Back to Fishing?

In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection, you can imagine that the disciples were wired with energy. First there was that high-strung tension in the locked room where the disciples held their collective breath in fear, not knowing if the authorities would arrest them next. Then came the dizzying energy of disbelief & debate as Mary Magdalene reported to the gathered disciples that she had talked with Jesus in the garden near the tomb. And when Jesus himself appeared to the disciples in that locked room, showing the wounds on his hands and his sides, the disciples exploded with relief & excitement & wild confidence! They poured out of that locked room full of energy to go and find all of the other disciples who had scattered after Jesus died. They spread throughout Jerusalem and beyond, ducking from soldiers, keeping their faces hidden from the temple leaders, scurrying & scrambling & telling this miraculous news to everyone who had followed Jesus and everyone who had been healed by Jesus and everyone who had been fed by Jesus and everyone who had hosted Jesus with his disciples in their homes.

But the high energy of activity after the resurrection can only last so long. Pretty soon the news has been spread. Pretty soon the disciples realize that no one is chasing after them. Pretty soon they find themselves at a loss for how to fill their time … because Jesus filled their time for three years, day in and day out, gave them purpose for three years, kept them busy for three years.

Now they find themselves (in John 21:1-14) on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias — Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James & John, and two others — just skipping stones, killin’ time.

In the lull, Peter says, “You know what, I’m going fishing. I still remember how to do that. Fishing used to be my life: putting out to sea, minding the waves & currents, watching the winds, throwing out the nets, hauling them back in, sorting the catch, returning to shore, haggling at market to make an extra penny, mending the nets, then heading out to sea again. I could do that again,” Peter says, “that could be my life again, now that following Jesus no longer fills my days. Maybe I’ll go back to being a fisherman.”

And can’t we relate to Peter, in thinking sometimes that going back is a safe choice when we don’t know how to go forward?

The group agrees with Peter’s idea. They head out in the boat … and their first night as reinstated fishermen is miserable! Maybe they’ve lost their touch out on the water, maybe they read the currents wrong in determining where to cast their nets, but by dawn, the men don’t have a single fish to show for their night’s work. Not one!

Just after daybreak, a voice reaches them … faintly … across the water. But the wind has been filling their ears all night, and the boat’s creaking is particularly loud, and the disciples have been calling fishing instructions to one another, so when that faint call comes, you can imagine that Peter says to the others:

Hush! Hush! Somebody’s calling my name.
Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name.
Oh hush! Hush. Somebody’s calling my name.
O my God, o my God, what shall I do? What shall I do?

And echoing across the water like the call of a Siren, the voice comes again, telling them, “Cast your nets to the right side of the boat.” They cast, and the abundance of what they catch is so amazing … so miraculous … like the abundance of the best wine pouring out of water jars at a wedding, that the disciple whom Jesus loved immediately turns to Simon Peter:

Sounds like Jesus! Somebody’s calling my name!
Sounds like Jesus! Somebody’s calling my name.
Oh sounds like Jesus, somebody’s calling my name.
O my God! O my God, what shall I do? What shall I do?

And indeed! It does seem to be Jesus there on the shore, blessing them like he has always blessed them, calling to them like he has always called to them! Simon Peter leaps off the boat to swim ashore. The others bring the boat to land, pulling their nets full of fish, until finally they are all together: smelly, tired, former disciples who have decided to rebrand themselves as fishermen, standing agape at Jesus who is making breakfast.

There are admonitions that Jesus says to Peter in the latter verses of John 21, but for now — gathered around a beach campfire at dawn — Jesus doesn’t teach or preach or even scold. He doesn’t say, “Why would you think you can go back to fishing? Don’t you know that I still shape your days, that I still give you purpose even though life has changed?” Jesus doesn’t say any of that (yet); he only invites them to share breakfast with him.

As they break bread and share fish around the campfire, I wonder if these would-be fishermen don’t realize that, in fact, they have no desire to be fishermen again! As their stomachs fill and the night’s stresses fade, I wonder if they don’t hum to themselves:

I’m so glad! Trouble won’t last always!
I’m so glad trouble won’t last always.
Oh I’m so glad, trouble won’t last always!
O my God, o my God, what shall I do? What shall I do?

We can put our boats out to sea with the fishermen-disciples, we can try to go back to how things were in those moments when we don’t know how to go forward, we can try to be who we once were before we changed. We can spend all night casting our nets, going through the motions of what is familiar because — in the face of change — the familiar is comfortable, even after the familiar has outlived its purpose. We can lean into the work of our boats and bend our backs to the tasks of the moment and let the wind fill up our ears so much that we don’t hear the voice calling across the water.

But there is a voice calling across the water, calling us not to be afraid in meeting the changes of life, pointing us toward an unimagined abundance that will take us beyond our boats.

And because that voice is calling, we can’t go back to fishing. We can’t go back to … to whatever it is that you wish you could return to: that life or that work or that time that you imagine was once safe & uncomplicated. We can’t even go back to the present — that is, we can’t even stay in today just because we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

The disciples couldn’t go back to fishing because they were no longer fishermen. We can’t go back to fishing because it’s no longer who we are, it’s no longer what we do. We can’t go back to fishing because Jesus is not done calling our names, Jesus is not done showing us abundance!

Hush! Hush! Somebody’s calling your name!
Sounds like Jesus! Somebody’s calling your name.
Oh hush. Hush. Jesus is calling our names.
O my God, o my God, what shall we do? What shall we do?

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Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 4/14/2013.

3 thoughts on “Back to Fishing?

  1. Thank you for taking the pieces, like parts of the present, tying it together with flourishes of bows and colored paper and set it before me. It is wonderful, it is full of touches to my heart and I appreciate the effort to put it down for me to pick up.
    Like conversations where once words are out there, we must move forward from them, fulfilling ourselves differently. Thank you for writing out the sermon, for bringing the story back to us like some favorite nighttime tale of comfort and dreams …
    Thank you …

  2. Pingback: Red Heels and Purple Boots | Rachel G. Hackenberg

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