The Apostle John records three appearances of our risen Lord: one on Easter evening, one seven days later, and this one on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The detail John provides is remarkable: the names of 5 of the 7 disciples present, the approximate distance they were from shore, the precise number of fish they caught, the specific breakfast menu. And yet, just as remarkable as the details John records is the absence of details we tend to expect: Jesus doesn’t offer dramatic proofs of his resurrected body, he doesn’t speak a word of forgiveness, he doesn’t commission the disciples to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The great, momentous act Jesus does this morning is…make breakfast. Here we see Jesus, the practical Savior.
When Jesus sent his disciples out the first time, he had prohibited them from taking any of the provisions you would normally take on a journey. (Matthew 10:9-10) On Maundy Thursday, he reminded them of this, asking them when I sent you without purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything? “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:35-36) Those were the last directions Jesus gave his disciples regarding their daily needs. And now that Jesus isn’t with them 24/7 anymore, it’s easy to picture them thinking: “Is this how it’s going to be from now on? Are we going to have to provide for ourselves? Are we now like members of a youth group who have to beg friends and family for money to go on a mission trip? Is the practical message of Easter that Jesus has done his part as far as our spiritual needs are concerned but we are on our own for our physical needs?”
That’s why Peter suddenly said I’m going out to fish and the others said we’ll go with you. “Jesus is no longer here to miraculously provide bread, fish, wine for his disciples or his Church, so I will.” He doesn’t go fishing for fun but for food, to keep himself and his family alive. Jesus makes this clear with his question, which literally reads: “hey boys, you don’t have anything to eat, do you?” (προσφάγιον)
If that’s what the disciples thought, if they thought they were on their own now to provide for themselves and the ongoing mission of the Church, then they had forgotten the Sermon on the Mount. There he said that only unbelievers waste their lives worrying about what they would eat and drink and wear. (Matthew 6:25-34) There he assured them your heavenly Father knows [what] you need and commanded them to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:32-33) These words assure us that the incarnate Lord who spent three years healing, curing, feeding, and providing hasn’t suddenly stopped now that he’s risen. He doesn’t take care of our spiritual needs and leave us on our own to care for our physical needs.
But right there is the hang up, isn’t it? We, like the disciples, know Jesus’ promises, but applying them to our hearts and minds and lives right now, that’s not so easy. Maybe we believe that Jesus has taken care of all of our spiritual needs by his death and resurrection, but think that everything else is up to us. And when we believe our senses and feelings more than the Lord’s promises, we act like it, and our priorities get all screwed up. We compartmentalize our faith, separate it from the rest of life – sure, Jesus is here, but out there, well, it’s every man for himself. We test God by setting Scripture against Scripture: we justify working long overtime hours and weekends because God has commanded us to provide for our families – which is true – but not at the expense of providing their souls with the nourishment of hands-on Christian parenting, family devotions, daily prayers and worship. We begin to view our earthly blessings as a barometer of Jesus’ presence – the more we have, the closer he is – and vice versa. Or, maybe we use our lack of faith to justify outright sinning. We rationalize our stingy offerings, cheating on taxes, doing whatever it takes to get a raise or promotion – because if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? How often don’t we act like Jesus has abandoned us, in spite of his promise to never leave us or forsake us? (Hebrews 13:5)
Did you notice the climax, the turning point of our lesson? After the disciples had fished all night and caught nothing, Jesus was there, asking them about their catch. Two facts stick out: they were empty-handed BUT Jesus was there! They’re about to throw their hands up in futility and despair, Jesus finds them in their moment of need. “You don’t have anything to eat, do you?” No was their terse response. (You try fishing all night for survival, catching nothing, and see how you react to someone who asks you what you caught implying that he knows you got skunked.) Despite the response, Jesus provides: he provides a great catch of fish AND keeps the nets from breaking AND the strength for Peter to haul the nets in by himself. But that’s not all. Jesus provides fire (no small accomplishment before the invention of Zippos) and breakfast.
The lesson is clear, right? If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) The Lord had promised his disciples on Maundy Thursday I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. (John 14:18) Jesus is not the problem. The problem is making the connection between Jesus’ promises and our day to day lives; seeing his loving care and provision in our lives even when all the evidence says that he has abandoned us to our own strength and ability.
Which is why the Risen Savior’s most practical gift isn’t his provision of food, but his revelation of himself. John admits that Jesus was standing on the shore right away in the morning, but that the disciples did not realize that it was [him]. Some speculate that this was because there was fog rising from the Sea. But in all of the details John mentions, he doesn’t mention any fog. Instead, he tells us that they were only about 100 yards from Jesus. They were close enough to hear him, presumably close enough to recognize him, but simply didn’t. Why not? Because Jesus now had a resurrected, glorified body – one that could only be spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) They couldn’t know without being told. It had to be revealed to them.
That’s comforting, in an odd way, isn’t it? If even the disciples who spent three years walking with Jesus can imagine that he’s abandoned them then we certainly aren’t alone in feeling alone and abandoned, in feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life and imagining that Jesus has left us to our own resources. This common experience of believers of all ages is what we call the theology of the cross – or, as Paul put it: We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) The primary hardship is not the physical pain of age or disease, not the stress of realizing that so much of our labor is futile and unproductive, it’s not even the hatred of the world or the sting of death. It’s the feeling that your Savior has indeed left you alone to fend for yourself and the awful realization that you…can’t…do it. That’s when the doubt creeps in: where is Jesus, where is the Lord who alleged from the cross that he has defeated your sin, your death and the power of the devil? Where is the Jesus who promised to be with you always, to the very end of the age? (Matthew 28:20) Ironically, that’s when you’re best prepared to see Jesus. It’s when you’re about to give in to despair that Jesus comes and asks that piercing, penetrating question: “you tried it your way, but you haven’t really accomplished anything, have you?” And you must confess, “no, I haven’t.”
Often, Jesus doesn’t reveal himself until we’ve exhausted every option trying to do it ourselves. And even then, he only reveals himself in the places he promised. Reason and logic and observation will never find Jesus – the disciples fished all night, the logical time to catch fish, but failed. Neither personal experience nor powerful emotions can uncover Jesus – the experience and emotions of Holy Week were still fresh in their minds – but that didn’t help them now. No, he must come to you; he must reveal himself to you just as he did with those disciples at the Sea of Galilee. And when he did, what did they realize? More fish, more productivity, more love than they ever imagined.
That’s the miracle and mystery of revelation; it’s why we cling so tightly to Scripture alone, because only through the Word can we see life with eyes of faith rather than reason or emotion. The Christian filters his sight, reason, experience, and feelings through the Word of God and sees the world in a whole new way: we look at death and see life, at sickness and see health, at suffering and see glory, at poverty and see wealth, at a hostile world and see exactly what Jesus told us we would see (John 15:18-25) – just as John finally realized that that mysterious (and rude) figure on the shore was the Lord.
And, by the time they were sitting down to eat, they didn’t dare ask Jesus who are you? It would have been a stupid question; they knew without having to be told. How? They recognized him in his Word: his command and promise: the command to throw their nets on the right side of the boat and the promise that you will find some. Here, then, is the handbook for what to do when the cross is heavy and your Savior seems far away. When plans blow up in your face and everything seems to be going wrong, when it feels like you’re all alone – listen for his command and his promise, his law and Gospel. These are the buoys that mark the channel of God’s grace, that reveal Jesus’ presence to you. Don’t give in to the temptation to dig deeper and try harder, don’t look for Jesus in your gut feelings or your turbulent dreams. When you feel that Jesus has left you to fend for yourself, when all the evidence points in that direction, run back to the basics. Run to your baptism where Jesus commanded water and Word to be applied to you and promised that through it you are connected to him forever. When you need tangible, visible evidence of your Savior’s love, run to the altar, because he says do this (Luke 22:19) and promises to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. When Jesus seems far away, don’t turn to self-help books or self-medication, turn to the Word, where the Word made flesh himself speaks to you. In a very practical way, when you simply seem adrift in life without any anchor or direction, consider the specific calling God has given you. (If you need help with this, consider the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism.)
And when Jesus has revealed himself in his Word, then you will see his presence in the more mundane areas of life, too – like breakfast. He took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish – just as he had on Maundy Thursday and on the road with the Emmaus disciples. We make this same connection when we pray “come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Every meal we eat, even when it’s bought with our own money and prepared by our own hands, is from him. We are really his guests. No matter what or where, whether it’s the chef’s special or Chef Boyardee, every meal is proof that our Risen Savior is still with us.
Remember this, especially in those dark times, especially when you wonder what, if any, impact Easter has had on your life, especially when the cross gets heavy don’t think that your Lord has abandoned you, don’t think that he’s done his part and now it’s up to you, find him in the places he has promised to be: Word and Sacrament. How can we be sure? Well, John adds one more tiny detail: this was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. You can be sure that your practical Savior will provide for you and reveal himself to you in his own time and way because he’s already done the greatest work of all for you: he died for your sins. Easter proves that the one who bled and died for you isn’t about to abandon you now, because he is risen, he is risen, indeed! Alleluia! Amen.