The Res. Community (Pt. 3): Success and The Famous Catch of John 21

This is the third part in a five-part series looking at the final resurrection appearances of Jesus in the book of John.
The text this morning is the first part of John 21.


There’s a lot of silliness in this passage.
It would be easy to write a farce on this passage:

  • Not knowing what else to do, what does this group of men do? Go fishing.
  • Fishing Naked?
  • What’s all this about the last super, what about “The Last Breakfast!”
  • Etc.

One thing I keep going to where the numbers in the passage and then I remembered a passage in the book the River Why by David James Duncan:

–{Read David James Duncan’s piece p.14-15}

My attention is initially drawn to the abundance and the numbers. Then I got to thinking about why this is and it seems that the reason is because this is how we understand a “community” or business, etc. to be successful.



What are some of the ways that our contemporary world defines success?

  • Success: “having attained wealth, position, honors, or the like.”
  • Fortune 500
  • What about in school? (College, it’s not the grade that matters, blah, blah)
  • What about at work? Family?

And what about in the church? Has it ever crept into the church?

  • Numbers focus
  • Church growth methods and measurements
  • Budgets, advertising, technology, building campaigns, you name it.

A lot of it comes from passages like John 21. Or a better way to put it, some have read John 21 in a way that underwrites Western ideas about success. So it’s not that this is what the Bible is saying so much as what we are importing into the Bible and making it say.

And we all have experience of where the numbers really are important.

The independent bookstore where I worked for about four years has been sold to a another company. Which raises the question about how we measure success in today’s world. This place where I worked was an incredible place to work. The staff was amazing, our bosses were great to work for, they struggled to deal with the change in the publishing and book-selling industry the way most have but they were seeking creative alternatives and trying to find ways to remain viable and then their owner goes and sells it to a franchise and lays everyone off. Maybe this is ultimately what had to happen? Maybe it really is just a bottom line thing, but I know some of the questions were around, are there other ways to measure success and the value of something like this in our community?  Some of you know what it’s like to be on the losing end of this kind of “the bottom line” philosophy too?

That’s the business world, but what about the church? How do we measure our success? Do we approach the way we approach a fortune 500? An Indie bookstore? Or are finding ways to rethink what it means for us to be successful as a community? And what about passages like this that  have been used to perpetuate some of these ideas?

[Trans] If we look at the fish and the counting of the fish as the main point then I think we’ve started too late in the story.

_gone fishing

If we are looking for what we can learn from these post-resurrection accounts of Jesus and what they tell us about being a “resurrection community” then turning the focus to Peter and the other 6 disciples is helpful. We see that after seeing Jesus revealed twice indoors: one where the doors were locked, the other where the doors were just shut. Now, following this progression, they are outside, back in Galilee a central location where Jesus did a number of signs: It is near where he performed the first miracle in Cana and  turned the water into wine, This is the same lake where Jesus walked on water and where, in Jn 6, he feed 5,000 with fish and bread.

The story tells us that Peter, like most men when not really sure what else to do makes up his mind and says “I am going fishing.” And his ol’ fishing buddies think this is the best idea he’s had in the last few weeks. And so they get up really early, or maybe they start out really late, but either way it begins in the dark. And as with my limited experience of fishing they “caught nothing.” My guess is that this is pretty normal: What’s the stat? 30 hours per bite? And we say we have a hard time sitting in quietly in open worship for 15 mins?

Now I can’t speak to some of the other pieces of this story. Why Peter enjoyed fishing naked is puzzling, but I am sure he wasn’t the first, nor the last man to fish in his birthday suite. Maybe he was working on a tan? But it’s pretty clear that he threw on some clothes before jumping in the river to swim to Jesus, because like most of us, he would have been embarrassed for Jesus to see what he was doing.

Going back to the “I’m fishing:” there are few ways to read Peter’s statement.

1. First, we could take it as a kind of metaphor. He’s gone out into the darkness, with the help of his friends, and is sharing the gospel, hoping to catch a few “fish” and bring them in. It could be read positively as Peter and the disciples engaging in mission or more critically as trying to get it right but still kind of bumbling around trying to, with little direction, build something successful.

I’ve heard a few preachers in my day talk about this text this way in terms of “evangelistic methods,” we got to go throw the net and catch people but it neglects the fact of this story — before Jesus appears they catch nothing! We can use all manner of methods, strategies and techniques but until Jesus shows up, we’re just fishing on a quiet, dark lake, and catching nothing.

2. Another way we could read this is that Peter returns to his old way of life. He turns back because he (and the others) still don’t understand what it is they are supposed to do. They’ve been instructed to go be a non-anxious presence in the world, given the Holy Spirit, and called to be a group of finders and seekers, but beyond that they’re not really sure. So in a situation where they are unsure, they, like most human beings, go back to the familiar.

“[Peter’s] actions follow a typical human pattern—an intense spiritual experience soon fades, and one returns to the same things he or she has always done.” -Crouch

3. I think both of these readings work. But, with this question about what does it mean to be a successful res. community in mind, I think there’s another way we can read this passage.

We could read this story as Peter and the disciples not going out to catch people (#1), or to catch fish (#2), but instead to catch God. Remember how I said that this is the location where Jesus revealed himself and his teachings in some very powerful ways (wine, walk on water, bread and fish). Here’s something I learned this week that’s I think is interesting. The word for “caught” is really better translated “arrest.” It’s the same word used 6 other times in the Gospel of John all in reference to people trying to arrest or catch Jesus (7:30, 32, 44; 8:20; 10:39; 11:57). This is a highly unusual word choice and I really like it. It paints the disciples as going out in hopes of “trying to catch Jesus on the lake.” They went back to a familiar spot, where Jesus had done some pretty incredible things, and hoped to apprehend him once again.

[Do you have a familiar place like that? A place you can go to hear God? God stories?]

In other words, This is a first century version of a silent meeting for worship on a fishing boat. More directly, the resurrection community is to be a listening community.

The darkness of the water is very much like the silence that we experience when we worship in open worship together. Or the silence of God we sometimes feel in times in our lives. Sometimes it seems like we’re catching nothing. Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing there at all.  The dark brooding waters are a great image for this.

That’s what this story is saying: there are moments of utter silence, doubt, and uncertainty. And so they go back to a familiar place trying to catch God.

But notice what also happens. Just after they come to terms with the fact that they’ve caught nothing, once they’ve come to terms with their own sense of inadequacy and what they lack, the background shifts. The sun starts to come up, just as on Easter morning, and Jesus is standing on the beach. Often it is not until we can have ownership around these absences, doubts, questions and settle into the silence that we can begin to be aware of Jesus’ presence.

If success in the first reading is based in accumulating the fish or followers, the second reading is in sticking to the familiar, staying safe within the status quo, while the third shows that for the church true success is found in neither of these things but in listening and being faithful to Jesus when he speaks. In fact, it’s not really success we’re after at all, but rather a faithful-listening or holy obedience.


The story says that Jesus appears but they do not recognize him. Isn’t this crucial?
How often is Jesus present with us but goes unrecognized?

While Quakers talk a lot about listening and wanting to hear God my guess is that we all find this a little bit scary and even abstract.

  • How do we know when it is God who is speaking to us?
  • Do recognize beforehand and respond?
  • Do we respond and then later recognize? A combination?

Last week at our discernment conference we talked a lot about how we hear God in all kinds of ways. We typically think about God speaking to us audibly, but that is such a rare occasion for most of us. I know it is for me. I think I’ve heard what I took to be God’s audible voice just a time or two in my life (the first was when he told me that I was to become a pastor at 16 yrs old!). But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t speak to me, it just happens in more subtle ways nudges, images or stories that pop into my mind, sometimes a day-dream, often through other people, sometimes through scripture, sometimes in open worship. But all of these require disciplining ourselves to listen (in silence and chaos).

So sometimes we recognize and sometimes we don’t. But what is important, the meat of this passage, isn’t the fish fry, but rather is in this very subtle part of the story:

Read John 21:6 (cast it and they cast it).

It’s their listening in the darkness, to Jesus, even if somewhat unrecognizable, and their faithful-listening is the true success of this story.

  • It is their faithfulness-listening that leads to an abundant catch.
  • It is their faithfulness-listening that leads to their recognizing that it is Jesus.
  • It is their faithfulness-listening that leads to the contours of the mission of the church.
  • It is their faithfulness-listening that leads to a radically different understanding of success.

Success for the early church is in the patient listening and obedience to the voice that calls from the shore.

Listening is hard, but so is fishing. Anything worth catching is worth waiting for. And this for us has deeply practical and important implications. When we first start with the world’s we get something completely different, our goals and purpose get all tangled up. The great catch for the church is not people, or fish, but hearing and being faithful to the voice of God.

  • When everything begins in listening together as a community we keep God at the center. This has implications for:
    • How we do business together. How our committees discern together.
    • How we approach friendships, our intimate relationships, how we parent.
    • How we approach school.
    • How we do ministry with youth as much with adults.
    • How we approach work and difficult areas of conflict.

Faithful-listening, even in the middle of the a dark cold lake, going out and trying to catch Jesus, is the work of the church and it is hard work, but it is our work. It is what we are to do well at. Everything else will flow from that. We may not get the great fishing story at the beginning, but we will know that we have been faithful.

And this is the success and the famous catch of John 21, and what it means to be the resurrection community: It’s the listening and faithfulness to Jesus, even if sometimes unrecognizable, that will leave us with enough to do what we’ve been called to do.

Open Worship