Summary: Jesus last words to his disciples, reinstating Peter as the leader of the church.
Jesus has risen. He’s appeared twice to his disciples as a group. The second time he tells Thomas that those who believe in Jesus without having seen him are blessed, and John concludes chapter 20 with the statement that the things he’s written are here so that we who read them later may believe and believing, may have life in Jesus’ name. But the story isn’t quite finished. There are still some loose ends; and there’s still the future ministry of the Church to come. And so he lets us in to a brief incident that occurs in Galilee while the disciples are awaiting Jesus return to the Father.
The disciples have returned to Galilee at Jesus command to await him. There are 7 of them this night, and they’re obviously getting restless. Jesus has told them to wait for him, but as we all know, waiting can be hard. In fact it gets so hard for Peter that he finally jumps up and says "I am going fishing." He’s a man of action. He’s sick of sitting around doing nothing. It can’t hurt to do a bit of fishing while they’re waiting. They need to eat and they can use the money. Well, the other 6 think this sounds like a great idea. "We’ll go with you," they say. So they go, but they catch nothing.
Then, just after daybreak, Jesus appears on the shore and says, "Hey guys, not doing too well, huh? Try over there, on the right side of the boat." And as they cast their nets, they catch a huge haul of fish. Well, this had happened before hadn’t it? And John is the first to realise it. He says to Peter, "It’s the Lord." As usual, Peter jumps into action. He ties his robe around him and swims the hundred meters or so to land, leaving the other disciples to pull the boats and their catch into shore. There he finds a fire burning with fish on it already. But Jesus wants to share what they’ve caught as well, so he tells Peter to go and bring him some of the fish from the net. This is going to be a meal where they share together, in fellowship, the fruits of their labour.
But first the important job of counting the fish is completed. 153 fish! An impressive catch by any measure. Yet the nets are not torn. In the previous incident in Luke 5, that huge catch caused the nets to break and the boats to sink, but here the nets hold firm. And so they sit down to eat, realising that it’s the Lord with whom they’re eating.
It seems to me that John has included this incident to teach us something important about following Jesus. About life after the resurrection. So what is it?
Well, first of all, I think we’re meant to read this incident in the light of other times that the disciples had encountered Jesus on the edge of the lake. The first time of course was when he first called them to follow him. In Mark 1, Jesus comes up to Peter and Andrew and James and John and calls them to follow him and he will make them fish for people. In Luke 5, after he’s finished teaching the people, he tells them to put their boats out into deep water and let down their nets and they pull in a huge catch, just like this one. And again he calls them to follow him and they’ll begin to catch people rather than fish. And in this passage at the end of his conversation with Peter he again calls him to follow him.
But this time there’s something different. When John mentions night you can’t help but notice it. It’s a recurrent theme throughout the gospel. Several times Jesus has said some variation of, "Work while you have the light. The night is coming when no-one can work." So when John tells us that that night they caught nothing, our ears should prick up. What is he alluding to? Is it that their efforts on their own initiative proved fruitless, but when they fished at Jesus’ direction their nets were full of fish? Is he reminding us of Jesus words: "Apart from me you can do nothing" (15:5)
Might this be a warning for us as we try to bring people into God’s Kingdom? How often do we depend on programs, on techniques, on psychological strategies to bring us success, rather than depending on the leading and the power of God. Why is it that the fastest growing churches around are the unsophisticated churches of the third world? Is it because they depend on the power of prayer for their success? Is it because they rely on a simple direct presentation of the gospel rather than sophisticated techniques? Is it because they take Jesus at his word and do what he commands rather than doing their own thing? ’They got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.’ When they cast their nets at Jesus’ command they were not able to haul them in because there were so many fish.