They Knew It Was the Lord

In Chapter 20, just before the passage we read this morning, John tells us about Mary Magdalene realizing that the man she thought was the gardener was Jesus when he says her name, “Mary.” “Rabbouni!” she cries out as she turns toward him. I can just imagine her, instinctively grabbing and embracing him. “Do not hold onto me,” he says, “Go to my brothers and tell them.” And she goes and greets them with the news, “I have seen the Lord.”

That evening, while all the disciples except Thomas are together in the locked upper room, Jesus appears to them, too. And a week later Jesus appears to Thomas.

Some scholars argue that John’s Gospel originally ended with chapter 20. The last verses of the chapter do sound like a conclusion, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

But that’s not the end. I don’t think that Chapter 21 was added on later. Chapter 21 begins, “Afterward Jesus again appeared to his disciples.” Afterward. After what? After they had gone back, after the excitement, the shock, the commitment had worn off. After life returned to day to day again. They were back on the Sea of Galilee and it was dusk. Simon Peter decided to go fishing and the rest joined him. They fished all night and caught nothing. After they weren’t catching men or fish anymore.

I think John intentionally included this story like an addition because we all have afterwards. After the excitement of Easter has worn off. After the mountaintop experience of serving has faded. After the honeymoon is over. After the new baby is colicky and has a double ear infection. After the new job has become work. After the resurrection, they had settled back into what they knew. Paul wrote to the Galatians that the days are evil, not because there is something menacing about the days, but because we let them become mundane. Afterward, after the resurrection appearances, after they had come out of hiding, the disciples had returned home, maybe for a visit, maybe they were thinking about returning for good, maybe they just didn’t have a plan. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” The others have nothing better to do, so they join him. And they fish all night without catching anything.

I wonder if they went back to what they knew because it was comfortable, because they knew they weren’t enough. How were they supposed to carry out the mission of Jesus? They couldn’t be like him! He was a miracle worker, a brilliant teacher, a man without sin. They were fishermen. As the sun rose, they must have been discouraged – ministry is going nowhere and now we aren’t even any good at what we did before Jesus came and called us away from our nets.

N.T. Wright warns that it is “dreadfully easy” for us to get “the impression that we’ve got to do it all. God, we imagine, is waiting passively for us to get on with things. If we don’t organized it, it won’t happen. If we don’t tell people the good news, they won’t hear it. If we don’t change the world, if won’t be changed. ‘He has no hands but our hands,’ we are sometimes told.” Really? “Whose hands made the sun rise this morning?” Whose breath fills our lungs with life? Who is Lord of all? “We may be given the holy spirit to enable us to work for Jesus” with our hands. But it’s not up to us.

As the sun was breaking on the horizon, Jesus called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” And he guided them to drop their net where there was a shoal, a bunch of fish swimming together. Commentaries like to point out that they weren’t far from shore, and that fisherman often have a guide on the shore telling them where to drop their nets because it is easier to see where the fish are from the shore than from the boat looking directly down into the water. Commentators like to point out that it wasn’t a miracle.

Maybe the miracle wasn’t the fish, but that the disciples recognized him. They knew it was the Lord when emptiness was transformed to abundance. Remember John is a complex writer with themes and subthemes, symbolism and theology throughout his Gospel. Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John is at the wedding in Cana. They had no more wine, and Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into wine. Now, in this last story of Jesus’ signs, the net was so full that they couldn’t haul it in, and the disciple that Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” All of a sudden, when they had a net filled to overflowing, they knew that it was the Lord.

And when they got to shore, Jesus already had a fire with fish on it, yet he invited them to bring some of theirs too. Jesus has plenty, and he shows them how to fish and invites them to add their catch. Jesus didn’t need their fish.

Karoline Lewis is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary. She writes, “This is a [story] that points to what grace upon grace really can be — a [whole] lot fish… when you least expect it, just like the wine at Cana, when all hope is gone, when you wonder what you are doing, when you think there is no future, when your well has dried up, when you doubt that grace is true, when you question if grace is for you. This is the resurrection story we need. Desperately. All of us. That we will, indeed, experience the truth of the resurrection beyond the empty tomb. That Jesus will always show up on the shore, will invite us to share a meal once again, because abundance really means abundance when it comes to God. Why? Because it seems that God truly does love the world.”

All of a sudden, when the net was full – when they were catching more than they could handle, they realized it was the Lord, not them. Jesus invites us and guides us to make a meaningful contribution where there is already abundance. God so loved the world that he sent his SON. And whenever two or more are gathered, he is here.