John 21:1-14

My uncle Jim has a house in Cayucas, California, overlooking Morrow Bay, right on the Pacific Ocean.  Fourteen years ago, when Marc was almost eight years old and Amy was spending the year in France, Linda and Marc and I visited my uncle and aunt along with my parents in California.  Marc was really interested in fishing at that time, so my father and my Uncle Jim took him out on a little boat to do some angling in the ocean.  After several hours, they came back with quite a catch.  I don’t remember what kind of fish they were—but we had fresh fish for dinner that night and they were mighty tasty.  The next morning we woke up to the smell of fish cooking on the stove for breakfast.  Now, I like fish…I like it fried and broiled and grilled and even baked, but I don’t particularly like the smell of fish first thing in the morning.  Marc was a little more blunt in his reaction:  “Fish for breakfast?  Yuk!”  Fortunately, my Uncle Jim didn’t take offense.  He knew that not everybody likes fish for breakfast.  But some people do; some people like it a lot.

When Linda and I were in Hawaii, we noticed that some of the hotels offered a traditional Japanese Breakfast.  We didn’t know what a traditional Japanese Breakfast was, but now we do.  It includes steamed rice, as you would expect, and green tea, and something called miso soup, made out of soybeans.  In addition, a traditional Japanese Breakfast can feature pickles and spinach and raw eggs.  It also includes fish.  In a couple of the hotels it was grilled salmon, but I suppose it could be other kinds of fish as well.  So, for many Japanese, fish for breakfast is a welcome item on the menu.

Apparently the disciples of Jesus enjoyed fish for breakfast too.  That’s not surprising since many of them were fishermen.  In that part of Palestine, the best time for fishing was at night, so it was not unusual for fishermen to come in with their boats and their nets early in the morning after fishing all night.  And presumably, it would not be unusual to prepare some of their catch for breakfast.  The problem in our scripture for this morning is that the disciples didn’t have any catch after fishing all night.  They had thrown their nets into the sea time and time again, and their nets had come up empty.  In the half-light of the early dawn a stranger appeared on the shore and called out to them.  In reality he wasn’t a stranger at all, he was the risen Jesus, but they did not recognize him at first.  Perhaps being a hundred yards from the shore they were too far out to see the features of his face.  Or maybe they were looking into the rising sun and all they could see was the silhouette of a figure on the beach.  In any case, it was the resurrected Jesus, but they did not know it was Jesus.

Jesus called out to them from the water’s edge.  “Young men,” he said, “you haven’t caught any fish have you?”  “No,” they shouted back.  “Cast your net on the other side of the boat,” Jesus replied.  They did what he said, and suddenly there were so many fish in their net they could hardly haul it into the boat.  The disciple whom Jesus loved, presumably John himself, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”  Peter who had stripped off his clothes while fishing put his tunic back on and dove into the water to swim ashore.  No doubt he thought it would have been disrespectful to greet Jesus without any clothes on.  The others rowed the boat to the shore.  Jesus had a charcoal fire going, with some fish already grilling on it, along with some bread.  Jesus invited the disciples to bring some of the fish they had caught and add them to the fish that were already cooking.  Simon Peter hauled the net ashore, and it was bulging with 153 large fish.  Amazingly, the net was not torn.  When the fish were ready Jesus said, “Come and have breakfast.”  It was like a Communion meal.  Jesus took bread and gave it to them, and he did the same with the fish.  Instead of bread and wine, it was bread and fish.  Breakfast with the risen Jesus—it was a meal they would never forget.

It’s a wonderful story isn’t it, but what does it mean?  The story has obvious Communion overtones, just like the earlier story of the feeding of the five-thousand beside the Sea of Galilee had Communion overtones.  In both stories Jesus took bread and gave it to them.  The story of the feeding of the five-thousand also featured a miraculous meal of fish.  Any time people share a meal with Jesus it’s a Communion meal.  But beyond the Communion overtones, what does the story mean?

The key to the meaning of the story, I think, lies in the miraculous catch of fish.  They had fished all night and caught nothing.  Suddenly, at Jesus’ command, they cast their net on the other side and their net was full.  Fishing is a metaphor for the work that Jesus called his disciples to do.  At one point Jesus had told them that they would become fishers of men.  Fishing all night without catching any fish represented trying to do the work that Jesus had called them to do in their own power and in their own way.  Whether it is living the Christian life, or doing the work of the church, or raising a family, or being a witness for Christ in the workplace, or anything else, if we try to do it in our own power, our efforts will not succeed.  But when we do it with Jesus, when we work according to his calling and live according to his will, our efforts will be rewarded beyond our greatest imaginings.  So, this story is about how we live the Christian life.  If we try to live the Christian life in our own strength and using only our own resources, it will be like fishing all night and catching nothing.  But if we listen for Jesus’ voice and follow his directions for our lives, our nets will be filled to overflowing.

As I said, this is a story not just about fishing, but about living the Christian life.  We are meant to live our lives in partnership with Jesus.  Did you notice that Jesus already had fish cooking on the charcoal fire when the disciples came ashore?  Jesus had already started breakfast, but he invited the disciples to bring the fish that they had caught and add them to the fire that he had already begun to prepare.  That’s the partnership that is involved in Christian living.  Jesus does his part but we also do our part.  Jesus is there to help us and provide for our needs, but Jesus expects us to contribute too.  Jesus expects us to bring what we have and add it to the enterprise.  Jesus expects us to take our natural talents and gifts and abilities and interests and use them in his service.  This morning the Nominating Committee put an insert in the bulletin to let you know about some of the opportunities for service here in our church.  They did that because your participation in the various ministries and programs of our church is essential—it’s essential for the church, and essential for you.  The church could not exist without your adding what you have to bring to the work and the ministry and the fellowship.  Jesus invites all of us to bring our fish and add them to the fire.  The Christian life is not a one-way street.  It’s not a matter of coming to church and only receiving what Jesus has to give.  Jesus expects us to contribute too.  We all have some fish to add to the breakfast.  We all have something to place upon the fire.  The church is not “them” and what can “they” do for me.  The church is “us,” and what can we do for each other and for God.

Perhaps the most intriguing detail of the story is the number of fish that the disciples caught in their net—153.  Scholars have long debated the meaning of the number 153.  Some have concluded that 153 was simply the actual number of fish in the net.  Maybe one of the disciples counted all the fish and the total came to 153.  But why would John include that detail, unless the number 153 had some further meaning?  Augustine noted that the number 153 is the sum of the integers of all the numbers from 1 to 17.  I got out a calculator and I added them up…one plus two plus three plus four plus five, all the way to seventeen, and sure enough they add up to 153.  So, in some sense the number 153 represents totality.  There’s another possible explanation.  Ancient Greek zoologists believed that there were 153 different species of fish.  Of course we know now that there are many more different species of fish, but in the ancient world 153 represented all the varieties of fish in the sea.  Thus, 153 was a number representing the totality.

Notice that the net was bulging with 153 large fish, but the net did not break.  I think the net represents the church, and the 153 fish represents all the people in the church.  The number 153 represents all the different kinds of people in the church.  Young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, men and women, people from every nation, every racial group, every ethnic background—that’s what the church is supposed to be.  The church is supposed to be represented by all the peoples of the world.  We here in America have this image of the church being made up of people just like us, but in reality the church is much larger than Village, or the Baptist denomination, or the Protestant faith, or Christianity in America.  In reality the church is like that bulging net with 153 different kinds of fish.  Next Sunday we are going to have a chance to expand our horizons of the church.  We are going to have a guest from Africa, a native of Zimbabwe, a fellow Christian who represents a different ethnicity and culture from most of us.  But Pastor Champion Chasara and the Christians of Zimbabwe are as much a part of Christ’s church as we are.  The net is filled with 153 large fish, and the net is not torn.  There is room in the church for all of us.

Today Christians around the world are sharing Communion at the Lord’s Table.  In most churches here in America, and in many other churches around the world, Christians are receiving the bread and the cup from the Lord’s Table.  It’s a way to reconnect with Jesus and to be a part of the work that he has called us to do.  It’s a way to express our solidarity with Christians around the world.  It’s not quite “breakfast with Jesus” but Jesus is present.  It’s not exactly “fish for breakfast” but the risen Christ is here.  He’s here in the bread, he’s here in the cup, here’s here every time we come together in his name.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
April 7, 2002

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