How Can We Go On?
What do you think this text is about? Do you think it's about catching fish miraculously? If so, then it has some meaning for the next time you go fishing, but that's about it. No, the real problem being addressed is how can the disciples go on, and in addressing how the disciples can go on, our Lord answers how you and I can go on too.
People miss the real point of this account because they forget the context, the events preceding it. Our text takes place 2 to 3 weeks after Easter. Jesus is no longer visibly present, day in and day out, with the disciples. In fact, it has been at least a week since they saw Him face to face. We heard about that visit last Sunday when we read of Jesus proving to Thomas that He had risen. The disciples have just come from that incident in Jerusalem to Galilee where Jesus had told them to go.
But how different the trip was this time! For the 3 years prior to this, the disciples had walked, talked, ate, and stayed with Jesus. They were use to the sound of His voice, the look in His eyes, the touch of His skin. They were use to having Him close by to answer any questions, still any fears, strengthen any resolve. But this time they made the trip from Jerusalem up to Galilee alone, without Him.
This is the first time in 3 years that they had made the 70 mile plus trip without Jesus visibly present. You don't think that was eerie for them? You don't think their hearts ached for His visible presence? You don't think they felt vulnerable? You don't think they started to worry about food and drink, house and home, and all that they needed to support this body and life? You don't think they looked at the birds of the air and the grass of the field and tried to remember what Jesus had taught them?
As they walked, surely what Jesus had said to them both recently and remotely played over and over again in their minds. When Jesus appeared to them in Jerusalem, He told them, according to Mark 16:15, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation". But for 3 years Jesus had been teaching them that the world would not be friendly to them. "The world will hate you because it hated Me. Since they persecuted Me, they will persecute you." "The time will come when those who kill you will think they are doing the world a favor." And, "Behold, I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves."
As they walked, they looked around and thought, "This is the world Jesus is sending us out in: A world of highwaymen and thieves, a world where some people will kill us just because we preach the gospel, a world that desperately needs the gospel but wants nothing to do with it. Jesus is sending us, His gentle, weak lambs out into this! Jesus is sending us to corners of the world He had never walked in Himself." Their thoughts were correct. Jesus was sending them out among wolves like Saul who hated Jesus, His Gospel and His disciples and who would go out of their way to persecute them.
How could they go on in such a world as this? How could they bring a message of peace and love to such a violent, hateful world? How could they, weak and defenseless lambs, face ferocious wolves with teeth and claws? How could their Jesus send them out under such circumstances? How could they go on if their Jesus wasn't visibly there to take care of them?
Has it occurred to you yet that the conditions the disciples faced aren't very different from ours? Our world is no less wicked, no less violent, no less unbelieving and unloving than theirs, and we are no more than lambs in the midst of it. Moreover, Jesus is no more visibly present with us than He was with them. So how can we go on? How can we boldly face this world? How can we let this little Gospel light of ours shine in such a dark world?
Our situation is not LIKE the disciples, it's the SAME. And so we are tempted to rely on ourselves in order to be able to survive in a hostile world. That's what Peter and six other disciples did when they took to the water to fish. They weren't doing it because they felt like fishing for fun. They were doing it because they knew that they and their families needed to eat, and Jesus wasn't around to feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and fewer fish. Jesus wasn't there to heal them if they got sick and couldn't work. Jesus wasn't visibly present to pull money out of the mouth of a fish if they couldn't afford to pay their taxes. Yes, the burden of their daily bread and lives now seemed to be squarely on their shoulders.
To prove to you that they were fishing for food not fun, look at the question Jesus first asked them. The bulletin translates, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" That sounds like what you would ask a person fishing for fun. But the word fish isn't there, and Jesus doesn't ask them like He didn't know what they would answer. He asks them in such a way that THEY knows He knows they didn't have anything to eat. "Friends," Jesus asks, "You don't have anything to eat, do you?"
Boy, did that cut to the heart of the disciples, and you can tell that by the short, curt, abrupt answer they gave, "No!" This is not the response of a person fishing for fun whom you meet all the time having caught nothing. I'm expert on this, and I assure you that when people ask me about what I don't have, I don't bite their heads off. I'm fishing for fun, so what's the big deal if I don't have anything? But you ask a commercial fisherman about his results, especially if he's been up all night working for hours, and you'll get a much more pointed response.
Jesus' question does more than expose their failure as fishermen. It shows the disciples that all their efforts have failed to produce one single thing to eat. They had done their best to provide for themselves and their families. They had fished at the right time, during the night. They had fished in the right place. The Sea of Tiberias was one of the best fisheries in the ancient world. And they had certainly worked hard enough, all night. "But that night they caught nothing," reports St. John who was there.
Can't you hear the worry seeping into their minds? Can't you feel their stomachs tightening and their nerves crawling? How are we ever going to survive as fishers of men when we can't even survive as fishermen? How are we suppose to catch men if we can't catch fish? How are ever going to provide for our families out there in a hostile world, when we can't do it in our own homeland?
Do you recognize these worries? Do these fears sound familiar? Has it dawned on you yet that no matter what you do, it's not enough? Have you realized that no matter how hard you try this evil world will outsmart you? Have you seen that you really are no more than helpless lambs in the midst of a world that is meaner, and stronger than you? Has it occurred to you that it is foolish to ever think that a lamb could take care of himself or herself, let alone a family, in such a world? The truth is that a lamb better not be relying on himself or herself in the midst of a wolf-filled world.
Yes, the only way for disciples of any age to go on is if the Lord Jesus carries them. But here's the rub: How can we trust an invisible Jesus to carry us through a visibly fallen world? This was a problem the disciples had to learn to deal with. In this account, Jesus helps them. First, He waits till they have worked all night in the darkness, till they have dragged in net after empty net. He waits till they are exhausted from doing their best to provide food. Then by means of His invisible Word, Jesus showed them their failure, "You don't have anything to eat, do you," He asked?
Friends, Scripture teaches that God seldom comes to the aid of His people until their backs are against the wall, until humanly speaking there is no hope, until God shows them they are powerless and hopeless. The Red Sea didn't part until God's people were crying to Him in terror. The Assyrians weren't defeated until 185,000 of them had surrounded Jerusalem and King Hezekiah had put the matter before the Lord in prayer several times. Peter isn't saved from drowning until He cries out in panic, "Lord save me!"
Haven't you learned by now how helpless lambs really are in this world? Haven't you learned that no matter how hard you try you can't produce one bag of groceries, one pair of shoes, one roof of shingles, or one dollar of cash by your own strength? Haven't you learned by now that it never was your company or your work ethic that put bread on your table or money in your bank? Haven't you learned it is not possible that a helpless lamb like yourself could have been providing for yourself or your family for all these years? Haven't you learned by now that the only way for lambs to survive is if the Good Shepherd takes care of them?
The Shepherd is the only One to rely on, the One to go to, the One to look to. He provides everything His lambs need in the midst of wolves. He taught this to the disciples by this fishing incident. He can teach us too. All the efforts of the disciples had produced nothing. Jesus provided it all. And please note, Jesus provided it all even before they knew or believed it was Him. The disciples were not out in the boat praying or trusting in their Jesus. More than likely, they were out there mad at their nets, each other, and worrying themselves sick about their futures. Sound familiar?
Does their unbelief, their fears, stop Jesus? Does it hinder Him from helping? No. He gives them a net full of fish where there is none to be caught. He makes the net that should rip hold firm. On the beach, without a bag of Kingsford charcoal or a Bic to flick, He provides a charcoal fire. And though there is no HEB, He provides bread too. Their own efforts had only succeeded in tiring them out, but Jesus comes on the scene and provides everything they needed.
Jesus did all of this without visibly being on the scene. They didn't know it was Jesus on the beach. He didn't want them to know. He was showing them that even when He wasn't visibly present to them He knows what they need and can provide it. He was showing them that just because the lambs can't see the Shepherd doesn't mean He can't see them. Friends, Jesus has no less interest, no less knowledge, no less power in your life than He did in the lives of the first disciples. He watches over you just as closely, just as lovingly, just as powerfully as He did them. A Good Shepherd knows that lambs need special watching especially when they are in the midst of wolves.
How can you go on? There's no way you can go on unless Jesus actually takes you. Do you see how well the disciples learned this simple lesson? In the text, Jesus says, "Come and have breakfast." But none of them started eating until Jesus took the bread and fish and gave it to them. They waited to receive what they needed from the hands of Jesus. They waited on His timing, His methods, His means rather than creating their own. You see the question isn't really? "How can we go on?" The real question is, "How will Jesus bring us along?" That puts the whole matter where it really belongs: in Jesus' nail-pierced but risen hands. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter III (4-49-01) John 21: 1-14