Gone Fishing

This post contains the sermon preaching on April 10, 2016, at The Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.  The sermon is titled:  “Gone Fishing” and is based on John 21:1-19.

You can see the video read the manuscript below.

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Gone Fishing    -0-   John 21:1-19


Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.


Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.


He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”


“No,” they answered.


He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.


Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.


Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.


When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”


“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”


Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”


Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”


He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”


Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”


The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”


Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”


Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”


I have lived in two coastal Virginian communities: the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore.  In both locations, the central profession was waterman.  A waterman is basically a commercial fisherman – a person who makes their livelihood along the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.


These are not your weekend hobbyist.  These are not the fisherman sitting in a boat, with a cooler of beer, casting lines, eager to catch “the big one.”  These are professionals.  They labor long before dawn and well after dark, casting nets in the anticipation of bringing in a big catch that can be sold to earn money to pay the bills.


Watermen are special people – sturdy, strong, simple, and straight-forward.   They have to be like that.  Being a waterman is a tough career, requiring courage, strength, and a strong work ethic.  There is no time for playing around – at least not when you are out on the water.


I have known several watermen – both in the congregation’s I served and the communities where I lived.  There was something inside them that drew them to the water, to the lifestyle.


Many had tried their hands at other professions.  They had too.  The water did not always produce the catch needed to pay all the bills.  Many tried farming.  Some were mechanics.  Others opened bait and tackle shops and other kinds of businesses.  Yet when the fishing season was in full swing, all other pursuits were aside to get out on the water.  It you saw the “gone fishing” signs in shop windows, it wasn’t because they were too lazy work.  It was because they were following their central pursuit, getting out on the water to cast and hoist their nets.


You see that sort of mentality in today’s scripture lesson.  You see the disciple’s reverting back to form.  You see them stepping back to do what was most familiar.  They were waterman.  They were professional fishermen.  They made their living working on the Sea of Galilee.  When they felt like a failure making other pursuits, they would grab their nets, board their boats, and cast out into the waters.


John’s Gospel has told us about two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  The first was on Easter Sunday in the upper room.  The second was a week later, in the same location.  This was the occasion of Jesus conversation with Thomas who had missed Jesus appearance on Easter Sunday.


Today’s scripture tells us about a third appearance.  Here’s how it is introduced.  John 21:1 reads:


“After these things, Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias”


The phrase “after these things” is pretty vague. It might have been a fairly long time frame. It seems like it was long enough for the disciples to get a little discouraged. It seems like it was long enough for them to question their sanity. “Did we REALLY see Jesus, or was it some sort of group hallucination? Will we ever see him again?”


“I’m going fishing!” Peter said.


He was reverting to form; going back to what was familiar.  He shut the windows, locked the doors, and put the “gone fishing” sign on the doorknob.


Fishing was Peter’s “security blanket.”  It was a reflection of his self-sufficiency rather God-dependence.  Fishing was what Peter did to try and manage and control his life.


“I’m going fishing.” OR “I’m going back to fishing.”


He was not alone. Many of the others responded, “We’ll join you!”


Here’s the problem. There comes a time when the old ways no longer satisfies. There comes a time when all your efforts to manipulate your environment end up in failure. Notice the text:


“They immediately went out, and entered into the boat. That night, they caught nothing” (John 21:3)


It wasn’t just empty nets. It was empty hearts. Their passions were waning. The cross and resurrection had come and gone, yet still they felt unfilled and unfulfilled.


So they went back to what they knew best (fishing) and even that ended in failure.  They caught noting.  If fishing had just been a pastime hobby – that would have been one thing.  They could have sat in the boat, cast a line, and cleared their heads in the silence and stillness of the early morning.  The catch would not have matter.  But for Peter and the others, fishing was their way to make a living.   It’s how they provided their family with food, clothing, and shelter.  If you took that away from them, they would feel like a failure at life.


Their experience at Lake Galilee was a reflection of their sense of “failure” at disciples. Now I think it is important that we understand:  THESE DISCIPLES HAD SEEN THE RISEN LORD!   They heard the testimony of the women.  They’d run to the tomb and seen that it was empty.  Jesus had appeared to them twice in the upper room.  They saw the scars on his body, confirming that it was Jesus.


Everything that Jesus had taught them about living was validated in his resurrected presence.  Jesus taught them and called them to a new way of living.  Offer mercy.  Show grace.  Embrace life.  Love your neighbor.  Forgive your enemies.


Next they were instructed to go to Galilee and wait.

So they went to Galilee having had this experience with Jesus and carrying in their hearts this call to a new way of life.  There they waited for him to arrive.  And they waited, and waited, and waited.  His reappearance did not happen as quickly as they had hoped.


So, what now?


After the excitement passed, the burdens of life and death reappeared.  How are we going to make it?  How are we going to pay the bills?  We still have bills to pay and families to support?  How, now, do we live?


“I am going fishing!” Peter and the others reverted to the familiar.  They conform to what makes them feel secure and comfortable.


The problem is the lack of satisfaction that comes from all our safe places and security blankets.  It doesn’t matter how big you home or bank account, how nice your family, how well educated you’ve become, how successful you’ve been in your career, or how devoted you are to your religious rituals, it just never seems to be enough.   You might end up failing.  Or you might end up being objectively successful while feeling subjectively empty.   It’s just not enough.  It might be a godly pursuit, but if it is not God-centered, it will not satisfy.  A godly pursuit is never a substitute for the Divine.


“I am going fishing!”


The next morning they had caught nothing.  Peter and the others are gathering their nets for the last time.  They are getting ready to come ashore.  As they do, they see a man along the seashore.  He looks vaguely familiar.  They are not sure where they have seen him before.  He speaks to them:  “How was your night’s labor?  Did you catch anything?”


Nobody likes to admit failure. Still, the evidence is abundantly clear.  Their nets and boats are empty.


“Nope, we didn’t catch a thing.”


“I know your problem,” shouted the man on the shore.  “You are fishing off the wrong side of the boat!  Put your nets out on the other side of the boat and you will catch plenty of fish.”


By now, I suspect they might have realized that this man was Jesus.  This is similar to another “fishing” experience with Jesus.  In the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel, we read about Jesus instructing Peter and his compatriots to cast their nets in the deep waters.  Net fishing is more of a shallow water process, but Peter and the others relented.


Peter said to Jesus:


“Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking.


When that happened, Peter and the others “immediately left their nets” and became disciples of Jesus.  So, there was some precedent to suggest that the man on the seashore offering ridiculous fishing instructions might, in fact, be Jesus.


It turns out that the stranger on the shoreline was right.  All night the fish had been hiding on the other side of the boat.  The catch is so large that their nets and boats could not contain it. In fact, we are told the exact number of fish caught that day – 153 “large fish.”


What are we to make of the text giving us the exact number of 153 fish?  There are several of suggestions.


Some suggest that there are 153 different varieties of fish known to populate the water Lake Galilee, indicating that when the disciples began their mission as “fishers of humanity,” their catch would be among all nations and tribes.


Others point toward Jewish mythology, supported by some passages of scripture, which indicate that the number 153 indicates the completeness and totality of God’s work of grace.  These folks point out that the number for the Holy Spirit is 7, while the number representing the law is 10.  That give you 17, and if you add up the numbers 1 to 17, you get a total of 153.   So, then, 153 symbolizes the totality of redeem humanity.


Here’s what I think it means:  THERE WERE A LOT OF FISH.  By the commercial waterman’s standards of the time, that was a big haul.


Yet despite ALL those fish, Jesus did not need any of them.  When Peter and the others arrived on shore, the table had been already set by Jesus.  Bread and been baked, fish had been grilled, nourishment was provided, and none of it came from the catch.


That’s the main thing I’d like for us to take from this story. All our efforts to gather, garner, manipulate and control, do not amount to a hill of beans. All our efforts to prove ourselves acceptance is wasted effort. These are all things that proceed from grace.


The disciples reverted to form. They lost confidence. They lost faith. They lost sight of Jesus. They lost confidence in his provisions of grace. They gave up and gave in. They surrendered to discouragement. They went with what they knew. And then, after a night on the Sea of Galilee, doing what they knew best, they came up empty handed.


But then they followed the instructions of Jesus. As they did, they brought it a HUGE catch. Yet even that catch did not supply them with the provisions they needed. What they needed was waiting for them in the presence of Jesus.


Here’s the thing. There are lots of sermons and stories and illustrations that point to our need to be fishers of humanity. To be out in the world, casting the net of the gospel, and hoisting in converts for the Kingdom of God. Such admonitions have their place and fulfill a purpose. But this is not a story about casting nets. This is a story about us being caught up into Christ’s nets. It is a story about having our hearts taken captive by the love and grace of Christ Jesus. This is a story about the church finding its provisions in the presence of Jesus. Remember, the Christian life is not about our living for Jesus. We are not called to live for Jesus, but from Jesus, out of the abundance of his grace and goodness. When we do that, he will tell us when, where, and how to cast down our nets. Under his direction, the nets will be filled and our lives will be full.

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