There is a lot going on in today’s Gospel reading. We have a ragtag collection of disciples who have untied their boat and set it out into the sea. They have just seen Jesus when he appeared to them, appearing like some wizard in a locked room where they had been hiding because they were afraid. And after that, Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him to put his fingers into the wounds in his side to prove that this now living man is the same one who suffered a humiliating death just days before. After all this excitement, real life comes crashing in, and the disciples set out for the most earthly activity of all, fishing. The disciples have been out at sea the entire night, and have nothing to show for their efforts. They had put their nets in front of the boat, to the sides of the boat, trailed them behind the boat. And not even a piece of seaweed has been snagged by their nets.
At dawn, a stranger on the shore calls to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answer, “No.” And I can only imagine that this is a rather exasperated “no” and probably accompanied by plenty of grumbling and eye rolling. The stranger tells them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” I imagine the disciples looking at each other and saying, “Like we haven’t tried that already!!” You know, the sort of situation that happens when someone is looking over your shoulder or across your yard and is critiquing your work without knowing the full story? So imagine the faith and effort it must take to cast your net overboard yet again, despite all evidence to the contrary, hoping that something would come of it. That God would make something of it. It is sometimes easier to just give up. I think this happens to all of us at one time or another. In the seemingly fruitless job search. The math homework that is impossible. The relationship that we pour all of our energy into and get nothing but indifference from our partner in return. But the disciples toss that net back over the side of the boat anyway. Second chances.
And before the disciples knew it, their net was filled with fish, so many that they were scarcely able to haul it in. Abundance that is so over the top that it is almost stupid. This is nothing new for Jesus. At the beginning of his ministry, we see him turning water into dozens upon dozens of gallons of wine at the Wedding at Cana and using only a handful of loaves and fishes, ends up feeding 5,000 on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he is up to it again in today’s Gospel. This is what leads the disciples to recognize that it is Jesus on the shore, and one of the disciples, only identified as “the one whom Jesus loved” turns to Peter and exclaims, “It is the Lord!” When Peter hears this, he puts on clothes, because for some reason he is naked, and jumps into the sea.
This is the strangest part of this story for me. My initial reading of the text has overtones of shame. I envisioned Peter jumping out of the boat and frantically swimming away from the shore, away from Jesus. Because we cannot forget that it was Peter who denied Jesus three times. Peter denied knowing Jesus in his hour of trial in order to save his own skin. I imagined myself into this story. I imagined all of the times I have done something that I am not proud of, and how my overwhelming shame has made me want to flee. When we hurt someone and cannot bear to meet their eyes. When we as children break a window or spill grape juice on the living room carpet, or like on one memorable occasion, when my sister and I dropped one of my mother’s pearl earrings down the drain in the bathtub. We want to flee from those who know us because we do not want them to think less of us. We think that if they really knew us and what we did or continue to do on a regular basis, they wouldn’t love us anymore.
But Peter is not swimming away from the Jesus. He is swimming towards him. We hear that the boat is not far off shore, so Peter leaps from the bow of the ship and starts joyfully and frantically making his way towards Jesus. Like meeting a far away loved one in the arrivals area of the airport. Or coming back to your hometown for your first Christmas break as a College freshman. Or coming home from your first week at sleep-away camp. Suddenly all those things that happened before your parting don’t matter anymore. Second chances.
The rest of the disciples haul the boat to the shore, dragging a net completely filled with fish. We are told that Jesus is on the shore with a charcoal fire and fish and bread. Jesus directs Peter to get some of the freshly caught fish and bring them to the fire and says, “Come and have breakfast.” We hear this invitation to join together and eat repeatedly throughout John’s Gospel. A theme of gathering around a table to break bread in the presence of one another and with Christ. Does this sound familiar? We do it every week at communion.
But the shared breakfast in today’s Gospel is not just about nourishing the bodies of a group of men who had been fishing all night. It is about second chances. The “charcoal fire” that we hear about? The only other time that a charcoal fire is mentioned in this Gospel is in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house where Peter, the same guy who is ecstatically swimming towards Jesus now, denied Jesus three times as he was being taken away to be crucified.
And fish aren’t the only thing in abundance in this Gospel. Forgiveness, second chances, and blessings are in positively stupid abundance. We see it in today’s Gospel not only in the miraculous catch of fish, but in the love that Jesus has for his disciples. And in that same love that he has for us. In this season of Easter we are telling one another stories of new life and resurrection. I will leave you with a story of new life and second chances. I spent Holy Week in Denver visiting friends. During the Easter Vigil at the church that I called home for several years, I had the blessing of being the baptismal sponsor for my friend Sherry. Sherry was curious about my church, so I invited her to come. She had no experience whatsoever in church, but I did not know this until she had been attending regularly for about a month and had never once taken communion. She thought that she was not allowed to, and would be turned away at the table and humiliated because she had not been baptized. She also really had no idea what it meant to be baptized but thought that it was only for small children and you reached a certain point where you were too old. And since Sherry is 64, she thought that she was far too old. I invited her to come up for communion with me on Sunday last June, and she was so scared that I held her hand. But eight months later she is still attending church and hears about baptism in a sermon and emails the pastor and says, “I want to belong to God.” So she asks me to be her baptismal sponsor at the Easter Vigil. Just a couple days ago I received an email from Sherry. She says, “I feel like being baptized has given me a new life. I am forever grateful to God.” It is never too late to be swallowed up by the abundant love of God.
On the table to the side of the room there are paper cut outs of fish. I invite you to write something that you have experienced in abundance, maybe it is happiness…maybe you have tons of stuffed animals…maybe you have been blessed with children when you were told that was not a possibility for you. Write those things onto one of the fish and tie them to the line (see the example that I have already done) as we put them before God and lift them up together. And throughout this upcoming week I challenge you to think about where you experience abundance and second chances. Amen.