A Fishing Story

My sermon from May 5 2019, 3rd Sunday of Easter.  Lots of fish.

John 21:1-19

21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from our generous and loving God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

So as many of you know, I am an angler of many years.  It was one of the things my late husband, and my son and I loved to do together.  We fished down in Loreto in South Baja for years every June and July.  We also had boats from which we fished in San Diego waters over the years.  When I finally sold the house and downsized, we had over 150 fishing rods and who knows how many reels and how much tackle.

Suffice it to say – we loved to fish.

So our story today holds some interest for me.

I’m seeing Peter and some of the other disciples in a bit of a fog as the story begins.  Jesus has said “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” and honestly, I think they have no idea what he’s talking about, because they haven’t gone anywhere.  So they figure, well what the hey, let’s go fishing.  And out they go.

Any of you who are anglers are familiar with the next part of the story.  They don’t catch anything.  In the parlance of a fisherman: they get skunked.

Now, keep in mind this has been their livelihood for their entire lives; there are days where you come up empty.  And they’re a pretty short distance from shore when some joker on shore basically calls out “didja catch anything?”

This is long before those flags you could raise on your center console to show folks what you caught – marlin, tuna, whatever.

So the disciples reply that they’ve got nothing.  I’m thinking they’re expecting a little sympathy from the dude on the beach.

Well, dude on the beach then says: “try the other side!”

[withering glance]


As an angler, it’s SUPER annoying to have someone who knows nothing about fishing to tell you what you should have done to catch more fish.  THEY didn’t get up at zero-dark-thirty.  THEY didn’t deal with the boat motor with a bad attitude.  THEY don’t smell like anchovies or whatever bait you’re using.

But I’m guessing the disciples all mumbled, “oh great, one of THEM” – some smart aleck who thinks he’s got the answers to everything.  And so they decide, to keep it simple we’ll just humor him and let the nets down on the other side.  We’ll have the same result and maybe he’ll leave us alone.

Famous last words.

As they begin to haul in this epic catch, they all realize this is not some annoying heckler but JESUS.

Once they are all back on shore, they find that Jesus has a fire going, with fish cooking and bread to share.  Anyone who’s ever had trout from a mountain stream cooked over a fire after a long day can surely identify with this scenario.

And so the disciples gather around yet another table, one that is no more than a circle around a fire, and are fed by the Son of God with all they need to be filled.

And after they are filled, Jesus asks Peter three times “do you love me?”

This has been interpreted in the past to be a sort of ritual by which Peter is absolved of his denials and admitted back into the disciples’ club.  Three denials, three assertions.

It’s an interesting idea, but to me it sounds a little too neat and clean.  Almost contrived.  Almost – conditional.

And if there’s anything our Lutheran theology assures us of, it’s that God’s love IS. NOT.CONDITIONAL.

So let’s look at what Jesus says, after Peter’s three answers of yes.

Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.

What an interesting response to “of course I love you.”

It’s a response that says “ok, then pay it forward.”  Don’t pay me – pay it forward.

And by that simple directive, there is a new way to walk in the world.

Instead of paying BACK we start paying it forward.

It’s a term we’ve heard more and more these days – pay it forward.  It works from the axiom of “it’s more blessed to give than receive.”  And while that is certainly true, I think I’d say that everyone involved is blessed.

Some years ago when I was in seminary, I was the recipient of such generosity.

I was in a tough financial spot.  Probably towards the beginning of the semester, when financial aid awards hadn’t yet been disbursed.  I was desperately trying to figure out how I was going to pay my mortgage and keep the power on when I had no money in the bank.  I posted something on Facebook about requesting prayer that I’d figure out how to pay all the bills.

I got an email later that day from a colleague in North Carolina.  She said “I don’t have much, but what I have is yours.  Let me know where I can send $300 to help you out.”

I was stunned.  I knew she didn’t have much.  I wrote her back immediately and said you don’t have to do this, but I can pay you back as soon as my financial aid comes through.

She replied well obviously I don’t have to do this, but I want to.  And I don’t want you to pay me back, I want you to pay it forward.  You’ll know when the time is right.  Keep that good energy moving through the world.

This is what Jesus is teaching Peter and the disciples: pay it forward.  You honor me best by extending me into the world.  Keep that good energy moving.

And finally, Jesus says to Peter, follow me.

Not “worship me.”  This is such a fascinating distinction.  It shows us that Jesus is about empowering all of us to be his hands and feet in the world, while we worship the triune God.

It’s a reminder that worship is both passive and active.  We have moments in worship of passivity, of sitting and listening to God’s word, and those of activity – offering our gifts, or standing for the gospel acclamation, or actively receiving communion.

In the world, we are active in serving others, and we are passive in resting and listening for God.

To return to the first part of our story today, I wonder if perhaps the disciples were rather passive as they let down their nets yet another time on the left side of the boat.

It’s only by Jesus’ comments that we know they had been fishing off the left side of the boat; he tells them to put their nets down on the right side of the boat.

I want to have us think of these two sides in mariners’ terms, because if we think “left” and “right” we are likely to drop into political categories, and that’s not helpful here.

So the disciples have been dropping the nets on the PORT side of the boat.  The left side of a boat, looking towards the front or the bow is known as PORT and the right side is STARBOARD.

PORT is a word that implies a place where you tie the boat to the dock.  When you come into port, you come into a safe place where you tie up and don’t go anywhere for a while.

STARBOARD doesn’t have any such connotations.

But the word STAR invites us to look out.

We look towards the stars.

And of course, in ancient traditional navigation, the stars are the compass.  “Starboard” is composed of two Old English words: steor meaning to steer, and bord meaning the side of a boat.

You steer the boat by the stars.

And the stars by which the disciples steered their boats are the same ones used by the ancient navigators in the South Pacific.  They are the same ones the crew of the Hawaiian voyagers of the Hōkūle’a use today.  Hōkūle’a is the voyaging canoe that has been sailing the world to keep alive the traditional sailing and navigating ways of the Oceania peoples.

The word Hōkūle’a itself means “star of gladness.”

Likewise, Jesus is our star of gladness.

When we follow Jesus’ invitation to let down our nets on the starboard side of the boat, we open ourselves to possibilities we can’t see.  Looking out towards the stars, knowing as we do now that there is much beyond them we can’t see, we follow Jesus’ lead to step out of what we know and into the place where he needs us to be, so that we too might tend and feed his sheep.

But make no mistake – the place where Jesus needs us to be is also the place where he feeds and tends us.  Where we are held and cared for.  Where we gather as people of God.

People of St Andrew, you are standing on the deck of your boat, holding your net.

Where will you cast it?

How will you steer your boat?

However you answer those questions, I tell you this: Jesus gives you all you need on your way.

Peace be the journey.



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