Jesus’ question to the men in the boat is rather insulting: “Children, do you have any fish?” Smart alec. Jesus, a carpenter, is asking people who fish for a living if they have any fish. Only the disciples do not recognize that it is Jesus who is asking. Some man is standing on the shore at about daybreak asking fishermen if they have any fish. For goodness’ sake, they’ve been fishing all night! Even more embarrassing is the truth, and the disciples answer: “No, we don’t have any fish.” The answer is understandably short. “Have any fish?” “NO.” So this man says, throw your net on the other side. As if that will work!
And it does work.
Not much of a fish story, is it?
Except that the disciple whom Jesus loved NOW recognizes Jesus and shouts those words we love to hear: “It is the Lord!” Peter is there; he swims ashore and helps drag in the net. The net that has been empty all night now holds 153 fish, more or less. There are so many fish that the net would normally tear, but it does not. That word “children” that Jesus used was not an insult; the question was “my children, my dear ones, do you have any fish?” The words were an endearment. My children. My friends. It is Jesus behind the words, not some unknown man; it is Jesus.
Now that’s a better fish story.
This is Jesus’ fourth post-resurrection appearance to the apostles in the gospel of John (counting Mary as the first sighting and apostle). Remember? Jesus appeared to Mary on Easter morning – “I have seen my Lord” she proclaimed. Then Jesus appeared in that upper room, showed up in the room in spite of the fact that the door was locked. “Peace,” he said. “Peace be with you.” This is a peace that exists throughout the suffering that Jesus endured. Jesus’ peace is not a casual sentiment, but a spiritual gift of grace that comes even through great suffering. THAT is the peace that Jesus offers.
A week later, Jesus appears in that same room; this is the time that Thomas (the twin) sees Jesus. Thomas believes in Jesus through seeing Jesus’ wounds, those terrible holes in his body. Now, the disciples are fishing. Perhaps these career fishermen, sidetracked for awhile by a man named Jesus, have gone back to their “regular” job. They fish all night and catch nothing. Then Jesus appears, cooking on the beach, and not only helps them fill their net to the (almost) breaking point, but invites them to a meal. What a treat!
The disciples eat grilled fish and bread; surely these are dietary staples for people who make their living on the sea. Jesus cooks a meal: “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” A simple meal of everyday food has become Eucharistic meal with Jesus. Take, eat.
Jesus turns to a disciple who denied him, Peter, and asks him, “Peter, do you love me?” What does Peter reply? Our Bibles say that Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” This is where our English language falls short for our understanding of scripture. We modern American people have one word for all kinds of love. We love our friends, we love our parents; some of us (proclaim to) love ice cream. We “love” people, food, events, fishing, and hairstyles. Love is a very broad term now, but it is not so in the ancient Greek language. The sense in which Peter answers Jesus is this: “Peter do you love me?” And Peter replies, “I like you, Jesus.” Jesus asks again, “Peter, do you love me?” This time Peter says, “I like you; I like you like a brother.”
I LIKE you? How disheartened Jesus must be!
But our fish story has become a love story; Jesus is talking to someone who betrayed him, and gives that person a job to do. Jesus does not give up on us when we deny Him, betray Him, fail him. Jesus asks Peter to be faithful: “feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Feed my sheep. Jesus asks once again, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus keeps asking Peter if Peter loves him in the way that Jesus loves us. Jesus is asking Peter, “Do you love me in the same way that I love you? Do you LOVE me?” Peter tells Jesus, “Lord, you know that I like you like a brother.”
We can just about hear Jesus sigh. Jesus pursues Peter again: “Feed my sheep.” Jesus is entrusting the kingdom on earth to Peter, even though Peter cannot yet understand the type of love that “feeding the sheep of Jesus” will take. Peter tries so hard. He fails, just like we do. Who can imagine loving Jesus in the same way that Jesus loves us? Jesus is giving his disciples a new vocation. Jesus already commissioned the disciples in that upper room: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’).
Jesus gives the disciples exactly what they need: he makes himself known to them in body as the risen Lord; he makes himself known to them in breaking bread; Jesus feeds them physically and spiritually. And Jesus sends them into the world. No longer are they to fish on the sea, but they are to feed the people who follow Jesus. The disciples are supposed to feed the world with the spiritual food of Jesus Christ, to make the Lord known, to tell his story – that He lived, and died, and rose again.
We are also Jesus’ disciples. Peter, the foundation of the church, cannot comprehend loving Jesus in the way that Jesus loved him. We cannot imagine such love, either, can we? But Peter, Peter-who-betrayed-Jesus, is not cut off from mercy and grace. Jesus will use him, every bit the sinner that you and I are, to be the foundation of the church. On this rock I will build my church.
Jesus was born, lived, died, and is risen. The church has been built. We are witnesses now, in a new time. Jesus is still with us. Jesus still relies on us, you and I, to go into the world and declare His peace.
Peace be with you.
As the Father sent me, so I send you.
We can do this. We can share a meal with Jesus. Although we are many years beyond Jesus’ beach appearance to his apostles, today we experience Jesus in the Eucharistic meal. Jesus’ real presence is with us when we ask God to send God’s spirit upon our common gifts of bread and wine. Together, we “make” Eucharist. Jesus is with us in bread and wine. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Still today, Jesus knows exactly what we need to do to reap bountiful fruits of our labors. “Cast your net on the other side.” Jesus teaches us how to fish. “Feed my lambs… tend my sheep … feed my sheep.”
We have a job to do. We are to feed the world with the news of our Lord, with the reality of a love so strong that it conquers death.
The fish story IS a love story, and it is not complete without me and you.
Lord Jesus Christ, transform your church. Help us to know your voice, your presence, to have the courage to trust in you even when we think we know a better way. Help us throw doubt “to the other side,” that we might be filled with You. Help us, dear Lord, to build your church; release us from whatever may hold us back. May our story with you be a love story in which we tend your sheep, and feed them, and know you in bread and wine. In your gracious name, Amen.