Goin' Fish'n

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“Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3, ESV).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, serving a congregation in the land of 10,000 lakes: there are a lot of men, women, and children in this congregation who love to fish. From Elaine Rieck and Clarence Graphenteen down to Lucas Brockberg and Abbott Moeller, and a whole lot more of you in between, we have (pardon the pun) a boatload of avid fishermen and women. And each of them has stories to tell of successful fishing trips and “the big one that got away.” Elaine tells me about going down to the creek fishing for bullheads after milking cows. Lucas is proud to show off the walleye he caught ice fishing, and will tell you that you won’t catch anything with baby shad. Fishermen do what comes naturally. Fishermen love to tell their stories. And fishermen fish—every chance they get.
That’s what our text this morning is about. It’s about what fishermen do. Fishermen love to tell their stories. And fishermen fish—whenever they have a chance. And that’s what we find Jesus’ disciples doing. We’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first let’s put it all in the proper historical and textual context.
Last week in the Gospel the Easter story seemed to reach a perfect ending. Jesus appeared to His disciples—first without, then with, Thomas. He gave them the peace of forgiveness of all sins, the faith to believe it, and the power to forgive and retain sins in His name. They’ve now seen Jesus. They know He’s alive. Even Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as his God and Lord. And there’s been that wonderful word of Jesus to all future generations: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
In last week’s text, John even wrote what seemed to be the perfect ending for his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). Perfect conclusion, end of story.
But then, curiously enough, there’s one more chapter in John’s Gospel, our text for today. The disciples seem to be asking themselves, “What are we going to do now?” “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We’ll go with you.’ (John 21:3a).
Peter’s a fisherman. That’s what he does, or at least that’s what he had done all of his life until Jesus called him as a disciple a little over three years earlier. Along with his partners, Peter had fished in the Sea of Galilee. Now he and the other disciples have returned to the sea because of the risen Jesus’ command to the women (Matthew 28:10). They’re waiting for Jesus to appear as He promised. And since Peter and the other disciples don’t know what His next instructions for them will be, they do what comes naturally. Fishermen fish—every chance they get. I’ve heard fishermen say, “I’d rather fish than eat.” Besides, it’s against Peter’s nature just to sit. He always wants to be doing something.
You know what happens next. “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as the day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore, yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
“Jesus said to them, ‘[Guys], do you have any fish?’ 
“They answered, ‘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, because of the quantity of fish” (John 21:3b-6).
This happened once before. Remember? Early in His ministry, the disciples had fished all night and got skunked. But Jesus worked a miracle, and they caught more than they could handle. Last time, though, Peter reacted very differently than he does this time. Here’s now: “That disciple whom Jesus loved (that’s John) said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off” (John 21:7-8).
Remember what Peter did the last time Jesus enabled the disciples to make a great catch? He said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). That was the natural reaction of a man who had not yet seen the cross, one who had not experienced Jesus’ forgiveness in the shadow of that cross. Without the forgiveness of the cross, we could never be in God’s presence. In fact, we wouldn’t want to be; for by nature, we’re enemies of God. Our sin could not exist in the presence of God’s holiness.
How different it is this time! Peter jumps into the water. He can’t wait to be near Jesus. This is the natural reaction of those who have believed in the cross and resurrection. See, by this time, Easter has happened. Believing in the crucified and risen Christ creates a completely new nature. Now inside is a person who knows he’s forgiven, loved by God. The new person inside knows he’s going to be with God forever in heaven—and he can’t wait to be with Him. And because he believes that, there’s this whole new nature that’s eager to do something for Christ.
So what’s he going to do? (Pause) What comes naturally. Do you recall the point of the story the last time Jesus enabled the disciples to catch all those fish? “From now on,” Jesus said, “you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). Literally, “you will become a fisher of men.” Do you suppose the disciples thought back to that this time? Do you suppose we’re supposed to think of it?
This is, it seems, why the Holy Spirit inspired John to add chapter 21 to his Gospel, why he records this particular miracle. It’s not just another resurrection appearance of Jesus. It’s an intentional reminder of what naturally follows after people have seen the risen Christ, believed in Him, and have been empowered by Him to forgive sins and share His message of love and life.
And notice how John is doing it. Not by an imperative, a command: “You go do this!” But just by a subtle, yet revealing, story of a fishing trip. John knows we want to go and be fishers of men. We want to tell the story of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, with our old sinful nature drowned and our new Christ-like nature raised to life, it’s what we naturally want to do. Christians just have this natural desire to make new Christians. We have tasted the joy of Easter. We have seen that our sins are forgiven. We have the certainty of eternal life. And now we just naturally want everybody in the world to have these same things.
Now it’s against our new nature to sit and do nothing. When we do nothing—and we often do nothing—we’re listening to the old sinful nature that remains inside us. But the new man or woman in us can’t wait to share. Fishermen fish. Christians want to make new Christians…don’t we?
Now, of course, it’s not as if Christian men and Christian women, Christian boys and Christian girls, necessarily sit down and decide just how many new Christians they want to make or when they want to do it. It’s not necessarily something they plan. Just whatever God has in mind.
Jesus is the one who plans and makes all this happen. The best-laid plans of men are meaningless. Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” but all night they catch nothing. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Without Jesus, all our fishing for men is just as fruitless. But then Jesus says, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” and things go very well. Jesus is the one who catches fish.
In fact, Jesus does everything. “When [the disciples] got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread” (John 21:9). “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’” (John 21:12). “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish” (John 21:13). Jesus feeds and equips us to do what the believer in us naturally wants to do.
And with Jesus providing the power, fishermen catch fish, new Christians get made: “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn” (John 21:11). That’s a lot of fish—but maybe there’s more to it than that. From the earliest years after John’s Gospel was written, commentators have wondered why the Holy Spirit inspired John to record the exact number of fish. Greek zoologists of the first century believed that there were 153 kinds of fish in the seas.
Could it be that John is reminding us that we are to go out in the world with the saving Gospel to bring all nations into God’s net? Could it be that John wants us to remember that God’s wants everyone to be a part of that great multitude pictured in Revelation 7: that no one could number from every nation, tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne, wearing the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, waving palm branches in victory, praising and giving glory to God? Could it be the fact that the net wasn’t torn is perhaps a reminder that none of those God has chosen for salvation will get away. None will be missed.
Whatever the reason for these details, it’s clear that the disciples didn’t plan to catch exactly 153 fish. (Remember: they couldn’t even catch one fish on their own!) And as fishers of men, planning how many “fish” we’re going to catch isn’t something we need to worry about either. We just go about our business—fishing because we’re fishers of men, sharing Christ just because we’re Christians, people who ourselves are loved, forgiven, going to heaven—doing what come naturally. We’ll leave the results in the hands of the Lord.
Every Christian does this naturally. New Christians aren’t made by brilliant ingenuity and slick evangelism programs. New Christians aren’t made by how well the pastor entertains us or how much the songs stir our emotions. No, new Christians just naturally happen as we seize the opportunities that God presents to us to share the story of Jesus and His love.
We have friends and neighbors who come and tell us they’re hurting with whom we can share the good news of Easter. We can testify to Christ by the way we just naturally go about life, being nurses and store clerks, students and electricians, kids, moms, and dads, farmers and retirees. We may not consider ourselves fishers of men, but as Christians we all are—naturally.
As a pastor I get lots of chances to tell people about Jesus. But the four cases where I actually know God let me have a hand in making new Christians, were the easiest, the most natural: when Aimee and I brought Jessi and Katie and Logan and Marissa to be baptized. We did essentially nothing, I wasn’t even a pastor yet, so I didn’t even do the baptizing; but through the water and His Word, Jesus made four new believers. And as they continued in that Word, they’ve grown in their faith and have shared it with their friends and acquaintances as well. And now they have their own children to be baptized and tell the story of Jesus and His love. See, for all of us who’ve experienced and believed in Easter, making new Christians comes quite naturally. Jesus does all the work, even as you go about your daily vocations.
So, by God’s grace, may you use the opportunities God places in your path to share the wonderful story of Jesus and His love. May you all be fishers of men, willing to cast out Christ’s Gospel net into the mission field here and abroad, with your own personal confession of faith, with your prayers and financial support to pastors and missionaries. May you all be doing what come naturally—living in the grace of God, knowing that for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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