‘The Greatest Fishing Story Ever Told’

Easter: John 21: 1-14

The summer I turned eight my father took me out fishing one evening on the lake bordering our farm. It is something we often did. Usually we were after small fish, and would be guaranteed to catch plenty. But I had just gotten a new rod and fishing reel for my birthday, so that night we were going after game fish, the big ones. We were fishing for fresh water bass, casting along the shore. I had been out with my father bass fishing a few times before over the past couple of years, but had failed to catch a single one over the size limit. This night was proving no different. After two trips around the lake with our canoe it was getting dark. My father suggested I let my line out with the lure on it and trawl it behind the boat as he paddled back across the lake. A few minutes later my bait hit a big snag and the pole almost came out of my hands.

Then the line began to move.

It was a fish.

A big one.

My father coached me through the process. I let out line to wear the fish down, then reeled in a bit, then let out more. For the first twenty minutes I let out more line than I was bringing in, because I didn’t want the line to break. About half an hour in, and with hardly enough light left to see, the fish broke the surface trying to shake the hook out of its mouth. It was a monster bass. When my father saw it he offered to take over the pole and reel. I, of course, declined the offer. My arms ached, but I was determined to land this fish. An hour later, and in near pitch black, I finally had the fish beside the boat. My father put the net under it and lifted it up. The net barely held the fish. It was a small mouth bass, rarer and usually smaller than large mouth bass. But this was the biggest bass of any type I had ever seen. It was the biggest bass my father had ever seen. It measured at 23 and a half inches long. Just an inch short of the state record. It was my first game fish, and was it ever a big one. When we finally got home my mom was still up, wondering what had happened to us. ‘Took you both long enough to come home empty-handed again,’ she said. My father looked and me and grinned. ‘Show her the fish,’ he said.

And that’s my best fishing story. I’m sure many of you have a great fishing story as well. And a couple of you I suspect have a net full of great fishing stories! But the fishing story in today’s Gospel text tops them all.

It is not just any fishing story.

It is the greatest fishing story ever told.

Here’s the context: Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, then to his disciples twice in the upper room in Jerusalem. Now, they have returned to their home region of Galilee. Once there, Peter says one afternoon to the others: ‘I’m going fishing.’ Six of the other disciples decide to go with him. Many of them had, after all, been professional fishers before then began following Jesus.

As with all proper fishing stories, this one begins by relating how they were out all night and didn’t catch a single fish. It is the classic fishing story of nothing happening, of lowered expectations and disappointment.

And then, of course, the big catch.

It happened like this: The disciples were about to give up and come in from the night’s fishing empty handed. That is likely why they were near the shore. They had been casting their net hoping to catch a school of feeding fish, most likely Musht, or St Peter’s fish, commonly caught at night. The disciples then heard someone from shore call out to them. The man asked, ‘Have you caught anything?’ This is the most common question fishers are asked when people pass by. When walking along the break wall I often hear people ask this of those fishing there. And I have asked it a few times myself. And the response is nearly always the same. ‘Not a thing!’ The dsicples likewise call out to the man on the shore, ‘We haven’t caught a thing!’

Then the man suggests they cast their net on the right side of the boat. Now, if you are a regular fisher, you will know that advice from those passing by, who are most likely not expert fishers, is seldom appreciated – or taken. So you might will wonder why a group of professional fishers would listen to someone offering unsolicited advice from the shore. The answer is quite simple. The shoreline in that area is quite hilly and the person on the shore who they heard call out to them would have been standing several metres above the water level. On a calm early morning, such a person could see schools of fish below the surface that those in a boat could not see. So the suggestion was not that odd, nor the fact that they listened to the advice.

But what happened next came a quite shock. They cast the net as instructed. At first, the tug on the net was so great they must have thought that, being so close to shore, perhaps they had snagged the net in on a submerged log, or a wrecked fishing boat. But their net was not snagged. It wriggled with life. Their net was moving and full of fish. In fact, they had caught so many fish that they could not get the net into the boat.

That’s when the fishing story takes an unexpected turn. John turns his attention back to the man on the shore. That’s when John realises there is something familiar about what is happening. It is the first of several ‘memory triggers’ in this story – both for the disciples and for the reader. That it, John relates something which happened which sounds very familiar to the disciples, and to the reader.  Remember when Peter had first met Jesus. He had been out fishing all night and caught nothing. After using Peter’s boat to preach from, Jesus asked him to put his boat out and cast his net once more. But Peter was sceptical. There were no fish about that day. But he did it anyway, and they caught enough to fill two boats. That had been three years ago. Back at the beginning. It had been the start of the journey of discipleship. And that is when it clicks for John. He looks to the shore and realises that the man with the hot tip about where the fish are is Jesus.

“It is the Lord!” he says excitedly to Peter.  Peter, being the impetuous one, jumped straight into the water, so eager was he to come to Jesus. You may recall this is not the first time that Peter jumped out of a boat to come to Jesus. And this is the second obvious memory trigger in this story. But this time there is no attempt to walk on water. Again, Peter in his eagerness to come to Jesus, throws on his robe, jumps into the water leaving the others in the boat, then swims to shore. There he finds Jesus waiting with a charcoal fire going and he is cooking some fish and some bread. Jesus asks Peter to bring some of the fish he has just caught so he can make them all breakfast.

Peter heads back into the water where the boat and the net full of fish beside it are being brought to shore, and he helps drag the net on to the banks of the lake.

Then Jesus, the Creator of the universe who has died and risen from the dead, cooks his friends breakfast! Now that’s divine service!

It is only the second meal described in John’s gospel. Another memory trigger memory perhaps for the disciples. The other one was the feeding of the five thousand. And the menu was the same. Fish and bread. And that time as well it was Jesus who provided. But that time there had been far more people to feed than fish. Now there are far more fish than people to feed. Just how many fish were there?

Because these are fisher folk, and John was a professional fisher before he followed Jesus, there is one last important detail to be added to the story. The number of fish in the net, from a single cast, was one hundred and fifty-three! And they were all large ones at that. That was certainly a new local record for a single cast of the net by a long shot.  Now there’s a fish story that’s hard to beat. And in the midst of it all Jesus once more affirms to his disciples, in the routine actions of an ordinary life of fishing and eating breakfast, that he has indeed conquered death.

And one more memory trigger. And this was one that none of the disciples could miss. The last time Jesus had eaten with them was at the last supper. And now he does and says something very similar. He takes the bread and gives it to them, and then the fish. They could not help but remember the bread and wine of the last supper. So this story also becomes a strong image of the eucharistic meal, and because of this we often see bread and fish portrayed in early Christian art as a eucharistic symbol.

And that’s it. The greatest fishing story every told.

But if you have been following the story closely, you might be asking yourself a question. You might be wondering why, after all that had happened in the preceding weeks, were the disciples back in their boats fishing?

Let’s recap. The disciples have been following Jesus and learning from him for three years. For three years he had been preparing them. Jesus had told them of his death and resurrection, though they did not understand what this meant until these events actually occurred. Until just a week or so earlier, they were in Jerusalem, along with hundreds of other devoted followers of Jesus. Then Jesus appeared to them, at least twice, after his resurrection.  And when he appeared to them in Jerusalem he commissioned them to receive his Spirit, to go and forgive sins, and in general, to proclaim the good news.

And what to the disciples do? Well, they trundle off back to Galilee and go back to fishing. (Perhaps they were just following instructions. While John’s Gospel does not mention it, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ to tell his disciples to go to Galilee and waif for him there. Perhaps this is what they were doing. But they do seem to be surprised to see Jesus is they had simply been waiting for him to join them.) It is a bit of an unexpected response from those who have just encountered the risen Christ, and who are the recognised leaders of the many followers of Jesus still gathered back in Jerusalem.

So since the disciples are no longer in Jerusalem with the other followers of Jesus, Jesus goes to them. He gives them a hot fishing tip, makes them breakfast, and reminds them once again that he really has risen from the dead.

When we think about what is going on in the context of this story, the implied question Jesus asks is this: ‘Do you and the others have anything else that you ought to be doing now? Why are all you out here by yourselves, trying to catch fish – which, by the way, you were not doing very well at? You have now had the biggest catch of fish you or anyone on this lake will ever have. There is nothing more here to achieve. It’s time to move on.’

We might be harsh in our judgment of the disciples. We might well wonder what on earth were they thinking? After all that had happened, with all the people looking to them for leadership, and Jesus’ own commissioning of them on that first Easter evening – why did they simply go back to their nets?

But the disciples are not really so different from us. We have just journeyed through Holy Week, then celebrated the joyous good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. Now Easter is over. The celebrations have finished. The chocolate is gone. The long weekend past. And we have returned to our normal lives as if nothing has happened. And we, like the disciples, need Jesus to come to us, to where we are at. We need Jesus to come and nudge us and remind us that things can never again be as they were.

The Creator of the Universe has died for us and risen again, that we might have life. He calls us to live out and share this good news, the good news that Jesus lives. And because he lives, and lives for us, nothing will ever be the same again. The question for us, then, is this: What would Jesus have us to do, now that we have heard the good news that he lives?

As tempting as it might be to simply return to our nets, to our old lives, there is good news to proclaim. After Easter, our lives simply cannot be the same.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.