Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter based on John 21:1-14
Dear people for whom God provides: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“I am going fishing,” said Simon Peter. He didn’t quite know what else to do. Peter had spent three years with Jesus, during which time Jesus provided for his needs and the needs of the other disciples. The disciples had followed Jesus as He travelled around healing the sick, raising the dead, and teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God. They had been fed by Him miraculously, and they had been fed by the many people who showed hospitality to Jesus, inviting Him, and thus also His disciples, into their homes.
Jesus was no longer visibly with them as He had been. He had risen from the dead and had appeared to them twice, but He wasn’t with them so that they could see Him. He wasn’t walking around with them teaching them.
The disciples must have questioned if Jesus would still provide for them. If Jesus wouldn’t be around to miraculously provide food, would they now go hungry? If Jesus wasn’t around visibly to get invited into homes, would people still invite the disciples into their homes? Would Jesus in fact be with them at all, since they couldn’t see Him?
Earlier, when Jesus had made His twelve disciples into apostles, He sent them out saying, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart.” (Luke 9:3-4) Jesus promised His apostles that He would take care of them through the people to whom they preached. Later, Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They answered, “Nothing.” (Luke 22:35) They had no needs for which Jesus did not provide. Even though they had nothing with them, Jesus took care of them through His people.
However, then Jesus said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36) So was this the new situation for the disciples now? Did they now have to take care of themselves and fend for themselves?
Well, they tried taking care of themselves. They went fishing. Not just for recreation and enjoyment, but to provide food for themselves and their families.
They spent the whole night out on the Sea of Tiberias, thus it is clear it was not just fishing for fun. They had been professional fishermen before Jesus called them to follow Him. They knew the best places to fish, the best methods to fish, and the best times to fish. But they caught nothing. Despite their best efforts, they had nothing to show for it. They were unable to take care of themselves.
Following Jesus’ Word, however, the disciples had a miraculous catch of fish. They caught so many large fish simply from throwing their net into the water that they counted the fish and recorded it for us to read. They caught 153 large fish, all because of Jesus’ powerful Word.
This event is not about catching fish, however. It’s not Jesus teaching the disciples how to be better fishermen or showing them where the fish are. It’s about Jesus continuing to provide for the needs of His people, even if they cannot see Him. Recall, the disciples did not know it was Jesus when He called out to them from the shore. They didn’t realize it was Him until after their big catch of large fish.
When the disciples got to shore, they saw that Jesus already had a charcoal fire going with fish on it and some bread. Whether Jesus provided this miraculously or not is an interesting question to which we don’t have an answer, but the point is that God does provide.
God takes care of spiritual needs first and foremost, but He also provides us all that we need to support this body and life. Sometimes it is hard to see. When doubts arise and suffering comes; when needs arise that we can’t see how to fulfil, we may well wonder if we will go hungry. We may well wonder if Jesus is with us at all since we can’t see Him.
As surely as Jesus was with His apostles even though they couldn’t see Him, so He is with us. As surely as Jesus provided for the needs of the apostles, so He has and will continue to provide for our needs. After all, Jesus has given us the same promise He gave to the apostles: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) He will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He has promised that as He provides even for the birds of the air, so He will provide all our needs, who are after all of greater value to Him than birds (Matt. 6:26).
Undoubtedly, with the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus was also teaching His apostles something more than just that He would continue to provide for their physical needs. Jesus had called them to be fishers of men. Jesus had sent them to baptize, preach His Word, and forgive sins. But not everyone wants to be baptized. Not everyone wants to hear God’s Word. Not everyone thinks they have sins that need to be forgiven. This can lead to the temptation to change tactics to increase success.
Preaching is in some ways like fishing. Sometimes a preacher may fish all night and catch nothing. He might be tempted to change His fishing strategy – maybe a bigger net will do the trick; maybe a bigger boat will do the trick; maybe some new lures will do the trick.
Maybe he’ll add more razzle dazzle to Sunday mornings. Get rid of the liturgy and the liturgist and get some entertainment. Get some catchy beats and a great big screen. Put some singers up front and have a version of American Idol – that’ll bring in the crowds. Don’t preach the Law that kills or the Gospel that makes alive, instead talk about things that make people feel good about themselves – that’s what people really want to hear.
But this is all wrong. The focus with all of this is on us and what we do. It completely ignores the power of Christ’s Word. It completely ignores the effectiveness of the sacraments. It completely ignores the mandate of Christ, which is to baptize and teach all that He has commanded (Matt. 28:20).
We don’t need attractions or razzle dazzle to draw people into the church. The power is in the Word of God and the sacraments. We don’t need to move away from God’s Word, we need to cling to it more.
Sometimes to us, God’s Word and sacraments might not feel so powerful. There are many congregations that are shrinking and have plummeting attendance. Some are closing. All are struggling in one way or another.
But it is Christ’s Word which fills the net. It is the Holy Spirit who calls and gathers people into the church by giving faith to believe that Jesus died for their sins. If there is to be any growth in the church, it must be given by God (I Cor. 3:6-7).
If hearers don’t want to be baptized, don’t want to hear God’s Word, and don’t think they need forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that preachers should stop preaching these things. Scripture tells us that a time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (II Tim. 4:3-4). This does not mean that the church should turn away from God’s Word and start teaching myths because that’s what people want to hear. The church should continue to preach Christ crucified, because that is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16)
The miraculous catch of fish was to teach the disciples that it is the Word of God that has power. Jesus taught the disciples that He would provide for all of their physical needs, but even more that as they would go fishing for men, it would be His Word that brings people into the net of the church.
This same lesson is for us. God will provide for our physical needs, and He will also provide for our spiritual needs. Let us not despair if people don’t want to hear God’s Word or if they reject it. Let us not be gloomy if our church attendance is down while people flock to places where they can hear what their itching ears want to hear. But let us cling to God’s Word and His sacraments. They are our only hope for salvation. Even if we’ve fished all night and caught nothing, at Jesus Word, we will drop the net on the right side of the boat, and let His Word catch what it will. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.