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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/05/2019

John’s gospel seemed to be finished at the end of chapter 20. He’d written what he had to write and he’d told his readers why he wrote what he did, the reason being “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” John seemed to be finished; but then there’s another chapter so it’s as if he says, “Hang on. I just remembered something else, another time Jesus appeared to his disciples.” In the days of hand written scrolls of course you couldn’t cut and paste and easily put something where it fits best sequentially so this episode just got tacked on after the chapter 20 ending that seemed to wrap things up. That’s one theory about this chapter but there are others. The bottom line is that no one really knows, but however it happened, John or someone felt like this last chapter wasn’t just an afterthought but was worthy of being included.

My guess would be that this story was included not so much because it adds to the historical record about Jesus providing as it does one more resurrection appearance, but to me it’s more likely that it’s included because it adds another layer of meaning concerning who Jesus is, another reason to believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. That was John’s concern throughout his gospel and there’s no reason to think that had changed. That means that as is usually the case, we do better to ask what the story means rather than to ask questions about its historical value.

The story starts with Peter deciding to go fishing. At first after all that had happened there might seem to be an element of humor in that but, on the other hand, it makes sense. Even after the Risen Christ had appeared to them, logic would still say that the ride with Jesus was pretty much over and it was time to go back to work. Peter was a fisherman so going back to work meant fishing. As anyone who fishes knows though, some days you catch some, some days you’re just out there and for Peter and his companions, on this night they were just out there.

Until…a stranger on the beach appeared, a stranger they didn’t recognize but who turned out to be Jesus. He appeared and told them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat and they did. Then they caught all kinds of fish, 153 to be exact, a detail that has mystified interpreters for a couple of thousand years now. One suggestion is that 153 represented how many species of fish were known at that time in that part of the world but then again maybe it’s just a number meant to represent a lot; who knows. Anyway, the story continues with Peter and the others joining the stranger for breakfast on the beach, a breakfast he had already prepared for them. It’s a little strange, but what does it mean?

One possible answer to what it means, and I think it’s a good answer, is that the story is meant to tell us that Jesus meets us even at those times we fail. I think it’s a good answer because anyone capable of any degree of self-reflection, even someone who is considered to be very successful, will acknowledge that there are times when they have failed or at least they feel like a failure. On the night described in today’s gospel, Peter was a failure. If you’re a fisherman, you’re supposed to catch fish, and he didn’t catch any. At that moment though, the Risen Christ came to him telling him to put his nets down on the other side of the boat at which point his failure was transformed into overwhelming success.

Again, you probably don’t have to think too hard to come up with a time of failure in your life whether it has to do with personal relationships, your job, school, sports, your faith, anytime you fail or feel like you fail to be who God would have you be. You probably don’t have to think too hard or go back too far in your memory bank. What this story tells us though, is that at those times, Jesus is present, encouraging us, working through our failure, telling us to put our nets down on the other side of the boat. The challenge is to figure out what putting the nets down means in a given situation. For Jesus though, the focus isn’t on failure, it’s on the response to it.

I’ll leave you to deal with the nature of your personal failures and what it might mean for you to put your nets down on the other side, but these days it can also feel like that as a church we are collectively experiencing a time of failure. Every time a new survey comes out there are statistics about fewer people attending church, fewer people claiming any faith identity at all, the rise of the n-o-n-e-s nones. Within the ELCA there are more and more churches that can’t afford to pay a pastor so to keep the doors open congregations wind up sharing a pastor but then, even with churches sharing a pastor there aren’t enough people coming out of seminary to fill all the vacancies so more congregations are led by lay people with less theological education which isn’t always a bad thing, it works pretty well sometimes, but it’s not the ideal.

Most churches, Lutheran and otherwise, talk about fewer young families in church, fewer kids in Sunday School and Confirmation classes if those things exist at all and the beat goes on. There probably aren’t many or any of us who don’t have close family members who don’t go to church, children and grandchildren who are totally disconnected from the church. It’s easy to feel like we’re failing.

At such times though, we have to remember that Jesus is walking through the parking lot, or he’s out in the narthex or walking down the center aisle telling us to let our nets down on the other side of the boat. Again, the challenge is to figure out what that means. I can assure you that for church leaders there is no shortage of workshops one can attend that promise to tell you what it means and how to attract the un-churched and bring back those who have drifted away.

It doesn’t take long however, to figure out that there’s no one size fits all solution. With any program, there are some churches where it does change things. But there are also churches, lots of them, where it doesn’t matter what program they try or on which side of the boat they let down the nets, in terms of numbers, nothing changes. There’s no net full of 153 fish.

When you think about this text today, Jesus didn’t tell Peter and the others to do anything radically different; it’s pretty much do the same thing, just on the other side of the boat. What he says can be understood as encouragement to keep on keeping on. Don’t be discouraged; keep fishing. Now, as happens in many Bible stories involving Jesus, the results are instant, a net full of fish, but in our world, that’s not usually how it works. I believe though, that being faithful to that to which we are called will ultimately result in success. Maybe, in fact, it’s already resulting in success, even if it’s not bigger is better success.

The next scene of today’s gospel provides an image of what we are called to. It’s another example of Jesus being present in failure; this time, for Peter it’s a more personal failure. While the four gospels don’t agree on all the details concerning Jesus arrest and trial, they all include an account of Peter denying Jesus three times, a major failure on his part. In addition to the threefold denial though, in today’s verses, John also gives us a threefold restoration of Peter.

Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” What we pay attention to though, is what Jesus says to each of Peter’s responses: “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” That’s the call; I’m mixing metaphors here but whatever it means to let down the nets, however that is done, the call from Jesus is about caring for his sheep, caring for those he calls his own, which is everyone, but especially those who are most vulnerable.

The question then is what does that feeding and tending involve? The simple answer is that it can involve a wide variety of things that we would broadly identify as social ministry and Jesus certainly does call us to those things, attending to the needs of others in whatever ways we can. That’s part of letting down the nets, part of tending the sheep, an important part.

What we have to remember though is that we are the church and however we let down the nets, it’s not just social work. It has to include proclaiming the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, the good news that he lived and died for us, making us acceptable in God’s eyes despite the fact that we will always fail in some ways to be who he wants us to be.

Jesus has done for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, what Luther called the “happy exchange” as Christ takes on our sin and gives us his righteousness. We don’t have to ask how it works, we accept in faith that we are justified by God’s grace. In his resurrection, Jesus then overcame the power of death and was raised to new life claiming victory over the power of evil and death so that we can live in hope, now and forever. The entirety of that proclamation is central to feeding the lambs and tending the sheep. It is what empowers us.

In the face of failure, Jesus told Peter to let down his nets and keep fishing. He tells us to do the same thing. In the face of failure, Jesus told Peter to tend and feed his sheep and he tells us to do the same thing. He doesn’t say that it will be easy, but he says “Follow me,” and living in Easter hope, that is what we do.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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