Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

First Sunday After New Sunday (2nd Sunday After Easter)

Sermon / Homily on John 21:1-14

Learning to Fish In a New Place

by The Rev. Dr. John Killinger

Let me read a wonderful paragraph from the Gospel of John:

"Just as the day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, 'Children, have you any fish?' They answered him, 'No.' He said to them, 'Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.' So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord!' When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish." (John 21:4-8a)

That's gorgeous, isn't it? The common interpretation is that it is about the power and majesty of Christ after the resurrection. Here he is in Galilee, by the lake where he often walked and talked with the disciples. They have fished all night, unsuccessfully -- it was before radar -- when Jesus calls out and tells them to throw the net on the other side of the boat. They do it and hit a bonanza -- 153 fish, we are told later. Jerome, one of the early commentators, said that was because there were 153 known varieties of fish in the world at that time. And, as the net was not broken by all those fish -- the writer later makes a point of that as well -- we can only suppose that it was a symbolic picture of Jesus and his disciples drawing the entire world into the net of God's great purpose.

That's the common interpretation.

Now let me suggest an uncommon one, but one I believe to be no less true. I am encouraged to suggest it by the fact that the Gospel of John is a deeply spiritual book filled with symbolic stories and actions, and even, in places, with symbolic characters.

Let's begin with the lake itself, the place where they were fishing. Lakes, in both fairy tales and sacred legends, are strange and symbolic places. Because they are often deep and hold secrets that can't be discerned from the surface, they are the residences of mystery. In Jungian psychology, they often represent the unconscious, the realm of our dreams and fantasies.

There is something dreamlike about this scene, isn't there? Halfway between night and day, with the first hint of dawn spreading pencil-like along the horizon. Patches of mist and fog rising from the water. The gentle noise of waves slapping against the boat or dripping from the nets. The deep sighs of the fishermen, whose muscles ache from the toil of the fruitless night. And then the Divine Stranger, standing on the shore and halloing to them through the mist, telling them they will catch something if they will lower their nets on the other side of the boat, the right side.

They had been fishing on the left side. We know a lot about left and right now, don't we? The left side of the brain is the calculating, orderly side, the side that analyzes, does figures, gives names to things. The right side is the dreaming side, the creative, artistic side, the side that responds to pictures and images, such as the one we are thinking about here.

Jesus had dealt with a lot of left-brained people in the Gospel. They were the legalists, the ones who thought the world was constructed by an accountant and everything could be got down in black and white. Maybe Jesus was saying to the disciples here that they were not to be like accountants, always trying to take the measure of things, they were to live and act out of their right brains, as visionaries and artists. They were to trust God and live nobly, generously, without counting the cost or stopping to dot their i's and cross their t's. If they would do that, they would always find their nets full, they would live in the overflow of grace and excitement.

But suppose there is something even more personal in the text, something for each one of us, that goes beyond the more obvious and general meaning. That would be a legitimate use of it, wouldn't it? Bruno Bettelheim spoke of "the uses of enchantment" -- the way even fairy stories serve deep and important purposes in our lives by helping us to know ourselves and interpret the messages life reveals to us. What if the story of the lake and the fishermen suggests something to us about our own stories, about the way we may have been fishing a long time without any luck, without catching any fish?

Some of us have, haven't we?

Some of us have been plodding along in our jobs week after week, year after year, with no sense of reward no feeling that we are getting anywhere.

Or we have been coming up with nothing in our personal relationships.

Or maybe we haven't been getting any return on our spiritual efforts. We have been praying or going to church or listening to religious programs -- or maybe all of the above -- and nothing has been happening, our nets have been coming up empty.

You see what I mean.



Nothing in the nets.

And we are tired, the way these fishermen were tired after fishing all night. We are tired of life, tired of trying. Nothing ever seems to happen for us. It happens for everybody else, but not for us. Our lives are empty and unfulfilled.

Aha! "Cast your net on the right side of the boat," says Jesus, "and you will be surprised what happens to you."

How could it? you say. I mean, who knows more about your life than you do? Don't you know how to do your own fishing? Besides, how could there be any fish that close to your boat on the other side, anyway, when you've been fishing where you have for so many years?

But what if he's right? What if there's something tremendous and exciting down there merely waiting for you if you make a little adjustment in where you're letting down your nets, in how you conceive of your existence? What if it's only a matter of learning to fish in a new place?

What might that mean, in your life?

Maybe a new job -- or a new way of doing the old one, a redefining of your position, a re-envisioning of its contours. Maybe a new relationship -- or some fresh ways of acting within the old ones, so that they get injected with passion again and you begin to laugh and sing and skip and look forward to being with the people in your life. Maybe a new church or synagogue -- or a different approach to spiritual life in the old one, so that everything looks different and throbs with beauty and meaning and vitality again.

I'm not saying which it ought to be, the new or the old. What I'm saying is that life, the lake, the unconscious, is filled with possibilities, that it is rich beyond all imagining, that God wants us to enjoy it, to revel in it, to be excited about it, as if it were Disneyland and the fireworks were going off all around us all the time. We weren't meant to go stale, to settle into mere routine, to lose the mystery and glamour and excitement of existence. And if we have gone stale and settled for less than the fireworks, then it is time we heard the Master calling from the edge of the lake, from the edge of our unconscious, and telling us to let the nets down in a new place.

I think of some friends who have heard this word and acted on it.

There's Jody, a lawyer friend in Los Angeles, who was so bored with her life as an attorney that one day she finally quit. When her savings were about to run out, she met a man who owned a puppet factory. He asked her if she would like to work for him. She tried it and was extremely happy. "At least now I know who the real puppets are," she said.

There's Steve, a minister friend who was burned out in the pastorate. Unable to go on as a minister, he became a stockbroker. I watched as his spirit returned. Now he ministers to people all over the country as they phone in to talk about their stocks. "There isn't much of a line," he says, "between people's pocketbooks and their souls." Steve is happy and feels worthwhile again.

Or there are Fred and Diane, a couple in mid-life who came to their pastor and said they wanted to get a divorce. She asked them why. "Because the kids are grown and we don't have anything together any more," they said. Their pastor was a wise and discerning woman. She helped them to see that the reason they didn't have anything was that they didn't know each other any more. She taught them to listen to one another and rediscover the mystery and intrigue in one another. To fish in a new place with one another. Six months later, they were off to Europe on a second honeymoon.

You see what I mean. The lake is deep. It has far richer resources than we usually imagine. It is never completely fished out, not for any of us. We only need to learn to readjust, to let our nets down in a new area, to rediscover the riches.

And when we do -- this is the point of the story from the Gospel -- when we do, when we pull up our nets full of fish again, then we suddenly realize the presence of the divine in our lives. Did you see that? It is after the fishermen let down their nets on the right side and pull them in teeming with fish -- wiggling and writhing with fish -- that they suddenly recognize Christ on the shore and realize there is a connection between him and what has happened. "It is the Lord!" exclaims young John. And then they can't wait to get to shore and visit with him.

I have watched it for a long time. This is the way real religion always works. It isn't something you generate inside yourself. It occurs whenever your nets, that have been empty, begin to come up full again; when life that was hard and narrow and grudging begins to be free and open and happy again. Then, like Peter in the story, you can't even wait for the boat to get to shore; you want to jump in and rush up to Christ and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Or, in the words of Celia, in Shakespeare's As You Like It, you say, "Oh, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and, after that, out of all whooping!"

About the Author:

The Rev. Dr. John Killinger has had a distinguished career in ministry as a pastor, seminary professor and prolific author. He's the author of over 50 books on preaching, worship, and other topics, including several novels with strong religious themes.

See Also:

Sermon of the Week for the Second Sunday After Easter
by Rev. Dr. V. Kurian Thomas, Valiyaparambil

From Augustine's Tractates on John: Tractate 122

Happy to Find a Fall Guy
by Hubert Beck

The Scapegoat: Sermon on John 21:1-19
by Prof. Dr. David Zersen

Sermons and Commentaries for the First Sunday after New Sunday

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