“Gone Fishing”

John 21:1-14

April 18, 2004


How quickly time goes by.  A week has already passed since we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Once again Easter Sunday has come and gone for us.  The emotions of Holy Week have subsided, the excitement of Easter Sunday has settled down, and churches are returning to their pre-Easter worship attendance levels. 

And yet, one look at the bulletin header for this Sunday reminds us that Easter has not stopped.  Easter Sunday may have come and gone, but the Easter Season continues, and it will continue for the next 40 days until Pentecost. 

In my sermon last week, I made the claim that Easter is more than just about one day.  Easter is about the on-going encounter with the living Christ as post-resurrection Christians.  It is this fuller meaning of Easter that reminds us that our faith is not centered on the empty tomb, but on the one, who appeared in the flesh to the apostles and disciples after God raised him from the dead. 

We are an Easter people precisely because the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not stop on Easter Sunday, but continues to be the on-going conviction and confession of our faith from our own encounter with the living Christ. 

It is the living Lord of life who makes us an Easter people, and it is his message and commandment that continues to have profound implications for who we are and what we have been called to be and do as God’s people.  This is why our story for this morning is one of my favorite post-resurrection stories, because it speaks so much to us about what it means to live in the on-going message of the resurrection as Easter people.  

Let me take a moment to set our story for this morning in context.  John has already told us in chapter 20 that Jesus appeared to the disciples, not once, but twice after he was raised from the dead.  The second time being the story of when Jesus proved he was alive in the flesh by showing the holes in his hands and sides to Thomas.  And our story for this morning comes directly after these first two appearances.

Now, one would think that the first two appearances of the resurrected Jesus would be enough to get the disciples going in their ministry and mission, but in our story for today this isn’t the case.  In fact, there is no excitement, no going out to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, no making disciples of all nations, no baptizing of anyone.  There is no sense at all that the disciples have any idea what the resurrection means for them and for their life as Easter people.  Instead, we are introduced to a group of seven disciples who are not sure what is next for them, as if they are saying, “Okay, Jesus is raised from the dead, and we believe, but now what do we do?”  They almost seem stuck somewhere between the time of Easter Sunday and the time after Easter. 

Well, Peter has an idea.  He’s going fishing.  So he hangs up his “Gone Fishing” sign and walks off to the docks.  We can’t be really sure from the text why he decided to go fishing.  Maybe he just wanted to take a break from all the excitement of the last week.  Maybe he just wanted a moment to reflect on some things and get his head cleared before he sets off on his great evangelistic journey. 

Many people since Peter have discovered that fishing – or golfing, or cross-stitching, or vacationing, or whatever people do when they get tired of doing what they are supposed to be doing – is a great way to unwind and think about what’s been happening in their life and where their life is heading.  We can’t say for sure what Peter’s motivations are, but we do know that whatever it was, it was enough to get the other disciples to grab their fishing gear and go with Peter.  After all he has been kind of like their leader for the last three years as they followed Jesus around.

          Some commentators, however, read more into this fishing trip than a simple, guys’ day out kind of thing.  They see Peter’s actions as nothing short of defection.  They not only see Peter leaving his discipleship back on shore, but he has carried six others out to sea with him.  Despite his belief that the Jesus of his past has now become the Jesus of his present in the resurrection, Peter just walks away from any commitment and connection to Christ.  It does make you wonder if these commentators are on to something.  There does seem to be an air of finality to Peter’s words when he says, “I’m going fishing,” as if he means “permanently.”

          At first glance, this seems to be a rather harsh criticism of the times when we go do the things we like to do to unwind and think and take a break from all those things we are supposed to be doing.  We all get burned out, even me.  We all need time to recharge our batteries, clear our head, and reflect upon God, or life, or whatever.  But this is not what our text is saying. 

There is a big difference between what we sometimes go and do, and what Peter did.  Peter and the disciples didn’t just go take a break from what they were supposed to be doing.  They went back to their old way of life, to their old ways of doing things, to the old reliable line of work.  They went back to living in the life that they knew even before meeting Jesus.

The danger for us is in this post-resurrection time is to do the same thing: to return to our own old ways of life, to our old ways of doing things, to our old reliable line of work now that the celebration of Easter Sunday has ended; to hang out our “Gone Fishing” sign, and go on as if our life has never been changed and made new by the light of the resurrection and the Spirit of the living Christ. 

But, being an Easter people means that we have been changed and made new by event of the resurrection of Jesus.  It means that the on-gong message of Easter and the fact that Jesus is the living Lord of our life continues to have profound implications for our lives of faith, whenever and wherever we may find ourselves in our day-to-day life.

Each one of us has been put in a specific place and in a specific time for a specific purpose.  We no longer have an occupation; each one of us has been given a vocation, a calling to make everything we do a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and an opportunity to do God’s work in the world.  And it is in just those moments when we do decide to hang up our “Gone Fishing” sign that Jesus’ appears to us and reminds us of our greater purpose, just like he did with Peter.

          The conversation between Jesus and Peter while they eat breakfast is so personal and intimate that it is as if Jesus is talking directly to us.  Scholars and pastors have long puzzled over the meaning of Jesus’ question to Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”  Some say Jesus is referring to the disciples love for Jesus as in “Do you love me more than the disciples love me?  Others say Jesus is referring to Peter’s love for Jesus compared to Peter’s love for the other disciples as in “Do you love me more than you love the other disciples?” 

But what if Jesus is referring to something else?  What if Jesus is looking at the “Gone Fishing” sign over Peter’s life, and while they are sitting at breakfast, Jesus reaches down, grabs a hold of one of the fish that they caught, lifts it front of Peter’s eyes, and asks, “Do you love me Peter?  Do you love me more than you love these fish?  Do you love me more than your old way of life, your old ways of doing things, your old reliable line of work?  Don’t you remember when I first came to you and called you as my disciples?  Don’t you remember that morning long ago when you hadn’t caught anything all night, and I told you to let down your nets into the water and when you did you caught so much fish that your nets were about ready to break?  Don’t you remember when I said to you, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of people’?  Don’t you see that I have come again to you the same way today?  Do you love me more than these, Peter?  Then feed my lambs.  Do you love me more than these, Peter?  Then tend my sheep.  Do you love me more than these, Peter?  Then feed my sheep.  Peter, follow me.”

          Being an Easter people, an Easter people who live in the light of the resurrection, and who confess faith in the resurrected and living Christ, means that we can never put our calling to follow Jesus on permanent hold.  It means that we can never forget that Jesus has called us to ministry and mission in all times and places, wherever we are and in whatever we are doing. 

I can’t tell you how many times when I have been working hard on something, whether it be a sermon, a Sunday school lesson, a Bible study, or one of the numerous projects on my desk, when I have received a call from a stranger needing help with food, or gas, or some kind of crisis.  Every time that happens, I am reminded again that this is not my occupation, but my vocation as Christ’s loving servant and faithful witness.  Every time that happens, I am reminded again that Jesus’ has called me to feed his lambs and tend his sheep and follow him.  Every time that happens I am reminded again to take down my “Gone Fishing” sign and remember the on-going message of Easter of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.    

From his encounter with the living Christ, Peter would indeed remove is “Gone Fishing” sign.  He would go on to live an extraordinary life.  He would go on and continue to lead the church and make it possible for nearly the entire world to encounter the love of God in Christ.  He would go on to heal people’s pain, bring good news to the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and work for justice and liberation.  And he would go on to be executed for his faith in Jesus, the Stranger who stood on the beach that day, and who again said, Follow me.” 

We will not always know at first the identity of the stranger who calls to us on the beach of our lives, but we can be sure that whenever and wherever we meet them, we will come face to face with the living Christ.  For in following him, we will not only live a life pleasing to God, but we will also experience the hope, peace, and joy that comes from remaining faithful to the ministry and mission that he has called us to do as his Easter people.  Amen.