Sermon 05-01-2022: “But That Night They Caught Nothing”

Scripture: John 21:1-19

It’s often emphasized that one difference between the gospel of John and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is that John contains no parables—no Prodigal Son, no Good Samaritan, no Wise and Foolish Virgins. But I don’t think that’s quite right: it’s just that the parables that Jesus communicates are acted out. They are living parables… In some ways, every miracle Jesus performs in the gospel of John is an “acted out” parable—very symbolic, meant to communicate something important about Jesus Christ, his saving work, and our relationship with him and his Father. That’s why John alone among the gospel writers refers to miracles as signs

And indeed, today’s miracle—a miraculous catch of fish—is an acted out parable intended to encourage us as we live our Christian lives. So I want this sermon to encourage you… by looking at four different aspects of today’s scripture: One, the meaning of the fishing; two, the meaning of the failure; three, the meaning of the forgiveness; and, four, the meaning of the fearlessness. Fishing, failure, forgiveness, and fearlessness.

First, the meaning of the fishing

Why are these seven disciples of Jesus fishing? Surprisingly, there’s no consensus on this question. Commentators are split in their interpretation of it.

We know that prior to going into full-time ministry with Jesus, at least three of the seven men John lists were professional fishermen: Peter, and the “sons of Zebedee,” James, and John. Peter’s brother Andrew, who also fished, may have been one of the two unnamed disciples.

Regardless, today’s scripture takes place within a month or so of the last event we saw in John chapter 20: Jesus’ post-resurrection appears to “doubting Thomas.” Recall from last week that Thomas offers the boldest, most profound confession of Jesus in all the gospels, calling Jesus “my Lord and my God.” 1

So… Did Thomas, having had this profound encounter with the resurrected Lord no more than three or four weeks earlier, forget about it… or minimize it… or dismiss it and think, “That was no big deal. I’m not going to change my life. I’m going to go back to life as usual”? Or did the other disciples—including the six disciples with Thomas—who received a version of the Great Commission from Jesus to continue his mission to take the gospel to the world—did they shrug and think, “We’re just going to forget about the Great Commission, forget about the resurrection, and resume our old careers as fishermen”?… that it’s only after meeting Jesus on the beach that they changed their minds and repented?

That’s what many commentators would lead us to believe… that by going fishing these seven disciples were backsliding in their faith; they were disobeying Jesus; they were abandoning their call to ministry…

But I’m sorry… I don’t see it.

First of all, we know from Acts 1:3 that the resurrected Lord appeared many times to the disciples over the course of 40 days. Matthew and Mark’s gospels tell us that, at some point, the disciples were commanded to go to Galilee to meet Jesus—and this meeting in Galilee happened before Jesus told them to return to Jerusalem to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So today’s fishing expedition likely took place while they were still in Galilee. 

So while they were there, they decided to go fishing.

And what’s wrong with that? We know that Peter had a wife and family to support. Some of the others may have as well. So they needed to feed themselves and their families. And fishing was their trade.

Remember: That’s what the apostle Paul did, he worked a full-time job, he worked a trade, even while he was preaching and teaching and planting churches. He was bi-vocational. He earned his living as a tentmaker—and worked as an apostle the rest of the time. Maybe these seven disciples were planing on being bi-vocational, as well. Besides, they didn’t know what the future would hold for them… But earning some extra money today would surely help them as they fulfilled the Great Commission in the future.

And it’s not like their behavior in today’s scripture indicates an unwillingness to obey Jesus. On the contrary, they “obey” Jesus the first time he gives them a command—when he tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat—even though, for all they knew at this point, this man a hundred yards away on the seashore was a stranger to them.

My point is, you can hardly argue, “They failed to catch any fish because they didn’t listen to Jesus.” Because when Jesus spoke to them, they did listen. They obeyed. Right away. The first time.

Finally, if they were doing something wrong by going fishing, why doesn’t Jesus admonish them? If they were sinning or disobeying him, why doesn’t he bring it up when they arrive back on shore? After all, by asking Peter three times whether he loves him or not, Jesus is certainly “bringing up” Peter’s disobedience the night Jesus was arrested—when Peter denied even knowing Jesus those three times.

No, I simply don’t see evidence they were doing anything wrong. And that’s Point Number One. They failed as fishermen, that’s true—because they didn’t catch anything; but their failure to “catch anything” wasn’t a failure of faith, as many people think. 

However… because Jesus is a master teacher, he’s going to use their failure as fishermen as a living parable to make a point about their lives as disciples—and ours.

And this brings us to Point Number Two: the meaning of failure

I was at a church-related conference in New York City last week—I know, the second conference in two weeks. But this is the last one for a while! But I was struck by a thought while I was having a quiet time in my hotel one morning: Back in 2016, my family and I vacationed in New York City. We had bought my daughter Elisa tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway as a Christmas gift that year—and that was a very hot ticket at the time. And so we made a vacation out of it. We drove up to Washington, D.C. Spent time there. And then drove up to New York.

And as I was reading having my quiet time, I had this thought: Six years ago, back in 2016—the last time I was in New York—I was also having a quiet time as I am today. I remember

And you might be thinking, “Of course you were having a quiet time! You’re a pastor!” But not to burst your bubble: there’s no “of-courseness” about it! By all means, I have a quiet time of prayer and scripture reading every morning. By all means, the “best part of waking up” is not Folger’s in my cup—although that’s a good and necessary part, too. No… the best part is spending time reading scripture and praying. And I do it every day. And I was doing it as least as far back as 2016. I remember being on vacation back then, waking up before the family, and having my quiet time.

I’m not saying this to brag, believe me!

In fact, a few weeks ago, I was making the rounds visiting Sunday school classes, as I usually do, and I ducked my head into Janet Kaup’s class. And they were in the middle of a discussion. And for some reason Janet asked me, “How long have you been having a daily quiet time?” While I was relieved that I didn’t even have to lie, because I do have a daily quiet time, I was slightly embarrassed to confess, “It’s only been six or seven years since I’ve had a quiet time every morning, seven days a week. I never miss it.”

They were so sweet; they didn’t even judge me: “You’ve been a pastor for 18 years and you’ve only had a daily quiet time for seven?” They didn’t say that. They were very sweet.

And Janet asked me why having a quiet time was important. And I think I said something like this: “Well, it’s not out of a sense of duty. I don’t do it merely because I’m ‘supposed to.’ It’s a matter of survival. I am so desperate to spend time with the Lord and let him speak to me and give me his grace and comfort and strength for the day that I have to do it!”

But here’s my point: As I was in my hotel in New York having my quiet time last week, I remembered what motivated me to finally start being consistent and having a daily quiet time. You know what it was? You know what finally motivated me?

Failure… Nothing other than failure… Around 2015 I was failing at the church to which I had been appointed. I’ll spare you the details, but I was dealing with some incredibly difficult staff and personnel issues. Someone who had been a minister on staff for thirty years was not only resisting me and my leadership; she was causing dissension… gossiping… stirring up trouble. One difficult lesson I learned was, just because I’m pastor doesn’t mean I’m automatically “in charge,” if you know what I mean. And the resistance I faced was so personal. It hurt me. It wounded my family… including two of my kids who were in youth group. So much so that my daughter asked if she could attend a different Methodist church. Which of course I was happy to let her do. But that hurt. And I’m not saying “I was right,” and everyone else was wrong. I share some of the blame. Because I failed to be an effective pastor, leader, manager. And it wounds my pride a little to even talk about this.

But it was during that time—in the midst of that failure—that I began having a daily quiet time. I needed to hear from the Lord. I needed desperately to pray more consistently. And this habit changed my life!

And it wouldn’t have happened at all without failure… 

Failure has a way of getting our attention like nothing else. Jesus has a way of getting our attention through failure like nothing else.

After all, it was through the disciples’ failure that Jesus got their attention: “But that night they caught nothing.” It’s easy to imagine their frustration. I don’t fish myself, but even I know that most fishermen wouldn’t like being asked the question Jesus asks in verse 5: “Children, do you have any fish?” They might have snapped back at him: “Mind your own business.” Or they might have lied to protect their pride. 

By the way, supposed they had lied and said they caught something. At which point, suppose Jesus had walked on water the hundred yards or so to their boat and said, “Oh, let me see how many you caught?” Boy, that would have been embarrassing! Can you imagine?

Instead, to the disciples’ great credit, they swallowed their pride and told Jesus the truth. “No… we haven’t caught anything.”

So that’s a good principle for living a Christian life: When we fail, we should be honest and confess our failures to the Lord… in prayer. And when we do so, we will be, like these disciples, in a unique position to hear Jesus speak to us… just like these disciples. They confronted their failure, confessed it, and Jesus gave them the victory.

Maybe you’re failing in your life right now—in your family, in your marriage, in your career, in your finances… or indeed, in your life as a disciple of Christ. I want you to take your failure as a sign that the Lord is trying to tell you something… right now. He’s trying to speak to you right now about a change you need to make. What is he saying?

Failure means that Jesus is trying to speak to you right now. Listen to him!

I like the way theologian Frederick Dale Bruner puts it in his commentary on this text: He says, “Failure is good manure.” That’s a clever way of putting it, because when we fail, our failure may look like manure. And it stinks like manure. And of course, there’s even a word many of us use to describe this manure more explicitly. But… the Bible says repeatedly, in many different ways, that if we’re children of God through faith in Christ, God can transform every failure into fertilizer… every time!2

That’s Point Number Two: Failure is a means by which our gracious Lord gets our attention, speaks to us, and enables us to grow and and change.

Point Number Three: Jesus applies this “living parable” to Peter’s own life and experience… and to teach Peter—and the rest of us—the meaning of forgiveness.

Here’s the first thing I need to say about it: You may recall that today’s scripture isn’t the first or only time in the gospels that Peter has been witness to a miraculous catch of fish. It happened over three years earlier, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, way back in Luke chapter 5, just before Jesus called his twelve disciples. Peter and some of the others had been up fishing all night. They hadn’t caught anything. Sound familiar? Jesus tells Peter to go over to a certain place on the lake, to cast his nets there, and there he’ll catch something. And what happens? He catches more fish than he’s ever caught before in his life… all the fishermen do. Their nets are bursting and the boat is sinking there are so many fish!

But does this make Peter happy? Does Peter run over to Jesus and say, “You and I need to start a fishing business together. We make a great team! Come back tomorrow and let’s do this again”? No. Luke 5, verse 8: “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” 

Peter understood, in that moment, that he was in the very presence of God, and guess what? It terrified him! And this sort of thing always happens in the Bible when sinners get too close to God. Think of the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah chapter 6. He has this amazing encounter with God in the Temple, and what’s the first thing he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah thinks he’s a dead man!

All of us sinners become afraid for our lives when we get too close to a perfectly holy and righteous and just God. Because we are not those things: We are sinners.

But do you see, then, how remarkably different Peter’s response to Jesus is in today’s scripture? When the apostle John shouts, “It is the Lord,” Peter can’t wait to see Jesus! He leaves the others with the fish, puts all his clothes back on, jumps in the water, and swims to shore he’s so eager to see Jesus.

So this time, instead of begging for his life or running away or wanting Jesus to leave, he can’t get to Jesus fast enough! 

What accounts for that change?

I think it’s like what Paul describes in Romans 6, verses 4 through 6: Paul talks about how we are united with Christ… Our “old self,” Paul says, was crucified with Christ3, so that Christ’s death counts as our death; his experience of hell counts as our experience of hell; his experience of God’s wrath counts as our experience of God’s wrath; his death penalty for sin counts as our death penalty for sin. Because Christ suffered and died for our sins, in our place, we won’t suffer and die for our sins; we won’t be punished; we won’t go to hell. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”4

Peter was more convinced than ever that Jesus was God in the flesh, yet he could jump out of that fishing boat and swim to Jesus as fast as he could because he knew that despite all his sins, despite his failures, despite all his mistakes of the past—Peter knew—that there was therefore now no condemnation for him, because he was in Christ Jesus!

Not only that… Notice verse 9: “When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.” In addition to teaching us the superiority of grilling over charcoal rather than propane—I mean, when it comes to grilling we can ask, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus would use charcoal, obviously! 

But that’s hardly the most important lesson… It’s no coincidence, I think, that that that word “charcoal” shows up in one other place in today’s scripture: Back in John 18:18, when the author tells us that Peter was warming himself by a charcoal fire… in the courtyard of the high priest… when what happened? When he denied even knowing Jesus… three times.

It’s easy to imagine—especially given the distinctive smell of charcoal and the power of smell to evoke memories—that being here, by a charcoal fire, in the dark of early morning, with Jesus, reminded Peter of that event weeks earlier, when he was in the dark, by a charcoal fire, with Jesus… and what he did back then… How he failed back then. Indeed, how he sinned… back then.

When Jesus asks Peter three times whether or not he loves him, he is not doing so to shame Peter. When Peter says he does love Jesus, Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, yeah? Then why did you deny me three times?” There’s no judgment here on Jesus’ part. So Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to shame him. Rather, Peter already feels ashamed. Peter’s sin and failure is already on Peter’s mind… The charcoal fire made him feel ashamed! And Jesus knows what’s on Peter’s mind, and this is why he asks him three times and and reassures and encourages him three times that in spite of the sins of his past Peter will be empowered to do great things for Jesus, great things for the gospel, great things for God’s kingdom. His sins haven’t disqualified him!

He is forgiven! Completely! Hebrews 8:12: God says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Forgiven sin is forgotten sin, as far as God is concerned. Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

And make no mistake: Peter still sinned even after this resurrection appearance. Paul himself describes confronting Peter for the sin of hypocrisy in Galatians chapter 2, verses 11 to 14. This was long after the resurrection. Peter did not become a perfect man after the resurrection, but Jesus is showing him in today’s scripture that because of the cross and the resurrection, Peter’s sins were wiped out… God wouldn’t punish Peter for his sins because those sins were already punished through Jesus on the cross… so Peter stood before God as if he had never sinned

And that happens to all of us Christians when we receive God’s gift of forgiveness through faith. And that’s Point Number Three: the meaning of forgiveness

Recently, in New York City—New York is on my brain… Since October of last year, people have returned 90,000 books that were long overdue and considered lost. Ninety thousand! One of those books that was recently returned was checked out in July of 1970. Fifty-two years ago. It’s been returned. Can you imagine how large the fine would be on that book? 

The good news for the person who borrowed that book—just months after yours truly was born… but the good news for the borrower of that book is that he’ll never have to find out what his fine is. Because they library system announced that they will no longer assess overdue fines. All is forgiven!

One article I read puts it like this:

The New York Public Library president Tony Marx said the system realized they were “not in the fine-collection business.” Rather, they are “in the encouraging-to-read-and-learn business, and we were getting in our own way.” The president of the New York Public Library system realized the “law” of fines and fees prevented the libraries from fulfilling their purpose. All the guilt and shame and debts accumulated and made it impossible for people to do the right thing and enjoy a library. When the penalties were absorbed and removed, however, everything changed. People “behaved” (returned books) and people enjoyed the library again.

It’s amazing what we will do when the motivation is right. When we are safe. When we are secure. When we truly believe we have nothing to lose.5

It’s amazing what we will do… when we are safe. When we are secure. When we truly believe we have nothing to lose. It’s amazing what Peter will do…

And this is Point Number Four: fearlessness. Look at what Peter himself would go on to do. Jesus prophesies the way Peter will die in verse 18: “but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Jesus is telling Peter how he will die… This “stretching out of his hands” refers to stretching out his hands on the cross… Peter will die in the same manner in which his Lord died!

This was the very thing that Peter feared would happen to him—this was his worst-case scenario—when he was standing in the courtyard of the high priest. Peter’s fear of being crucified was the reason he denied knowing Jesus… Yet Jesus is giving Peter good news: “There’s going to come a day when you’re going to be a different man. You’re going to be a better man. You’re going to be far more faithful man, a courageous man. In fact, you’re going to overcome your fears so much that instead of trying to save your skin when facing the cross, you’re going to glorify me by dying on that cross.”

How many times does Jesus tell us not to be afraid… not to be anxious… not to worry… to trust in him and he will always, ultimately, take care of us?

How often in our lives do we fail to believe Jesus when he says these things?

What is your worst-case scenario in life that you’re afraid of? What makes you anxious? What keeps you up at night?

Brothers and sister, Jesus wants to give you a victory over your fears. If he did it for Peter, he can do it for you!

  1. John 20:28
  2. See, for instance, Genesis 50:20, Romans 5:3-5; Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 3:21-23.
  3. Romans 6:6
  4. Romans 8:1
  5. Matt Pearson, “Second Dates, Library Fines, and Doing Good,” 6 April 2022, Accessed 30 April 2022.

2 thoughts on “Sermon 05-01-2022: “But That Night They Caught Nothing””

  1. Brent, you certainly have a way with alliteration! Makes it easier to remember your points. Good point about having quiet times. Hopefully I can start that back up. One small point–I am not totally certain that Jesus was not “bringing back up” Peter’s denials with Jesus’ thrice-repeated question of do you love me. It says, “Peter was grieved when the Lord asked him the third time.” I think Peter was certainly calling to mind his threefold failure and was somewhat desperately wanting to make sure it was clear that that failure was a thing of the past. It is true that Jesus “reaffirmed” Peter each time, but I do think Jesus asked three times specifically because Peter denied three times.

    1. Without rereading my sermon, I think I just meant that Peter’s denials were already on Peter’s mind, without any additional reminder… because of the charcoal fire. But Jesus’ threefold question intentionally calls back the denials. I hope I said something like that 🤔

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