The text of the sermon for today at First Baptist Church, Niagara Falls, NY, is below. The pastor of that church usually provides a written copy of the sermon for the congregation to follow along if they want. Thus I’m posting this text before today’s service. The outline, as usual, doesn’t convert to this format well. It is I, A., i., ii., B., II, A., B., III, A., B. I’ll post the link to the page on Facebook where the service will probably be livestreamed and change it to the video later. The reference to Herod is to the Lectionary reading of Mark 6:14-29. Herod had gone fishing in an awful small pond.
A number of years ago my parents had two of our ponds stocked with catfish and bass. And after some time had passed for them to grow to be large fish, we fished them periodically. It has been said, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot,” but I don’t remember having too much of a problem catching a few for dinner when that was the plan. I can say though that I do remember a few fish looking back at me like I was stupid to think that they would fall for the worm on the hook. I have never been a fan of eating fish, but it does sound mighty inviting to get away for a couple days and relax by the pond holding my old fishing rod. I really can’t blame Peter for wanting to go fishing. He has been through a lot in the past few weeks – following Jesus into Jerusalem, denying Jesus while warming himself by a charcoal fire, hearing that Jesus had been crucified and buried, and then being surprised by the resurrection of Jesus. No doubt much of his thoughts focused on those three times he had denied being a disciple of Jesus. So Peter tells the other six disciples who were with him, “I am going fishing.” He, like many of the disciples, was a professional fisherman before he met Jesus. This was what he knew how to do – for a living and for his food. So Peter was not exactly getting away to relax, Peter was going to go bury himself in his work. And it is while they were gone fishin’ that Jesus appeared to them this third time in the Gospel of John. And as often in Scripture the third time—that resurrection number of three—is the charm.
Jesus used this fishing trip to show you that He will supply you abundantly with bread and fish.
The natural question to ask then is, “What do the bread and fish represent?”
It is tempting to read this story as an allegory about the evangelism that they were going to start soon since Jesus had said to them, according to the Gospel of Matthew, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And so some will say that the fish represent the people whom they will soon begin to catch, maybe the reason the net did not tear was because Jesus does not lose any that belong to Him, and the large number of 153 means this evangelism will net a large catch. Thus the moral of the story is that apart from Jesus you will not be able to catch people no matter how hard you work. True enough, but if this were the way we were meant to read the passage we would expect the fish caught to be described as being different sizes and kinds. However, they were all large and nothing is said of what kinds of fish were in the net. And much more seriously, Jesus tells the disciples to bring some of the fish that they have just caught apparently to add to the fish he was already cooking on that charcoal fire. They were going to eat fish. So it hardly makes sense to say that the fish represent the people they will catch.
The truth is much more simple – the bread and fish represent food – in particular, Spiritual food. The scene described here in John 21 is a feeding miracle. This is the reason we are told the number of fish before and after. We are told that the disciples had caught nothing that night but then obeying Jesus’ instructions that morning they caught 153 large fish. And they only ate some of these fish, which suggests that like other feeding miracles there is an abundance left over when everyone had eaten their fill. It is no accident that if you peek ahead to the second half of John 21 you will see Jesus telling Peter, “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” They have lots of left-over “fish” to share. Perhaps you might object that sheep do not eat fish, but I would simply point to the feeding of the five thousand according to Mark 6. The feeding miracle in Mark 6 extensively uses a shepherding motif. Indeed, the feeding of the five thousand in Mark teaches us that Jesus is the fully divine Good Shepherd of Israel who organizes us and miraculously feeds us. The story also assures us that despite delays, like Psalm 23 we shall not want. That’s why the feeding of the five thousand in the desert (Mark 6:32) was nevertheless described as “on the green grass” (Mark 6:39). Thus we are the sheep and you will remember that the people organized there ate bread and fish. So no the fish do not represent people but the fish are food, especially representing the Spiritual food that Jesus abundantly was giving to the apostles.
And there is plenty of bread and fish – that is, Spiritual food – to go around for you today. The famous American author Henry David Thoreau once said, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish that they are after.” What is it that you think you are after? For what are you hungry? Is it money, respect, or love? What is it for you? Unlike Herod, some people find inspiration in the idiomatic expression “there are plenty more fish in the sea.” They may or may not be fishing for true love. But none of those things will satisfy your hunger. You may fish for them all of your life without ever knowing that they are not what you really seek. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.” These seven disciples toiled all night long looking for fish, but it was not fish that they really were seeking and so they were kept from catching anything that night. They were really seeking Spiritual food that would nourish and strengthen them unto eternal life. And so as the day was breaking, like the Sunday of the resurrection, Jesus said, “Children, do you have any fish?” And you know what happened next. All you who are hungry, know this: Jesus has provided bread and fish abundantly.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is that it shows us that this Jesus may reveal Himself to you while you are “gone fishing.”
Jesus was the last person that the disciples expected to see on the shore of that lake that morning. It was just as day was breaking and He was about a hundred yards off. But the main reason they did not recognize Him was because they were not looking for Him. They thought they were looking for fish. And then they cast the net on the right side of the boat and they were unable to haul it in for all the fish. And everyone acted true to character: John turned to Peter and said, “It is the Lord!” And Peter jumped in the water to swim to the shore. And when they sat down to eat none of the disciples dared to ask, “Who are you? They knew it was the Lord.” He had sought them out when they had gone fishing. They could have expected Him to show up on the first day of the week when they were all gathered together, like the previous two times that the risen Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples. But that morning when they had buried themselves in the work of fishing, they were surprised to see Jesus.
Surely we know that when we gather together on the first day of the week we gather together into the very presence of the risen Jesus in heaven, but even when you are gone fishing during the week Jesus may reveal Himself to you. In the midst of your pursuits, thinking that you are looking for money, respect, love, or something altogether different, Jesus can show up. Even when you are simply seeking to busy yourself so that you will not have to think about the time you denied being His disciple, Jesus can show up. You may not recognize Him right away. But He has an abundant supply of bread and fish to share.
And then Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.”
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. No doubt this reminded them of the last meal they had eaten together. At that last supper, Jesus had told them that Peter would deny Jesus and one of the disciples would betray Jesus. And just as Peter denied Jesus three times while warming himself by a charcoal fire, now he was invited to a meal that had been prepared on a charcoal fire. No longer could he distract himself counting fish or marveling at how the net miraculously was not torn. Jesus had invited him to dine. The stage is thus set for the threefold restoration of Peter.
Likewise, today Jesus is calling out to us, “Come and have breakfast.” It is one thing to know that Jesus has an abundant supply of bread and fish, it is another to be invited to sit down at table with Jesus and His disciples. He is calling for us to rest from our works and “fishing” trips and fishing expeditions and be reconciled to Him. He even finds us when we are gone fishing and He invites us to come and dine with Him – to join Him at the table and fellowship with Him. This is good news indeed. Thanks be to God.