Meeting Jesus: The Seven Disciples

“The Miraculous Draft of Fishes” (1444), by Konrad Witz

Meeting Jesus: The Seven Disciples
A Message on John 21:1-14
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 8, 2019
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 21:1-14 (NRSV)
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

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Today we continue our sermon series “Meeting Jesus” by looking not at one single person, but a group of people: the Seven Disciples.

At first glance this seems like a simple, straight-forward story from the Gospel of John, but if we dig into it we find some very interesting and unusual things.

First let’s set a timeline. Today’s reading begins with, “After these things…” So just what were those things?

If we back up a chapter in John to Chapter 20 we find John’s description of Jesus’ resurrection. He appears to Mary Magdalene, then appears to the disciples who are cowering behind locked doors. Thomas was not with them and didn’t believe what the other disciples told him about Jesus. Then Jesus appears to them one more time, this time with Thomas present, and “Doubting Thomas” believes.

That where we find ourselves at the beginning of the scripture we read today.

We don’t know how long it was between Jesus appearing the the disciples the second time and today’s scripture, but I speculate that it was at least a week or so.

If you think about it, the disciples were in a difficult situation. When Jesus was alive he was their leader, and they simply followed him and did–or tried to do–what he said. But when he was crucified that left a leadership void in the group.

They had to have had doubts. This man, who they had given up everything to follow, who they believed to be the Messiah, wasn’t supposed to die. It wasn’t supposed to go that way. Thomas gets the reputation as the doubting one but I think all of them had doubts after the crucifixion.

So what now? What happens next? What are we supposed to do?

They did what many of them did before they met Jesus: fish. Four of the twelve disciples were fishermen, so instead of just sitting around twiddling their thumbs they we back to what they knew how to do: catch fish.

They were fishing at night, which was not an unusual thing. The fish were closer to the surface at night, plus it was cooler. But remember they didn’t have electric lights, they didn’t have trolling motors or even any kind of motor. They might have had some moonlight and perhaps a few lanterns, but that would have been it.

Today some people like to fish at night. Mike Kellogg, our music director, said he likes to fish at night. I don’t. I have tried it before in my canoe and let me tell you, it gets spooky out there. I haven’t tried it in my kayak, and I don’t think I will.

So they are fishing at night and I speculate that it was hot, kind of like the weather we have been having here lately. I think this because Peter was naked. Now maybe he shed his clothes just to keep them from getting fish smell on them, but I kinda doubt it. I think it was more of a temperature thing.

Jesus, who they don’t yet know is Jesus, makes the first verbal contact, asking them if they have caught any fish. But he does it in a way the implies he already knows the answer. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” We might phrase it like, “Kids, you didn’t catch anything, did you?”

It had to be tough for the disciples to answer no. Us fishermen NEVER like to admit when we don’t catch any fish. We even have terms for it, such as getting “skunked” or “blanked” or “struck out.” I like to say that the fish had “lockjaw.” There’s even a saying, “That’s why they call it fishing and not catching.”

So this stranger then responds to their simple “no” with advice to put the nets out on the other side, the right side of the boat. Now I have to admit that if I had been one of the disciples I might have been a little perturbed about that advice. We were professional fishermen. We knew what we were doing because we had done it before. We weren’t dummies out here trying it for the first time. Who is this stranger that thinks he knows more than we do. But… oh, what do we have to lose. Let’s try it anyway.

So they do, and BOOM, the nets are suddenly full to overflowing. A whole night fishing and catching nothing, then all of a sudden it’s the motherload.

The “disciple who Jesus loved,” who most scholars believe to be John, tells Simon Peter, the de facto leader of the seven, that the stranger is Jesus. Peter gives up on the fish at this point. Ironically, he puts his clothes on before jumping out of the boat. Remember that earlier before Jesus was crucified Peter was the one who walked on water toward Jesus. It doesn’t say that he walked on water this time, just that he “jumped into the sea.” Now a lot of artwork depicting this moment shows Peter walking on top of the water toward Jesus, even though the scripture doesn’t specifically say so. I figure he jumped in the water and swam to shore towards Jesus.

So why put clothes on only to get wet? I have a theory, but it’s only that. I think it was because he didn’t want to be naked in front of Jesus. I think it serves as a good metaphor for our spiritual lives as well.

We don’t want to be spiritually naked before Jesus. We don’t want Jesus to know who we really are under the facades of religious clothes that we show the world. We don’t want to admit our sins, our shortcomings, our things we think are secrets that nobody knows.

Which is ridiculous when you think about it because Jesus, being fully God as well as fully human, already knows everything about us. And deep down we know that, but just don’t want to admit it.

So Simon Peter gets to Jesus first but the other six disciples struggle to shore with the boat and towing the nets full of fish. They get on the shore and go over to Jesus and notice that he has some fish roasting over a charcoal fire.

Now I’ve preached before about the symbolism of Jesus’ fire being charcoal. He didn’t just get some sticks of wood and start a fire. He used charcoal. Why?

I think it is again a metaphor. The way you make charcoal is to light wood on fire, and then deprive it of oxygen. In this first century this was done in earthen or brick ovens. Wood is placed in the oven, the fire gets going good, then the openings are closed and, as the oxygen is burned up, the fire goes out. What you have left is wood that is partially burned but that is left intact. It can then be transported and stored to use when you want to get a fire started quickly, like when you are traveling. (It’s also lighter than regular wood.)

This is a metaphor for Jesus’ resurrection. He was killed and buried in a tomb, and the tomb door was closed, much like a charcoal oven. Everyone, including the Jewish leaders, the Romans, and even the disciples, thought his “fire” had gone out. But it hadn’t. He didn’t stay dead. He resurrected. He transformed into something else. The stone was rolled away. I think the charcoal symbolizes that.

Jesus asks them to bring some of the fish they have caught. I find this interesting because Jesus already has fish cooking on the fire. He has fish, why does he need more?

Again, I think it is symbolic. Jesus, in calling the disciples, tells them to leave their nets and follow him, and he will teach them to be fishers of people. When the disciples bring the fish to Jesus, it is symbolic of the disciples bringing people to Jesus. And while Peter is the one that goes and gets the fish (perhaps because the other six disciples say, “Hey, you abandoned us when we were trying to get them to shore. You go get Jesus some fish”), I think it represents all of the disciples fishing for people.

Next Jesus invites them to come have some breakfast, and starts off by taking the bread and giving it to them. This is symbolic of the Last Supper that Jesus had with the disciples. Instead of wine he gives them fish. I think this is symbolic of feeding the multitude (5,000 and 4,000) with a few loaves of bread and a few fish.

So, what can we learn from this scripture that we can apply to our lives today? I want to point out two things.

The first thing we can learn is that Jesus shows up at the most unexpected times and places. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t also show up in the places where he is expected, like in prayer, in worship, in reading the scriptures, in fasting, and even in silence. What I’m talking about are those unexpected moments.

The seven disciples could not have imagined that Jesus would show up after a long night of unsuccessful fishing. They were tired, sweaty, stinky, frustrated and probably a little bit cranky. Hours and hours of work and nothing to show for it. Not a single fish. Not even a dink (which is what bass fishermen call a small fish.) The disciples probably just wanted to go home, get something to eat, and then get some sleep. It was, as a children’s book title points out, a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”

And then Jesus shows up. Just like that. No warning, no angel choir to sing prior to his arrival, no light shining down from heaven. Just a guy by a fire on the shoreline.

Like the disciples, Jesus will show up in our lives when we least expect it.

Jesus may show up when you meet someone for the first time and you get a gut feeling that they are struggling with something.

Jesus may show up when you are busy with life and your schedule is full and your house is dirty, the sink is full of dirty dishes, you’re out of clean clothes, you’ve reused the same towel for three days in a row, and you need to go to the grocery store.

Jesus may show up when you read a scripture that you have read many times and yet this time it really touches your soul.

Jesus may show up when you are in your car and you hear a song on a Christian radio station and the music and the lyrics combine with the Holy Spirit to bring you to tears and you have to pull over on the side of the road because you can’t see because of the tears.

Jesus shows up when you least expect it.

The second thing I think we can learn from this scripture is this: life is better with Jesus than it is without him.

Life is better with Jesus, especially when the nets of our life get caught on the rocks and stumps of life, when things get tough, when it seems like we fish all night and catch nothing.

Life is better with Jesus when the medical report comes back as malignant, when an unexpected pregnancy happens, when you are at work and learn that you are being laid off, or when medical expenses wipe out your life savings.

Life is also better with Jesus during the good times, when you find the one person you want to spend the rest of your life with, when a baby is born, when you get your dream job, when you become grandparents, when you get a phone call from a good friend, or you experience a profound and deep sense of peace when you are kneeling at the altar rail receiving communion and you grasp just a little bit of how much Jesus loves you, that he would give his life for the forgiveness of your sins.

You’ll even sleep better with Jesus than you will without him. We had an elderly neighbor in Kilgore who lived all alone and seemed fine with it. I made the mistake of asking her one time if she ever got scared being by herself at night. She responded by saying, “Young man, let me give you some advice. When you go to bed each night, turn all your troubles over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway and there’s no use in both of you losing sleep.”

Life is better with Jesus, both during the bad and the good times.

So my challenge to you this week, brought to you by the Seven Disciples Fish Company, is to live your life with Jesus and get ready to expect the unexpected. Life really is better with Jesus so live fully into his word. Don’t be a part-time Christian (which is an oxymoron, anyway). Be fully committed to being a follower of Jesus Christ. And then be willing to cast your nets on the other side of the boat if he asks you to. You may be surprised at what you catch.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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