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. Jn 21.1‑9, 13
This story appears as an afterthought in John’s gospel. It is very likely the gospel originally finished at the end of the previous chapter. But there was clearly a need to complete the story of the lead Apostle, so this is part of a longer piece about the restoration of Peter after he betrayed and deserted Jesus.
‘After these things’. (vs1)
What things exactly? The empty tomb, Mary’s apostolic call, the appearances of Jesus, Thomas doubting and meeting Jesus, the commissioning of the disciples with the Holy Spirit. But how long after we don’t know.
The scene has changed. From the Upper Room in Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee.
Peter, Thomas and Nathaniel of Cana (remember Cana? – where Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. Jn 2).
‘I’m going fishing’ …. (3)
How are we to understand this?
The familiar reading is that these disciples are giving up. The mood is heard as listless and dispirited. What now? Going fishing was not taking a day off to think things over. It was going back to their old way of life. Back to the familiar. This is a group who have followed Jesus from the beginning, been through Easter, witnessed the empty tomb and seen the risen Jesus. But it just has not come together for them. They are giving up and going back to their old way of life. And it is true that they do enter this story with a track record of constancy of faith.
One commentator calls this a ‘scene of complete apostacy’. Another, ‘an activity undertaken in desperation’.
But there is another way of reading this story.
There is much we are not told but they were surely living with deep uncertainty about the future. But I am not sure this is a story of lost or abandoned faith – still less desperation. They are in Galilee because that is where Jesus told them to go.
What else was being asked of them?
What response would have more recognisable marks of faith upon it?
This could read this as a story of obedience beyond knowing.
They are in a very particular place – a waiting between act and act.
It is a place of faith and trust.
We all have those times.
And while they wait they need to eat and earn their keep!
They are fishermen.
Which reading fits the story best?
And which reading fits your story best in your present life and pilgrimage?
‘They caught nothing’ (3)
The old way of life is closed to them. It leaves them empty.
Sometimes guidance is not found in a way opening ahead so much as a door closing behind. There is no way back.
So here they are, somewhere between death and life, old and new – and at home in neither.
‘Jesus stands on the beach’ (4)
Not for the first time the risen Jesus is not recognised. He appears as a stranger.
He calls out – ‘lads, you’ve not caught anything have you?’ (the English translations are always more formal and polite here). They call back: ‘No!’ They must admit their emptiness – shouted rather publicly to the shore. The stranger calls back: ‘Throw your nets on the other side’.
Well there is no shortage of expert strangers in our age either – offering unsolicited strategies and techniques to church and society. And it is just as annoying.
No one is quite sure what is behind this advice. Can he see something they can’t? Has he just spotted a shoal they haven’t seen?
Some think that on those boats the steering gear was on the other side. Throw your nets there and they will get tangled. So is this something about the foolishness of faith?
‘It is the Lord’ (7)
Responding to Jesus always involves a turning – away from the familiar, and possibly away from our most settled, established experience and understanding. Not because these are wrong in themselves (though they may be). This is to do with the way we attach to them for our security. To turn means being willing to be guided from another source and will; to respond in ways that may feel foolish; to take risks; to trust and obey. I worked for some years with people exploring a calling to ministry. There was a lot of talk of ‘transferrable skills’ in the selection process. And people were coming with rich and valuable experience of life. But the call of Christ is not simply a change of job. Even our most hard-won learning and skills needs to be surrendered and redeemed. There is always a turning – away from, and towards – from the familiar to the ‘other side’.
They could have told him where to go. These are professional fishermen and who is this stranger to be giving orders?
But they do it.
Obedience beyond knowing.
We, in our own time, find ourselves in crisis, suddenly faced with the emptiness of previous, established ways of life. There is no way back for us either.
We too are faced with making new choices, of turning in strange, unfamiliar or even previously rejected ways. We must look to the other side, to new beginnings – where our life and world can begin anew.
From the shore a voice is heard.
It is a call we can trust..