Resurrection is supposed to mean a new world. Easter is supposed to mark a new beginning, a new creation, the old passing away as all things are reborn. But here are the disciples, in our passage from John’s Gospel—here they are, after the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, after Jesus came to the disciples who had locked themselves in a room.
After all of this resurrection—after the shock, after the bewilderment, after a shift in the cosmos, what do the disciples do? They go back to the lives that they had, back to their jobs. They go back to normal.
The resurrection should have changed the world. Easter should have marked the beginning of a fundamental transformation of life. That Jesus returns from the dead must mean the start of a whole new world, a revolution in the laws that govern life. Everything must change, everything has changed. Yet here they are, out at sea, the sea of Tiberias, fishing.
In the story—and in our lives, to be honest—I can’t say that I see the kind of decisive shift in life, a momentous change in the nature of things, that I thought would’ve happened after the resurrection. Life seems to goes on the way it did before, even if not exactly the same.
After Easter morning, there’s still the oppression of the Roman empire, there’s still work, and there’s still breakfast. We find Jesus, here, on the seashore, making breakfast and lounging around with his friends after their long night of work. And there are the disciples, the close friends of Jesus, acting completely normal—just finishing up another shift of work, counting their catch of fish, with Jesus, their dear friend, once dead but now alive, warming himself by the campfire.
My favorite detail of this story has always been that we know how many fish they caught. 153, we’re told. The fact that we know this number means that someone who was there, definitely must have been one of the people who had stayed up all night fishing—we know this number because this person actually takes the time to count the fish. And the storyteller, the writer of this gospel account, thinks it’s important to pass along to us this detail, the exact number of fish that they caught.
If you missed that part, I’ll read verse 11 again: “So Simon Peter…hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them.”
153, it says. Not “about a hundred.” That would have been adequate. Or if he wanted to be more exact, he could have written, “around 150 fish” or “approximately 150.” And no one would blame anyone in the story if they bragged a little, as I’ve heard that people do about the fish they catch. 200 fish would be a respectable claim, just a slight exaggeration, if you round up to a solid easy number to remember. That would have been totally fine, for the sake of a good fishing story.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, we have an exact count. Every last fish. 153.
Just think about how this must have happened, that we have this number—the scene on the beach, with the resurrected Jesus, newly alive, fresh from the tomb, standing there, and the disciples keep him waiting while they fling around squirming and slippery fish, counting every single last one of them.
They are fishermen, after all, and they had spent all night at sea, to have a catch to sell in the fish market in the morning—the freshest fish get the best price. Every one of those fish is money in the pocket. Of course they would count them all; it’s their livelihood.
And that’s what is so strange about this whole story, as I’ve mentioned. After the beginning of God’s kingdom-revolution, the disciples are back at work, back to the same old boat in the same old sea doing the same old thing. What’s so strange about this Easter appearance of the resurrected Jesus is that it is not strange at all. It’s so mundane: the disciples are at work, Jesus shows up, they bring their catch to the shore, count the fish, and eat some breakfast with Jesus.
But maybe that’s just it, that’s the point, which might sound like a ridiculous purpose for the resurrection—that Jesus conquers death so he can come back and be with his disciples, to enjoy another meal, to fellowship around the fire, to linger with his friends for as along as he can, because that’s what God has wanted from eternity, to be with us. His name is Immanuel, after all.
Jesus shows up in an ordinary gathering of disciples—like with us, here, nothing very special, 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 wanted another meal with his disciples, nothing special, just fish around a charcoal fire.
Listen to these verses again: “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.
I know this might be a weird thing to say, since we’re talking about resurrection after all, the most unreasonable thing about our faith, but I think there’s a realism to this story about Jesus and the disciples and the fish. There’s a realism to this story because the details matter to the writer, details for their own sake, details without explanation, details without theologizing about the meaning of them.
The author just needed for us to know how many, exactly how many.
These Easter stories—the one last week and this week—are about a world we know: a world where the resurrected Jesus still bears wounds and where the disciples still have to work.
This is our world too, where there is labor and struggle, loss and trauma, agonies and grief, heartaches and bodyaches—and, in the midst of it all, we experience the consolation of fellowship, the comfort of friendship, the joy of shared life. And, through all of these, what holds us together, as a community, as a church, as part of the life of Christ in the world, is a mysterious presence, steady and quiet, like a pulse we hardly notice because it’s so dependable, so usual:
the presence of God’s love at the heart of our lives,
crucified and resurrected love,
Jesus at a charcoal fire, just because,
and that same Jesus here, just because.