“Fishing, Forgiveness, and Freedom” Colchester Federated Church, May 1, 2022, (John 21:1-19) Third Sunday of Easter

I spent ten summers working on a farm and running a road side farm stand for family friends growing up in Ohio.  When Dale, the farmer—needed help with baling hay and straw I was sometimes part of the crew and experienced the torture of stacking loads of hay on hot summer days.  Working with a bunch of guys on the farm was mostly fun—basically I was like their little sister they made fun of all the time. 

One day we were haymakin’.  Thomas was unloading the bales from the cage attached to the tractor and throwing the bales onto the ground.  Dale would pick them up and put them on the “elevator.”  The elevator (an old rusty conveyer belt) would shimmy those bales up into the barn where Kyle and I were located to stack them all up.  So I grabbed the next hay bale that fateful day and felt something slimy.  Low and behold, a snake had been in the field among the uncut hay and had somehow become a mangled part of that hay bale. 

Naturally, I investigated and saw this deceased snake, realizing that some of its remains were what was all over my hand and screamed.  Simultaneously, I released the hay bale into the air, lost my footing, and fell over backwards.  Thomas, Dale, and Kyle just heard me scream and saw me throw a hay bale and fall over, so they thought that I got hurt.  Bad accidents happen on farms when you’re working with all this heavy machinery.  So those guys all ran to help me only to discover that I had fallen over and screamed about a dead snake.  Never lived that down—they laughed so hard they cried and began wheezing with all the hay dust in the air.  The story of Lauren and the snake never got old, for them. 

Now as much as those guys teased me—before, during, and after the snake incident, I couldn’t fathom the care they actually had for me until they thought that I got hurt and came running to help.  In retrospect, their concern for my well-being was really sweet.  Part of what I love about our story today from the end of John’s Gospel is Peter’s reaction to Jesus—it’s also really sweet.  Peter jumps off the boat into the water and swims to shore when the Beloved Disciple realizes and proclaims that Jesus is right over there.  Peter can’t keep his excitement contained; he has to run to see Jesus on the beach now.  No, Jesus isn’t in trouble or hurt.  It’s just this beautiful moment of Peter in action—jumping, swimming, and running to see his teacher and friend, to tend to him somehow, to be next to him. 

On Easter Sunday and on the Sundays that follow, we explore various peoples’ encounters with the Risen Christ.  Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the empty tomb, and then to the male disciples in the locked room that same evening.  Eight days later, Jesus appeared to Thomas and the other disciples in the locked room (the story of Doubting Thomas that we heard last Sunday).  The final Resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel is the one we just heard and it centers the experience of Peter. 

The setting itself is interesting.  It almost feels like we are back to where this all began for Jesus and his disciples.  At least that’s part of what John is going for here in telling the story.  Because we’re back to fishing on the Sea of Galilee just like before Jesus called these professional fishermen to leave their nets behind to help him fish for people.  The disciples have gone from locking themselves behind those closed doors out of fear of persecution to back in sunny Galilee to seemingly get back to work on the water.  Peter tells some of the disciples, “I’m going fishing” and Nathanael, James, John, and two other disciples decide to go with him.[1] 

As Episcopal Priest Gary Jones points out, isn’t this exactly how human beings deal with emotional overload—by trying to go back to the familiar, returning to our former lives as best as we can?  The disciples try to retreat from the crucifixion and resurrection by going back to their known trade—fishing.  Yet what they discover is that Jesus is already there!  Jesus is there waiting to serve and feed them once they get out of their fishing boats and get back to shore. There is no going back to the way things were. We can’t flee from the presence of God; we cannot go where God is not. [2]

The story even begins in a similar way to another encounter between Jesus and the disciples on the lake in the Gospel of Luke as Jesus called out to them after they’ve had an unsuccessful night of fishing.  This time Jesus says, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”[3]  They do, and there’s so many fish that they can’t even haul in the net.  We’re even told that there are specifically 153 fish.  Yet the net hadn’t even torn, even with that many fish.  John recognizes that it’s Jesus who called out to them first.  Who else could it be?  Peter jumps into the water to see for himself. 

Once on shore, Jesus offers the disciples some breakfast.  Jesus had already made a fire on the beach and was cooking fish for breakfast.  Jesus gave them the bread and the fish before turning his full attention to Peter.  Jesus asks Peter three times “do you love me” and helps Peter to redeem the three times that he denied Jesus.  Jesus offers fish.  Jesus offers forgiveness.  Jesus offers freedom to live transformed lives.  This Gospel story ends with Peter affirming his love for Jesus three times and being entrusted to care for his fellow disciples as a shepherd cares for their sheep.

In the end, this Resurrection appearance is deeply moving.  We must never forget that Jesus begins his signs in the Gospel according to John by turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana (to prevent families from being shamed as bad hosts and to keep the festivities going).  And Jesus ends his signs by making a fire and having a fish fry cookout on the beach for his friends after another miraculous catch of fish.  Human and divine acts of abundance and compassion.  For Jesus came that we might have life, so that we could live our lives to the fullest. 

Sometimes we will fish all night long and our nets will be empty.  We may try to go back to the familiar, but find that there is no going back to the way that things were.  Because it’s just not possible.  Though perhaps compassion and nurture from God (or from each other) are right there on the horizon.  Maybe we meet those grace-filled moments in our lives with child-like delight like Peter leaping into the water and running to have some fish for breakfast with his friend Jesus on the beach.  Jesus does call out to us—to you and to me—ready to feed us in the midst of our daily labors.  So let’s have the courage to get out of our boats and jump at the chance to experience God in our lives, to accept new life and abundance freely offered.  And just remember on the hard days that we cannot go where God is not.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 21:3, CEB.
[2] Gary D. Jones, Pastoral Perspective of John 21:1-19 in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., Year C, Volume 2, 422.
[3] John 21:6.

Photo by Eduardo Goody on Unsplash