Fish Stories: A Sermon for the Funeral of Gary Vos

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Simon 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.

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on 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 of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. (John 21:3-8)

Leann, Toby, Shane, family, and friends of Gary,

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!       

This week as I was talking with Cole, I asked him if he had any stories of fishing with his Grandpa. I was thinking he might talk about a day when they caught their limit of walleyes in less than an hour, each one of them landing a fish over thirty inches. But he told me about a day earlier this year when they went to Dead Coon Lake. It was on a Friday. It had been raining hard all day. They only caught one fish in three hours. But it was worth it because they caught that one fish. Some days you don’t catch anything. Cole didn’t say it, but I suspect part of what made it worthwhile was the time he could share with his Grandpa.

Fishermen have a reputation for telling fish stories. Most of the time, fish stories are a bit embellished. The fish get a little bit bigger each time the story is told. The big one gets away just as you’re netting it. I like Cole’s fish story because it is true. It doesn’t focus so much on the fish but on a larger truth.

The Bible has fish stories, too. They’re all true, and they focus on a larger truth, but I must admit they do strain credulity. That’s because most of the time that fish are mentioned they are associated with miracles, which are, by their nature, rare supernatural events. We have the miraculous catch of fish where Jesus calls His first disciples (Luke 5:6). The miraculous feedings of the five thousand and the four thousand, using a few loaves of bread and fish (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-38). Then there’s this interesting tale: The collectors ask Peter if his Master pays the temple tax. Jesus tells Peter to “go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for Me and for yourself” (Matthew 17:24-27).

Now that’s a fish story!

In our Gospel, John 21:3-8, we have another miraculous catch of fish. It happened during the forty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Some of the disciples were sitting by the lake. Peter spoke up and said, “I’m going fishing.” The others agreed, “We’ll go with you.” They went out and got in the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, they saw a man on the shore. “Do you have any fish?” He asked. “No,” they said.

Now, all of this sounds true to form. Fishermen are going to fish if they have the time and are anywhere close to the water. Those on the shore are going to ask if you’re catching anything. But then this fish story departs from our normal experience. The man tells them to cast the net off the other side of the boat—as if those few feet were going to make a huge difference. But it did! And the net was so full of fish they couldn’t haul it into the boat. That’s when they realized it was the risen Lord. Peter threw himself into the water and hurried to Jesus. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net to shore. It was full of fish, 153 big ones!

Now that’s a fish story!

Which brings us to another fish miracle that has comfort and hope for this day. When the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus to give them a sign to prove His authority, He reminded them about a story they might have learned in Sunday School. Jonah and the big fish. You remember the story. God called Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach repentance. Jonah refused and ran away, taking a ship that was headed as far away from Nineveh as possible. Realizing it was his fault the storm was about to sink the ship Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard. God sent a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Now that’s a fish story!

The Pharisees had demanded a miraculous sign. Jesus replied that only one sign would be coming, not that it would change their minds. In due time, He would give them “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, and then he was cast up on the shore and enabled to go about the task that God had assigned to him, proclaiming God’s call of repentance to the people of the heathen city of Nineveh. Similarly, Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day, showing that He has satisfactorily completed the task for which the Father has sent Him into this world, namely, the redemption of the world.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the ultimate proof that He is who He claimed to be. Several times during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the heavenly Father had introduced Him to the world, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Father showed His pleasure and acceptance of Jesus’ work by raising Him from the dead, thereby declaring to the world that this man from Nazareth was truly His Son who brought forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Everything Jesus claimed about Himself is true. All that He said He would do, He has done. His resurrection renders it all valid.

That’s why we say in Easter and on days like today: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

So, what does that mean for you today?

For starters, the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead declares that He did, in fact, die. He has paid the price for the sins of the world by His suffering and death—and He has been raised from the dead for your justification. You need not ever wonder if God the Father has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for you. You know that the Father is well-pleased with His Son, for He has raised Jesus from the dead. And if the Father is well-pleased with His Son’s Passion and death, then you can be certain that forgiveness is yours—because Jesus is risen from the dead.

Christ is risen from the dead: The Son of God who became flesh and dwelt among us died indeed. But He was also raised from the dead—body and all. This is an important point: there is a subtle false teaching, even it seems among Christians, who believe that Jesus rose from the dead in soul and spirit, but not in body. Thus, when we die our soul and spirit rises, many believe, but the body is gone for good.

Why this is attractive, I don’t know, but beware the danger. To say that there is no resurrection of the body is to say that Jesus didn’t fully conquer sin; rather, He conquered it enough to free our souls, but didn’t have the power to restore our bodies. This is to say that Jesus failed in His work to redeem us, that sin and death and devil still have some power. But Christ is risen from the dead—body and all. His victory over sin, death, and devil is complete.

Christ is risen from the dead: therefore, He is present with you in His means of grace. His Word here is not just information, but living and active: because Christ—the living Word made flesh—is present in His Word. Holy Baptism is not just a splash of water and a nice thought. Rather, Christ is present there, to join you to His death—and to His resurrection. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is not just an inadequate meal in memory of one who died. Rather, it is the Lord’s Supper because the risen Savior is there, to give you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of your faith. Thus, the Lord walks with you. Risen, He fulfills His promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

In addition, the altar is the one place on earth where God has promised we can join with our loved ones who have died in the faith and are now in the presence of the Lord. Here, in Holy Communion, we worship, just as we sing, together “with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven.”

As we have begun to live with Christ here on earth in the Church through His Word and Sacraments, so we will continue to live with Him after we die. Death is not an interruption of this fellowship with our Lord. Our life with Christ continues, even after death, even before the resurrection. Our departed friends and family members who lived with Christ here below by faith in His cross for their forgiveness even now live with Him and are comforted. Because our life with Christ is not interrupted by death, death for the Christian may be sweet and joyful, even in the midst of tears and sorrow (TLSB, p. 1750).

On the day of the final judgment, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. The redeemed souls in heaven will be reunited with their own (now glorified) bodies and will begin to enjoy the bliss of everlasting life in both body and soul. Those who are alive at the time will be changed, this perishable body will put on the imperishable, and this mortal body will put on immortality, as death is swallowed up in victory.

Christ is risen from the dead and we rejoice that He is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. He has walked through the valley of the shadow of death so that He might guide you through to the gates of heaven. For now, you and I will witness and suffer grief and separation and mourning, eventually our own death. But you do not mourn as those without hope—Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits. He has not risen for Himself, but for you. He is the beginning of the harvest—and you can be sure that He will raise you and Gary—and all who die in the Lord—on the Last Day. And you will live with Him for eternity.

This is your comfort and hope: Your faith is not in vain. Christ is risen from the dead! He is risen indeed! Amen

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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