Updated: May 10
In the first two resurrection appearances of Jesus, the stories began with absence and then the risen Lord was revealed. Here, however, John begins with a disclosure: “Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius.” The Evangelist seems to take away some of the suspense as we hear this opening to this final narrative in his Gospel. Rather, the emphasis now is on the “How” of this revelation along with the questions of “To Whom” and “Where.” “Where” is an easy one. The disciples are no longer in Jerusalem, but back up in Galilee. More
specifically, they are at the Sea of Tiberius. (The name, a reminder that Rome’s power over life and death even extends up here in this area with so many pleasant memories.) “To whom” is quite interesting. John provides us with a list of seven disciples, two of whom are unnamed. A long list of Jesus disciples, but not all eleven. Makes you wonder why these seven were together up at the Sea of Tiberius. One commentator notes that the named disciples—Peter, Thomas,
Nathanael, and Zebedee’s sons--have several traits in common. First, they have all revealed doubts about their relationship with Jesus (remember “Doubting Thomas?”). Then, each has offered a confession of faith (recall Thomas’ “My Lord and my God!”?). Finally, they have all been questioned by Jesus as to their faith (as Jesus responds to Thomas,
“Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”). So you have to wonder whether St. John was thinking of his own churches and, most every church, when he provided this list. I mean, couldn’t our names be added to this list of doubting/faithful followers who have been called by Jesus? Nevertheless, the expanded version of this list—including most all of us—does provide the information regarding the “To Whom” of this story. What remains is the “How,” the plot of the story in which the risen Jesus revealed himself to his disciples.
It begins with Peter’s announcement, “I am going fishing.” At once we have questions. Is this a sign that Peter is making a retrograde move back to his old life or is there some intimation of his new role as a “fisher of people” reflected here? Do his words express new mission or prior vocation? Not sure. But, maybe with nothing else to do, the others chime in that they will go along and all of them “get into the boat.” St. John then tells us a critical detail about their expedition: it was at night. They were attempting to fish in the dark! And given the entire Gospel, it is no surprise whatsoever that they caught nothing. In fact, if they had caught even a couple of minnows while it was dark, that would be a startling exception to the rule in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and we come to expect that he will remain in the shadows rather than courageously follow Jesus openly. Is it a surprise, then, that our own “culture of disbelief”1 involves so much violence and such an abundance of falsehoods? Not really. The world is a world of darkness, John insists in the Prologue to his Gospel. Watch any news and the magnitude of darkness is overwhelming. We now have new names for such darkness over there in the Ukraine—“Mariupol,” “Bucha”, the list goes on and on. So no surprise that Peter and his companions caught no fish all night long. As the dawn began to dispel the darkness on the water, all they had was great disappointment and very weary bodies. That night, John tells us, “They caught nothing.”
But by dawn’s new light, we learn that “Jesus was standing on the shore.” Not realizing that it was the risen Jesus, the disciples hear his question: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Being addressed by this very domestic word for “children,” you might have thought that the disciples would have recognized their Lord immediately. But not really,. They were too focused on their failure and fatigue. “No,” they truthfully answer. Then the “stranger” on the shore offers some advice: “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they do, and they could not pull the net into the boat because of the number of fish. Finally, the identity of Jesus comes clear to the disciple whom Jesus loved: “It is the Lord,” he exclaims! At which point, Peter engages in some really confusing activities. He puts on his cloak, having been naked during the fishing in-the-dark exercise and “throws himself” into the sea. Once again, this impetuous disciple has gone overboard, quite like his request that Jesus wash not only his feet but his entire self. And while Peter is splashing along, the others are left to the struggle of getting the little boat with the huge catch of fish to shore. Once they brought the little boat and the net full of fish to the shore, they got out of the boat. The previous evening as darkness approached, they go into the boat; now, in the growing light, they get out of the little boat.
Once ashore, the disciples see Jesus there by “a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.” (Makes you wonder what shameful memories flashed in Peter’s mind about the last time he was near a charcoal fire there in the High Priest’s courtyard.) Jesus turns to them and says “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” Those freshly caught fish were to be added to those already on the charcoal fire. Odd, though, about this invitation to bring other fish to a meal already cooking away. One scholar reflects that what is going on here could relate to the Johannine churches and their being brought into communion with the other apostolic churches. Or maybe, at a more immediate level, the focus is on the “fish,” the resources and experiences we bring to the community of faith, and how our gifts can enrich those having come from the Spirit-infused one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Every culture, every people is invited to bring their own “fish” to the banquet!
(Here, the preacher is invited to lift up some of the distinctive gifts of the local community and celebrate how they enrich the whole Church and its mission.)
Of course, all true gifts come from God, and we delight in that “great exchange” as they are offered back to our Lord. Pope Francis put it this way: “It means that the church contains in herself, in her very nature, an openness to all peoples and cultures of all times, because Christ was born, died and rose again for everyone,”2 “Bring some of the fish you just caught,” we hear. So we offer the very best gifts of ourselves and our culture.
It fell to Simon Peter to go back to the boat and he dragged the net with the huge catch of fish ashore. The net was full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Of course, if you read various commentaries about the meaning of this specific number of large fish, you find all sorts of interesting theories. Unfortunately, St. John has chosen not to reveal; any further information as to the meaning of this tally of large fish. Still, we are told one thing—“the net was not torn,” it doesn’t break or split. There is to be no division, no schism within the church even as it deals with the challenges of so many peoples with their own traditions and long-held beliefs. The net is not torn. Then Jesus invites the disciples to this early morning Communion: “Come and have breakfast.” But the disciples stand there in the sand on the beach and do not respond to the invitation. They are paralyzed and seem incapable of moving toward their risen Lord and this Eucharist. Instead, “Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.” Here is utter grace. How many times have we felt paralyzed when invited to the Holy Meal, feeling immobile because of a sense of unworthiness or that doubt again, or, well you name it. So our risen Lord takes the Bread of Heaven which is his Body and serves us, today. This Eucharist is our Communion breakfast with the risen Lord Jesus on the beach. We may have been fishing all night and have caught nothing in our own lives, but in the light of this new dawn, we are fed by the risen Christ. In a short while, we will hear these words proclaimed:
Jesus said to his disciples: Come and eat.
And he took bread and gave it to them, alleluia.
“Children, …come have breakfast. Amen.
1 See: Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).
2 Pope Francis, “Pope: Church Must Respect other Cultures, Not Impose Itself,” Catholic News Service, October 13, 2021, accessed April 22, 2022, https://www.catholicnews.com/pope-church-must-respect-other-cultures-notimpose-itself/