Text: John 21:1-19
John’s gospel does not end once, but twice. In the first ending, Jesus came to his disciples as they cowered behind locked doors. He breathed new life into them and sent them forth in his name. He gave them peace. John made it sound like the end, but it was not the end, or at least not the only end, because in the 21st chapter we have another story about Jesus and his disciples, the second ending of John’s gospel. Barbara Brown Taylor writes of John’s second ending,
“If it is all a little confusing, it is hard to blame John, because everyone knows how hard it is to come to an end. You think you have said something, and then you think of something else, something too important to leave out. ‘P.S.,’ you write at the bottom of the page, and maybe a ‘P.P.S.’ after that, because it is hard to stop, hard to fold the letter and lick the stamp and call it done.”
It seems that John was having a hard time folding the letter and licking the stamp. There was more he wanted to say—something important—and so he tells another story.
The story he tells happens sometime after the first Easter; no one knows when exactly, but long enough for the disciples to have left Jerusalem and make the long journey back to Galilee. Galilee was home for them. It was the place where everything had begun for them, which made it the natural place to return once it seemed that everything had come to an end. There were seven of them, John says, which means that they were already coming apart at the seams, some of them going one direction while the others went another. These seven decide to go fishing, and that makes a lot of sense. It was their occupation—or was, before Jesus showed up. These seven did not fish for pleasure; they fished for a living. So their decision was a decision to return to their former life, to go back to the only thing they knew how to do without Jesus. For each of them, Jesus was gone, and it was time to start looking after themselves again, so they went back to their old way of life.
Most of us, no matter how young or old, know what it is like to get stuck in old assumptions and tired expectations of God, church, jobs, friends, those people in our lives who matter the most to us, ourselves, and even life itself. We know the pain of old expectations and assumptions that we make about who others are and who we might become and how life is supposed to be. We get stuck fishing in familiar places and catching nothing when we script the future to be just like the past. It seems to be human nature that when life’s disappointments and frustrations and challenges come our way we are most tempted to return to the familiar—to old assumptions and patterns of being and relating to ourselves, to others, and to God. We cast our nets in the same places only to realize once again the emptiness of those places.
John’s second ending reminds us to stop fishing over the same side of the boat where there are obviously no fish. After all night—or a lifetime of nothing—Jesus says, “try the other side.” Throw your net over the other side of the boat. There are plenty of fish waiting once you give up fishing where you have proven beyond much doubt there are no fish. Stop looking over your shoulder, let go of what you are certain God must be or do, and see the other side. Look in the places you have ignored or feared. Listen to that voice that has been nagging you—the one that won’t go away no matter how hard you try to make it go away. Let go of what is comfortable and secure and trust your heart and passion. Put aside the shoulds and oughts and have-tos for that thing that makes your heart leap with joy. There is the possibility that if you cast your net on the other side you will find the abundance you are hoping and longing for in your life.
John’s second ending also reminds us that fishing on the other side requires much of us. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter responded, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Then tend my sheep,” Jesus says. I asked the Wednesday lectionary lunch group this week why they thought Jesus asked Peter this question three times; and why when he asked the first time did he add, “Do you love me more than these?” There was a feeling within the group that what Jesus was emphasizing, both in how he asked the question and in the number of times that he asked the question, that he was saying, “I’m going to ask a lot of you.” And indeed, to answer, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” much is required of us.
At the heart of John’s second ending is the call to discipleship. To love Jesus is to shape one’s life according to Jesus’ life: the words of love must be matched by a life of love. When Peter three times answers, “Yes, I love you,” he is not simply giving lip service to his love for Jesus, but is in essence pledging his life to love others as Christ loves. It is not an easy task—to shape our lives according to Jesus’ life—but it is the call to living a life of faith. But what does that really mean—to shape our lives according to Jesus’ life? I think the meaning is found back at the beginning of this story: it is in the call to cast our nets on the other side of the boat.
We don’t know why it is that these experienced fishermen continued to cast their nets on the same side of the boat when their nets kept coming up empty. What we do know is that they repeated a behavior that was keeping them from getting what they desired. Our path to follow Christ is not always a certain one. There is no owner’s manual or guide. All along the way, we have to discern where we feel God’s spirit leading us. No one can do that work for us. It seems that this story is telling us that in that process of discernment the familiar, and maybe even the conventional, are not necessarily to be trusted or followed. It seems that this story is telling us to risk the unfamiliar; to step out of our places of comfort and security; to have the courage to take a different path; to let go of doing something the same way just because we’ve always done it that way. Or in Jesus’ words, casting our nets on the other side means to love one’s enemies; to pray for those who persecute you; to forgive seventy times seven; to let go of tomorrow’s worries; and ultimately to tend to one another—to care for the poor and the marginalized, to welcome the stranger, to extend grace and compassion to those who are hurting.
John comes full circle with his second ending. If we go back to the beginning of John’s gospel, in the 43rd verse of the very first chapter, we read, “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” John ends his second story with those same words, “After this he said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’” It is the beginning and the ending of John’s gospel and it may very well be the hardest thing that Jesus has ever asked of us: “Follow me.” And yet, while it may be the hardest thing Jesus ever said to us, it can also be the most liberating and exciting invitation ever extended to us. Follow me. Cast your nets on the other side. Step outside the familiar, the expected, the conventional. Set aside those old patterns of behavior that keep you feeling empty inside and try something new and different. And just maybe, if you accept Jesus’ invitation to “follow me,” you will find something wiggling in your net where there was nothing just a moment before. It may be a little or it may be a lot, but this I am sure of: it will be alive—a living thing where there was nothing but emptiness before. That is the hope we discover when we respond to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me.” We find life and fullness of life. I am convinced that when we dare to risk casting our nets on the other side of the boat—when we follow Jesus, his way, and his teaching—what we discover is an abundance of that which sustains us.
If your net is empty, try casting it on the other side of the boat!