Skip to content

153 Fish

July 18, 2016

“153 Fish” John 21:1-14, 25 © 7.17.16 (Special message for start of 2016 VBS “Surf Shack”) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“It’s so shallow a child can wade in it and so deep an elephant could drown in it.” So someone has said of the Gospel of John. How true! The author’s Greek is easy and straightforward, making the book ideal for teaching first-year seminarians the language. From John come some of the best known bumper sticker phrases in Christianity. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “You must be born again.” Keith Urban can sing a song called “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” and most everyone knows the reference.

On the other hand, this gospel is unlike the other three. John’s chronology of Jesus’ ministry differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s from this author we get the idea that Jesus worked for three years, while the others have him in ministry for only about a year. Our Lord makes long philosophical, poetic speeches in John. At the beginning, he’s said to be the incarnation of the eternal principle or entity called “the Logos,” “the Word,” and throughout he identifies himself clearly as God, the “I Am.” He speaks in riddles, not parables, using metaphors and confusing, hidden double meanings that can be understood only by those in whom the Spirit dwells.

The passage we heard this morning, called the Epilogue, comes from a later editor, but it reflects authentic traditions in John’s community, including the fondness for hidden meanings and metaphors. The gospel never circulated without this chapter, so from earliest days it was recognized as important for the understanding of the church.

Two separate stories have been blended to create the scene which opens the chapter. One is an account of the resurrected Jesus’ first appearance to Peter on a fishing trip. The other is a tale of a shared meal with seven disciples. Whatever their origin, they now tell us how Jesus reveals or shows himself to his own, and how his presence touches the lives of believers in every age. As the text is placed now, it recounts the third resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples. The revelation to Mary Magdalene seems to be in a special category. Otherwise, this would actually be the fourth encounter.

With that bit of introduction, then, let’s look at the story. I suppose the first thing I wonder is why Peter decided to go fishing. For anyone else, that activity might be a chance to get away from it all by a quiet lake or to have a great adventure on the deep sea. When somebody hangs a “gone fishin’” sign on their business, he or she is taking a vacation, looking for an escape. But remember that Peter and some of the others were commercial fishermen. So, getting back into the boat meant a return to routine, to normalcy. The past three years, according to John’s count, and especially the last two weeks had been anything but ordinary. Peter and his companions needed time to “get things sorted,” as the British say. Fishing was what he knew best, what he understood, what he had done for so long he could almost perform the work with his eyes closed. He certainly didn’t have to think much about it. Preaching and evangelizing were, by contrast, way outside his comfort zone. The routine of daily work was welcome relief after the confusion and pain and grief of past days.

But in fact neither Peter’s life nor that of his companions could or would ever be the same. There was no going back to the way things were, because they had encountered and been encountered by the risen Christ. And certainly Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel all had baggage, as we would say, from their experiences with the Lord. Peter had denied he was a disciple. Thomas had doubted. Nathaniel very early on had wondered how the Messiah could come from a hick town.

Even if we want to flee his presence, Christ keeps on appearing to us in the midst of daily life, as he did to those three disciples and the others, with their doubts and fears and foibles. We have to keep our eyes open to clues of his presence, which are by no means obvious. As the famous saying goes “He comes to us as one unknown.” But it’s no surprise that the men saw Jesus at the end of a frustrating night of fishing. Someone has observed: “Jesus immersed himself in the common human condition, in the work of his hands and the smells and sounds of the streets, the marketplace and the teeming crowds.” And still today, he is among us in the “relationships and the conundrums and challenges of life. Grace is on the loose in the world” (

So, in ordinary things, among common people, doing our day-in and day-out work, we meet Jesus. The old tradition spoke of “daily conversion,” turning again and again to our Lord. We might also talk about recognizing him each day in the faces and needs of the people we meet. Each time we meet Jesus we claim and remember our baptism, our cleansing, our naming, our calling, our commissioning in the sacrament. Over and over, we go through the waters, as Peter did, to meet Jesus, with respect and enthusiasm. We are raised to new life as we cry out “It’s the Lord,” and find that he welcomes us with sustenance, even as we serve him, bringing some of the fish we have caught, as it were. The blogger Nancy Rockwell has written: “Resurrection isn’t about being King of Kings, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! And it isn’t about omnipotence. It’s about presence. About perseverance and possibility. And peace” (Nancy Rockwell, That’s what we find when we recognize Jesus in the midst of our daily lives.

The poet has put it this way: “The blame forgotten,/shame covered,/Peter leapt into the sea./Where tears once drowned hope/and denials became despair and self loathing,/now eyes had seen that figure on the shore,/that body once strung across the stained wood of execution.

“A revived fishing business,/the dull depression of remembered cowardice,/of failed courage,/bad dreams of abandonment,/a deep sea of pain,/now splashed with new hope” (William Loader, “On Shore,”

Like Peter, we find our hope renewed, our commission reaffirmed, our failures forgiven. But next in the story we might notice the astounding grace of God that gives us abundant life. Jesus said elsewhere in this gospel: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” From the very first page of John’s account, we find abundance writ large. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” A wedding in Cana had six stone jars, with a combined volume of 180 gallons, filled to the brim with water that had become the best wine available. To the woman of Samaria, our Lord promised living water gushing up to eternal life. At the end of our chapter, the author says that not even the whole world could contain the books that could be written about what Jesus did.

And so in our story as well. Abundance! There have been all kinds of fanciful ideas over the centuries about the symbolism of 153 fish. One writer said that the number is all the species of fish known in the ancient world. Another added up all the whole numbers between one and 17 and got the total in the text. But really the author means nothing other than it was a big catch of fish, which was a sign of God’s favor in Jewish thought. That they were large was particularly wonderful. God keeps on blessing and brings surprises when we thought there was nothing to be done. After fishing all night for nothing, we try one more time, as we are bidden. And we are overwhelmed by grace beyond our imagining or our deserving.

Isn’t it true that so many of our problems as individuals, in the church, in our nation, and in our world come from our belief in what is known as the “scarcity mentality”? We know it perhaps more commonly as “the glass is half empty,” and we have to admit, some folks see the glass as not only half empty, but chipped and dirty, too. Someone has described such a mindset as “lose-win,” which says that there is only so much pie to go around, and if you get some for you, there will be less for me.

But what we find in the gospel is what’s known as an “abundance mentality.” For those who live this way, there is more than enough to go around. I can have my piece of the pie and so can you. These people believe in a “win-win” scenario, in which cooperation yields more results than competition.

The late well-know business writer Stephen Covey has a great explanation of the concepts: “‘The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life…. People with a Scarcity Mentality have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit—even with those who help in the production.  They also have a very hard time being genuinely happy for the successes of other people—even, and sometimes especially, members of their own family or close friends and associates.  It’s almost as if something is being taken from them when someone else receives special recognition or windfall gain or has remarkable success or achievement. Although they may verbally express happiness for others’ success, inwardly they are eating their hearts out.  Their sense of worth comes from being compared, and someone else’s success, to some degree, means their failure.  Only so many people can be “A" students; only one person can be “number one.”  To “win” simply means to “beat.”

“‘…It’s difficult for people with a scarcity mentality to be members of a complimentary team.  They look on differences as signs of insubordination and disloyalty.

“‘The Abundance Mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security.  It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody.  It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making.  It opens possibilities, options, alternatives and creativity.

“‘The Abundance Mentality takes…personal joy, satisfaction and fulfillment…and turns it outward, appreciating the uniqueness, the inner direction, the proactive nature of others.  It recognizes the unlimited possibilities for positive interactive growth and development, creating new Third Alternatives.

“‘Public Victory does not mean victory over other people.  It means success in effective interaction that brings mutually beneficial results to everyone involved. …Public Victory is an outgrowth of the Abundance Mentality paradigm.

“‘A character rich in integrity, maturity, and the Abundance Mentality has a genuineness that goes far beyond technique, or lack of it, in human interaction’” (

How would our lives, our families, our nation, our churches, our world be different if more of us, from ordinary folk to leaders at the highest level, adopted an abundance mentality, if we trusted in the gracious provision of God who gives more than enough?

Finally, not only does this story remind us that we meet Jesus in the midst of the everyday, where he provides abundant resources for living; it invites us to celebrate and work for the unity of humanity, and especially the Church. The net with the 153 fish of all kinds was drawn in unbroken, though it was so full. In Greek, the text says there was no “schism.”

At the end of the first century, when the story was written, there were plenty of schisms in the Church. John’s community felt the mother church in Jerusalem wasn’t displaying sufficient faith. In the writer’s own group, there were divisions, as evidenced from the letters in this tradition. There were those who were the heirs of Paul, others who preferred the approach of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as yet unnamed, but written with particular approaches to who Jesus was and what he taught. In the 90s and 100s, too, we find the beginnings of a movement called “Gnosticism,” which would produce its own literature during the next century. The dream of, the longing for, an unbroken net of the Church was made deeper and all the more persistent because of all the rips in the mesh. Surely the Lord would grant the miracle again! And of course, humanity was by no means united around a common center then than we are in our own age.

Today, perhaps more than ever, the net is torn, sometimes it would seem, beyond repair. Families are in crisis. Churches argue over issues big and small, and individuals within them experience conflict. Our nation is divided in a myriad of ways which we all know, and I need not name here, as is the world.

In the story, it seems Peter single-handedly hauled the net ashore, bringing the catch to the feet of Jesus. Maybe we dream of some great leader—a pope or a president—who can accomplish such a feat and do the hard work of keeping the net of humanity from breaking. But really the task belongs to all of us, to do what we can to foster a spirit of cooperation, love, and peace, until that day when as Jesus promised, he will draw all people to himself. And we and our neighbors will meet him on that peaceful heavenly shore, where he welcomes us, and we will know in whose presence we are without question.

The hymn writer reminds us of our holy task in the meantime this way: “From the nets of our labors, through the noise and confusion, from the city or seashore, Jesus summons us all. When we faint and grow weary, from the bearing of burdens, with a message of comfort, Jesus summons us all. In the eyes of the stranger, tearful, joyous or frightened, in the face of each neighbor, Jesus summons us all. When we hear words of hatred spreading fear or false witness, words that cry to be challenged, Jesus summons us all. In each moment of courage, steadfast even through trembling, in the yearning for justice, Jesus summons us all. Like disciples before us, from the city or seashore, risking selfless compassion, Jesus summons us all. We will rise up and follow, Christ before and beside us, loving pattern to guide us, as we answer the call” (Mary Louise Bringle, “From the Nets of Our Labor,” 2004).

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: