Fish & Symbolism
Third Sunday after Easter – Thurne John 21: 1-19
There have been several stories involving fish and fishing, in the three years Jesus had been with his disciples, and this is to be the last. It is hard for us to get our heads around what the disciples were feeling. In the past few days, Jesus had died, then he had disappeared, then he had been resurrected, he had walked through locked doors and spoken to them. Now he seems to have gone again so the disciples resort to a place of safety.
They go back to what they used to do. Back to the safety of the ordinariness of daily life. Peter tells the others he is going fishing. Six others join him, they work all night, watching the water, using torches to attract the fish, casting the nets, hauling them in, but catch nothing. Not one single fish. Then someone calls from the shore "children you have no fish, have you? How did Jesus know they hadn’t caught anything? Another mystery we have to live with! Then he tells them to cast on the right side of the boat; they do and instantly the net is filled with fish, it is so heavy that they can't drag it into the boat.
Interesting to note that John is writing this account at least 70 years after the event and he was the one that immediately recognises Jesus and says to Peter, “it is the Lord". Peter doesn't hesitate, he grabs his cloak and jumps into the lake and rushes to Jesus. The text says he is naked but he would have stripped to a loin cloth. It was the Jewish law that to offer a greeting was a religious act, and to carry out a religious act a man must be clothed; so Peter put on his fisherman’s tunic because he wanted to be the first to greet his Lord.
For a minute, let us stand with the disciples in the boat. What projects, jobs, things to do have you been labouring over, and getting nowhere? Stand with them and watch for the dawn; watch the figure on the shore; Listen for the still small voice that you hear with your soul and not your ears, and do what he tells you. Of course it is difficult, if not impossible to do here in the time frame that we have, but I would urge you to take time when you are alone.
Back to the story. The disciples haul in the nets, remarkably even though it was bursting with so many fish, it was not broken. Then they counted the fish. What a strange thing to do. John records this for a reason. Only a fisherman would count the fish, we would have just said there were a lot. It may have been because they were going to divide them up, but I think John put the number in his account for a reason.
St Jerome lived for many years in a cave in Bethlehem, around the year AD340. He was translating biblical texts as accurately as he could into Latin. Speaking with Galilean fisherman, he made a surprising discovery. They boasted that there were many types of fish in their lake -153 to be precise. Nobody knew at that time that there were 153 different types or tribes of peoples on the earth. The symbolism gives the reassurance that there is room in Christ’s Church for people from every race, colour and language. All will be gathered in, all will be welcomed. John would not have had that kind of knowledge at the time of writing; perhaps it has been added at a later stage, or maybe the Holy Spirit prompted him to write the number down and he had no idea why. Now we know that there are still many tribes that haven’t been discovered. National Geographica estimate there could still be over 70, but it served it’s purpose at the time.
There is other symbolism in the net. John records that it didn’t break. In today’s universal church where we have such diversity of nationality and spirituality surely we can worship together, and there can be unity – it doesn’t have to break the net.
Jesus cooks breakfast for these tired hungry men. It is so simple, so kind, showing that he cares for his friends. John records this touching story to reassure us of the presence of Jesus in the ordinary, as I have said on so many occasions, Jesus meets us wherever we are, in whatever we are doing, if we would but look for him.
Then there is the symbolism of the charcoal fire. This one had cooked the fish for breakfast, but a few days earlier, Peter had stood warming himself by a fire when he denied that he knew Jesus. I am sure this was imprinted on Peter’s mind when Jesus takes him aside and asks him three times:
‘Do you love me?’ He asks three times because of the three denials - not to remind Peter of his failings, but to reinforce his forgiveness and then to give him his commission.
All of a sudden it is Peter who is the shepherd, not Jesus. Peter is given three distinct instructions, feed the lambs, tend the sheep and finally to feed the sheep. First of all spiritually feed the young ones in the faith, look after the needs of all of the sheep and then feed the sheep. In other words all are equally important, from babies to the elderly.
Jesus said, ‘as the Father has sent me so I am sending you.’
Here we find the secret of all Christian ministry. Yours, and mine, lay or ordained, full-time, part-time, no-time or retired. Whatever lurks in our past, the hurt and failures the feelings of inadequacy, Jesus said, ‘as the Father has sent me so I am sending you.’
For each of us there is work to do. Like Peter we need to find the place of forgiveness, even if we have been to the point of denying Jesus. Then our commission is to bring others into the kingdom. For some it will be costly, for some it will mean suffering and death, for most it will be in the ordinary, the story we tell, the way we act and live, and for us all, the reassurance that we will not be asked us to do anything beyond our ability.
This is to be the last encounter with Jesus before He leaves earth for the last time, a simple story, but one full of symbolism and challenge for us to ponder in the coming days.