Today at mass we heard two familiar readings. The first is about Peter and John being questioned by the Sanhedrin about healing the cripple on the Sabbath, the gospel from John is about Jesus’ third appearance after his crucifixion. There is much symbolism in this latter scripture.
John does not tell us why the disciples are back in Galilee, but in fact Jesus had told them to return there, where he would meet them. They seem to have been sitting around, unsure of what to do, until Peter decides to go fishing and the others come along . Peter is taking the lead, but what sort of lead is it? Some see this act as aimless activity undertaken in desperation or even abandoning the Lord and returning to their former life. I think they went fishing simply because they needed to eat . But there is also a sense that Peter and the others are doing what is right in their own eyes. The stories in this chapter reveal Jesus’ bringing his disciples, especially Peter, more completely under his lordship. The disciples do not know what to do, so they do that which is necessary, and in taking this initiative they put themselves in a place where Christ meets them. Here is the simple truth, attested to by the saints, that when we are uncertain what to do we should simply do our duty and God will guide.
That night they catch nothing (v. 3), a portrayal of barrenness. They have done what they thought was the right thing but experience failure. This prepares them to learn one of the central lessons of discipleship–apart from Jesus they can do nothing. Jesus has taught this lesson before — never in the Gospels do the disciples catch a fish without Jesus’ help! But they need the lesson repeated. We often do as well.
The turning point comes early in the morning (symbolizing the dawning of spiritual light). Jesus is described again as simply standing there, without a description of his arrival on the spot. Also, as earlier, they are not able to recognize him at first. This ignorance fits with the theme running throughout these chapters that there was something different about Jesus’ body.
Jesus takes the initiative and calls to them: Friends, haven’t you any fish?
The disciples admit they have failed at fishing and Jesus tells them, Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some . They could hear this as the idle suggestion of a bystander. But he does not say, “Try over there and you might find some.” He doesn’t offer a suggestion; he gives a promise that in fact they will find fish where he directs them to cast. When they obey they cannot even get the net into the boat because there are so many fish enclosed in it. The abundance echoes the enormous provision of wine at the wedding in Cana and of bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand . The primary point seems to be Jesus’ lordship and the need to be obedient to him for any labor to be fruitful.
Earlier, Mary recognized Jesus when he called her name, and the disciples recognized him through his wounds. Now he is recognized through the abundance that comes through obedience to his word. It is the Beloved Disciple who is able to discern the identity of the stranger on the shore. It is typical of the Beloved Disciple that he was not mentioned explicitly in the list of those present and also that he is the one able to recognize the Lord. When the Beloved Disciple receives this insight he bears witness to it. He speaks specifically to Peter, showing the close relationship between these two disciples.
Peter trusts the witness of the Beloved Disciple, and so he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples follow in the boat, towing the catch.
What the disciples notice is a charcoal fire with bread and fish already prepared (v. 9). The Lord has breakfast ready for them, another sign of his grace and provision, like the catch they have just taken. There is no indication of where Jesus got the bread and fish; the appearance of the food is as mysterious as his own.
The first one to speak is Jesus, and he tells them to bring some of the fish they have caught. For the second time in this story Jesus gives them a command. Although Jesus addresses all the disciples, it is Peter who brings the catch ashore, apparently by himself. Peter’s zeal to come to Jesus is now matched by his zeal to obey him.
A great many suggestions have been made for the significance of the number 153. The emphasis in the story, however, is simply on how many fish there were and the fact that the net did not break. On the simplest level, these details speak of the abundance that the gracious God provides and how he also enables the abundance to be received. I believe the fish represent a large influx of converts from various nations and the unbroken net represents the unity of the church.
At the feeding of the five thousand they had brought the bread and fish to Jesus, and he multiplied them. In this scene he already has food and invites them to add to it from their catch. Peter hauls up the fish, but there is no description of what is done with them. Rather, Jesus speaks yet another command–an invitation to have breakfast. Throughout this encounter with Jesus the disciples have not said anything. The scene is one of great awe, with none of them daring to ask him, Who are you? There was something different about him, yet they were able to recognize him. Jesus is the focus of this story.
After inviting them to come and eat, he himself comes to the fire. He took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This description echoes his action at the feeding of the five thousand and provides the climax of this story. It answers their unasked questions–he is recognized in this breaking of the bread. The master who commands them also serves them, continuing a theme found during the ministry.
John concludes the story by saying, This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. John is counting appearances to the disciples as a group, which would not include Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. Jesus now appears to another partial gathering of the group, an appearance that reveals the same key characteristics as were manifested throughout the ministry, namely his lordship, his servanthood, his character as gracious giver of abundance and his love. He has met his disciples at a point of failure and revealed himself as the awesome Lord of creation who cares for them.The fact that he provides a meal indicates that lordship includes fellowship”. Such fellowship with Jesus at a meal reminds us of the many times he shared such fellowship during his ministry, especially at the Last Supper and also the theme of the new community he has now established. This association, as well as the tie in with the feeding of the five thousand, echoes of the Eucharist. This meal itself is not a Eucharist, but it embodies a central aspect of what Eucharist is about–communion with the risen Lord in the midst of his people.