I had an offensive line coach in college named Mike Preston; we all called him Presto. This is Presto — as you can tell from his facial expression, he’s a fun, easy-going guy. It was actually his second time being hired by our head coach. The first time, our head coach had to fire him because he got caught threatening to fight one of his players in the parking lot. He was a great guy. Anyway, anytime he wanted to speak with us individually, he would often call us into his office and start off by saying, “I can’t help but notice a pattern…” And as soon as we heard that, we knew there was a torpedo in the water. Either we were about to get chewed out for something or we were about to lose our spot or something. But, despite that, my time spend under his tutelage had a profound effect on me in a lot of ways, but one of them is I began to have an eye for patterns.
And this shaped me as I got married and had kids and got into ministry, but it also changed the way I read the bible. I started to recognize technical patterns, like intertextual repetition of words and phrases between books and how something over here might relate back to this thing back here and all that good stuff. But I also noticed patterns in the bible’s characters, both for good or for ill. Jesus’ patterns: mostly good. His disciples’ patterns: mostly bad. Why? Because they they were idiots. Our text this morning is about two of these patterns coming into contact with one another. And when Jesus’ pattern collides with one of our patterns, some amazing things can happen.
Now, there’s a lot of debate surrounding this 21st chapter of John. A lot of scholarship suggests that the original ending of this gospel was the last two verses of chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you man come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” This seems like a nice, conclusive ending. It’s totally warranted that there would be some opinions that want to dismiss chapter 21 as a later addition. And I don’t really have an opinion about this; I’m just pointing out a problem. Chapter 21 does not organically flow from the end of chapter 20.
Regardless, though, the scene opens to find the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Now, you’re probably asking yourself, “Where is the Sea of Tiberias? I’ve never heard of this body of water before.” I’m so glad you asked. If we back up in John’s Gospel to chapter 6, the first verse says this: “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.” So, the Sea of Galilee, around which much of Jesus’ ministry happened, is the same as the Sea of Tiberias. Now, standing by this sea is Peter, Thomas (who were talked about last week), Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples — apparently, John wasn’t great with names — and our text says: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat but that night they caught nothing.”
Now, this may seem like an insignificant detail, right? "What does it matter if the disciples are going fishing? That doesn’t change anything.” Well, it changes everything. Let’s pause here for a minute and jump over to the 4th chapter of Matthew: “As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” So, Jesus called these disciples while they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee and now, after everything they’ve been through, where do we find them if not back fishing in the Sea of Galilee?
Remember: patterns. God’s people have this kind of a pattern: to experience God’s incredible, liberating love and power and yet, when the excitement is over and the dust settles, regressing back to the misery we already know, instead of leaning into the mystery in front of us. If we give it the opportunity, misery will beat out mystery every time. Let’s put a pin in this for a minute and go way back to the book of Exodus. This is one of the first five books of the Old Testament, commonly called the Torah. And, in chapter 16, we get a glimpse of the Israelite community just two months after they’ve been liberated from slavery in Egypt, and this is what they say: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”
So, the Israelites were literally just freed from slavery and they’re already saying that they wish they could go back. Bear in mind, the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, so they have another 39 years and 10 months of this. But instead of trusting in God’s provision and plan ahead of them, their initial instinct is just to go back to that thing that was terrible, but at least it was predictable. This is the same with our disciples. Their teacher is dead. And even though they’ve experienced the resurrected Christ and they’ve received the Holy Spirit, what should they do if not go back to that thing that was terrible, but predictable. If the Israelites had this pattern and the disciples had this pattern, then the question should be asked as to whether or not we have this pattern.
We’ve all experienced the risen Christ. We’ve all been forced to set aside our own ego and act in the way of love. But how many of us have experienced the risen Christ, have had some kind of mystical experience or been moved by the overwhelming suffering and oppression in the world and just go back to our daily routine without even giving it a second thought? You may even be in that space at this very moment. People are dying. Refugees and unarmed black people are dying. White supremacists are terrorizing our Jewish and Muslim neighbors. It would be very easy to just turn the other way and avoid the awkward conversations and keep yourself out of it for fear of the unknown it would thrust you into. But, I urge you friends, DO NOT do that. Don’t go backward. Don’t go back to the fleshpots of Egypt or your nets and boats. It’s time to kill that pattern and to keep moving forward.
The disciples didn’t move forward. They went backward, and they found themselves with nothing. But that all changes when Jesus shows up. Our text says Jesus stood on the beach and called out to the disciples, asking them if they’d caught anything. They said no, and so Jesus tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat and they ended up catching so many fish that they couldn’t haul it into the boat. Now, there are a lot of different interpretations of this and how it might have been possible. And some theorize that maybe a school of fish swam by just at that moment, and some think maybe they couldn’t haul it in because the net was snagged on something and don’t all of these theories kind of miss the point? The resurrected Jesus — the guy who was killed a few days ago but is somehow alive again — is standing on the beach! Once we realize that, figuring out the fish should be easy.
But it’s at this moment that the disciples finally realize that it is, indeed, Jesus. And I absolutely love what happens next: “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” Like…what??? First of all, why was Peter naked? As far as I can tell, naked fishing was not a common ancient practice. But second of all, why did he put on clothes before jumping into the water? This is all very confusing, to say the least. But, ultimately, we really don’t know why Peter takes reacts in this way. But when he gets to the shore, he hauls in the net of fish: 153 of them to be exact.
Now, it would be very easy to take this bait and follow the rabbit trail of why John chose this number. And, luckily for you, this past week when I was preparing, I took the bait hard. About midway through the week, if you were to have walked into my office, you would have seen something like this. Unfortunately, there really aren’t any clear answers out there as it relates to this question. But my favorite theory is this one: 153 is the triangle of 17. So, if you add up 1 through 17 in succession, you get 153. Now, at the end of the preceding chapter, there are four key words: sign, believe, Christ and life. If we count the number of times those words appear in the gospel up to and including the end of chapter 20, this is what we find: Sign = 17 Believe = 98 Christ = 19 Life = 36. So, we have 17, the triangle of 153. And what do you get when you add up 98, 19, and 36? 153. #BiblicalCocktailPartyTalkingPoints.
Now, this is all a little far-fetched and I don’t really buy into it but what’s actually important is what happens after they bring the fish ashore: “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did then same with the fish.” Remember: patterns. Jesus has a pattern of feeding us; of caring for us; of looking after us even after we’ve abandoned him in favor of the past. And sometimes these patterns meet, and when they do, we can’t really help but be changed. When we return to our day-to-day lives and yet still encounter our risen Lord, we can’t really help but realize that we’ve lost our way.
If you want to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt or back to your boat and nets, you’re free to do that. But you have to at least know that what lies ahead of you is so much better than anything you’ve left behind. Is it scary? Yes. Is it unpredictable? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that the Lord isn’t leading you there. One of the things I always tell our leadership board is that “leadership” means taking a group of people to a place they wouldn’t go otherwise. As a community, it would be easy to stay where we are or go back to the “good ol’ days.” But that’s not where we’re called; we’re called to move forward and outward; to not be just “disciples” but “apostles”; to not only be fed by community, but to invite others into it. So, don’t look back. Kill that pattern and keep moving forward and know that the risen Christ is with you — feeding you, caring for you — every step of the way.