This week, we will look at the third and final appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, as recorded in the Gospel of John - the miraculous catch of fish and breakfast on the beach. Our reading will be John 21:1-14.
**The recorded service is no longer available, but the text of the reading and reflection are below.**
Reading | John 21:1-14 (NIV)
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Reflection | The Miraculous Catch and Breakfast on the Beach
Last week, David Butcher talked about Jesus’ appearances to Mary in the garden and Thomas in the locked room, and so I thought this morning we could look at the third and final post-resurrection appearance recorded in the Gospel of John, which as we have just heard takes place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We’re not sure how much time has passed since Jesus came to Thomas - and I wonder if that visit was as much for Jesus as it was for Thomas, if he wanted to simply see his friend who he missed as much as he wanted to ease his doubts - but a few days must have passed, for at least seven of the disciples have made their way from Jerusalem to Galilee.
I must confess I’d not given much thought to that gap of time before, but I wonder now how the disciples felt after the heady mix of confusion and elation at Jesus’ return had begun to settle, and they had started to wonder what it all meant and what would happen next. We know where the story goes next, that they grew the community of believers and spread the message of Jesus even without him, but they had no idea. Were they excited? Afraid? Starting to doubt themselves? How do you think you might have felt in their place?
Whatever they are feeling as the scene begins, Peter declares that he is going out to fish. Here it is worth reminding ourselves that Peter was a fisherman, as were the sons of Zebedee, and the gospels contain enough seascapes to suggest that the rest of the disciples had surely got used to spending time on boats over the course of their time with Jesus. This is not an arbitrarily chosen activity, but Peter and his fellow disciples going back to a safe and familiar task, choosing a moment of normality after a period of utter strangeness, falling back on something they still feel sure of. Perhaps given our own circumstances we can see the appeal. Perhaps we have felt something of that familiarity after strangeness for ourselves this week.
I imagine the questions and the stresses draining away as the boat rocked on the water, and the pulling of ropes and nets brought familiar aches back to their muscles. But there was no way they could slip so easily back into their old lives, not after everything had been turned upside down. Of course there was room for some of what had been before, but normal had changed forever. Is this bit sounding familiar too?! I wonder what normal means for us at the moment, what we are falling back on and in what ways it has shifted beneath us.
After an unsuccessful night of fishing they see a figure on the shore, asking if they have caught anything. They tell him they haven’t and he advises them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. I can imagine a few choice words being uttered - no one likes to be told how to do their job - but they do it anyway, and their nets are soon so full they cannot haul them in.
Mary recognised Jesus when he spoke her name. Thomas recognised Jesus when he held his hands out to him. Jumping gospels for a moment, the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognised Jesus when he broke bread with them. And now the beloved disciple recognises Jesus when he blesses them with a miraculous catch of fish.
Mary had heard Jesus speak her name before, and I wonder if there was a particular inflection in his voice that meant it could only be him. Thomas had spent three years watching Jesus’ hands write in dust and touch the eyes of the blind, and I wonder if he recognised the whorls of his knuckles as much as the holes in his wrists. The Emmaus disciples had seen Jesus break bread before, and I wonder if they were caught by a favourite turn of phrase that he always used as he passed food around the table. The beloved disciple had been witness to miracles before, and I wonder if it was the abundance that he couldn’t fail to recognise.
On each occasion, a touch of the familiar and all that was strange suddenly made sense. We may not have experienced Jesus in the same ways as those who lived alongside him, but we have experienced him through scripture and prayer. What is it that we find familiar about Jesus? How do we recognise him in strange and unsettling situations? In what ways does Jesus make sense of the world for us?
As soon as the beloved disciple says that it is Jesus standing on the shore, Peter throws himself over the side of the boat. We are told they were not far from the shore at this point, so I imagine him awkwardly half swimming and half wading through the shallows, a thoroughly undignified figure desperate to reach his friend and teacher before he can disappear again. Peter has already seen Jesus twice since his resurrection, but he has not yet had a moment alone with him, and so he has not yet had a chance to put right what was done wrong when he denied Jesus on the night of his arrest.
I wonder if that is why he threw himself into the water to get to Jesus. Or if in his excitement he forgot his betrayal, only to freeze with the memory of it as he reached the shore. We can imagine that part of the story as observers, but we can also try to put ourselves into it, because we have all made our own mistakes and committed our own betrayals. Do we rush to resolve them? Do we forget them and then find ourselves fumbling when they resurface? Is there a figure waiting right now for us to jump out of the boat?
Later in this chapter Jesus takes Peter aside, and allows him to cancel out his three denials with three declarations of love, but first there is breakfast to be eaten. And this is one of my favourite moments in all of scripture. There is already a fire on the beach when the disciples land, so we must assume that Jesus has gathered firewood and built it into a pyre and got a flame going. And there is bread waiting to be eaten and fish already cooking, so perhaps he went to the market on his way too.
It is such a human and homely image, Jesus cooking for his friends so that they can sit and eat together as they have so many times before. And it sets off so many questions in my mind. Did Jesus remember to bring plates or cutlery to this picnic, or were they all going to be picking at hot fish and sucking their scalded fingers? Was he a good cook, or did the others politely smile while their hearts sank each time he took a turn? Such questions might sound silly or even sacrilegious, but I think they call us deeper into the mystery of the incarnation, and in this instance the resurrection. Because this is part of Jesus’ resurrected life, and so we are left to wonder how much gentle domesticity will last into our own resurrected lives.
This picture of the breakfast on the beach also reminds me of two other images from scripture, images which bookend the Bible and are among my favourite pictures of God. In Genesis 3:21, we read that “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them”, and my mind spins with images of God sewing. And then in the first chapter of Revelation, we are told that the ascended Christ holds seven stars in his right hand, and then two verses later he places that same hand on John, and my heart bursts with the possibility that the hand that holds stars might also reach out to me.
Making clothes to tell Adam and Eve that they are not abandoned to the consequences of their actions, touching John to reassure him that even in his splendour he is still the Christ the disciples knew, cooking a simple breakfast for the friends he had missed and knew would be hungry after a night’s fishing...this is our God who does everything out of love for us and calls us friends. That never fails to send a shiver down my spine. I wonder how you respond to it this morning.