One day a rather inebriated ice fisherman drilled a hole in the ice. As he prepared his line a loud voice called out ‘There are no fish down there’. Startled, he walked a few yards away and drilled another hole. But just as he was stringing a worm onto the hook, the voice boomed out again ‘There are no fish there.’
He then walked on about fifty yards, drilled another hole and looked cautiously in. Again the voice said ‘There are no fish there.’ He looked up into the sky and called out: ‘God, is that you?’ ‘No, you idiot,’ the voice said ‘it’s the ice rink manager.’
Today’s gospel begins with seven blokes going fishing. Nothing remarkable about that, it happens all the time and it was a daily occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples had grown up as fishermen, that’s how they earned their living, so at one level there’s nothing unusual here.
But actually it’s the strangest thing in the world! These are the disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus who had proclaimed himself the Messiah, entered Jerusalem in triumph, been captured and put to death. And then risen again! Barely a week or so before, their Lord and Master had risen from the dead – and now the disciples are going fishing? Shouldn’t the Resurrection change everything? Jesus is alive – take the message to the four corners of the world! Be inspired! Or go fishing?
I suppose fishing is what they’re good it. They’ve been doing it for years, it’s what they understand. In a sense they’re comfortable with it. Not that this is relaxing angling – you know the joke about angling? Give a man a fish and he’ll eat tonight. Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day in a boat drinking beer. What Peter and the rest were doing is serious work: pulling in heavy nets, soaked to the skin and an April night in Palestine is none too warm either. But despite the hard labour, the routine is what they know and it’s familiar.
Moving on to something unknown can be hard. Even wonderful opportunities can suddenly look challenging when you get up close. Sometimes you hear of lottery winners saying ‘Nothing will change me. I’m going to stay in the same job and won’t let it get to my head.’ That may be a genuine humility or it might be worry over what’s coming, an inability to handle the implications. Statistically you or I are unlikely to win the lottery. On a fishing theme, you’re more likely to be attacked by a shark than win the jackpot.
But we can find ourselves in a similar situation to the disciples or the lottery winner. Where opportunities present themselves but the familiar seems safer. A new job. A move. God may call us to do something for him – I don’t mean going to Papua New Guinea as a full time missionary – a woman I know felt God nudging her to become part of the Open the Book Team telling Bible stories in school assembly. It was a real step into the unknown as she’d never done anything like it before, but she loved it and God used her abilities wonderfully.
Stepping out into something new can be hard, but God promises to be with us when we serve him. Denial or running away is never satisfying because it’s not based in reality. As John Maynard Keynes said: ‘If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’
Maybe the disciples went fishing for practical reasons. Presumably they still needed to eat and pay the rent! Yet Jesus appears with a full BBQ – bread, fish and fire, with no explanation of where it came from – suggesting he can provide. In his teaching about food, clothes and money, Jesus said ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.’ He didn’t say they were unnecessary. He never said we wouldn’t have to work for them. But he did tell us not to chase after money, that God provides us with the essentials and to put his Kingdom first. So don’t let busyness get in the way of being a Christian disciple or finding God’s will for you.
I wonder if the disciples were suffering from a spiritual comedown? It can happen in any area of life: after a big success comes a feeling of flatness. You win the contract and then have to knuckle down to the paperwork. You take home the trophy but on Monday morning you’re back at the training ground.
The same can happen spiritually, after a high point there is often a down. I guess that’s why they call it Low Sunday after Easter! Although funnily enough, I always enjoy that day! Spiritual rhythm is built into life, but can catch us out. We may find ourselves thinking: Those worship experiences were wonderful, why does prayer feel tough again today? God felt so close, was I really imagining it? Lots of people came to our new event, but was it just out of curiosity? Will they come next week?
When we feel like that it’s good to recognise what’s happening. See that this is part of the natural spiritual cycle; recognise the battle that’s going on. Rebuke the evil one and keep on through the challenging time, because one day it will pass. Remember the good times and be sustained by the glimpses of grace God gives in the midst of difficulty.
Perhaps it was all these things together. The disciples just felt flat and unprepared. They hadn’t seen Jesus for a bit, the task ahead looked vast, money was running out and the answer seemed obvious. ‘Let’s go fishing’. They met with a lack of success, perhaps a sign this wasn’t what they’re supposed to be doing? There’s a symbolic significance too, because whenever we wander from God’s will for us, we feel dissatisfied. Even if what we’re doing is a perfectly innocent thing, if it’s not God’s plan it doesn’t fill us up.
Only when Jesus appears and they obey him do they get results. What a lovely moment it is in verse 7 when John says to Peter ‘It is the Lord’.
Of course they recognised Jesus. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? A bit déjà vu? Yes it does! It should. Almost the exact same thing has happened before. Not at the end of the gospel but at the beginning. One of the very first miracles Jesus did was a catch of fish. He met some disciples – these disciples, in the morning. They had caught nothing. Put your net on the other side, he said – they were inundated with fish.
Yes, they would have got the point. He’s back. And they would have got the meaning too – because immediately after that first miracle Jesus came out with his famous pun: ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Become my disciples and share the good news. Now, post Easter, Jesus does it again, after the disciples have lost their way a little.
And if the point is still not clear, it’s there in the number of the fish. 153. A curious detail – but apparently 153 was regarded at the time as the number of nations on earth. It’s Fishers of men again. Join me, says Jesus, in bringing all nations into my Kingdom. He’s calling them back to their original purpose. Especially Peter.
Peter can’t wait to meet Jesus, even though they’re only a hundred yards from the shoreline he jumps into the lake and swims to the shore – not forgetting to put his clothes on first! Sounds daft. But is there symbolism here? Does it recall guilty Adam in the garden of Eden, putting on clothes before he can meet God? Even in the joy does Peter remember there is something he needs to sort out? Does the charcoal fire that Jesus has lit remind him of that other charcoal fire, the one at which he denied Christ?
Soon, Jesus restores Peter. Peter, who had three times denied Jesus, is given the chance to assure Jesus of his love three times. Broken and now restored, he will be a wise and sympathetic pastor for Christ’s church.
So Jesus called them back to following him. When they had been distracted by busyness, he gave them focus again. When they had been paralysed by fear, he gave them purpose and power. When they had been discouraged and flat, he restored their vision.
He can do the same for us. Each one of us here will be in a different place. But it may be that some of you will recognise yourself in that description of the disciples. Having lost the way a little bit, let Jesus call you back. If our relationship with Christ has been squeezed out by activity, he can enable us to reprioritise. If our spirituality feels flat, Jesus can envision us and give us strength to persevere. If we know he is calling us onwards but worry about the consequences, Jesus will enable us to face reality and the future with confidence. If you are feeling like those disciples, I encourage you to bring it to God and ask him to meet you and bless you at this resurrection breakfast.