According to the gospel accounts that have been handed down to us, our Lord appeared no less than 12 times in his glorified state in the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension – and there were many more that haven’t been passed down to us. He was not merely passing time before returning to heaven, Paul explains in Romans 4 why it was essential that Jesus prove his resurrection from death: He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25) Every appearance of our Risen Savior proves definitively that God accepted his bloody sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the world – that on an objective level, God has declared the world not guilty for Jesus’ sake. (At the same time, whoever does not believe this will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)) But each appearance of Jesus had a specific purpose as well. Jesus appeared to the women in the garden so that they could tell his disciples that he had risen. (Matthew 28:10) Jesus appeared to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus to teach that He had to do everything written in the scriptures, including dying and rising. (Luke 24:46) And Jesus appeared to Paul in a blinding vision to both convert his stubborn, unbelieving heart and to provide him with the evidence he would need to rely on for the difficult ministry before him. (Acts 9) But in John 21, Jesus has a fish fry with his disciples. What’s the point of that? It reveals Jesus’ power.
“I’m going fishing,” Peter says. That’s kind of strange, isn’t it? Doesn’t Peter have better things to be doing, like, say, preaching the Gospel? Actually, no. Peter and the six disciples with him were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Recall Jesus’ words to the women on Easter morning: tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. (Matthew 28:10) So the disciples listened and went to Galilee to wait for Jesus. We don’t have to imagine that there’s some deep meaning behind this little fishing trip either. They were waiting for the Lord to appear, and so they did what many men do to pass the time: they went fishing. Being experienced fishermen, the disciples knew that the best fishing is at night – but that was not the case on this night. The Greek here contains a hint of the frustration they felt at being skunked – a feeling every fisherman knows well.
But then things get interesting. A stranger on the shore calls out to them: “Hey guys, you haven’t caught any fish yet, have you?” “No.” Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. If you know any experienced fishermen, you know that usually they are stubborn and will do almost anything before they accept the advice of a perfect stranger. But the disciples listened. They hauled in their nets and let them down on the right side. When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. By now you may be thinking that this story sounds familiar. It is. Jesus performed a similar miracle in Luke chapter 5 when he called Peter, James, and John away from their fishing business to follow him.
More important for us here is that already, our Risen Savior reveals his power – his power to teach. Did you pick up on the lesson? It was a lesson the disciples should have learned by now – especially since this was the second time they had fished all night with no luck, only to have Jesus provide more fish than they could handle. Now there are lots of silly interpretations out there – that the left side represented the Jewish people (the disciples wouldn’t catch any of them) and the right side represented the Gentiles who were ripe for the picking. Some might even try to impress some political interpretation on Scripture – right vs. left. That’s foolishness. No, here is one of the many places where we let Scripture interpret Scripture. We turn to Psalm 127: Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves. There’s a hint. But Jesus himself makes it even clearer in John 15: I am the vine; you are the branches…apart from me you will do nothing. (John 15:5) Bingo. There was the lesson the disciples should have learned by now: apart from Jesus, they will accomplish nothing – neither catching fish nor making disciples.
What are you busy trying to accomplish right now in life? Are you, like the disciples, simply trying to put food on the table? Are you in the middle of the all-important but daunting task of raising children? Are you working to maintain or strengthen your marriage? Are you trying to stay healthy or get back to good health? What’s the message here for us? Apart from [Jesus], no matter what you’re trying to do – from fishing to parenting to healing – you will do nothing. That sounds harsh. Jesus knows that when we are working toward something and don’t seem to be having any success there are millions of places we will look for help before looking to him. We will read a self-help book, we will take a vacation, we will buckle down and try harder, we will ask for advice from a friend, finally, we might even just pay someone else to do it for us – but how often do we turn to Jesus and pray as he invites call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me. (Psalm 50:15) Whatever we leave here to try to accomplish today, this week, or this year – the powerful lesson our Risen Savior is teaching this morning is that apart from him, you will do nothing.
The next verses are something of a character study of the disciples Peter and John, the two most prominent apostles. John is the quiet, contemplative disciple – and the first to recognize Jesus. Peter is the man of action, and the first to leap out of a perfectly good boat to swim to Jesus. Maybe there’s a small lesson here too: God can use both quiet, contemplative disciples and bold, active disciples to carry out his mission in this world.
But let’s not get hung up in the details. For the Risen Savior is not done displaying his power. When [the disciples] landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread…Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared to 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. What’s the big, burning question here? What do the 153 fish symbolize? How did Peter, alone, pull the net on shore when seven men couldn’t pull it on board? Why didn’t the disciples dare to ask him who he was? No. (The number, 153, simply shows us that this catch was truly a miracle and that John remembered the very number of fish vividly. Peter’s strength was possibly another miracle. And, the disciples didn’t dare to ask Jesus because the evidence spoke for itself – even though they didn’t recognize him in his glorious state, this could be none other than the Risen Lord.)
No, the big question here is: where did the fire, fish and bread come from? The answer is simple and powerful. Jesus, the Risen Lord, had provided it. What the disciples had tried and failed all night to do, Jesus accomplished by simply willing it to happen. The disciples had great need to realize that in the coming weeks and years, when they would be rejected and hated for their message, when Satan would tempt them to doubt the power of the Word, when they would face danger, poverty and hunger – that no matter what the problem seemed to be, Jesus could and would provide. The book of Acts tells us that Jesus kept this promise. When the disciples were placed on trial for their preaching – Jesus gave them the words to say. When they needed proof that their message came from heaven – Jesus gave them the power to perform miracles as validation. And, when they ventured off into regions unknown to preach the Gospel – Jesus provided open hearts and open homes, believers who loved their Lord and provided for his apostles. The Risen Lord showed his disciples with this powerful miracle that they could trust him to provide.
Is there anything more difficult for us sinful human beings to do than to trust that Jesus will provide what we need when we need it? Too often we are consumed with worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink; or about our bodies, what we will wear even though Jesus tells us not to worry and reassures us that [our] heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6:25, 32) Too often we wait until we have exhausted all of our energy and resources before we finally turn to Jesus and lay our problems into his hands. When you find yourself worrying, agonizing, stressed out – remember this fish fry. Remember that it is as easy for Jesus to satisfy your needs today as it was for his disciples then. How can you be sure? What if you’ve worked all night or all your life and have an empty net? You can be sure because Jesus has already taken care of your greatest need: he has taken away your sins of doubt and worry and has given you the riches of the righteousness he earned for you on the cross. You can be sure because Jesus has already done the one thing we haven’t done – he trusted God above all things – and he did it perfectly. Instead of worrying, instead of growing frustrated, instead of exhausting all your resources before turning to Jesus; ask this question with Paul: [If God] did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32) Our Savior is Risen, and he’s not some distant far-away weakling, he’s not a life-coach, his guidance and grace aren’t only for the weak-minded – he’s the powerful Lord of heaven and earth who can and will provide whatever you need, whenever you need it – from something as small as a fish fry to something as big as the forgiveness of all your sins.
John closes this interesting little sea-side story rather abruptly: This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. Perhaps it pays to note that Jesus appeared more than just three times, but John was only counting his appearances to his disciples. (Easter evening and seven days later) Apart from showing us that he can count to three, what does John hope to express with the abrupt ending? He saved the best for last. It’s not new to us, but it is the most important news we have ever heard. You know what it is, right?
Christ is (still) Risen!!! The one who was shamelessly betrayed, beaten, and condemned to die – he’s not dead! The one who had nails pounded through his hands and feet and a spear plunged into his side – he’s alive! The one who cried out my God, my God, why have you forsaken me as he experienced the torture of hell – he’s walking and talking with his disciples! The one who bowed his head and gave up his spirit – is here, with us and for us! The one whose body was laid in a tomb – is not clothed in decay, but clothed in glory so that his disciples were afraid to even wonder aloud who he was! It’s easy for us, especially in reading a story with as many peculiarities as this one, to get hung up on the details or get lost looking for deep truths. But the central truth, the truth that all the details point to is the all-important one: Jesus Christ who died in humiliation is alive in all of his glory! Your sins are forgiven! You are free from the weight of the law! You don’t have to do anything to earn God’s favor! You are never alone in this life! Nothing in this world can separate you from his love! Jesus will provide for you now and heaven is your eternal home! All because Jesus Christ is your powerful, (still) Risen Savior.
The Holy Spirit never spills ink for nothing. Every page of Holy Scripture strengthens our faith, builds our hope, and guides our lives. Because we see, once again, that Jesus lives, and he’s got power; power to teach, power to provide, and power to comfort. Next time you head out for a fish fry, remember this one, one that teaches that Easter has changed everything – because Jesus lives, he lives to bless us with his love; he lives to plead for us above. He lives, our hungry souls to feed; he lives to help in time of need. (CW 152:3) Amen.