Fish for Breakfast (Easter 3C)
After these things Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Now he revealed himself in this way: Simon Peter and Thomas (who was called Didymus) and Nathanael from Cana in Galilee and the sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing!” They said to him, “We also are coming with you.” They went out and got into the boat, and during that night they caught nothing. Now when it was already early morning, Jesus stood on the beach. However, the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish to eat, do you? They answered him, “No.” And he said to them, “Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they threw it, and were no longer able to haul it in from the large number of the fish. Then that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” So Simon Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, tied around himself his outer garment (for he was naked) and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net of fish, because they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits away. So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire laid there, and a fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just now caught.” So Simon Peter got into the boat and hauled the net to the land, full of large fish—one hundred fifty-three—and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, eat breakfast!” But none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he had been raised from the dead. Now when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs!” He said to him again a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Shepherd my sheep!” He said to him a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed because he said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you!” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep! Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you tied your clothes around yourself and walked wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will tie you up and carry you where you do not want to go. (Now he said this to indicate by what kind of death he would glorify God.) And after he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me!”
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:2).
Humans are captivated by epic stories. Whether it’s the great mythological stories of epic heroes and heroines, the grand narratives of Lewis and Tolkien, or even modern popular classics in the likes of Harry Potter. You see, stories aren’t just frivolous flights of fancy: they are what bring families and society together. They’re the building blocks of civilization. We tell stories about our heritage, about current events, and about our dreams of the future. We use stories to teach the next generation. Our kids use stories to learn about the world. And at the end of every great epic story, a story filled with ups and downs, conflicts and resolutions, cliffhangers and drama and battles and excitement, every story ends with a conclusion that often mirrors the beginning, and every character returns to normal life. And, if the story is good enough, we the readers ask the question, “Now what?”
In this passage at the very end of the gospel of John, we encounter the disciples of Jesus in a unique, intimate moment. After three years of journeying together and having their lives turned upside-down, Jesus dies. And although he is raised from the dead and has revealed himself in person to the disciples, they simply go back to normal life. And so Simon Peter, James and John, and some others are back in Galilee fishing. The adventure is over. The drama concluded. And there’s almost a sense of discouragement that the story has ended. Jesus isn’t around anymore—at least they haven’t really seen him since he appeared and proved to Thomas that he was real—and the disciples clearly aren’t really sure what to do with their lives now.
And, not knowing what to do next—in typical fashion—Simon Peter decides to go fishing! And so, some of the disciples go with him, and they fish all...night...long. And they catch nothing. And so this atmosphere of discouragement and melancholy is only heightened by their inability to catch any fish. And they’re fishermen by trade! This is pure dejection.
The grand, epic story has ended. And the characters have returned to normal life.
And all of a sudden, a man appears on the shore, perhaps looking to purchase some fish. And he calls to them across the sea: “Do you have any fish?!” And they answer him in disappointment. *sigh* “No...”
And in a moment that seems strangely familiar, the man tells them to cast their nets again. And you can just see the look on John’s face as he recognizes this voice and looks out on the shore and realizes…“is that...Jesus?!”
And all of a sudden, there’s a change in the tempo of the story. You can feel the energy return. The story isn’t over. Jesus’ appearance is a surprise. This isn’t to be taken for granted. This is an unusual thing for someone who has died to appear again. And there’s so many fish, their nets seemed like they were starting to break!
And Peter jumps in the water and eagerly swims to the shore as fast as he can. And there’s a type of Eucharistic celebration—a liturgical tone to this breaking and blessing of the bread and the intimacy of this breakfast meal.
And all of a sudden, we are transported back to the first time Jesus came by the Galilean shores in search of fishermen all those years ago. A lot has happened since that first time that Jesus called these men to follow him. And we are reminded that in the last interaction Peter has had with Jesus, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times. And sure enough, seeing the terrifying events of Jesus’ final days before his death, Peter did reject Jesus in fear.
And here they are together again and Jesus, not using the intimate name that he himself gave Peter, calls Peter “Simon,” for the first time since they were on this shore three years ago.
And in a moment of heartfelt redemption, Jesus asks Simon Peter, “[After everything that’s happened,] do you love me?” “[After finally understanding what I came here to do,] do you love me?” “[After watching me die a criminal’s death,] do you love me? [More than this place, more than this life, more than everything you have]?”
And with Peter’s response, they both know in this intimate moment that finally, Peter understands what it means to follow Jesus. Peter finally understands the weight and suffering and sacrifice that Jesus is calling him into.
And just as Jesus invited Peter earlier to be a fisher—a respected vocation in the ancient world—and a fisher of men to be precise, Jesus now invites Peter to be a shepherd—an unwanted, lowly profession—and a shepherd to Jesus’ followers. And then, just to add the icing on the cake of sacrifice, Jesus tells Peter exactly what his future will look like. “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Peter must face the fact that he must be martyred. And what’s Peter going to do? Deny Jesus again? Run away? Or stay the course?
And in a beautiful moment of fulfillment, Jesus beckons him once more: “Follow me.”
And Peter, the disciples, and even us as the readers, finally understand: the command won’t work. “Follow me.” Peter can’t. He’s already tried and failed on his own might. “Follow me.” We can’t...on our own. But something is different now. Now, Jesus has died and been raised from the dead. Now, Jesus is physically present with them as a new creation. Now, Jesus is about to send them a guide, a helper, his Holy Spirit to live within them.
And all of sudden we realize that Jesus’ beckoning for us to follow him is far less of an imperative command than it is an intimate invitation into the fullness of life that Jesus freely gives us, and gives us in abundance.
This is the most intimate, direct, personal story perhaps in all the gospels. It’s not epic at all. In fact it’s quite simple. Here we get no more parables, no more sermons (on a mount or anywhere else), no more walking on water or opening a blind person’s eyes. Instead, across the first dozen or more verses of this story Jesus says just some very basic things:
“Catch anything?” “Come and have breakfast.”
And in this ordinary story of everyday life, we’re reminded: “isn’t this exactly the place where we need to encounter the Savior, too? We don’t need only a stained-glass Jesus who is other-worldly and who speaks words only meant for the holiest and most obviously sacred of events and occasions. We need a Jesus in the kitchen, “amid the pots and pans” as Theresa of Avila put it. We need a Jesus on the beach and at the office, in the car with us and while shopping at the mall. We need a Savior who accompanies us on our everyday journeys, who sees us in those ordinary circumstances, and who speaks into those times and places, too. In this place on the shore of Galilee, we get to know Jesus more intimately. In this gospel, there is an opportunity to know Jesus more directly as a real person.
Because you see, in this Easter season, the truth of the resurrection goes far beyond the empty tomb. We need to remember the call of Jesus, a call to follow him that points to what the fullness of grace really can be—when all hope is gone, when you wonder what you are doing, when you think there is no future, when your well has dried up, when you doubt that grace is even true, when you question if grace is really for you: the resurrected savior of the world will always show up on the shore when we least expect it, surprise us with a heck of a lot of bread and fish, and invite us to share a meal and discover him once again.
And all of a sudden, the epic story, seemingly finished and completed, has actually just begun.