During my junior year in high school, I had a summer job at a bait camp in Galveston. I worked the overnight shift in the icehouse, which suited me very well. I loved hefting the 100-pound blocks of ice; an excellent job for a football player, cutting them down to smaller blocks of ice and running them through the crushing machine as needed. About three weeks into my job, I was informed that I could crew on the owner’s shrimp boat when he went out to catch bait shrimp. I jumped at the chance to be out on Galveston Bay on a boat. My job on the boat was to sort the shrimp caught into a holding tank, and we tossed everything else back into the bay.
I loved seeing the multitude of ocean life brought up by the nets, but that ended as my downfall. The captain complained that I took too much time sorting because I was paying so much attention to all the other creatures brought up on the boat’s deck. It was back to the icehouse for me, but I was thankful for the opportunity to see so many different fish and crustaceans living in Galveston Bay.
Our Gospel today is an epilogue to the Gospel of John that finds Peter and the six other disciples on the shore of the Lake of Tiberius. It’s not clear why they were there, but it must’ve been near sunset, and a boat was there. Peter declared that he was going fishing, so everyone jumped in the boat and dropped their nets, and fished all night.
Morning came, and still no fish when Jesus called to them from the shore, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ Jesus instructs them to drop their nets on the right side of the boat, and they will catch fish and catch fish; they did! The beloved disciple immediately recognized Jesus when he called out to them, “Children.” Peter became so excited that he put on his tunic, jumped into the water, and swam to shore to Jesus. The other disciples brought the boat in without pulling the nets into the boat but dragged the net full of fish onto the shore. Jesus had roasted some fish on a charcoal fire and bid them to bring over more fish so they could have breakfast together.
If this story sounds familiar, it should because there is a very similar story in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, it is at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the calling of his disciples. In today’s gospel reading from John. It is from the beginning of the disciple’s apostolic ministry.
Years ago, I attended a Bible study on this fishing miracle at my half-brother’s Pentecostal Church. One older man at the discussion told the group that he was a professional fisher, and when discussing bringing in the catch by the disciples, he stated that you don’t keep all that are in the net. You throw fish back for which you have no use. I knew he was right about commercial fishing. I learned from my short time on the shrimp boat.
There is a special significance in the disciples’ hauling the net ashore. The same Greek verb is used at several points in the Gospel, which speak of people being drawn to Jesus, particularly in his prophecy, ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. In Johannine thinking, the resurrection is part of the process of Jesus being ‘lifted’ to the Creator, taking humanity with him. In this story, the risen Christ is beginning to accomplish that prophecy of ‘drawing all to himself through the apostolic ministry, symbolized in the catch of fish and the hauling ashore. The emphasis that the net was not torn strongly suggests that the net stands for the Church, holding such a huge diversity of people in unity. The imagery and the meaning are the same as those of the seamless and untorn garment of Jesus in John’s passion narrative – in both cases, the verbs meaning ‘tear’ imply ‘without schism.’
The Church exists to include ‘good’ and ‘bad’ alike. None are useless are rejected fish. Judgment will come later and will be for God, not us – when we will no doubt find that Jesus’ criteria are considerably different from ours. The Church is not a sanctuary for the perfect – or those who imagine themselves to be so. It is a free hospital for wounded and joyful sinners who are in the lifetime process of being healed. When it finds the humility to see itself that way, it will instantly become infinitely more attractive, as Christ was attractive – by drawing to him all those on the outside who feel ‘unqualified’ to come in, true evangelism.
Evangelism has long had a bad press. The very word has come to suggest for many people the stereotypical mass-evangelist who engineers conversions by intimidation and emotional manipulation, often for financial and always for egotistical gain. The word ‘mission,’ which, despite its broader meaning of social and verbal outreach, is tainted by suggestions of colonialism and condescension and carries with it the feel of a sermon for food ‘mission-hall.’ In our time, greater awareness of other religions has led to an increased embarrassment about the very concept of pushing one’s own. In a plural society proselytizing becomes undesirable, even dangerous, and there is plenty of evidence of the misery caused by religious differences and rivalries. The truth is, one can only ever say ‘share my God, my beliefs, my ethics, my culture’ from the conviction that these are in some way or to some degree superior to the other person’s. So the very act of evangelism, however sensitively approached, may easily be perceived as a judgment, a put-down, or a downright insult. To some, the image of ‘netting’ and ‘catching’ people hardly helps. It suggests entrapment – and what is the purpose of catching fish if not to devour them? Many who were once converted by the more manipulative kinds of evangelism have felt trapped in a psychological straitjacket that repressed their freedom and personality; Some later found it extremely hard to free themselves – usually abandoning the Christian faith altogether.
Yet the command stands, ‘Make disciples of all nations. Christians are still fishers of people, but how to avoid so many negative, sometimes repellent ways of doing it? John’s image of the victorious Christ ‘drawing all people to himself is a happier image for the Church’s outreach than that of catching them in a net. It is an image of free attraction and inclusion rather than one of entrapment and coercion. It is also a reminder that mission is first the work of Christ himself; the Church can only ever be a partner in it, and only then insofar as its methods reflect Christ’s. The aspect of inclusion is crucial, and it is directly connected to the attraction. So many miracle stories focus on Jesus’ will to embrace and include all the categories of the excluded. The very people Christ calls children. Amen.