The Gospel of John seemed to have the perfect ending with John 20:30-31. But John added an epilogue with chapter 21. One reason he did this is to teach us present-day disciples how to be the church. That being the case, what can their fishing expedition in verses 1-14 teach us?
Sermon Text: John 21:1-14
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 of this sermon.]
Last Wednesday, in the world of NBA basketball, fans saw a couple of perfect endings. First, the Golden State Warriors had to win their final game of the season in order to set the record for most wins in a season. Which they did, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies and finishing the regular season with a record of 73-9, beating the previous record held by the Chicago Bulls by one game.
Another perfect ending on that same night, however, was the final game of Kobe Bryant. In fact, his perfect ending was far less probable than that of the Warriors. Not only did the Lakers win—which they almost never did during this, the Lakers’ worst season ever—Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in the game. He hadn’t scored that many points since 2009. And he’d only scored 60 points on five other occasions throughout his 20-year career. He was like the old Kobe all over again—the one who led his team to five championships.
In fact, after the game, he said, “The coolest thing is that my kids actually saw me play like I used to play. It was like, ‘Whoa, Dad!’ I said, ‘Yeah, I used to do that.’ They were like, ‘Really?’ I was like, ‘Dude, YouTube it.’”
A perfect finish. Just like John chapter 20 was a perfect finish—with the resurrected Lord appearing to all the disciples, even Thomas; commissioning them to bring the gospel to the rest the world; and telling us, the readers, that Jesus did many other miraculous signs not recorded in the book, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The End. What else needs to be said? It’s perfect!
Not so fast… Because there’s a whole ’nother chapter after this, which we’re going to look at today and next week! What’s going on here?
Well, what’s going on is that John has given us an epilogue—an appendix—in part to tie up some loose ends. We’ll talk about that next week.
But there’s a wide consensus among Bible scholars that John includes this fishing incident in verses 1 to 14 because he wants to say something about us—the church. In other words, Jesus uses this event to symbolize who we are, what we’re supposed to be about, and how we’re supposed to live together as the church. I want to explore those themes in this sermon.
In verse 3, Peter says he’s going to go fishing, and six other disciples agree to go with him. No Bible scholar can figure out exactly why they went fishing; whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. We know from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus told the disciples to go back to Galilee and wait for him there. It could be that they were just biding their time, waiting for Jesus to show up. And in the meantime, they had to eat. They were fishermen by trade, after all. So maybe Peter’s suggestion was perfectly innocent; they weren’t disobeying Jesus. But I can’t resist theologian N.T. Wright’s suggestion that, now that their adventures of the past three years are over, now that they’re back home in Galilee, well, they had to face their families, who likely urged “them to settle down and do something sensible for a change. Like earning some money. ”
This resonates with me because it reminds me of when I told my mother—who was a terrible worrywart—that I was going to leave my engineering career and go into ministry—with two young children and a baby on the way. The first words out of Mom’s mouth after I told her—and Lisa was there; she knows—her first words were, “I can’t give you any money, and you can’t move in with me.” She was a Christian, but she thought I was nuts to leave a good, stable, relatively prosperous career to do that. She eventually warmed to the idea, when she saw that my family didn’t starve—but it took her a while. So the idea that these disciples felt pressure from their families to “go back to a ‘sensible’ career” seems realistic to me.
But I also agree with one scholar who said that after all the shock and trauma and grief and excitement and joy of the events associated with Easter, it would have been oddly comforting for these seven disciples to experience a little bit of normal life again—doing something they knew and understood and could make sense of.
I know some of you love to fish, and you love to fish because it’s your hobby. It’s what you do when don’t have to go to work. This isn’t what fishing represented to these disciples. Fishing for these disciples was work. This was their “day job.” This was how they made their living. They weren’t always “fishing for men”; they weren’t always turning the world upside down with the gospel of Jesus Christ; they weren’t always preaching the gospel and watching as thousands of people joined the church—at least not at this point in their ministry. They’re fishing to put food on the table, doing what they had to do to pay the bills. They were probably just supporting themselves and their families. The apostle Paul, after all, made tents for a living even as he went about his world-changing missionary work.
What I want us to pay attention to, though, is that even in the midst of doing what might have been for them a boring day job, these disciples still had this amazing encounter with the Lord.
Do you ever see Jesus as you go about your normal routine? Does Jesus ever disrupt your busy life when you’re working or in school? Do you expect to find Jesus as you go through your busy day? I hope so!
But I’m afraid it’s hard for most of us to experience Jesus in this way. I’m afraid that most of us live very compartmentalized lives. We have our work compartment over here—in which we invest eight, ten, maybe twelve hours of our day. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, your work compartment is even larger than that! If you’re a student, you have your school and homework compartment. Then we step out of that compartment and step into our family compartment. And of course we have our exercise compartment and our laundry compartment and our yard work compartment. And let’s not forget our TV-watching compartment. Some of you have a hunting compartment, or a golf-playing compartment, or a honey-do list compartment, or our sports-viewing compartment?
Before too long, it’s easy to see how our prayer and Bible-reading and church-going compartments—our God compartment in general—can become very small. It’s like packing a moving van and realizing you haven’t left enough room for your most precious and valuable heirlooms! Or worse, even if we manage to “fit God into” our schedule as one activity among so many others, well, it’s easy to see how we can get quickly burnt out on God and church as well.
Last year, when many of us went to the Dominican Republic with the generous financial support of this church, we did some hard labor. Physically speaking, this was the most grueling work I’ve done over a five-day period. Lifting and carrying heavy things. Shoveling. In the hot sun. Sweating profusely. Getting dirty. If it were the kind of work that I “had” to do around my own house I would have hated it. I would have! Because I would have been thinking about all the other things I’d rather be doing. And of course I would have had my iPhone to distract me at home. In the Dominican Republic we only rarely had access to a wifi signal, so that wasn’t an option.
So we did this work, and we loved it.
Why was it so amazing? Because we knew that everything we were doing—every cinder block we were lifting—every moment we spent there—was for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. And brothers and sisters, nothing in this world will make you happier in life than glorifying him; opening up your heart to him; allowing yourself to be used by him, for his purposes, for his glory. This is what every human being needs to be fulfilled, to be content—to have the kind of abundant life that Jesus promises us.
But here’s the rub: We think that the opportunity to live like that is found mostly in places like the Dominican Republic, or Kenya, or on a church retreat some place far from the distractions of home. It’s not here. At least a couple of you expressed this idea after the mission trip when you told me that you wished you could have bottled up the spirit of that trip and brought it back home—brought it back to church.
But you did bring it back home. You did bring it to church. In fact, you took it with you when you left. The very spirit of Jesus Christ—the Holy Spirit—is always with you, is always in our midst if we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Some of my favorite verses in the Bible are found in Colossians 3:23 and 24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” We’re always serving Christ. All the work that we do in our “day jobs,” whatever those jobs may be, all the work we do at school, all the work we do at home—in fact, everything we do at every moment no matter where we are is ultimately for Christ—and his glory. At least it ought to be.
And because he’s with us—even when, like the disciples on this boat, we forget that he’s with us—every moment is an opportunity to encounter the Lord, to hear him speak, to obey his voice, to follow his direction, to bring glory to him.
But today’s scripture tells us what we already know: that it’s incredibly easy to miss these opportunities. The disciples almost missed it! They heard this mysterious stranger on the seashore shouting at them to lower their net on the other side of the boat. They might have ignored him. No one likes unsolicited advice, after all! And even after they followed his direction and received this miraculous catch of 153 fish, it didn’t resister with them at first that this was a miracle.
It’s possible that if John didn’t recognize Jesus, and say, “Look! It’s the Lord,” the rest of the disciples would have let this miracle pass them by. They would have caught the fish, to be sure, but they might have just chalked it up to good luck. Weren’t they lucky that this stranger happened to see a large school of fish on other side of the boat. They might have just said, “Hey, thanks, stranger! See you later,” and gone on about their business. But because of the beloved disciple’s insight, they didn’t do that. They saw the miracle. They saw that this was Jesus.
I’m convinced that being a Christian, among many other things, means learning to see Jesus in unexpected places. It means learning to see Jesus not simply when we step into our “God compartment” after we’ve accomplished everything else in our busy schedules, or when we’re at church. It means learning to see that miracles are everywhere. And I don’t mostly mean those extravagant kind of miracles that break the laws of physics, either—not that those don’t happen, too, every once in a while.
No, this miraculous catch of fish didn’t necessarily break the laws of physics. It’s not as if the fish jumped into the boat on their own. The disciples themselves cast the net and did the heavy lifting and hauled them to shore.
No, the main miracle is that Jesus met them there, helped them, guided them, gave them what they needed to experience this abundant catch.
And John wants us to know that Jesus is still here with us—as individuals and as the church—to do the same thing for us.
There’s a great song by John Lennon called “Beautiful Boy,” which he wrote for his young son Sean shortly before his murder. The song is about a father giving encouragement to his young son. It includes this memorable line: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Great line. And very true. The disciples on this boat were “busy making other plans” when Jesus came to them unexpectedly. But listen: for those of us who are Christians I would add something else: Jesus Christ is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans. Pay attention! Be on the lookout! He’s here. He hasn’t left you. He hasn’t given up on you. He’s not holding a grudge against you, even though you often disobey him; even though you ignore him; even though you let him down.
Why do I say that? Because… this is not the first time Jesus enabled the disciples to have a miraculous catch of fish. In Luke chapter 5, a very similar episode takes place. I encourage you to read about it.
Let me highlight one important difference: After seeing what Jesus did, Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Why did Peter do this? Because, like so many other people we read about in the Bible, he realized he was in the presence of God—and he knew was unworthy to be there; he knew he was a sinner; he knew that because of his sin, if he got too close to God and his holiness, he would be destroyed.
But what does he do in today’s text, when the same thing happens to him? This time he doesn’t want to run away from Jesus; this time he can’t get to Jesus fast enough! He can’t even wait for the boat to haul the fish to shore. He jumps out of the boat and swims or wades the hundred yards as fast as he can until he gets to Jesus.
Running away from God in one instance; running toward God in the other. What accounts for the difference? What accounts for it is that Peter understands that something profound has changed in his relationship with God. He understands that Good Friday and Easter have forever changed that relationship. He understands that Christ took upon himself our sins—that he suffered, died, experienced hell because of them—in our place, so we wouldn’t have to. He understands that Christ’s death and resurrection have now made him a beloved child of God—and nothing, not even his sins, not even denying Christ three times, can separate him from God’s love.
And that’s true for you and me, too. Amen?
Today’s scripture says something else to us, the church—and it’s a message that Hampton United Methodist Church needs to hear. It’s this: We can use all the gifts and skills and resources that God has given us and we can put them to work; we can work very hard for the church—to try to grow the church—to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We can work so hard and still fail. Right?
Brothers and sisters, I know I’m talking to a church that feels the same frustration that these disciples felt after this night of working so hard and failing to catch any fish. We are a hard-working church! Yet we’re not growing the way we want to; despite our best efforts, despite our best intentions. We’re afraid for the future. We work hard, and we look at our nets, and they’re empty. And it’s hard; it’s frustrating. It makes us want to work even harder—except eventually, when we work and work and work, and we don’t see the harvest, well… we get burned out. And give up. Quit. Going to church becomes a chore. I understand.
But Jesus uses this fishing episode to teach churches like ours that this kind of thing can happen to any church. And it’s not for lack of effort. But it is from lack of direction—specifically, the Lord’s direction. I believe Jesus is calling us, directing us, challenging us, inspiring us to do something new—because what we’ve been doing for years and years may have served us well in the past, but it’s not working now. Our nets are mostly empty.
But there’s hope. And that’s why I’ve invited Mike Selleck to talk to us. He’s going to talk. And we’re going to pray, and we’re going to listen, and we’re going to study God’s Word until we figure out what our Lord is calling us to do next. Amen?
 N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 156