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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Through the Dark, Toward the Dawn (a sermon on John 21)

“I’m going fishing,” Peter said. What else do you do when you’ve lost everything, but go home? What can you do when the way is blocked, the future dark? You go home, back to what you know, or what you knew, or what you thought you knew.  “I’m going back home, back to fishing.”

Peter hadn’t read Thomas Wolfe’s novel or he might have known, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” (Wolfe)

You can’t go home again, not really. But who could blame Peter for trying? “I’m going back to fishing, back to what I know, back to where I know or where I knew or where I thought I knew who I was and what I was doing.”

And the others with him: Thomas (the Twin), Nathanael (from Cana), the Thunder Brothers-James and John (the sons of Zebedee) and two others said, “We’ll go with you. What else have we got to do? What have we left to lose?”

Jesus, their rabbi, their teacher, was gone. Jesus, their friend, was dead. Killed in a grisly execution. And the three years that they’d followed him were gone. All that time lost. Wasted. So they went, or tried to go, back home, back to Galilee, back to fishing, back to the smell of the wet wooden boat, and the wind off the water, the smell of leather aprons and the fleshy smell of fresh caught fish. They went back to hands calloused by flaxen nets (Hanson) and muscles sore from the repetitive motion of throwing out and drawing in the heavy sodden nets.

And there on the Sea of Tiberias (an overblown name if ever there was one for that lake, 13 miles long, 8 miles wide and less than 200 feet deep) Peter and his friends spend a long night fishing.  They fished at night because it was cool, and throwing and drawing the nets was hot, sweaty work. They fished at night because that’s when the fish were more active and more easily caught. (Brown 1069)

But perhaps they also went fishing at night because it was dark. Because it was easier to hide. They could hide in the dark out on the lake the same way that they had hid in that closed and locked room in Jerusalem, hiding in fear of the Jews. Hiding because maybe they knew, without having read Thomas Wolfe’s novel, they couldn’t go home again. Maybe they were familiar with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ cryptic utterance, “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers." - No man ever steps in the same river twice; no one ever fishes in the same lake twice. Everything changes.

Would there have been a chorus of “I told you so” greetings from former friends and family members they had left three years prior to follow that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth? Would there have been scorn and mockery? “Here come the ones who thought they would change the world? What happened to all your idealistic talk about peace, and love, and the Kingdom of God?” Would there have been, perhaps, a measure of fear as well?  After all, if their rabbi and master had been arrested and executed as a common criminal, what could be said of these, his followers, skulking back into town?

So Peter and the others went back to what they thought they knew, back to Galilee and back to fishing, back to calloused hands and tired backs and spent the night fishing on the lake in the dark. But, as sure as you can’t go home again, Peter and the others couldn’t go back to fishing. Not really. They fished all night and they caught nothing. Nothing. Not a thing. Each and every time they threw out the net they hauled it back into the boat empty. They blistered their hands and strained their muscles for no reward.

Perhaps it should be noted that we never actually read in any of the four canonical Gospels of the disciples catching any fish except with Jesus’ help. (Brown 1071)

I usually try to refrain from using clichés in my sermons, but sometimes they prove helpful. The proverbial statement that “it’s always darkest before the dawn”[1] isn’t exactly true scientifically; it is darkest at the midpoint between dusk and dawn, when the half of the earth experiencing night time is facing 180° from the sun. It may not be physically true, but it feels right. In a metaphoric, poetic sort of way it is true. Things just can’t seem to get any worse for Peter and the other disciples. Everything is lost and broken; the past is gone and the future is dead. But then comes the dawn. Then comes the light of the rising sun, an appropriate symbol for the risen Lord.

Dawn finds our dejected disciples about to give up. There’s nothing left for them, not even fish. It’s then that they are hailed by a strange figure on the shore, his features obscured by distance and early morning fog. “Boys, you haven’t any fish, have you?”

The disappointed disciples answer, “No.” And the stranger on the shore, a mere one hundred yards away, told them to throw their net on the right side of the boat, that there they would find a large catch of fish. This isn’t necessarily a miracle. It was common practice for fishers on the Sea of Galilee in their boats to use a spotter on the shore to help point out large schools of fish. The disciples, as exhausted as they were, threw the net out one more time, on the right side and, just as the stranger said, they found the fish. The nets were full and straining, but did not rip. They were unable to pull the net into the boat they caught so many fish.

This may not have be a miracle, in the same way that water was turned to wine, or the way the royal official’s son was healed in Capernaum, or the paralytic was healed at Bethsaida, or the crowd was fed on the Galilean hillside. It may not have been a miracle in the way that Jesus walked upon the waves of the sea of Galilee or the blind man was made to see at the Pool of Siloam, but something in this event, something in the unexpected catch of fish triggered in “the disciple that Jesus loved” a sudden recognition: “It is the Lord!”

The risen Jesus is strange and unrecognizable Lord. Even when seen he is unseen, unrecognized. Mary Magdalene in the garden early Easter morning saw him, spoke to him even but did not see him. Not until he called her by name. Then a sudden recognition came to her. And again sometime later, as the disciples prepared to come ashore with nothing in their nets and nothing in their lives, they saw and spoke to the risen Lord, but did not see him. Not until the sudden catch of fish. And even then they’re not really sure.

On the shore they share a meal with the Lord of fresh cooked fish and bread, cooked over a charcoal fire, but even they as they are sitting at his feet, sharing a communal meal with their rabbi, their Lord, they still not quite see him for who he is. This is so strange that none of them dared to ask, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. They saw, but couldn’t see. They knew but couldn’t understand. “They recognize him, but are puzzled and unsure. The Jesus they knew has undergone transformation in becoming the risen Lord” (Brown 1076).

This is how the darkness is broken and dawn blooms over the horizon, how light breaks in and spills over the lake and their lives. It is a sudden recognition, a sudden (but still incomplete) understanding. Jesus meets with his confused and disconsolate disciples with an intimate meal on the lakeshore. They’d shared a meal of bread and fish with him on alongside this lake once before (John 6: 1- 15). He’d shared with them the bread of life, the bread that came down from heaven. He’d shared with them the kingdom of God and as he shared that simple meal on the shoreline with them they slowly began to understand.

The light of dawn does not come all at once, it grows in intensity and brilliance till the morning is bright and clear. And an understanding of the Kingdom of God – with peace and joy and confidence – does not come all at once to the disciples (or to us), it grows in intensity and fullness. It comes in fits and starts, with the occasional sudden realization-an a-ha moment (It is the Lord!)-and with slow gradual understanding (They dared not ask him, “Who are you?”).

Moments of darkness and doubt and confusion, long dark nights of the soul when all seems like loss, and waste, and death will be part of our Christian life. This is unavoidable. We will have times when, despite all our effort, we come up empty and unfulfilled. We may want to give up and go home, go back to what we thought we knew, and who we thought we were. But the way (and we are followers of the Way) is forward through the dark, toward the dawn, from loss and despair to renewed joy and comfort in the risen Lord.


Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John xiii-xxi: Introduction, Translation and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1970. Print.

Hanson, K.C. “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Vol. 27. 1997.

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. New York: Harper and Row. 1940. Print.

[1] Which may go back to Thomas Fuller’s 1650 work A Pisgah Sight of Palestine

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