May 1, 2022

Reflection — Rev. Brent Gundlah

A hundred fifty-three. That’s how many fish are in the net that Simon Peter hauls ashore in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. It’s a very specific detail for the author to include, and kind of an odd one too.

As the story gets underway, seven of Jesus’s disciples are gathered by the Sea of Tiberias, not long after his crucifixion and his resurrection. At this point, it’s fair to say that they’re all a bit confused.

Jesus suffered a horrible death, but he’s subsequently appeared to Mary Magdalene near the empty tomb, and to the other disciples — not once but twice — in the very house where they shared the Last Supper. Jesus was, in fact, dead, but then not so much.

And now Jesus shows up again as his disciples are doing what they were doing when he first found them in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: that is to say, they’re fishing — which kind of makes sense because those writers tell us that Simon Peter (and his brother Andrew) were fishermen.

They’ve just come in from a long night at sea having caught nothing when Jesus arrives (though, for some reason, no one seems to recognize that it’s him). Jesus tells them to cast their net again and, low and behold, they come up with a whole bunch of fish. Suddenly, the Beloved Disciple realizes who Jesus is and announces this to everyone’s surprise and delight.

As they arrive onshore, the disciples notice that someone’s set up a barbecue for them with fish and bread (gee, I wonder who that could have been). Jesus encourages Simon Peter to go grab some of the fresh catch and throw it on the fire.

And, in the midst of all this craziness, as the Messiah the disciples thought was dead and gone appears before them once again, someone actually decided to stop and count the fish in the net. Who on earth would do such a thing? The obvious answer, of course, is a fisherman. Old habits die hard, it seems.

I can’t imagine that Jesus is too pleased with his disciples at this point. He’s already appeared to them in the Upper Room and called upon them to get out in the world and spread the gospel; “As the Father has sent me, so I send you;” is what he said. But when he came back to see them a week later they were still just sitting there. Unlike Jesus, who went to a lot of places and touched a lot of lives, these disciples haven’t gone anywhere or done anything — despite the fact that Jesus clearly told them to do so. 

Now, to be fair, given all that they’ve have been through, the disciples might have just needed a little downtime to process it all, a chance to gather their wits and get their feet back underneath them. But I bet Jesus found their inertia pretty frustrating. 

So, on the bright side, when we get to our story for this week, at least the disciples have finally left the house. On the not so bright side, though, Jesus finds them doing exactly what that they were doing when he first met them — fishing; they’re behaving as though absolutely nothing has changed.

While all four gospels include a miraculous fishing story, John’s is the only one that places it after Jesus’s resurrection — as the Risen Christ calls upon his disciples to spread the good news throughout the world. Matthew, Mark and Luke include it as part of Jesus’s initial call to the disciples at the beginning of his ministry. So what gives?

Is it possible that Jesus actually performed multiple miracles involving fish? Sure.

Is it possible that three gospel writers then decided to talk about the first miracle and not the second, while John decided to do the exact opposite? Yeah.

And is it also possible — because all four gospels were written down years after Jesus’s life here on earth — that the authors might have learned or remembered different versions of those stories? Yup.

Most Bible scholars agree that the author of John’s Gospel had already read the other three Gospels before writing his. And so it’s also possible that he might be using his fishing story to tell his readers something important about Jesus that the other writers chose not to convey in the same way.

You see, we need to remember that the Gospels weren’t history books or newspapers — facts mattered a whole lot less to these writers and their readers than they do to us now. They were far more concerned with other things — like understanding who Jesus was and what he called us to do.

So at the end of John’s Gospel, the disciples are fishing again — but not for people like Jesus had hoped they would at the beginning of all the other Gospels. No, they’re still fishing for actual fish, and still not managing to catch anything on their own. In some sense, we appear to have gone right back to where we started.

But we’re not right back where we started, and that’s the whole point. After the life, death and resurrection of Christ, things simply can’t ever be the same again.

So whenever the disciples return to doing what feels relatively safe and comfortable, Jesus call their bluff. When he finds them sitting around in the Upper Room feeling sorry for themselves, he tells them to get moving. And when he finds them focused on finding fish as they once had been, he fills their nets. 

It’s as though Jesus is saying to them: “You think you need fish, I’ll give you fish; you want a meal, I’ll cook you one; you mourn my absence, well here I am. You truly lack nothing.” So Jesus breaks the bread — much as he did at the Last Supper in the other three gospels (John doesn’t actually have a version of that story) and shares it with them; then Jesus gives them some fish. You see, this isn’t the Last Supper; things are different now. They can’t just do what they used to do the way they used to do it anymore.

And if there were any doubt that things have changed, listen to the exchange between Jesus and Peter right after the meal. Jesus asks Peter not once but three times whether Peter loves him. Peter, of course, responds in the affirmative. 

But Jesus doesn’t let Peter of the hook here. It doesn’t really come across all that well in print, but Jesus’s questions seem kind of impatient and his answers are more like demands — imagine them appearing in all capital letters with exclamation marks at the end.

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”


“Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”


“Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”



*        *        *

A hundred fifty-one. That’s how many people were here in this sanctuary at ten o’clock on Easter morning to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection (plus another twenty-four at the sunrise service out there in the garden, for those of you keeping score).

Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard more comments than I can possibly count about how great it was to have so many people here again; about how it seemed like church was finally getting back to normal; about how things were, at long last, the way they used to be. And I’m not going to lie: I felt pretty good about it too.

But I’ve also worried, as many of you likely have, whether this will continue; whether we’ll see consistent triple-digit attendance in worship; whether they’ll be a crowd of kids up here every Sunday for Children’s Chat. And we worry because, deep down inside, we know that our world and our lives have changed (particularly over the past two years); we understand that things will never be the same again — no matter how much we might want them to be.

So maybe, just maybe, we ought to spend less time worrying about such things and more time actually doing the work that Jesus has always called us to do: namely, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and caring for the least of these. 

Because Jesus didn’t ever tell his disciples to count his sheep; he told his disciples to feed them.