One more time

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

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