05/08/22 “The Other Right Side”

John 21:1-14

As we’ve been focusing on the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances the past few weeks, I’ve learned something important about the Gospel of John. As I studied these stories, I noticed all kinds of echoes of earlier parts of John’s gospel. I’ve since learned that this is no co-incidence. This is actually a distinctive feature of John. He constantly reinforces his message that Jesus is the incarnation of God and that believing in him is the way to eternal and abundant life. It reminds me of a lesson I learned as a new salesperson for Ohio Bell and AT&T. To make a successful sales pitch to a customer, you have to “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you told ’em.” John is a master at this.

The first week, John took us back to the upper room—the same room where Jesus had spent the evening of his betrayal. Jesus delivered on the promises he had made earlier in the gospel—that he wouldn’t leave his friends alone, that he would give them his Spirit and his peace, and that they would continue his ministry after he was gone. Even his breath—the same breath with which God breathed creation into existence—echoes all the way back to the first chapter of John, where he tells us what he’s gonna tell us: that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Fast forward a week into the Easter story and last week’s passage about Thomas. Of course, there are all the ties back to Thomas in earlier stories. But there are also echoes back to the story that comes right before that passage—the closed-up room, and Jesus’ offer of his body as proof of who he was and that he was alive. Thomas’s confession affirms that Jesus is indeed whom John tells us he is: Lord and God, human and divine, God incarnate in a human body, the Word of God made flesh and living among us.

Now here we are for what John calls the third resurrection appearance, although this leaves out the very first (and arguably most important) one: Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the garden. This story is a gold mine of echoes and allusions.

It begins with seven of the disciples gathered by the Sea of Tiberias—also known as the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus had walked on the water in the middle of a storm, and where he had performed many of his miracles. The group includes Peter, of course, and Thomas, who was the star of the previous story. There’s Nathanael who, John points out, is from Cana, a city whose name should ring some bells—wedding bells, to be exact, because in John, that’s the setting of Jesus’ first miracle. And then there are two, unnamed others, reminding us that Jesus had many more disciples beyond the twelve apostles.

As the seven stand there on the shore, Peter announces “I’m going fishing.” The others say, “We’ll go with you.” Much has been made of this decision. Most of the opinions are disapproving, suggesting that the disciples quickly abandoned their discipleship and returned to their old ways of life. These naysayers think it shows that the disciples were aimless and uncommitted.

I have a problem with this. First of all, John doesn’t tell us how much time has passed since the earlier appearances. Jesus hadn’t ascended yet; that happened thirty-nine days after Easter. So, we could be talking days or weeks after the appearances in the garden and the upper room. Plus, as far as we know from John, Jesus hadn’t given the disciples any instructions about what to do next. All of us have lost someone we love, and we all know that eventually, you have to move forward, whether you want to or not.  Financial needs don’t disappear; bills need to be paid. Sometimes, the only way to begin crawling out from under your grief is just to do something “normal.” And, yes, maybe they were feeling directionless at the time. A death that yanks the rug out from under your life can do that to you. So, it doesn’t trouble me at all that Peter and the others decided to go fishing.

John tells us that they do this fishing at night. There were many practical reasons for night-time fishing, including the darkness making the nets harder for the fish to see. But, this night-time fishing expedition is one of John’s echoes. For John, night and darkness symbolize lack of understanding or belief. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. That walking-on-water incident, when the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, happened at night. Judas took his piece of bread from Jesus and went out to betray him, “and it was night,” John carefully points out. And when did Mary begin her journey to the tomb? Early in the morning, “while it was still dark.”

But then, John tells us, “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach.” the light appears—literally and figuratively. The Light of the World, which John told us in Chapter 1 the darkness did not overcome, had appeared. But, in yet another echo, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus. They see only the s-u-n-rise, not the S-o-n-rise, although, to be fair, they were about a football field away.

Jesus calls out to them, to give them some fishing advice. Oddly, they take his advice. As far as they know at the moment, he’s a stranger. He could be a master fisherman with some secret fishing wisdom to share, but for all they know he could just be some unemployed carpenter who can’t tell the difference between a fish and a man. But, for whatever reason, they do what he tells them. And, with one cast to the right side of the boat, the nets are filled with so many fish that the disciples can’t even pull it up into the boat; they have to drag it along.

That abundance is what opens the eyes of the disciple whom Jesus loved. He realizes it’s Jesus. “It’s the Lord!” he says to Peter. Peter, impulsive as always, puts on his clothes before he jumps into the water. When I tell the preschoolers this story, they think this is hilarious. Why would you get dressed and then go swimming? It turns out that Galilean fishermen often had to jump in the water to help haul in the nets, so they sometimes fished naked. Apparently, Peter felt it would be disrespectful to greet his Lord in his birthday suit.

After the boat makes it in, the disciples count the fish. The nets are full of fish, full of large fish, 153 of them, John says. Many scholars have tried to figure out why John is so specific about the number. Some think it’s some kind of mathematical symbol. Some say that it’s just a big number that communicates how enormous the catch was. Or maybe it’s just a practical detail that the fishermen among John’s readers would have been curious about: they knew that fishermen had to count their fish for tax purposes. Suffice it to say that, after following Jesus’ directions, the disciples caught a lot of fish.

When they come ashore, the disciples find a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread to go with it—more echoes from John. What did Jesus feed a crowd on a mountainside with? Bread and fish, of course. There’s a trail of bread crumbs through all of John’s gospel, all leading to the bread of God, the Bread of Life, the true bread from heaven.

And then there’s that charcoal fire. Most pictures of this scene show a blazing bonfire on the beach. But John specifically says that it’s a charcoal fire, with fish already cooking on it. There’s only one other place in John’s gospel where there’s a charcoal fire burning: in the courtyard of the high priest, where Peter stood with the police and the high priest’s slaves, and where, three times, he denied being a disciple of Jesus. Keep that in mind for next week.

Jesus invites them to come and have breakfast. Now, they all recognize him. Sharing in this meal, as they had at the wedding in Cana, and on the Galilean mountainside, and in the upper room, they see him for who he is. They know it is the Lord and, as before, this is revealed by the abundance he makes possible—abundant, high-quality wine in Cana. Abundant bread for thousands at that mountainside picnic. Abundant fish in their nets. All a sign of the abundance of God’s kingdom and the one who offers it to them.

Any of these echoes could justify a sermon of its own. But, what caught my attention this week wasn’t an echo—at least, not an echo of anything in John’s gospel. What caught my attention was Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to cast their nets on the right side of the boat—not the “other” side. The right side.

Maybe this detail grabbed me because it made me smile. It made me remember something from Marc’s softball coaching days. If I saw it once, I saw it dozens of times. A girl would take her position in the batter’s box. From his spot at third base, Marc would call out, “Take a step to your right.” Invariably, the girl would take a step to her left. Marc would shake his head and shout, “Your other right!”

Every video and picture of Galilean fishermen that I remember shows them casting their nets to the left side. I actually had the opportunity to see a live demonstration of net-casting on a fishing boat replica on the Sea of Galilee and, sure enough, the net was cast to the left side of the boat. There are good reasons for this.

John never tells us that any of the disciples were fishermen, but we know from the other gospels that Peter and Zebedee’s sons, James and John, were. So, at last three of the seven knew what they were doing. And, they would have known better than to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. That was where the steering mechanism was located, and it posed a risk of tangling up and damaging the nets.

Everyone in their culture fished the same way—from the left side of the boat. Fishing from the left side was the way they’d always done it. It was the way their elders had taught them to do it. It was the way everyone else did it and expected them to do it, too. Fishing differently meant taking risks, like damaged nets or and damaged reputations. Even when the results weren’t what they wanted or hoped for, they would keep fishing from the left side, even if it took all night. As far as the disciples were concerned, the left side of the boat was the right side.

Have you ever continued fishing on the left side of your boat, even when your results weren’t what you hoped for, because it’s always seemed like the right side in the past? The pattern of life you worked out with your spouse early on in your marriage worked well, but then life happened. You both changed, but you didn’t change your ways of being together, and your marriage started to feel less satisfying than it once did. You raised your kids the way you were raised, but now you’re not as close as you’d like to be. But, instead of trying to change your ways, you just keep interacting the way you always have, with the same unsatisfying results. Leadership styles and work habits that worked fine in one job or position don’t fit as well in a new role. But, rather than trying new ways to lead or interact, you just kept on doing things the way you always had, with even less success.

Congregational life can have this problem. Ministries that served the community well for many years don’t seem to be as productive. Ways of attracting newcomers don’t work like they did in the past. Leadership structures that kept a bigger church running smoothly begin to hinder the work of a smaller church. But, our natural inclination is to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them—to keep fishing from the left side of the boat, however unfruitful the results.

We see this in the changing world around us. We’ve begun to learn how our old ways of treating people limit justice and opportunity for many who don’t look like us or love like us, talk like us or think like us or believe like us. Still, we’d prefer not to change our old assumptions and patterns, so we do nothing to make the world a more just and compassionate place for all.

Sometimes what has always been the right side of the boat becomes the wrong side. Conditions change. They had certainly changed for the disciples. For three years, they had followed Jesus. They had heard his promises that they would have a role to play in his ongoing ministry—even that they would do greater works than he had. But, their world had changed for them, just as our world is changing for us. Like them, we need to figure out how best to carry on as faithful disciples, and Jesus tells us how to do that. He tells us to do something different, even risky. He tells us to cast our nets on the right side of the boat.

I got to wondering, “Why is Jesus so specific about casting the net to the right side of the boat? Why doesn’t he just say cast it to the other side? It’s the same thing, right? But, John’s Greek is clear: Jesus says to cast to the right side. And, when John includes a detail like this, there’s likely a lesson or two to be learned from it.

When Jesus tells the disciples to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, there is an echo there. It’s not an echo of something else in John, but an echo that the disciples—and John’s readers—would have recognized. In their culture, the right side was associated with authority and power. We make that same connection. We call someone’s most trusted and powerful aide their “right-hand man.” In Scripture the right side represents the power and authority of God. So, casting the net to the right side of the boat means casting it on God’s side. The side of justice. The side of mercy. The side of abundant and eternal life.

Just as Jesus told the disciples to move to the right side—to God’s side—he calls us to do the same. He calls us to stop fishing, to stop interacting, to stop ministering in ways that don’t reveal who God is. He calls us to change the way we relate to our family members and co-workers and people we consider too different from us. He calls us to turn from traditions and expectations and past experience that no longer serve us or God’s kingdom well. He calls us towards new ways that can fill social, emotional, and spiritual nets—ours and those of others. He calls us to newness of life that reveals God’s kingdom in unexpected and abundant ways.

There are risks and challenges when we stop casting our nets on what we thought was the right side and start casting them on the other right side. We can get tangled up in other people’s objections and resistance—so much so that we’re tempted to give up and go back to our old ways. Sometimes we resist change because the advice comes from a stranger—a revelation in the form of a news report, or a newcomer to our church or neighborhood or workplace, or a conversation with someone unlike us who tries to explain what life is like for them. We can lapse back into our old ways out of habit. New ways use new muscles, and that can be painful. Sometimes, we may feel like we’re still in the dark, trying to recognize Jesus in the midst of lives. But, when we are willing to take the risk, we open ourselves to the same kind of abundance the disciples experienced.

When the disciples went fishing on that night long ago, they cast their nets on what they thought was the right side of the boat. But then, Jesus told them to work from the other right side—the side of God’s power and authority. He calls us to do the same. He calls us to new ways of working and serving and living, in the midst of a changing world and in the light of his resurrection. Jesus reveals himself to us in God’s abundance, and when we begin fishing on the other right side—God’s side—our nets will be filled. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young