Here’s where we pick up the story. Jesus has been raised from the dead, appeared to Mary Magdalene, appeared to the disciples in a locked room, appeared to the disciples again with Thomas there, and now he appears for the last time to them in John’s gospel.
I’m really thinking Peter just isn’t getting this. After hearing Mary tell how she saw Jesus, then after seeing Jesus himself twice—raised from the dead, mind you—now, at the beginning of this text, Peter wants to go fishing. Like this was a normal day. Like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Some other disciples decide to tag along—again, as if everything was the same.
Then there’s Thomas, who made such a big deal out of seeing Jesus, touching the nail prints in his hands, then falling on his face and proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”
Not to mention that at that time all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out by Jesus on a mission of forgiveness. A new job. Now they’re just heading out fishing. Nothing like the first day of a new job taking a vacation day.
So Jesus stands on the beach while they’re out fishing, but they can’t tell who it is. Now several of these disciples are professional fishermen. Fishing is their life, their livelihood, their skill. But they aren’t catching a thing.
So this guy is standing there on the shore yelling at them. They don’t know it’s Jesus, they don’t recognize him at all. But whoever it is, is giving them fishing advice. Do you know how annoying that must have been?
I remember playing baseball and going several at bats without a hit. Frustrated, I began goofing around with the bat. In the on-deck circle I’m swinging left-handed, changing my grip, anything to kind of break out this slump. I heard one of the moms from the other team—who I’d never seen before—say rather loudly, “Look at the way that kid’s swinging the bat. No wonder he can’t get a hit! Why don’t you hold the bat right, kid!” That was frustrating. I can’t remember what happened, but I most certainly did not appreciate her so-called advice.
I wonder if the disciples felt the same way. Some guy on the beach telling these professionals their nets are on the wrong side of the boat. The last thing they’re wanting to do is listen to advice from someone on the shore.
But these fishermen/disciples did hear. They did listen. They did what the stranger suggested—tossing their nets out of the other side of the boat. I don’t understand why, but they did. And they caught a huge load of fish. If they had known it was Jesus, sure they would have done what he said. But they didn’t know it was him. Just some stranger who, as likely as not, had no business telling them what to do.
Only later did they recognize this stranger as Jesus. Then once they knew it was Jesus they shared a meal; and Peter was given the chance to redeem his previous denial of Jesus. Earlier, while Jesus was on trial, Peter had publicly denied that he knew him three times. Now he publicly affirms his love for Jesus three times.
But for some reason they heard the voice of Jesus in this perceived stranger—enough to follow. They put aside their pride and life-long experience, recognizing that what they were doing wasn’t working, and did what he suggested. Maybe they get this resurrection thing better than I give them credit for.
Here’s where I think this gospel text is hard to hear. This is where these disciples leave me behind. Lots of us, including me, have been Christian for a long time—even Lutheran for a long time. Some of us have never known anything else. We believe we’re pretty good at this Jesus thing, this faith thing, this discipleship thing. So for many of us, it’s easy to disregard the voices of those on the shore, who have left the church or never been part of it. Those who find the church irrelevant, out of touch, judgmental. It’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus in those critiques because, after all, we know Christianity better than they do.
When people outside the church say things like, “I have no problem with Jesus but no use for the church,” it’s easy for us to brush it off as ignorance. When they tell us that they don’t feel welcomed, that we’re out of touch, that when they look at Christians they see no difference from any other person (except more hypocrisy), we just casually disregard it because they just don’t know. They can’t know. We’ve been in the church a lot longer. We are the professionals; they’re just yelling advice from the shore.
But here’s what gives me hope. They keep yelling advice. I can’t help but wonder that if Jesus wasn’t speaking through them, they wouldn’t be yelling at us at all. If it wasn’t Jesus coming to us they would simply ignore us and let us go on our way fishing from the wrong side of the boat. Why should they care?
I wonder if we heard the voices from outside the church, if we listened for the voice of Jesus might be there, we might end up sitting down with Jesus and having a meal with them. We might recognize our new life in the resurrected Christ, and more live it more fully, following him more closely in the world. We might trust that the resurrected Jesus comes to us, even when we’re fishing. Even when we’re not listening. Even in our arrogance. Jesus comes. He’s speaking. Like it or not, he’s bringing life and hope and newness to the world. Even to us. Life is new, because Jesus is raised from the dead.