In the Gospel of John 21:1-19, the scene opens on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, in the evening, in the region of Galilee. The resurrected Jesus is showing himself to more than a half dozen of his primary Disciples. Nevertheless, at first Simon Peter and the other men do not recognize him, and still in the dark (in every sense) decide to go about their accustomed work: fishing.
At daybreak, the fishermen see Jesus, who they initially thought had died on the cross but who now they see is standing on the shore. The Master reveals that he knows they haven’t caught anything all night. Then He tells them to cast their net on the “other” side of their boat; and when they do, they experience a record catch of so many fish, they can barely haul it in. Let’s call that Lesson One.
Jesus’ friend John confirms to Simon Peter that this man on the shore is indeed the crucified and resurrected Savior. Instantly, out of respect, Peter who, it seems, routinely fished naked, now puts clothes on. Lesson Two.
Once they are ashore, the Disciples see that Jesus has already prepared a fire, a breakfast of fish and some bread. Nevertheless, Jesus instructs his followers to add some of the fish they have just caught. Lesson Three.
The followers’ haul was enormous: 153 large fish. Lesson Four.
Nevertheless, the fishermen’s net “was not torn.” Lesson Five.
Jesus beckons to the Disciples to come eat with him. He holds out bread and cooked fish. Lesson Six.
The Disciples recognize their risen Christ. Jesus then has his celebrated colloquy with Simon Peter, who is the apparent leader in Jesus’ absence — their leader “pro tempore,” Lesson Seven.
Jesus asks Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” emphasizing that love for Him consists of doing His bidding: caring for all in his flocks. Lesson Eight.
So it is that we have in this passage of the Gospel of John at least eight lessons, and pointing, in that concluding colloquy, to the lessons that will follow next week, on Good Shepherd Sunday.
1. Having read widely in my doctoral studies in the field of ministerial enhancement in an age of decline, and having ministered widely (with notable, instructive failures as well as successes) in this field, I am struck by the Savior’s call, in John chapter 21, to try something new: throwing our missionary nets on “other sides” in what we do in and promoting Church.
2. In the face of the Master, we — like Simon Peter — ought to clothe ourselves appropriately, with respectful righteousness, and take on a manner of holiness — “living the life we preach about.”
3. God has already supplied our every need. Nevertheless we are called to follow the Divine example, amplifying with our efforts and deeds, showing our love, meeting the needs of the world.
4. In using the detailed description, 153 large fish, a number not otherwise sacred or special, we are asked to recognize the holy in the otherwise random aspects of our daily lives.
5. Unprecedented success should be welcomed, not shunned. Our nets of evangelism will not be torn. God will provide the wherewithal — material, spiritual and even managerial.
6. The parallel with the bread and wine of the Blessed Sacrament is obvious; but equally clear should be the fish, meeting bodily needs of the world, addressing the obligation of the righteous (to feed, quench, welcome, cover, etc.).
7. Simon Peter’s leadership is acknowledged, but only cautiously, with a three-fold request for affirmation, corresponding to Peter’s three-fold denial under stress. We likewise need to re-affirm our faithfulness and need to overcome our all too frequent faithlessness.
8. Jesus stresses the importance of “walking the walk” of the righteous, instead of simply “talking the talk.” Preach and teach the Gospel, yes — but also live it and thereby teach it as well.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain and member of the Dean’s Council and service rotas; he previously served as Bishop’s Dean/Sub-Dean for St. Thomas and St. John and vicar and assistant priest for congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.)