After this Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and He revealed Himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 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.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So, Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask Him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead (John 21:1–14).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
At the beginning of the pandemic government health experts tried to boost morale by talking about adjusting to “the new normal.” After nearly two years of living in a pandemic with lockdowns, social distancing, mask mandates, then being urged (in some cases, mandated) to get vaccinated, I think most of us were anxious about “getting back to normal.” Whatever that might be.
The Christian humorist, Patsy Clairmont, famously said: “Normal is just a setting on the dryer.” Perhaps she’s right. Maybe there is no such thing as normal. When meteorologists speak of normal such as “normal highs or lows for the day” or “normal rainfall,” they actual mean “average.” Experience shows that there are few “normal” days; they are mostly a big bunch of extreme highs and lows run through mathematical calculations to compute an average.
“Normal” has become an unpopular word. Last year, Unilever, the maker of Dove soap, among other things, announced they were going to remove the word “normal” from the packaging of over 200 of their beauty products because “a study had found that the word normal makes most people feel excluded.” If there is such a thing as “normal” it seems there must not be too many of us wanting to get there.
Nevertheless, as we read our Gospel for today, we see that the disciples are trying to get back to normal. Do you think your world has been turned upside-down? Put yourself in the sandals of Jesus’ disciples.
Life had been strange, anything but normal, for three years. Things had gotten out of balance. One moment, Jesus stood on the edge of the seashore as they fished. “Then, somehow, He ended up the center of their lives. Wandering with Him from village to village, watching Him preach and heal the sick, going out themselves (“fishing” He called it) and coming into towns where they cast out demons and healed the sick.”[i] Their world had changed. It opened up to reveal the nearness and the power of God. What could you do but follow? Without a guide, how could you navigate such a world?
But then, even more quickly than it began, it ends. Their teacher, Jesus, dies on a cross. In three days, Jesus, risen from the dead, appears to them like a ghost. Except, He is not a ghost. He is alive. He is with them… but not in the same way as before. Once again, they are faced with a question. How do you live in a world like that? Where Jesus has power over life and death? How do you get back to normal?
Perhaps this is why they are out on the water in the middle of the night. They do not know the answer to that question. How do you live with Jesus who is risen from the dead? Not knowing what else to do, they return to something familiar, something that feels normal. The rocking of the waves. The splash of water. The roughness of rope and net. Fishing.
This is all speculation, of course. John does not tell us why they decide to go fishing. But what John does tell us is that Jesus had decided to reveal Himself to them. “After this, Jesus revealed Himself again,” John writes. At the end of this story he adds, “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead” (John 21:14).
On this occasion, seven of the disciples go fishing on the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee), their old fishing waters. Peter has the idea, and the others don’t need much coaxing to join him. At least four of them had previously made a living fishing here. They set out by boat for a night of fishing. But they catch nothing. The scene is like the time at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him and become fishers of men (Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus will supply the fish and use that as an opportunity to turn their attention to Him and His ministry.
How strange it must be for Jesus to see these men, men He had chosen and taught and fought and died for… fishing. It is like He was returning to the beginning, where He first found them on the seashore. So, He chooses to come to them again through what is familiar and gives them a sense of getting back to normal.
Jesus asks the question that is most natural to any fisherman: “Are you catching anything?” Actually, He asks, “Children, do you have any fish?” The question itself is revealing. Jesus uses a term for a small side dish, not necessarily fish. “But in this context, talking to fishermen, one could assume it [is] fish. Not a large catch of fish, however. No, this is a reference to a small side dish of fish.”[ii] They do not even have that. Jesus knows their need.
Not only does Jesus reveal their need, but He also reveals His claim upon their lives. He calls them children. This is the only time in the Gospel Jesus addresses them this way. “With a word, He captures not their childishness but His deep affection.”[iii] But they still don’t recognize Him!
Finally, Jesus speaks as one who has already seen and provided for their need: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They do so, apparently without much thought about who is telling them to do so. But when the catch is so big, they can’t haul the net into the boat, their attention turns back to Jesus. John, perhaps remembering that earlier catch of fish when they began to follow Jesus, says to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
As usual, Peter takes the lead and acts immediately and impetuously when he hears it is Jesus. He wraps his outer garment around himself, so he’ll have it when he reaches Jesus. Then he abandons the boat and fish and jumps into the lake. The others follow in the boat, dragging the net full of fish with them about a hundred yards to shore.
When they get to the shore, they find a charcoal fire already burning, with some fish laid out on it, and some bread. Even though Jesus already knows and has answered their need, He invites them to experience the mystery of His presence once again. He tells them to get some of the fish they just caught. Peter, ever quick to oblige the Lord, climbs into the boat, hauls the net to shore, and with the help of the other drags it onto the beach. The net is loaded with 153 large fish.
Then Jesus invites them, “Come and have breakfast.” And they all know it is the Lord. Jesus comes and takes the bread and gives it to them, and so with the fish (John 21:13).
At the end of the night, at the edge of their emptiness, at the limits of their strength, searching for some sense of normalcy, Jesus reveals His presence. The Lord of all creation lives and has come to care for them.
No, they will not remain in their homes and their former way of life. They will go out in mission to the ends of the earth. Things will never again be “getting back to normal.” But they will be loved, and they will be led… by Jesus. He knows how to navigate this strange world. The One who died for them, now lives, and cares for them as He awakens them to His call.
The days after Easter are strange. We are slowly returning to our patterns of Church life and family life after the festivities and activities of Easter. Yet, we need to be careful we do not become too comfortable with our homes and former life. For things will never be “normal” in this life, at least not according to the standards of the world.
“For what Easter has taught us is how this world is changed. Jesus has risen from the dead and rules over all things. He not only saves us from sin, death, and the devil, but leads us in life from the comforts of home to the call of His Kingdom. There, at the end of our strength, is the beginning of His grace. Jesus is risen to bring you, His child, into His mission in His Kingdom.”[iv]
The disciples know it is the risen Lord upon arriving onshore. The same Lord who fed five thousand now feeds His disciples this breakfast of bread and fish. The Lord is unmistakable by His Word and what He does. So also, the same risen Lord continues to speak to us and feed us this day.
Jesus still comes. He still draws near to us and welcomes us to Him. He still gives daily bread to all, whether they believe in Him or not. He still offers forgiveness and faith to all, so that all might be forgiven and believe and be saved. He still tells us exactly where He is found with grace, in His Word and in His Sacraments. And by these means of grace, He still has mercy upon us and restores us. He still builds up and strengthens us.
Though we may come half-heartedly, even begrudgingly, worn down by the cares of this world, He does not. He comes with all grace and joy. Though our prayers are lacking, He intercedes for us so that our prayers are answered according to His Father’s will. You see, Christ is risen from the dead. And He who died to restore us to Himself didn’t rise again to abandon us. Despite our sinful reluctance to come into His presence for forgiveness, He still comes anyway.
Thus, we give thanks to the Lord for His coming, for His patience, and for His most persistent mercy. And thankful for His persistence, we rejoice to confess our sins and draw near to Him. For here, by His means of grace, the present, risen Lord declares that you are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 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.
[i] Gospel: John 21:1-19 (Easter 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-john-211-19-easter-3-series-c-2.
[ii] Gospel: John 21:1-19 (Easter 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-john-211-19-easter-3-series-c-2.
[iii] Gospel: John 21:1-19 (Easter 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-john-211-19-easter-3-series-c-2.
[iv] Gospel: John 21:1-19 (Easter 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-john-211-19-easter-3-series-c-2.