Following Jesus

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John 21:1-14

We’re told in verse 14 that this was the third time Jesus revealed himself to his disciples after he rose from the dead. Actually, Jesus revealed himself to only seven of the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, which is the same shore where, in the very beginning of his ministry, he called Peter and Andrew and James and John to follow him as his disciples. At the very place where the greatest adventure these men had ever experienced began, Jesus lovingly and graciously called them back to their primary task.

When you read the last two verses of chapter 20, something seems odd. It seems as if John intended to close his gospel at the end of chapter 20. See if this doesn’t sound like an ending to you.

“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Sounds like an ending to me. Why, then, did John include chapter 21? Bible scholars believe John had a specific purpose for including this story.

We know John’s gospel was the last one to be written. Most likely he had read the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John may have noticed that each of those gospels ends with Jesus commanding his disciples to fulfill their mission of making disciples. John’s gospel is different from the other three; and, true to form, chapter 21 is John’s unique way of ending his gospel with Jesus sending his disciples on mission for him.

As John thought about how to close his gospel, he decided to tell about an event that he and six other of the disciples experienced by the seashore. This story provides us with a marvelous picture of what it means to follow Jesus.

Having grown up here in Clinton, so close to the coast, I loved to go fishing. It was purely recreational to me, and still is today, although I seldom get to do it. Those who fish for a living have live a tough existence. They have to fight the elements in an attempt to make a living from the sea. Fishing for a living is a lot like farming. It seems to get into your blood and that’s all you want to do.

These seven disciples were together on the seashore, and Simon Peter said, “I’m going out to fish.” Peter was a fisherman by trade, before Jesus called him. The other disciples went along with Peter, and off they went in the boat.

It’s not hard to understand why Peter wanted to go fishing. At times, we all need an escape, a place we can go to rest our minds and souls. If fishing does this for you, then you know why Peter and the others disciples went fishing. Many of us survive by means of our boats.

The events of the last few days, particularly Jesus’ crucifixion and death, had overwhelmed them, but then seeing Jesus raised from the dead was almost more than their minds and bodies could take. Needing a break from it all, they went fishing. Some hours on the sea perhaps would enable them to make some sense out of what was happening to them.

It’s also possible that Peter, still suffering from guilt for denying he knew the Lord, intended to go back to his former life and vocation. It could be that the other disciples felt the same way, and, Peter being their leader, they did what Peter suggested.

Fishing was the life calling of most of these men before Jesus called them to a new task in life—fishing for men. It may be that John means to tell us in this story that these men, rather than getting on with the great task Jesus gave them to do, headed back to what was for them a more comfortable, and perhaps rewarding, occupation. It seems Peter had lost sight of Christ’s call for him to leave his old way of life and follow him into the future. Peter, it seems, was ready to put limits on the horizons of his life. He was just going to fish for fish rather than fish for men. After all, fishing for fish is a heck of a lot easier than it is to fish for men.

Through the years I’ve listened as a number of friends and fellow ministers have shared with me their regrets for not having followed Christ’s call when it came to them. They said that when the call came, they opted for what seemed more comfortable to them, better suited for their family, and more financially rewarding. I know some here this morning faced this same temptation. I also know that some of you decided to follow Jesus, regardless of the cost. There may be others here who went another way. To a greater or lesser degree, we all face this temptation after becoming a follower of Christ.

As John continued writing the conclusion to his gospel, he wanted to help us see that when we settle for less in life, that’s what we’ll get—less. When what we want conflicts with what our Lord wants from us, we have to decide whether we’ll follow Jesus and bear the cross for him, or go our own way.

Peter’s and the other disciples’ were so confused that it seems they had lost the vision of the kingdom that Jesus’ call had given them. They needed something to happen to restore that vision.

One of my favorite writers lived way back in the 19th century. His name was Sǿren Kierkegaard. He had a way of revealing truth that captures the imagination, while at the same time challenging the reader to do great things for God. Kierkegaard wrote:

When the prosperous man on a dark but star-lit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lantern lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him and it is not dark around him; but precisely because he has the lantern lighted and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his light obscures the stars, which the poor peasants driving without lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either occupied with the necessities of life they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close by them everything is satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable—but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.

I think John is telling us that Jesus came to the seashore to rescue his disciples from the limits they were placing on their view of life. Jesus wanted them to see the stars, to dream of what could be, when what they wanted was to feel safe and secure. The sequence of the events in the story helps us see that Peter’s and the other disciples’ decision to go fishing, for fish, when Jesus had called them to fish for men, caused them to become ineffective. After having fished all night long, we’re told that “they caught nothing.” The disciples couldn’t blame their inability to catch fish on their lack of effort or know-how. They knew how to fish. They had strong nets. They stayed at it all night, and yet came up empty.

Why are we as individual Christians so many times completely ineffective in our discipleship? Why are churches so often ineffective in fulfilling their task? Could it be that Kierkegaard was right. We’ve become comfortable. We’re prosperous, which enables our man-made lights to shine all around us, making us feel secure. But we can’t see the stars. We have limited our vision.

Maybe we’re in this predicament also because our lives are as empty and the disciples’ nets. An emptiness dogs us in this materialistic world. These disciples—and John was one of them!—caught nothing. Well, no wonder. Their past lured them away from Christ’s future. Now we know why Jesus appeared on them seashore early that morning.

Perhaps Vance Havner was right about us when he said, “Most church members live so far below the standard, you’d have to backslide to be in fellowship. We are so subnormal that if we become normal, people would think we were abnormal!” God help us to never settle for anything less than the stars!

I once heard about a frog that could stand on its hind legs like a human. The frog would hop, then stand up on its back legs to view the horizon. The only problem was, when it stood up the frog’s eyes were looking behind it! Its vision of where it was going was limited by where it had been.

That’s the problem with most churches I know of, including the one I serve. We’re focused on “the good ol’ days,” and are living and ministering according to that rather than the vision Jesus has given us.

What can correct our faulty vision as Jesus’ disciples? John tells us in the remainder of his story.

Everything about this story points to Jesus as the Source of life and blessing for those who follow him.

Jesus called to his disciples, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” They answered no. Then, as only he could do, he told them what to do. “Throw your nets on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” They did what Jesus said to do and they were unable to get the net into the boat because of the large number of large fish.

There was no way these men could miss the stark contrast between their long night of empty nets and coming up empty, and their nets filled to overflowing when they obeyed the One who told them where to fish. Just think, they were standing probably no more than about five feet away from the side of the boat where they made the biggest catch they’d ever made. Amazingly, they didn’t even know it was Jesus.

One of my regrets in life is that I didn’t have a camera with me to take pictures of the fish that I and seven other friends of mine caught one night on the Pamlico Sound, in August of 1983.

The temperature that day reached 99 degrees. Larry Johnson called me and told me we were going fishing regardless of how hot it was. We wanted to go so badly.

We arrived at the sound around 6:00 p.m.. As we were loading our boat, other fishermen who had been fishing all day were coming in with no fish. They mildly chided us for even going out. No one had caught any fish during the heat wave. But we persevered.

We were on the water, ready to fish around 8:00 p.m. Larry had lived in that area and knew something those other fishermen apparently didn’t know. He knew that the experienced fishermen in that area would mark where they had caught fish with plastic jugs anchored to bricks with rope. We located some of the jugs and anchored between two of them.

We didn’t catch a thing until it started to turn dark. Then suddenly, all eight of us began to catch just about every kind of edible fish you can imagine, two at a time. We used over twelve pounds of deheaded shrimp. We caught fish all night long, until 7:00 the next morning! We filled every cooler we had—and we had large ones, medium ones, and small ones—and when they were full we filled up a small trash can we had on the boat. We counted the number of fish in one medium-size cooler and there were over two hundred in it! We estimated that we had caught nearly 1900 fish!

That’s my fish tale, and I’m sticking to it! (Even if it is true!) Claudette can attest to it, as can all of the fishermen on the dock when we returned there around 9:00 a.m., whose mouths fell open, and so can all of those to whom we gave the fish.

Who wouldn’t be tempted to fish for a living if you could catch them like that all of the time.

Maybe you have a picture of your best catch. All fishermen love to show off their haul. Yet Jesus’ disciples had nothing to boast about. All they could say was, “Look at what our Lord enabled us to catch!” Jesus moved their vision away from their empty nests to where he knew the fish were, and they netted an unbelievable number of fish.

Somehow I believe that at that moment Peter and the other disciples faced the greatest challenge of their lives. They had to ask themselves, “Do I love my Lord enough to fish for people, more than I love to fish for fish? Is Jesus telling us that, if we obey him, we can reach more people than we can imagine, just as we caught more fish than ever before? Could it be that if we follow Jesus we can reach for the stars, and they would be ours as well?”

Do you, Grove Park Baptist Church, believe that Jesus can enable you to reach people, in numbers beyond your imagining?

I literally grew up with this church. I’ve seen its successes and its failures. It was here that Jesus became my Lord and Savior. Maybe that’s true for you too. Your present buildings, and the new one that’s in the works, as well as the long-time members and the new ones, all speak of unbelievable potential to achieve great things for God. Ask Jesus to enable you to see as he sees. To dream as he dreamed. As Jesus for the vision and the power to follow him wherever he leads. 

There’s one other message for us in this awesome conclusion to John’s gospel.

We come to the place in the story when, having reached the shore, the disciples see Jesus standing there. “Come and have breakfast,” he told them.  Jesus had prepared a fire on which fish and bread were cooking. But where did he get the fish? We know, don’t we? He then told his friends to bring some of their fish. Icing on the cake!

We can imagine how hungry these men were after having fished all night. If you’ve ever been fishing, then cleaned and fried your catch right then and there, you know how good those fish were to these hungry disciples.

While serving as pastor of the Burgaw Baptist Church, I used to go fishing with friends from the church to Scotch Bonnet pier. Back then, you could take the fish you caught on the pier to the restaurant and they would clean them, fry them, and serve them with slaw and hushpuppies. It would only cost you $1.50. As the commercial says, “It doesn’t get any better than that!”

The inference is that following Jesus and obeying his word to fish for men refreshes our souls like a plate of fried fish with slaw and hushpuppies refreshes our stomachs and spirits. Yet Jesus’ invitation to breakfast only satisfied the disciples for a short while. But when they heard their Lord calling, and obeyed his word, their vision was restored, and they never hungered again. They discovered the joy and fulfillment that only following Jesus can bring to life.

In a way, this story teaches us something else. Rest for our souls comes from following Jesus. To experience this rest, we must listen to his voice, allow his love to keep our perspective clear and sharp so that we can see the stars, and let obeying his will be our daily feast.

Jesus has called us all to a life-long fishing trip. A huge catch is assured when we obey. In order to experience the exhilaration of the big catch we have to follow Jesus. I encourage you, a church I love with all of my heart, to do just that.

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