A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

“It Is The Lord!” (Sermon on John 21)

Here’s the video and written text of a sermon I preached at my home church on April 22, 2024.

Because the written text was originally a script for oral delivery, it has more hard returns than necessary, and even / a few slashes / that I dropped in to make sure I didn’t run words or phrases together in way that might / confuse the ear of the listener.

I. The Story After the Stories

We’re focusing this morning on a very special story from the last chapter of the Gospel of John.
Its nickname is “The Miraculous Catch/ of Fish,” or sometimes, “The Second Miraculous Catch/ of Fish,” because there was a previous one (Luke 5), but this story takes place after Christ has risen from the dead. And that changes everything.

I believe it must be the final recorded miracle of Jesus. It’s a very interesting story, so turn on over there if you’d like, to John 21.

It’s kind of a bonus story, in some ways. What I mean is, look at how John Chapter 20 ends. Those last two verses of that previous chapter say:

30“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31 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)

That is a powerful ending for a gospel.

It lets you know that there are so many other stories he could have told, but that John chose exactly the ones he wanted you to hear, and that those are plenty: Enough of exactly the right stories/ to enable you to believe Jesus, to trust him, and be saved. John really knows how to end a gospel.

But then he doesn’t stop after all. He gives us another story: “After this, Jesus revealed himself again.” (21:1) It’s as if the gospel of John got a standing ovation and then came back onstage for an encore.
He sticks the landing / and gives us another somersault.

Or, if you’ve ever had the sacred task of putting kids to bed, it’s like when you’ve perfectly rounded off the bedtime stories and prayers, and the dear little/ already-tucked-in young ones/ late in the evening / speak the magic words: “Just one more story. Pleeeeeeeeeaaaase?” I think we all know it’s a stalling tactic: You know it. They know it. And the best policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. But it’s like they say, at bedtime, every kid becomes a thirsty theologian. They need a sip of water, and they have sooo many questions to ask about God, life, the universe, and everything. Yes, it’s a stalling tactic, but such a sweet one.

And John’s extra story, his story after the stories, is likewise worth waiting for. Here it is: Remember that the resurrected Jesus has just appeared to his disciples twice indoors. So we pick up at John 21:

21 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, / Thomas (called the Twin), / Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, /
the sons of Zebedee, / and two others of his disciples /were together.

3 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.

4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.”
6 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.

7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore 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. 8 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.

9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 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. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” / They knew it was the Lord.

13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Well: It’s a story with a miracle in it, so that’s by definition the most attention-getting thing. From no fish to plenty of fish, immediately.

But you probably caught something going on that’s even stranger than the miracle, And that is the mystery:
Verse 4, they didn’t know it was Jesus.
Verse 7, the beloved disciple sees that “it is the Lord”
Verse 12, nobody dared ask who he was, because they knew.
What is going on here, / in this Story after the Stories, / on the shore of Sea of Tiberias?

Well, Jesus has risen from the dead, and the disciples know it, and he’s appeared to them a couple of times. But they’re not going back to the good old days of following him from town to town, And he’s not just hanging around with them and doing daily life together, But he also hasn’t yet ascended to heaven, or “returned to his Father.” We’re in a strange interim period, or in-between time, This stretch of 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension.

That’s probably why Peter’s big plan for what to do with his time is / to go fishing. Some interpreters think the disciples have given up on Jesus, and gone home to Galilee, and returned to their previous careers. So when Peter says, “I’m going fishing” they think it’s like he’s declaring that / his wild, disciple days are over and behind him. But I don’t think anything that dramatic is happening here; I think these seven guys were in an awkward waiting period, staying busy, keeping their heads down, earning money; you gotta eat.

I don’t know how much you’ve thought about these 40 days before the ascension. As we’re doing this 5-week series of sermons after Easter about the risen Jesus, we’re sort of soaking in those 40 days, before we start a series on the book of Acts. Once we get to Acts, of course, Jesus will ascend, be enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and pour out the Holy Spirit / to get the story of the Church and its mission properly started. Acts takes us right into the church age, to “the new normal” of Christ ascended and the Spirit poured out; the first 28 chapters of the dispensation we are still living in. In the book of Acts, Jesus will still be a character who shows up and takes action, But he always shows up “from heaven,” from above, from the throne at God’s right hand. Luke-and-then-Acts tells us that story of resurrection, ascension, enthronement, and Pentecost. John’s Gospel doesn’t: John intends to end the story with Jesus’ last deeds on earth, and then stop. So these vignettes he gives us from the 40 days carry all the weight;
he tells these stories of the risen Jesus in a way that lets us glimpse, somewhat symbolically, all the stuff Acts is going to spell out clearly in the ongoing story of the church. What we’re seeing in today’s story is how one beach breakfast is suffused or loaded with meaning.

On the other hand, sometimes the Bible explains this whole 40-day period another way, By skipping over the stories altogether, glossing the weeks right into each other, And just talking about one smooth movement of Jesus “from the grave to the skies.” Here’s what I mean: In Ephesians 1:20, Paul prays for us to understand God’s mighty power “which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named.”

Did you hear the 40 days in there? Nope.

Paul says “God raised him from the dead and seated him.” One almighty demonstration of power, raised from the dead and seated above, boom. Well, that is theologically true: The one mighty arc of the Father’s force lifted him all the way up; The resurrection energy working in Jesus took him from the grave to the throne, irresistibly. But if Luke tells all the stories, / and Paul tells none of the stories, We might consider John as a kind of middle position, telling us a select few stories Of what it was like to live in those weird 40 in-between days, And to tell it in a way / that hints to us / about what the “new normal” is going to be from now on.

Peter goes fishing. Disciples need hometowns, meal plans, gainful employment, laundry facilities, friend groups, transportation, and daily schedules. Business as usual.

II. “It Is The Lord”

And while they’re going about this business, Jesus manifests himself. Isn’t that interesting language? He reveals himself,/ manifests himself,/ makes himself known. Here’s what that means: Jesus has risen from the dead, and he is the Lord, He is so much the Lord that he is directly in charge of who sees him, and when, and how. You don’t just spot him, or run into him; it’s not up to you to catch sight of him.
He manifests himself, on purpose, whenever he wants to.

He decides. You have to open up your mind and lift up your thoughts to try to comprehend what it means for him to be not just the Son of God incarnate, but for him now to be the crucified and / resurrected one.

He’s absolutely Lord and sovereign of everything about his risen, embodied, human life: He is altogether active and dominant over every situation and circumstance. Things don’t happen to him; he happens to things. That sounds like one of those Chuck Norris jokes, but it’s no joke: “It is the Lord.”

You have to think a truly cosmic thought, and then put Jesus Christ the risen one above that. He’s the Lord. If you’ve said the word “Lord” 1,000 times, shake the dust off of it, and turn it over and over in your mind, and let your thoughts rotate around his exaltation, and revolve around his Lordship. That’s who the risen one is.

Now that we’ve all seen a couple dozen superhero movies, it’s so important for us not to dumb down the resurrected Jesus into some kind of Marvel Cinematic super-guy. He doesn’t just have “powers.” So when he manifests himself to his disciples, we’re not saying that he has an invisibility cloak, Or teleportation or superspeed or mass hypnosis or anything like that.

No, we have to set those merely “super” ideas aside, and avoid idle curiosity about how he does things,
and not mess ourselves up w/ideas about dimension-hopping, or planes of being or multiverses and simply recognize that the risen Jesus decides how he is going to be.

His manifesting himself is the key example here of his risen Lordship. Here’s a distant analogy: You and I can decide whether we speak or remain silent. It’s more or less up to us whether we use our voices to manifest what’s in our minds or not. In the case of the risen Lord, it’s entirely up to him whether he is heard or seen or recognized. Imagine that: Once I walk up here, it’s no longer up to me whether I am seen by you. I can try to be inconspicuous, or sort of hide. But not very effectively. I can’t help it. But the risen Jesus can help it. He has absolute, effortless control over his availability. Seven disciples who know him well / spot somebody on the seashore at sunrise, but even they don’t recognize him as Jesus. He is self-shown / and self-known / for reasons absolutely his own.

Another example of his risen Lordship is the state of his wounded, crucified body. Remember from the story about Thomas last week / that Jesus has nailprints in his hands and a kind of opening in his side that a disciple can put his hand into. Friends, those are not normal wounds! That’s not wound behavior.
When somebody puts a hole in your body, it either gets sealed up, or you die. But “the wounds that he shows neither heal nor fester.” (Jenson, ST I:200) They just are. But why are they? Why does he who could heal them / still have them? I think he intentionally maintains them as badges of his victory,
Not out of bitterness, but as tokens of continuity, to convince his dear disciples, even his doubting ones, that he is the one who went to the cross. The hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns” has those great lines:

“Crown him the Lord of love, behold his hands and side
Rich wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified”

A third example of his risen Lordship is his treatment of food. He’s not a ghost, so he can eat. But in the stories we have, he seems to eat mainly for the solidarity and fellowship of it. Peter and the boys went fishing because they had to eat. I’m not sure I can say that about the risen Jesus. I fear to say what he “had to” do. Imagine having opinions about the recommended daily calorie allowance of the risen Lord!
Imagine worrying about vitamins or, God forbid, supplements for the one who death could not hold!
I don’t want to say more than we know, but it would be wrong to speculate about what Jesus ate for these forty days. We don’t know where he stayed, or what he did, or if he slept, anything like that: we only know what he wants us to know. He ate when he had his own reasons to. In fact, in this story, he apparently even cooks:

9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place,
with fish laid out on it, and bread. … [and] 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
… 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.

Some of the medieval commentators on this passage pondered where the charcoal fire and the fish and bread came from. In some ways, the most common-sense answer is that Jesus got there before dawn,
Gathered wood, made a fire, cooked some fish and bread, and then called the disciples over. But a few interpreters thought, why would Jesus go to all that trouble When he could get angels to do it, Or just say, Let There Be Charcoal Fire And Fish, and POOF, it was so. Well, I’m on team fire-builder, but you have to admit, the idea of the risen Christ simply summoning an instant beach cookout is attention-getting.
He is, after all, Lord of the entire outing. He’s the host, providing the food, inviting the guests, and sharing out the fish.

By the way, did you notice that in a story whose dramatic centerpiece is a miraculous catch of 153 fish, Jesus apparently already somehow has his own fish? And yet he invites the disciples, “bring some of the fish you have just caught.” (I believe this is the biblical basis for the pot luck.) Could it be any more obvious that the risen Jesus is not coming to them for help, But already has all the fish he wants, and plenty for them, PLUS 153 miracle fish on top of that. One way you might put it is, Jesus doesn’t need your fish; or, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

III. How to Fish Miraculously Well

The set of disciples that Jesus gathered in Galilee were dominated by fishermen. Not sport fishermen, but commercial fishermen, who fished with nets from small boats in the middle-sized lake known as the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias: same lake.

When they went fishing, our text just tells us “that night they caught nothing.” It’s a mercifully short account of what must have been a miserably long night.

I don’t know what you do for a living, but have you ever worked at something for a whole night And ended up with nothing to show for it? Not even steady progress toward a distant goal, But just flat-out nothing?

As I ponder this story about the Lord manifesting himself to his disciples on the shore, I really think it matters that they were hard at work at their ordinary jobs. Now in the Bible, fishing may be symbolic of evangelism (“I will make you fishers of men”) Or of God’s kingdom (“the kingdom heaven is like a net thrown into the sea”), But first, and in this story in particular, fishing means fishing, a secular job we might say, And the disciples were literally bad at it, and Jesus was miraculously good at it.

I think this story has implications for the lives of Jesus’ disciples now, Including the vast majority whose paid work is not in the Christian world but in the world world. The risen Jesus knew where to fish, and when, and how, and one of the things happening in this story is that the risen Jesus showed up at the disciples’ secular workplace with advice, when they needed it. They listened to him and did better at their jobs: in this case, spectacularly so. From zero to 153 instantly.

Now I don’t want to be cheesy about this, but one application of this story is that Jesus cares about your work and understands your work better than you do. It would be tempting to say “sure he’s the Lord, but in a spiritual sense… At work, I need somebody who’s good with spreadsheets.” We should get over that. “It is the Lord” means there is no domain of knowledge above him.

But when I say I don’t want to be cheesy, here’s what I have in mind. You’ve probably seen the drawings made by a guy named Larry Van Pelt That depict people engaged in dozens of different careers and hobbies, But always with Jesus Christ standing right beside them, looking on approving. Carpet layers, athletes, school teachers, dentists, you name it, all accompanied by Jesus. We the viewers can see him in the pictures, but of course the laborers do not. Van Pelt called them the “With You Always” series, and the point he made with them Is extremely clear and straightforward: Jesus is invisibly with you in your daily life and work. The drawings themselves are not my favorite kind of art, And I don’t especially like to picture Jesus dressed in first-century garments, Standing or hovering in a ghostly way beside or behind me. I understand the point; I think I agree with the artist’s message but not so much with his imaginative way of depicting it.

But in our story, I think we can affirm that Jesus cared about their hard work at fishing, And intervened decisively, but wasn’t exactly w/them in an encouraging, over-the-shoulder way. In fact, he wasn’t even in the boat with them: he was on the shore, shouting ideas. (In the earlier story, in Luke 5, he was in the boat with them; the fact that after the resurrection he isn’t in the boat but on the shore is a major difference.)
Our story really turns on the fact that the risen Lord is hidden, Arrives in his own due time, and is unrecognized at first. The sudden illumination that “it’s the Lord!” or “the Lord was in this” is the great breakthrough.

That seems to me to make this a very appropriate parallel to how Jesus is involved in our work. We can count on his steady care and concern, providentially guiding, But we also look for that moment when the eagle-eyed disciple who Jesus loved Can see everything come together and recognizes, in a flash of insight, maybe in retrospect, the Lord’s presence and guidance.

Look how indirect everything is in this story of their secular jobs: A long and unproductive night of labor with no intervention or help: not promising! The application? Sometimes it be like that. An anonymous stranger on the shore shouts fishing advice. If you’ve been fishing, you know everybody’s got fishing advice. For whatever reason, they listen to this guy. The application? Be open to advice and input. They didn’t know it was from Jesus.

And then there’s the miracle: a spectacular haul of fish. Can I be excused for saying that this is a pretty ambiguous miracle? What I mean is, a big part of fishing is that there’s some mystery about where the fish are, And fishing is punctuated by stretches of failure and bursts of success. It’s inherently that way.
So while I do think this counts as supernatural intervention, and it functions as a sign by which John is able to recognize that this is exactly the kind of thing Jesus has done before, (It is the Lord!) I do think that compared to healing the blind or raising the dead, Catching a lot of fish doesn’t have the wow power. In fact, last time the disciples were at the Sea of Tiberas (chapter 6), Jesus multiplied a little fish and a few loaves of bread to feed thousands. By contrast, in this story he cooks just a few fish on a fire; it’s lovely, but not dazzling. Let’s say Thomas might or might not have found it very convincing.

Still, it’s a miracle, the miraculous catch of 153 fish. And all things considered, one of its meanings is that the risen Jesus cares about the regular work of disciples in their ordinary jobs, and he understands them. You can pray to Jesus for help with understanding the tax code, the real estate market, the manufacturing processes, the waywardness of students, traffic, groceries, nutrition, healthcare, software, and so on. He’s not just the Lord in a spiritual sense, but also in reality all the way down into the workaday world. We should work at our jobs with confidence in Christ’s competence, openness to his providential guidance, dependence on spiritual inspiration and new ideas, patience through seasons of sub-optimal productivity, gratitude for bursts of success, and a steady eye on the horizon to see if we can recognize him when he makes himself known to us. What’s your Sea of Tiberius, and is that Jesus on its shore?

IV. The Fish Fry at the End of the Age

So fishing was their job, and Jesus met them there. But you can’t hear this final story, this Story after the Stories, without noticing that it’s not just about their jobs. After all, these disciples were about to be called away from those jobs and sent to the mission field. And that’s because the risen Jesus had a job of his own that he was commissioning them for.

I stand by the historical reality of this story; it really happened, it’s a real miracle. But I also think there’s a lot more going on in the way the story is told. The whole event is stuffed with echoes from the life of Jesus: previous miracles of feeding, Previous promises of what Jesus was calling the disciples to do;
The middle-sized lake in Galilee treated like it’s the mighty ocean itself; and even something mysterious in the number mentioned.

Did you notice that we’ve got this precise number dropped in here? 153. Who took the time to count the fish? Were they gonna divvy them up? Let’s see, that would be about 21 fish each, not counting Jesus, who brought his own. 153 is a peculiar number; it’s not prime (though that was a prime fishing spot),
But it’s triangular. Have you heard of triangular numbers? It means you can construct a triangle with a foundation of 17, and count it down to one.

Here’s a picture of the triangular number 153, done with fish. Pretty nice, huh? Obviously it’s a Bible illustration, a painting of John 21 by an 80-year old Christian artist from India, Jyoti Sahi. It’s evocative… it helps you visualize the number, but raises as many questions as it answers.

[a few unscripted remarks here on Biblical numerology, contrasted with crazy-person numerology. Biblical numerology uses math to make a point we would normally think of as poetic. It doesn’t result in an algebraic proof or in a secret message. It suggests and underlines something we already know from clearer statements. ]

It’s just fish, but it’s not just fish…. If you know what I mean. And while we’ve talked about the disciples actually, literally fishing, we also need to admit there’s more going on here on the shore of Lake Tiberias.
Jesus honors their work, but definitely calls these disciples to his own work. And that work of the risen Lord is … Well, we could call it world evangelism, or pastoral ministry, of the mission of the church, or apostleship, but the best way to call it to mind is by remembering the parable of the net, from Matthew 13:47:

Matthew 13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The miraculous catch of 153 fish really happened. And it’s also symbolic. The kingdom of heaven is like this miracle: The Lord throws a mighty net into the sea of the world, and draws out of its chaotic waters the ones who belong to him, who will be accepted into the kingdom of heaven.

As Peter and the Sons of Zebedee draw this big net of 153 fish out before their breakfast meal, they are acting out the parable of the end of the age, and the otherwise ordinary morning somewhere in the 40 days of in-between time gives way to the final day; the clouds are rolled back as a scroll and the angels of the apocalypse come to sort and separate all mankind.

John who saw the sign of the fish and recognized that “it is the Lord” gives way to John the Revelator who saw the New Jerusalem coming down. It is indeed the Lord who stands on the shore, the one who was dead, and is now alive, and lives forevermore. It is the Lord who holds the keys of death and hades, the Lord who is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places, above all rulers and authorities and principalities and powers, and above every name that is named in this world and the next, the Lord who will arise and see his enemies scattered, who will set the widows and orphans in families, who will feed the hungry and comfort the lonely, and receive gifts and tribute from the nations, and end oppression, and whose church will stand against the gates of hell; the Lord whose kingdom will have no end. It is the Lord who undertakes to lead us in this mission, and he stands on the shore with a clear vision of its sure accomplishment. It is the Lord who opens doors that no man can shut, and shuts doors that no man can open.

It is the Lord who holds our times and our works and our witness in his hand, and who will finally be the one to gather in the one great net that will not tear, but will hold together, and will be filled with every kind of fish, from every tongue, tribe, and nation.

V. The Lord’s Supper

The risen Jesus invited his disciples to a meal, saying simply “come and have breakfast.” He was the provider and preparer and inviter and host who shared fellowship with his disciples and richly provided for all their spiritual needs.

This same Jesus still lives, provides, and acts as host, continually inviting his disciples to the unique symbolic meal that he instituted for his church to observe between his death and his return. This morning we have the opportunity to answer that standing invitation and to gather at his table.

[call up the communion servers, give instructions for taking it, explain the ordinance, read words of institution, pray]

Grace church, “come and have breakfast.”

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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