Philip Casmer

Telling Fish Tales

by Philip Casmer on May 1st, 2022
John 21:1-14

You could hear every leaf fall that morning. Squirrel scampering sounded like kids tromping through the front lawn leaf pile – or maybe like a huge buck making its way through the timber. It was that thought that broke me out of sleepiness under the dawning sky: that sound I was hearing was a deer…maybe. But it being gun-deer season, that was my prize. So I began slowly ascending the ridge behind me. And after about 15 minutes I’d settled into a little bowl filled with leaves and medium trees, orange with Fall and just over the top of the ridge. And now I waited, patiently, like hunters have throughout the ages…one with nature, at peace in the wilderness, checking texts on my phone with my gun useless across my knees. And that’s when I heard it. Exactly what I’d climbed slow and hushed to find: the biggest buck I’d ever seen – at least at 20 pointer, rack 5 feet across, must have been 10 feet tall, chest broad as my shoulders, with eyes that glowed like a foundry, its nostrils huffing away like a Victorian steam engine. At a nonchalant trot along the ridge, not 10 ft away from my unreadiness, it thundered by and (to this day I’m sure of it) glanced at me with a look of disdain and a little deer smile. And I bumbled and bungled and tried to get anywhere near to lifting my gun to the ready but…no. That was the one that got away.

That’s my fish tale… mainly because I don’t have any about fish – only recent ones about deer. And it’s mostly true; that deer wasn’t quite that big. As it goes with fish stories, it could tend to get bigger every time I tell it. And we have that tendency, don’t we? Those hunting or fishing or dirty diaper or a business deal or something stories – tall tales/fish tales? Where we could tell it just as it was, but often we tell it bigger because it brings attention in the moment, where more is more… the fame of “I was this close to the single greatest [insert thing here]…” or the burden of “that’s how much I have to deal with…” or the excuse of “Now you understand why I just couldn’t show up at your party…” All are really meant to assign a bit more significance to our otherwise rather boring daily lives. 

You ever feel that way about Easter? I mean, altogether, in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mark, Luke), you’ve got like four dozen chapters and only four total about the whole point of Jesus’ ministry – resurrection! It’s maybe 6-10 appearances over 40 days! No more parables. No more sermons. No Re-attitudes…It ’s like there’s a lot of gaps there where I don’t know where Jesus was or I wanna know what he said to whomever and I would have expected there to be more, you know?

Well, there is John who gives us more than the rest – more verses than any of the others and more words from Jesus: one appearance to Mary at the empty tomb, a pair to disciples in a locked room, and then this… this scene where Jesus is cooking fish on a beach campfire. And, well, I guess it would be a stretch to hope for a heavenly appearance to Caesar, Jesus touching down on Palatine Hill in Rome with flashing eyes and lightning bolts, like some Zach Snyder Superman… Frankly, I’d really go for a Zach Snyder Batman style visit to the Sanhedrin… But, I know, he’s not a superhero and he’s not vulgar or vindictive like me. It’s just, of all the things I might have chosen, the places I’d have guessed, it probably wouldn’t have been this…

And for what it is… Jesus has raised people from the dead! Made the lame to walk! Has fed 5,000-10,000 people more than once with a few breads and fish. This morning the miracle’s just 153 fish to feed 7 guys… I mean, miracle, yes – but why is all the post Easter stuff so much quieter, so much smaller, so much “less”… You know? John 21:1-14 is like “Hey, you boys catch anything?” and “Why don’t y’all come over and have breakfast.”

And, actually, I’m not alone. For centuries, theologians and scholars have encountered the simplicity of this little account and sought ways to spice it up by looking for symbolism and hidden meanings behind every little detail. Depending on who it is, everything may be freighted with secret meanings: the boat, the net, the water, and most tantalizingly of all for those on the hunt for secret meanings: the 153 fish. St. Augustine himself thought 153 was a symbolic number arrived at by remembering that there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. 10+7=17 and if you add the integers from 1 to 17 (1+2+3+4 . . .) you arrive at precisely 153. So there you have it: 153 fish = a symbol of both Law and Gospel!

And we don’t have to go that far either. They say, “Peter and the disciples went back to fishing because they despaired of ever seeing Jesus again…” Back to the grind, no other options, I guess. And that Jesus appeared with this miracle to show them that fishing for fish was fruitless – they caught nothing all night! – and that he would provide abundant fruit if only they would fish for people… Ah! They had chosen poorly, to quote a wise old knight, and the true holy grail was to be gospel fishermen!

Doesn’t the simplicity of this story remind you a bit of the complexity that you often want to see? We’re not content that our choices are ones we’ve made in faith with wisdom. We’d like to think that Jesus co-chose with us or that this path or that one was divine or really consecrated – lends a little gravitas to it, yes? We see a world that’s so broken, such a mess, and we want to know that there’s a pattern underneath. And sometimes, unhappy with our lives and their circumstances, we long for more and for meaning when we don’t feel it and for cosmic significance because we feel low and minor. And, sometimes, to what God gives we’re tempted to add…because we think we need more.

This morning, let me invite you away from our fish tales and into these ordinary circumstances and common tasks with our Lord on a beach, because that is where we need to encounter the Savior too. We don’t need only a stained-glass Jesus who is other-worldly and who speaks words only for the holiest and most sacred events, who will make our occasions into that. We need a Jesus in the kitchen, “amid the pots and pans”. We need a Jesus on the beach and at the office where we sin. When we’re shirtless roofing a house, with us frustrated in bumper to bumper traffic, while we’re carrying screaming toddlers down the hall. We need a Savior who accompanies us on our everyday journeys, who sees us in those ordinary circumstances, and who speaks into those times and places, particularly. Because though he’s risen, here we still are.

So Jesus shows up on the shore for his friends because that’s where they were; and in the midst of their fruitless fishing trip because that’s what they’d chosen to do that day. And, though seemingly mundane, what the Risen Lord Jesus speaks is extraordinary.  

When John started his gospel he said, “Out of [Jesus’] fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” (1:16-17). Did you know that, after his prologue, John never uses the word “grace” again in his gospel? Does that mean “grace” is absent from John’s gospel? Rather, isn’t it very present, very visible in the Savior at work – who graciously makes more wine for a wedding because they’d enjoy it, who vividly heals a man born blind man, spreading mud on his eyes so he might “see” what Jesus was doing, who calls himself bread and gate and shepherd, the familiar things we’d immediately know. The kind who shows up and brings out 153 fish – like he’d done before – so they’d know it was him. Perhaps to show that, if they thought they needed more, the Risen Jesus was more than enough for his disciples. And, just as promised, he brings the abundance of God’s grace right where they are.

That’s what John said anyway, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written… But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (21:25, 20:31) 

Life right now in your life – when all hope is gone, when you are crushed with sadness, when life is boring and same old, when you think there is no future, when you doubt that grace is true or whether it’s for you… In his Word, in his Meal with forgiveness for whatever and with encouragement for everything else, Jesus shows up right where you are so that you don’t have to tell fish tales to find significance but would rather believe the significance under all your things. He rose from death and, though divinely powered to full, though capable to surf the rings of Saturn, though the hosts of heaven laud him the Lamb worthy of power and praise, he wants to show God’s glory to his disciples. So he appears to make breakfast for his friends. God’s glory?  Right where they are, he makes known again he was alive as he promised, that he was with them again and he loved them still, and since they knew him like that what he’d gained they’d know too – by believing they also would live. 

With them, this morning he invites you again to come along and to live this: from God, “gift after gift after gift…exuberant giving and receiving…endless knowing and understanding”, cosmic significance… “all this through Jesus, the Messiah.” (John 1:16-18, The Message) Jesus who, for people who don’t always feel cosmically significant but rather very ordinary, says the most ordinary things like, “Come and have breakfast…” and, in them, writes us into the greatest tale ever…

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