Date: April 14, 2010
Texts: John 21:1-14, Acts 9:1-6
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
I love this story about Jesus, this story in John’s Gospel about his appearance to the disciples. I love it for the details, the strange details; the care John shows in getting the story right.
Usually, the Gospel of John is blamed for making Jesus out to be so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good. But here we find a story about breakfast. For John’s Gospel, resurrection means that Jesus can come back to eat breakfast and lounge around with his friends. Jesus turns out to be very earthly minded, hungry—focused on breakfast with friends around a charcoal fire by the lake.
This story also breaks through another stereotype about John’s Gospel—that John, the writer, doesn’t really care about recording history accurately; he is usually blamed for playing fast and loose with his story-telling—he doesn’t care about the details of history because he’s writing theology, and we all know that theologians don’t care about history. Or so go the stereotypes.
But in this story, John spends a lot of time with the details, with details that seem unnecessary for any profound theological point. It almost feels like John is so wrapped up in this event that he can’t help but record everything, because it’s just such a great story. For example, we find out an interesting fact about Peter’s style of fishing: “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea” (John 21:8). Apparently John thinks it’s important for us to know what Peter was wearing, or wasn’t wearing, when he saw Jesus.
But my favorite detail of John’s story comes a few verses later, when they pull their nets ashore to be with Jesus: “So Simon Peter…hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them” (v. 11). 153. Not “about a hundred,” or even—if he wanted to be more exact—“around 150 fish.” 153. The exact count mattered. Every last fish. The best reading of this detail in the story doesn’t come from the commentaries out there. As far as I’m concerned, David James Duncan has the best reading of this story. It’s in this novel here, The River Why—it’s a book about fishing. Let me read the part where he talks about the 153 fish in John’s Gospel:
This is, it seems to me, one of the most remarkable statistics ever computed. Consider the circumstances: this is after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; Jesus is standing on the beach newly risen from the dead, and it is only the third time the disciples have seen him since the nightmare of Calvary. And yet we learn that [the fish numbered precisely 153]…. How was this digit discovered? Mustn’t it have happened thus: upon hauling the net to shore, the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…’ all the way up to a hundred and fifty and three, while the newly risen Lord of Creation, the Sustainer of their beings, He who died for them and for Whom they would gladly die, stood waiting, ignored, till the heap of fish was quantified. Such is the fisherman’s compulsion toward rudimentary mathematics! (14-15)
I love that passage from Duncan’s book—and I don’t even fish. But what he does, what Duncan does, is that he helps us picture the scene—which has to be one of the reasons that John’s Gospel records so much detail, so that we can get a picture of it in our heads. You see the disciples on their boat, rushing back to shore to be reunited with Jesus, who is back from the dead—he already appeared to them in Jerusalem and invited Thomas to touch his wounded side and hands, and now here he is again, appearing on the shore. They get to shore, rejoicing, ecstatic, full of wonder. And somehow, in the confusion of encountering the resurrected Jesus, the fish are counted, the fish are important. Exactly 153.
I imagine one of the reasons why the fish are so important is that these guys fish for a living—they are fishermen. Every fish caught is money in the pocket. Of course every last fish would be important; it’s their livelihood, after all. But that’s what so strange about this whole story. Jesus returns from the dead and appears before the disciples in Jerusalem—we heard that story last week; Celia preached about it. Now this should change everything, right? The resurrection should change the world. That Jesus returns from the dead must mean the beginning of a whole new world, a revolution, the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Everything must change, everything has changed.
So, after the beginning of God’s kingdom-revolution, after the resurrection appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem, what do the disciples do? We find them back at work. They return to the work site—the same old boat in the same old lake doing the same old thing, fishing. What’s so strange about this Easter appearance of the resurrected Jesus is that it is not strange at all; it’s so ordinary—other than Peter fishing in the nude. But other than that, this Easter story is so ordinary, everyday, mundane: the disciples are at work, Jesus shows us, they bring their catch to the shore, count the fish, and eat some breakfast with Jesus. After the resurrection, life seems to go on like it did before. What kind of story is this?
Lots of Christians over the ages have talked about Jesus’ death and resurrection as a story of victory—Christus victor, Christ the victor. It’s not a bad way to think about the atonement, the death and resurrection of Jesus. But stories like this one in John make me wonder about the kind of victory Jesus secures with his resurrection. What kind of victory is going on here, with Jesus eating breakfast on the shore, lounging around with his friends who are at work, counting fish, 153 of them? Usually victories make a real difference; victories have obvious effects. Your army invades, you conquer your enemy, and then you set up a new reign, a new kingdom. The day after your victory, you wake up and the world is different. You are in charge. The enemies are vanquished and your forces are busy building a new kingdom. But that’s not how it goes for the victory Jesus shows us in his resurrection. Life goes on the way it did before. The disciples wake up, they go to work, hang out with Jesus, and count fish. Where’s the revolution? Where’s the victory? Where’s the kingdom of God?
If we want to call Christ a victor, his victory over his enemies looks like Saul in our passage from Acts, slain to the ground by the word of Christ, knocked down and blinded by the light of Christ. Saul is an enemy of Jesus. He’s in the business of killing off Christians, one by one. If there’s anyone the resurrected Jesus should come back and destroy, it’s definitely Saul. And Jesus does come back to vanquish this enemy, Saul, but he does so in a completely surprising way. He doesn’t knock him dead. Instead, Jesus converts him—victory through conversion. Christus victor, Christ the victor, is Christ the missionary, Christ the evangelist. It’s one thing to scare Saul enough to convince him to go and sin no more. Jesus could have done that. He could have scared Saul so severely, that Saul would have never messed with Jesus’ people ever again. That would have been completely understandable. But that’s not what he does. Instead, Jesus invites Saul to switch sides, to join his forces—victory through conversion.
If we follow the story of Saul’s conversion, we soon discover that the Christians didn’t think it was a good idea for Saul to be converted. He is a notorious enemy, after all. After this episode on the road to Damascus, Jesus appears to Ananias, a Christian, and tells him to go meet up with Saul and welcome him into Jesus’ movement. Listen to what Ananias says to Jesus in response—this is from Acts 9, verse 11:
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
As you can see, the man is worried about Saul, and for very good reasons. Saul has a reputation. He’s a villain. He’s on the wrong side, the unjust side, but through the power of grace Jesus welcomes him among his people.
What does this mean for us? For one thing, it means that we believe in the power of God’s grace to convert even the most murderous of our enemies. Jesus proves victorious over Saul, enemy number 1, through evangelism, through the offer of grace and forgiveness and a new life with his other followers. No one is outside the possibility of changing their ways; no enemy is beyond conversion, beyond grace; Saul becomes a member of the family of God. We don’t kill our enemies; we convert them through the power of the resurrected Jesus.
That part of the good news of Easter is not too hard for me to accept. The harder part is that Jesus comes back from the dead, and everything seems to go on just like it did before. The disciples go back to fishing; they go back to work—“the same as it ever was,” as the Talking Heads song puts it, “the same as it ever was.” Easter, resurrection, Jesus back from the dead… then the same as it ever was. 153 fish and breakfast on the shore. But maybe that’s just it. Jesus conquers death so he can come back and be with his disciples, to enjoy another meal, to fellowship around the fire… simply to be present with them. Easter means the permanence of Christ’s presence, always available, changing us, and changing the world from the inside, through his people, through us. We have become Christ’s presence for the world, working out Christ’s resurrection wherever we go—like at work, just as those first disciples returned to fishing.
Christ shows up in an ordinary gathering of disciples—like with us, here, nothing very special and much of life feels the same as it did last week. And we’ll go back to work tomorrow, but we go knowing the good news of Easter: that Jesus returned from the dead to be with us, because he loved us, because he wanted another meal with his disciples, nothing special, just fish around a charcoal fire:
“When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread… Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’… Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish” (Jn. 21:9-13).
The good news looks like that ordinary Easter experience; Jesus, coming back from the dead to be with us, a gentle presence, nothing flashy, just there, always there.