This morning we heard another story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, sometime after Easter morning. We heard Luke’s account of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, John’s story of his appearance to the disciples behind closed doors, and now we meet Jesus on a beach beside the Sea of Galilee.
Each of the Gospels describe these experiences differently, if they include them at all. Always, we need to remember that the gospel writers were not eyewitnesses but were sharing the stories they had heard about Jesus in ways that would best meet the needs of their communities and would best make the point they wanted to make about Jesus. Now, here we are, nearly two thousand years later, reading these stories by people who had no idea they were writing for the ages. And yet, we trust that they have something to teach us about Jesus and living out our faith.
Like the other gospels, we don’t know who wrote down the Gospel of John. But we do know that he had a particular message in mind: to show that God was fully revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the very human Jesus, who was one with God. The incarnation—the coming of God to the world in a human body—is the focus and purpose of everything about Jesus, as John sees it. He makes that clear right at the beginning of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
As we see God’s Word made flesh, God is revealed to us. God becomes approachable; God is not an absentee landlord or a distant CEO sequestered in some far-away divine headquarters. We see in Jesus a God who came and walked among us, who knows our joys and pain, our nightmares and our dreams. As one writer puts it, “Jesus provides access to God in ways never before possible, because Jesus’ revelation of God comes from the most intimate relation with God. [He provides this access precisely] because Jesus shares in God’s character and identity.”
Each of John’s appearance stories reinforces the message that Jesus is one with the Father. In the story we heard last week, Jesus offered the disciples his peace—God’s peace, that comes through forgiveness and grace that Jesus brought. Jesus breathed the Spirit over the gathered community, just as God had breathed life into the first human being. Jesus sends the disciples into the world to continue his mission, just as his Father had sent him. We are called, along with all disciples, not simply to believe in the resurrection, but to believe with Thomas that Jesus is “our Lord and our God.”
Although Jesus shares God’s very identity, it’s through his human-ness that Jesus reveals God fully in our world. Everything Jesus was and did were signs that pointed to God—God’s Word made concrete in Jesus. His identity and his mission, his words and his actions, all work together to bring God closer to us and to bring us closer to God.
The story we read today is an example of how Jesus does that. Every element of the event involves some part of the physical world—something incarnate. And, each of these real-world things also connects the disciples—ad us—to something in Jesus’ life and ministry that reveals who God is.
The story begins with the disciples near the Sea of Tiberius—what we more often call the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know how long it had been since Jesus’ appearance in the locked room. The gospel simply says it was sometime after that, and we know it was before the Ascension, thirty-nine days after Easter, so this appearance could have been days or weeks later. John tells us that a small group of the disciples, including Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), and a couple unnamed others were present. Peter announces, “I’m going fishing.” The rest said, “OK, we’ll go, too.”
Some scholars criticize Peter and the rest for this. They seem to think that the fishing trip is a symbol that the erstwhile disciples have once again abandoned Jesus and his mission. They think that it shows how aimless and uncommitted the disciples were. But, when I read those opinions, I always wonder if the writers have ever lost someone they loved. Grief can immobilize you for a while. The fear of what comes next can, too.
But eventually, you have to move forward, whether you want to or not. Families need tended to. Laundry needs to be done, meals prepared, grass mowed. Jobs need to be returned to, so bills can be paid. And, sometimes, you just need to do something “normal” to escape the unrelenting sorrow. Few people can allow life to stop indefinitely as they wait to see how life after a death will play out—physically, financially, or emotionally.
Even though Jesus had appeared from time to time, his visits didn’t stop the needs that life serves up every day. Maybe the disciples needed the money their catch would bring in. Maybe they needed to breathe some fresh air and get some exercise after being cooped up together in that room. Maybe they just needed to return to an activity that they knew how to do—something predictable and manageable and unambiguous, something they could do without having to puzzle out what it all meant. Maybe they just needed what we all need after we’ve lost someone close to us.
Whatever the reason, they were fishing the waters they had fished many times before, working at a job at least some of them had done all their adult lives, until they dropped everything and began following an itinerant preacher named Jesus. They’d been fishing at night, as usual. Unfortunately, they’d caught nothing. A man on the beach—a man they don’t recognize—asks about their lack of a catch. Then, he gives them some instructions—to cast their net on the right side of the boat, where they’ll find some fish.
This seems a little odd to me. Why would a guy on the beach know better than the professional fishermen where to cast their net? But, it must not have seemed so strange to the disciples, because they did what he said without question. Maybe they thought the observer could see something from the beach that they couldn’t see.
So far, nothing has seemed so out of the ordinary. But then things start to happen. Not only are there fish, there are lots of fish—153 at final count. The sight of this enormous catch triggers something in the disciple described as the one whom Jesus loved. He recognizes the man on the beach. It’s Jesus! Always impulsive, Peter throws his clothes back on and promptly jumps into the water, presumably to get to Jesus as quickly as possible, while the others drag back the net full of fish—a net which has miraculously remained untorn, despite the huge and heavy catch.
They reach the shore, and not only is Jesus there, but he’s made breakfast for them—bread, and fish cooked over a charcoal fire. He asks them to bring some of the fish they’ve caught as well, and then invites them to breakfast. Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and then he did the same thing with the fish.
Much of what happened that day was perfectly ordinary. And yet, in every part of it, Jesus entered into the ordinary, in ways that would have reminded the disciples of other ordinary events that, through Jesus, became windows into the nature of God and God’s kingdom.
First, the men were fishing, doing the work that Peter, James, and John had been doing before Jesus called them to follow, in the same place where he called them. Their nets were empty that time, too, as Luke tells the story, and Jesus gave them advice that yielded an abundant catch. But, not only that, Jesus told Peter that his life was about to change—that he would be catching people rather than fish. On that morning on the beach, Peter and James and John must have vividly remembered that day, and probably the others, who had surely heard the story, remembered it, too. As they counted the fish in their net, perhaps that triggered their memory of a wedding in Cana, when Jesus produced an abundance of fine wine. In every instance, Jesus used ordinary experiences to reveal the abundant love and care that God has for us.
The men had been fishing in the dark, and Jesus appeared at dawn. As the light grew, perhaps they remembered another recent dawn, when the women discovered that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But they may also have felt like they themselves were emerging from a spiritual darkness. In that time (as now), light and dark were symbols of good and evil, righteousness and faithfulness, truth and falsehood, understanding or lack of understanding. As the light spread over the water and they drew closer to Jesus, maybe the disciples remembered his words to them: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Jesus used the rising sun to reveal that God is light, and that God’s light was made visible in Jesus.
And that meal! Bread and fish. So ordinary, and so extraordinary. Bread and fish, taken, blessed, broken and given, as it had been when Jesus fed thousands on a hillside. Bread that was taken, blessed, broken, and given at the supper where Jesus told the disciples that the bread represented his body, broken for the world. Bread—a simple, ordinary object that, in Jesus’ hands, became a sign that reveals God’s willingness to go to any lengths to save us by offering us the Bread of Life.
The charcoal fire, too, would have revealed something, too, at least for Peter. Peter had stood by a charcoal fire as Jesus was being interrogated, and it was there that Peter had denied Jesus. In the verses after our passage, Jesus speaks with Peter and offers him a chance to start anew. But here, Peter hasn’t had that conversation yet. Here, the fire may only have served to remind him of his own sinfulness, his own abandonment of Jesus. And that, too, is a sign that points us to our own sinfulness and reveals God’s grace that covers our sin with Jesus’ blood.
All the ordinary pieces of that breakfast on the beach, and the events and words they recalled, were signs of God’s identity and nature, revealed through Jesus. While we may not ever come in from a day’s work to find Jesus in our kitchens, preparing a meal, we can see God revealed in the ordinary events and objects and people in our lives. When we make a habit of looking for and seeing God revealed in our everyday surroundings, we are said to be living “incarnationally.” Just as God was incarnate in Jesus, we can continue to understand God better as God revealed to us in the world around us.
Think about what you’ve experienced already this morning. The chilly floor beneath your feet when you first touched the floor. The smell of your coffee brewing or the feel of the steam from your cup of tea. Depending on what time you left the house, you may have heard the sound of raindrops or the songs of the birds. You arrived at church and saw the beloved faces, heard the familiar voices, and began to take care of your regular Sunday morning tasks. Just regular activities, not so different from what you do every day, and every one of them presents an opportunity to see Jesus and the God he revealed.
Our work can remind us of Jesus’ work as a carpenter—someone who created things, as God creates. In the gardens we grow, we remember the gardens in Jesus’ life and what happened there. Our food connects us to the Bread of Life, every drink to the Living Water—all of it a sign of the abundance God offers. In the people around us, we find both those who have been called with us to serve our Living God, and those who still need to find their way into a relationship with God—the ones we are fishing for.
Every weather condition reminds us of God’s power and presence in the world, revealed in Jesus’ ability to calm the wind and waves. Each torn seam we mend or button we sew on recalls the curtain that Jesus tore open to allow us to be closer to God. Every part of our physical or material lives can point to God’s nature and make it visible. Once we begin looking, it seems almost impossible not to find a new revelation of God in our world.
Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles, was known for her incarnational way of living—connecting with God through every aspect of her life. Her outlook is reflected in this prayer of hers: “Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church or closet, nor exercised only in prayer, but that everywhere I am in thy presence. So may my every word and action have a moral content. May all things instruct me and afford me an opportunity of exercising some virtue and daily learning and growing toward thy likeness.”
The reality of God incarnated in Jesus revealed God to us in a wholly new way. When we live incarnationally, we allow all things to help us connect with God in new ways as we live our daily lives. The ordinariness of the disciples’ fishing trip and breakfast with Jesus on the beach reminds us of this. We see God revealed most fully in Jesus, and as we live incarnationally, we will also see Jesus in our midst, every day. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young