Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

But, They Went Fishing
April 29, 1979

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

JOHN 21:1-19

They went fishing—back to their nets, back to the familiar, back to the tried and true. Welcome, happy morning! And then they went fishing. All that excitement, all that sense of a new adventure seemed to be over. They went back fishing. They had been so enthusiastic. They had been so strong in their commitment, “Lord, we will always follow you. Lord, we will never forsake you,” until it got dangerous, until Jesus went to trial, until he carried his cross. And they weren’t there, they were discouraged, frightened. Then they went fishing. 

On the day of Easter, several announcements were made of a resurrection. Jesus appeared to the disciples in different places, different ways. Those were days of confusion, mystery and bewilderment. And then they went fishing—back to what they knew, back to their vocations, back to the ordinary. Life is like that. We have high moments and then we go back fishing. You go to a concert where perhaps there are moments where you're actually lifted out of existence, moments that lift you into the clouds and seem to transcend your experience. And then somebody steps on your foot, you get jammed with an elbow, you can't get out of the parking lot and you realize you're back fishing. Or, you spend months working for that trip, planning that beautiful trip, that great vacation, and then you come back to mowing the tall grass, cleaning the house, back to work. Or, those high ecstatic moments of marriage when we really mean that commitment. What a glorious day it is! Then the bills come in and dirty diapers, sassy kids—we’re back fishing. We shouldn't criticize the disciples for going back because that's what they knew what to do. That's the way life is—from high mountain peak experiences down back into the ordinary, back into what we know what to do. 

So they went fishing. They fished all night and didn't catch anything. That morning, they saw a lone figure standing on the shore who called out to them and said, “Put your net down on the other side of the boat.” They did and a huge catch of fish lay in the net. John, the disciple, looked at the figure and said, “Why, it's the Lord!” Peter got so excited, he jumped overboard— impetuous Peter jumped overboard, swam and waded in to meet him. 

Jesus came to them while they went fishing. Jesus came to them in that ordinary experience. Jesus would not let them go. They disappointed Jesus, but he would not let them go. They let Jesus down, but he would not let them down. They left and forsook Jesus, but Jesus would not leave and forsake them. He followed them and he met them. They were discouraged. They probably felt about that high over their behavior. They probably felt that the only thing they were good for was to go back fishing, to go back to what they used to do and be. They felt that was about all they were worth. But, Jesus wouldn't let them go. He would not let them persist in that low image of themselves and of what they could do.

You are never forsaken by Christ. No matter where you go, Jesus meets you there. No matter how ordinary or no matter how you retreat, Jesus meets you there. No matter how much you let him down, no matter how much you forsake your commitments and your promises, Jesus never forsakes you or lets you down. You may fail to keep those big promises, but the covenant is still intact for God never lets go of you. You may break promises but not God. The water of baptism can never evaporate off your head. You may forget it sometimes. You may act as if you never were baptized, but that brand is always there. The claim God made on your life is always there; it is inerasable. Never can it be erased and rubbed off. Never. You may act as if you're an orphan, but God is still your father. You may act as if you have no family, but God says you belong to him. You may act like the prodigal son and go off into the wasteland, but God is always there, nudging, prodding and bringing you back. 

Jesus made a fire for them that morning and invited them to fry the fish they just caught. They sat down and ate. The glory of the good news, the joy of the gospel is that Jesus comes to us in ordinary, everyday events, like eating a meal, like breaking bread, like being with our friends, being with our family. Jesus is there in the midst. We don't have to look for supernatural experiences. We don't have to look for magic. We don't have to wait for a voice to holler out of the sky. We don't have to wait for any big crisis or any lightning bolt out of heaven. Jesus is in the eating of bread, frying fish and eating with friends. Jesus is there when we're discouraged or disillusioned. Jesus is there when we go back fishing. He is there to meet us. 

And in that context, in that event, Jesus confronts us, you and me. I wonder what the feeling of the breakfast was that morning as they sat there on the beach, as they ate the fish and the bread Jesus offered them. I wonder what the mood was. I suspect it was very quiet. I mean, what do you say? I imagine it was a little uncomfortable. After all they'd been through, here they were back fishing. I imagine it was definitely still, looking at people out of the corner of their eyes as they ate. I imagine the food hung in the stomach like a big lump. Then in the midst of that quiet, I imagine Jesus sought out Peter, looked right into his eyes and said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Do you love me more than these fish, or more than your life, or more than these other disciples? Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  What a question right there in the middle of breakfast! What a way to hit a guy right between the eyes! 

God is like that. Have you ever had the experience when you're hit right square between the eyes when you’re least expecting it? A question like that has to have an unequivocal answer of either yes or no. How else do you answer that question except yes or no? You can't say, “Well, maybe.” Or, “Well, when I feel like it, Lord, I'll love you.” Or, “if it doesn't rain.” I mean, how do you answer that question except for yes or no. There's no middle ground. There's no fence. Either do or you don’t. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 

And what does love mean? Our culture has an awful time defining love. What does it mean? We use the word love from the very simplest of emotions to the most complex of emotions. We use it for warm, giddy emotional feelings. We use it for romantic feelings. We use it for physical attraction. We use it for marriage. We use it in reference to God. What does love mean? What love means in the Bible and what Jesus meant by love is seen in the cross. There are not many feelings involved in it. It’s not a warm goosy feeling up and down the spine; it’s in the cross where Jesus so loved us, he died for us. Jesus willingly gave up his life. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” 

That's what love means in the Bible. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” means “Simon, son of John, will you lay down your life for me? Will you lay down your life for my cause? Will you give yourself? Will you sacrifice yourself? Will you give up a dream? Will you give up an ambition? Will you give up an idea? Will you offer it freely, lovingly? Will you lay down your life for me?” That's what Peter got asked. And that's how Jesus confronts and challenges us when he meets us in our common ordinary experiences. That call is always there, that nudge is always there, that question is always there. “Do you love me? Will you lay down your life?” 

And Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Three times Jesus asked that question. Three times. (He was mean that day). Three times because three times Peter had denied him. Three times this heroic leader, this big shot Peter, this one who said, “Lord, I'll follow you to your death”, this one who made those big promises, three times with the soldiers around, the maiden said to him, “Aren't you one of those Galileans? Aren't you one of the followers of Jesus?” And three times Peter said, “I do not know him.” As they arrested Jesus and carried him off to be tried, Peter said “I don't know him” three times, and three times Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” How do you suppose Peter answered? All we have is the print in a book, “Yes, Lord, you know, I love you.” How do you suppose he said it? How would you answer? How would you have said it? Did he have his head down? Was he looking down at the ground? Was he making little circles in the sand? Was he stirring up the fire? “Yes, Lord, you know, I love you.” Or did he answer with his shoulders back, his head up? “Yes, Lord, I love you.” 

I don't know how he answered, but however he answered, he meant it.  Tradition tells us that Peter went on to become a great leader. Peter went on to Rome and was one of the instrumental leaders in the development of the church at Rome. Tradition tells us that Peter too was crucified. And when Peter was judged and sentenced to die hanging on a cross, he said, “I am not worthy to die as Jesus died.” So they hung him upside down. That’s what tradition says. Love meant literally laying down his life. 

Jesus went on. Jesus wasn't content with just words. Jesus wanted action, and said, “If you love me, feed my sheep. Take care of my lambs. Take care of my people. Take care of my work. Take responsibility for my work. Take care of my world.” It cost Peter his life. Words are easy to say. Commitments are easy to make. It’s not enough to say, “Lord, I love you,” for Jesus then said, “Take care of my people.” We are confronted every day with opportunities to feed his people. The Sunday offering plate passes among us and again, we are faced with the decision—how do we spend our money? How do I spend my money? What are the priorities in my life? Is my money where my mouth is? Is my level of giving comparable to my level of commitment? 

Then as you leave the church today, you will be nudged, you'll run into people, people will shake your hands and you'll be confronted on every hand with people who need you to love them. You will be confronted all day with people who need you to get out of yourself, who need you to forget about you for a while, who need you to forget about your concerns, your aches, your pains, your troubles, who need you to reach out to them, who need you to lay down your life for a minute and to love them, to be kind to them, to help them. Reach out. Every day you are confronted. You won't get through this day without Jesus saying, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” You won't get through this day without being bombarded with information from the world about how bad our air is getting, how critical our energy crisis is, how people are hungry and starving, how there's injustice in this world. You won't get by today without hearing Jesus say, “Feed my sheep. Take care of my world. Love and sacrifice.” 

The disciples had high experiences, they had discouraging experiences and then they went fishing. But Jesus didn't let them fish. He came as he comes to you and to me and says, “Do you love me? Do you love me?”

© 1979 Douglas I. Norris