I had thought that I was opening a mundane email from Nikki, perhaps making an arrangement to share a lift. Her husband had used her email inbox to write tell her friends what had happened. The hours which followed were terrible, as I wrestled to believe that this could have happened, and had to share the news with other members of the group.
Of course, the comparison can’t really be made between my loss and that of the disciples. I didn’t have to watch my friend arrested, tortured, mocked and led away to die. Some of the disciples did watch him die. I hadn’t betrayed my friend just before her death, as Peter had done to Christ. Although I’m asking you to try to imagine walking in the disciple’s shoes for a short way, we probably can’t really comprehend what it was like.
Then I try to imagine what I would have felt if one of my other friends had come running in to our next meeting, telling us that Nikki wasn’t dead after all! That she had died, but had miraculously returned to life. After doing this thought experiment I have new sympathy with the disciples, and with Thomas particularly, who found this all rather impossible to believe.
Imagine if Nikki had then physically appeared among our group again. I wonder if, although this is a situation that we longed for, whether we would have been able to cope? I wonder if it felt like a fresh assault on the emotions. It is so unexpected. It is literally incredible. Can it be true? Clearly it wasn’t in my case, but for the disciples…
It is perhaps not surprising that following the immediate events after Good Friday and Easter Sunday that Peter has decided to go fishing. There is comfort in the ordinary routines of life. Peter has tried being a “fisher of men”, but that whole enterprise seems to have ended in defeat, or if not defeat, extreme confusion. No wonder Peter elected to return to the place where Jesus had called him from, the Sea of Galilee , and to return to fishing for fish. It has been suggested that Peter could have been suffering from “Moral injury” ( people whose life experiences have placed their moral character under undue stress). He and the other 6 disciples mentioned have travelled about 80 miles from Jerusalem to the sea of Galilee. Maybe there was relief in leaving the physical location of recent events, and being back in a place with happier memories. Maybe they were thinking of abandoning their ministry ,and returning to their former way of life?
However even this doesn’t bring the comfort it might. They fish all night and catch nothing. In my family we have “middle-of- the- night- itis”: I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, but it makes everything looks much worse in the small hours. My mum always tells me “It’ll be better in the morning” and she is actually always right! And John 21 must be the most extreme case ever of things being better in the morning!
Imagine how dispirited the disciples must have felt after all the effort they’d made, all night, and absolutely nothing to show for it! As morning arrives, Jesus gives them a strange instruction from the beach. They don’t recognise Jesus, but still do what he says. Sometimes faith follows action, rather than action following faith. This was the case for the disciples on this wonderful morning, and this holds a lesson for us too. We sometimes need to do the action, and then, looking back, we will see faith at work where we weren’t able to discern it initially. We “just” have to trust God, and do as he says!!
Another point coming from this story is that Jesus tells them to completely change the way they are fishing…..moving the nets on the other side. What is the meaning of this for us, either personally or as a congregation. What do we need to do that is radically different?
And what amazing results come from trusting God, and following his instructions, even if we are full of doubts. As you might imagine, my attention was caught(!) by the number of fishes landed. Strangely precise at 153? In fact I suspect Glynn though she might get a whole sermon on 153….but I’m saving it for the prayer activity!! The point here is that it is a large number, and there is a suggestion that it is supposed to be large enough to be complete in some way. If the fish represent people, it can be interpreted as an illustration that Christianity is for all people/fish
Following the miraculous catching of 153 fish, and the disciples’ recognition of Jesus, he feeds them, and has a conversation
During Jesus’ conversation with Peter, Peter is given the opportunity to redeem himself: 3 times he denied Christ and 3 times he affirms his love for Christ. John 21:9 employs a Greek word that occurs only twice in the New Testament, anthrakia. We translate it, “charcoal fire”. The other place it appears is when Peter denys Jesus in the temple courts. This whole episode in today’s gospel is full of healing and rich with resonances.
Conclusion: I have 3 points
- Expect to be “fed”
- Expect the unexpected- be open
- Do all this by following the Maker’s instructions
- Jesus gave the disciples what they needed, but his instruction was unexpected, and preceeded their recognition of him/faith in him. They received what they needed after faithfully following his instructions, after putting their trust in him. We can expect to receive what we need, but we too might feel called to do something radical and unexpected.
- The results of following the instruction were amazing: we too can experience that. PMC is the process of joining in. We may find that we are instructed to do something unusual. The example in PMC literature is a church offering a home to a boxing club. That’s pretty unexpected! I wonder what we can do that is radical here in Burghfield? Not because it is radical, but because Jesus knows what is best for us, our neighbours, and all the fish in the sea; what will have the best results.
“For best results follow makers instructions!”