It may not be the Good Samaritan or Noah’s Ark, but today’s story is one of my favorites in the Bible because of how well it is well told; its details are relatable and fun, in some details, hilarious. In this story, the Saints of the church: Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee…they cut loose and go on a fishing trip. Jesus lights the grill. Peter, for reasons that are not explained, is fishing naked. Furthering the mystery, he puts his clothes on when it’s time to jump in the water. It’s a fun story. It’s the story that tells us why churches have fish fries. It’s a story about Communion—one that warns pastors not to be too dour when we approach the Table and say, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” I love this story. And the goal of today’s sermon is simple; I want you to love it to
There is a difficult part of this story. It begins with grief. According to the Gospel of John, at this point, the disciples know that Jesus has died. Many have seen the Resurrected Jesus and they have witnessed him with “Doubting Thomas” who wants to see the wounds in the hands and the side of his Savior—you’ve heard the story or seen the painting. But it’s still clear that something has changed; the Crucifixion has taken place; Jesus told them before that: “…where I am going, you cannot come…” and to be sure, the disciples are grieving. This Jesus, on the other side of death, is somehow different than the one they knew before. Their relationship with him will be different. He’s told them that he’s going away. The Bible witnesses to the Resurrection, but death is still real. There is a crossing-over that will remain a mystery to us.
So, the disciples are grieving. And grief comes in a lot of forms. Sometimes grief means open tears and hard conversations. Other times grief looks more like depression or listlessness and it’s hard to get up in the morning. Still other times, there’s a need to move forward, to get up and go out and do something normal, and allow yourself to enjoy it. All of these are normal parts of grief, and the disciples probably experienced them all. Twenty-somethings that they were, I like to imagine them sitting around on the front porch, or on the sectional where they’ve been playing Xbox in between their complaining and crying, and finally, St. Peter, who for better or worse has always been a man of action, says to his friends, “I’m going fishing.” Who is with me? And the group agrees. Let’s get outta here. Let’s get some fresh air.
The fishing stinks. For whatever reason, the fish were not biting. And the disciples were discouraged enough to listen to the strange guy from the shore when he shouted, “try the other side of the boat!”
It’s at that moment that the fish begin to more or less jump into the boat, and the disciples realize that the stranger is Jesus—they recognize him. And as they paddle and swim to the shore to begin the fish fry, we get yet one more layer to the Resurrection story—the fundamental Christian story reminding us that new life is possible, that hope is essential, and that God wants good things for us. Jesus almost always reveals himself through some sign of goodness and abundance. In this story, it just happens to be a great catch of fish. I love this story.
I don’t have one specific takeaway from this story that I plan to talk about at length, but rather I’m going to give you a few ideas to think about, and maybe one or more of them will hit home.
I don’t like to spend too much time on self-help when I preach, I think the Bible stories are deeper than that, but this story does have a metaphor that I think can be helpful. Try the other side of the boat. Wow. Isn’t that a good piece of advice? Who among us has felt stuck? Perhaps you’ve been trying to make something better for a long time, but you’ve mostly been trying the same strategy—you’ve been fishing on just one side of the boat? Try something else, this story says. Test out a different strategy. The good old definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Our Lord and Savior seemed to know this. Try the other side of the boat. There’s the self-help.
I also think there’s a helpful message about grief hidden in this story. When a person is grieving, there are right things and wrong things to say. Just about everyone who has gone through a significant loss has had people say the wrong things to them. “Don’t worry, she’s in a better place.” “Don’t worry, you can have more children.” No one wants to hear those things. I don’t consider myself to be an expert on grief, but I will tell you a couple of tips they teach us in seminary. When someone is grieving, don’t try to fix it, or to make them feel better. Let people know that you care about them and that whatever they may be feeling is ok, but don’t try to make it better—just let them grieve. The other thing is that people who are grieving should still get to enjoy the rest of their life. So if someone you know is grieving, and on a particular day they would rather go fishing than talk about how sad they are, that’s ok.
Jesus seems to understand grief. Jesus has plenty of deeper conversations with people, but this is not one of those moments. He is the one whose death they are grieving, but Jesus takes no offense that they’re out there trying to get on with things. He sees them fishing, and he reveals himself to them by making it a good catch—and then he invites them to a fish fry. Jesus meets these grieving people where they are. But he doesn’t try to take their grief away, or the fun diversion they’ve created in their day. He affirms the fishing trip and lights the grill. Jesus knows something about grief. By the way, I learned what little I know about grief in seminary, but also by making plenty of mistakes. Try to be a good friend, meet people where they are; show up for friends who are grieving. Invite Jesus to guide you through the rest.
My third observation about this story is that Jesus seems to know how to have a good time, and he’s not afraid of us enjoying ourselves even when we share the meal that recalls his death. The fish fry in this story is an obvious reboot of the Last Supper, as well as the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus is multiplies fishes and loaves in this story, and then he breaks bread and hands it around to his disciples. And it’s a party. This is who Jesus is: a God of abundance. He makes sure there is enough to go around, he teaches people to share, and over and over again, he is sitting down to eat and drink with people and to know them and enjoy their company.
When you come to the Lord’s Supper, keep the fish fry in mind. Yes, there are times when this meal should be somber—on Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. But we mean it when we tell you that this is “the joyful feast of the people of God” because Jesus seemed to want to model for us that we should eat and drink together, and share, and enjoy one another. Sometimes when you take this bread and juice, you might want to recall the best meals you’ve ever had—not necessarily the fanciest or most expensive one, but meals where community and family happened, when conversations were authentic and meaningful, and where you felt cared for. That’s what this meal is supposed to be. And it can happen in all kinds of ways.
You might remember that during the worst of the pandemic when we were all virtual, we invited you to grab any food and drink that were common to your home, and we meant it. Remembering Jesus’ love of breaking bread can happen in all kinds of ways. One of my closest pastor friends does what he calls “Barbecue Church.” He grills up a big feast and puts people at round tables with their family and friends, and at some point, he reads some Scripture and preaches a short message, and then folks grab the bread and wine in the middle of the table and pass it around. It’s a joyful feast. Once when I was in ministry in Chicago, we took a Sunday morning and went to a Bears’ game. We parked the church van on the Waldron parking deck, which is ground zero for Soldier Field tailgating, and we spent the morning shaking hands and talking to people about church, and when a critical mass had gathered, we prayed together and passed around the bread and the cup. Everyone is welcome. It’s a joyful feast.
Sometimes church needs to be serious. We talk about justice here, and the generosity needed to bring it about, and the challenge of changing our harmful behaviors, and the damage caused by the systems of sin in the world. Suffering is real. Death is real. And it is also true that we navigate these realities by seeking to be people of joy.
I had a moment of self-discovery a couple of weeks ago: I was watching our virtual worship, taking note of some things, and I noticed: “Wow, why do I look so angry when I’m preaching?” Sometimes I am angry, but I wasn’t at that moment. It didn’t seem like much of an evangelism strategy. I’m gonna work on it. I’ve been working on it this morning. And I’d like to humbly suggest to you: remember that we are people of joy. As you go out in the world today, remember that joy too is part of what it means to know and follow Christ.
“I’m going fishing,” said Peter. It turned into a joyful feast. When we gather as a church, we should do likewise. Amen.