Summary: As much as this passage reminds us of our need to go regularly to the places where we encounter Christ, it is also an assurance that when we need Christ, he will make his presence known.
A month or so ago on our vacation at the beach, Ken and I had this really amazing experience. It was my first vacation at the beach in many years, and my sister-in-law, who owns the condo where we were staying told us that if we walked out the board walk to the beach and took a right and walked down the beach about a mile and a half or two miles, we would come to this inlet where dolphins like to congregate in the morning. She had that she and her husband had seen them every morning when the two of them had been at the beach back in June. So bright and early one morning, Ken and I headed toward the inlet, and sure enough, within moments of arrival we were watching the fins of at least two dolphins rising in falling in the water.
We watched as they moved further into the inlet, then, all of a sudden about 100 yards down the shore, four or five dolphins splashed up on the beach and flailed around for a few moments before receding back into the water. Now, I’ll just tell you, your first thought when you see something like that is that something is wrong, the dolphins are beaching themselves or something. But a nearby observer explained that the dolphins were fishing. You see, dolphins travel in pods, and the way they eat is that a pod will corral a school of fish and sort of push them toward the shore, and then all of a sudden they will splash up on the shore, pushing the school of fish ahead of them so that the little fish have nowhere to go but into the mouths of the waiting dolphins.
With this new knowledge, Ken and I continued to watch, and we quickly learned that even if we couldn’t track the dolphins, if we could see where the school of fish was, we would have a pretty good idea of where the dolphins were. So from the shore, we walked up and down the inlet, following the glint of the school of fish just below the suface. And sure enough, it happened again, not 10 feet away from us this time! The dolphins swam up onto the shore in their particular way of fishing, and flailed about with open mouths, waiting for a fish or two to jump in. We could see the pink of their bellies and hear their calls, it was truly amazing! And it happened because they do the same thing everyday, and we knew what we needed to be watching for as we stood on the shore.
We come to the conclusion of our fishing trip today with a story from John’s gospel near the very end of Jesus’ ministry. At this point, Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, he has appeared to the disciples and then to Thomas. Now we are in this sort of “in between time,” before Jesus’ ascension. It seems clear that the disciples are a bit nervous. They are probably beginning to have those thoughts of “what now?” Jesus is still around, but not the way he used to be. It’s probably been a few days since they last saw him and he’s not preaching and teaching and healing all around Galilee like he was doing before his arrest and crucifixion. These disciples who have been following Jesus around and sharing his ministry for three years are probably feeling a little lost. And so now, the story sort of comes full circle.
It’s possible that the disciples are making their first attempt at getting back to normal. That might explain why they are back out in the boats fishing again. Perhaps their families have been telling them it’s time to get back to work and starting getting bread on the table. But I think it’s also possible that the disciples were looking for Jesus. They were hoping they could hear his guidance one last time; that he would tell them “what now,” and the path before them would be laid out clearly. Whatever the case, they went back to the familiar. They went back to the life they knew before Jesus, but they also went back to the place where they had met Jesus so many times before—the place where he had called them, the place where he had calmed the storm and called Peter to walk across the water, the place where he had multiplied the loaves and fish and fed 5,000 people. The disciples surely remembered those things as they shoved off for another fishing adventure on the Sea of Galilee.
Maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision by the disciples, but I believe that somewhere deep down, they were longing to encounter Jesus again, and that meant going back to the place they had encountered him before. And the same has to be true for us, too. A great deal of the maintenance and growth of our relationship with Christ comes from having encounters with Christ, and going to that place where we know his presence in the most tangible ways. That’s part of the reason we are here in worship, is it not? Through this “set-aside” hour each week, we enter God’s midst in a special way and encounters with the living Christ that cannot happen in any other way or in any other place. But there’s other places we go to encounter Christ, too, right? Like for some of us, its nature, a hike in the woods that allows us to meet Christ anew. Or maybe it’s through music—one of the most powerful ways I know of to encounter Christ in my life is to find a nice, quiet, secluded place, and to get out my guitar and play and sing songs that remind me of God’s power, and presence, and blessing in my life. Wherever your “place” is, wherever you need to go to meet Christ and bask in his presence, be sure to go there often because that is how your relationship with Christ is nurtured and sustained.