Today’s meditation and retelling comes from Luke 5:4-10, John 21:3-8.
The Miraculous Catch of Fish: Luke 5:4-10, John 21:3-8
I guess I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Too much had happened—both the worst and the best. My Master’s horrific death, my own failure to stand by Him in His hour of need, and then—He rose again! He returned to us. He was the Messiah. We had been witness to the event that all of the Law and the Prophets, all of human history had been pointing to.
The only clue Jesus gave to us of what to do next was to go into Galilee, and He would meet us there. He wasn’t with us all the time now, not since He rose again. Things were different, though He never told us what He was doing when He was not with us.
I felt like my brain was always spinning since then, never arriving at its destination. I wanted something familiar, something I could do with my hands that would anchor me in the present. I was a fisherman by trade, though I hadn’t actually fished commercially in the last three and a half years since Jesus came into my life. We were here in Galilee now, but Jesus gave us no other specifics. We didn’t know when or where He would meet us, beyond somewhere in Galilee.
“I’m going fishing,” I announced to James, John, Nathaniel, Thomas, Matthew, and Bartholomew who were with me. It was nighttime, but we always used to fish at night. That was when it was coolest.
I was surprised at the suddenness of their reply: “We are going with you,” they all agreed. Evidently I wasn’t the only one who longed for some occupation to pass the time.
As we prepared our nets and set out to the Sea of Galilee, I couldn’t help remembering the last time I had done this very thing. James and John were my partners then, and the three of us had fished all night in the Lake of Gennesaret, and caught nothing. We were exhausted, and washing our nets until the next time when a great multitude suddenly converged upon the shore. They all seemed to be centered upon one man, a young rabbi. I had never seen him before, but as soon as I saw him—his purposeful stride, the authority with which he carried himself—I couldn’t look away. I forgot all about my nets. I thought at the time that the crowds must all have seen what I saw, and that was why they followed him.
But then I noticed that the man was looking at me, too. He strode right up to me, and gestured at one of our two boats on shore.
“Will you put out a bit from the land with me? You see how the crowd presses all around me.”
“Yes!” I stammered, forgetting my fatigue. I rushed to obey, dragging my half-cleaned nets behind me and stuffing them into the boat. James and John remained on shore with the crowd, but did not leave. They too seemed to have forgotten their exhaustion in their eagerness to see whatever it was that the crowd expected to see.
It was just Jesus and me in the boat on the lake that day. He sat down and began to teach the crowds from the boat. I sat behind him, and with his every word, my soul burned within me. It was a sensation I had never experienced before, but I have many times since: that sense that I was hearing truth spoken in mysteries, falling from the lips of a man of exceeding greatness. I was a Jew, and I had always worshipped Jehovah in theory. But never before had I been stirred in such a way that worship was wrung from me as the only possible response, like water from a cloth.
When the rabbi dismissed the crowds, and they reluctantly began to disperse, it was already in the heat of the day. He looked at me and said, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
It was such an unexpected thing to say that I balked for a minute. Why? I wondered. What did that have to do with anything?
“Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing,” I began, but then caught myself. I did not wish to argue with this man, of all people. If he wanted me to let down my net, I’d do it out of respect, even though it would mean extra work for me. “Nevertheless, at Your word I will let down the net,” I told him. I paddled a little way back out to the lake, though not to the deepest part. I had several nets, but I let down only the one—this was only a gesture, after all. I knew there were no fish to be had in the lake today—
“What is this?” I cried out in shock, as the net grew taut in my hands. I thought at first I had snagged it on something, but that could not be; the lake was much too deep. I managed to tug just enough for the shiny slippery silver bodies to break the surface of the water, wriggling and writhing all over each other. I gasped, and felt rather than heard the ripping of the rope down below the surface.
“James! John!” I shouted back to shore, and just glanced up to see that they were still there, awaiting my return. They had apparently seen enough of what was going on, and both of them jumped into the other boat and paddled out to where we were, along with two of our other partners.
“Steady, steady!” called John, as he held the side of his boat against ours. He threw a rope across to climb into my boat, so that he could help me pull in the catch. It was all I could do to hold on to the edges of my net, but I certainly could not haul it onto the boat by myself. Finally I glanced at Jesus. He stood watching us, and I could swear he was silently laughing, his eyes crinkled with amusement. I glanced back down at the water. Before my very eyes, more fish jostled each other to swim into my net! I looked back at Jesus. Now he was laughing outright.
“Ready, heave!” John cried to me, recalling my attention to the ever growing problem at hand. “The net is breaking!”
“I know, that’s why I signaled you!” I returned. It was all we could do to lift the top of the catch out of the water and just let the fish spill onto the bottom of our boat in a great pile; I knew yet more had managed to escape underneath where the nets had ripped. Meanwhile, James and our other partners had taken the hint and let down their nets—plural this time—and were even now drawing their enormous catch on board.
“We’re sinking!” John gasped to me as the fish continued to spill into the boat.
“So are we!” James cried back from the other boat beside us.
John and I watched as fish we hadn’t even caught in our nets jumped out of the water and into our boat. Our jaws dropped. I turned to Jesus, who had tears in his eyes now, he was laughing so hard.
I released my end of the net entirely, and sank to my knees before Jesus’ feet as best I could, amid all the fish. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” I gasped.
Jesus still grinned, but his expression softened as he looked down at me. I had the impression that he was pleased I had understood that this was his doing, even though it could not have been more obvious. “
“Do not be afraid,” he said to me. “From now on you will catch men.”
When we got back to shore that day, salvaging our boats and some of our nets with the most enormous catch of fish we’d ever had before or since, James, John and I left everything and followed Jesus. We’d never looked back.
Three and a half years later, so much had changed that I scarcely remembered the man I was then. Tonight, as that first night before Jesus showed up, we had caught not a single fish. I watched as the sunrise streaked pink and red across the sky, and gritted my teeth against the ache in my chest.
I missed him.
He had risen, but He wasn’t here with us now. Everything had changed. He had risen, but now what? Where did we go from here? What did the rest of our lives look like? He had risen, but I had still denied Him when He needed me most.
“Children!” called a voice from the shore. We all turned to see a stranger, hands cupped around his mouth to amplify the sound. “Have you any food?”
“Children?” Bartholomew muttered. “That fellow can’t be any older than we are.”
James answered for all of us. “No! We’ve fished all night but caught nothing.”
The stranger shouted back, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
We all blinked at this strange instruction. Nathaniel grumbled, “As if that would make any difference.” Yet my heart burned within me. I didn’t consciously think of it at the time, but it was the same sensation I had had when on the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and the stranger. The same I had as I listened to Jesus preach that first time.
“Do it,” James, John and I all said at once. We exchanged a look with one another and took over the net. That was when I realized that they, too, were remembering the same thing I was.
It was as if we were right back there, three and a half years ago: the moment we slipped the net on the right side of the boat, the rope grew taut, and fish fought each other to swim in.
“Heave!” John cried, and we tried—but there were too many. We could not even lift the nets back into the boat between the three of us. John’s face split into a wide grin as he turned to look on the shore. The stranger had set a fire on the beach and was tending to it.
“It is the Lord!” he cried.
Of course it was—I had known this already. But at John’s declaration, I couldn’t wait even to get the boat back to shore. I had removed my outer garment as we worked, so now I put it on again and jumped into the sea, swimming to Him as fast as my arms and legs could carry me.
Behind me, the other disciples steered the ship to shore, dragging the net in the water behind them. I reached the land only moments before they did, for we had not been far out to sea.
The stranger looked up, first at me, and then at the others, then at me again. I fell to my knees before Him, amazed once again that He looked so different now, though His features had not changed.
“Lord,” I managed, dripping from head to toe.
He smiled back at me, and I saw that He already had fish and bread cooking over the coals. He glanced over my shoulder, and I followed His eyes to the other disciples, who were now attempting to drag the catch of fish from the water to the shore.
“Bring some of the fish which you have just caught,” Jesus said.
I took the Lord’s hint and ran to help. Remarkably, this time the net was not broken. When we laid the fish out on the sand, Bartholomew, the quickest of us with numbers, informed us that we had caught one hundred and fifty three.
“Come and eat breakfast,” Jesus called to us.
We took six of the fish, one for each of us plus the fish Jesus had already prepared. We cleaned and roasted them over the fire Jesus had set, largely in silence. I saw all of the other disciples sneaking surreptitious glances at Jesus as if to assure themselves that He was the Lord. He endured this patiently and without comment. When the fish had cooked, He took the bread, blessed and broke it, and did the same with the fish. We ate in silence as well: a silence that was not so much awkward as it was thick, at least for me. I so desperately wanted to make things right.
When we finished breakfast, Jesus turned to me. “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?”
A lump sprang to my throat. The word He used for love wasagape. Do I agape—perfectly, selflessly love—Him more than anything else, as I had once so boldly declared? More than anything I wanted to proclaim that I did, but my actions belied this. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But I used the word phileoin place ofagape. The word meant familial affection. Far less lofty than agape.
Jesus’ eyes bore into mine. “Feed my lambs,” He replied. Silence fell again. I tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. Jesus said again, “Simon, son of Jonah, do youagapeme?”
I felt the other disciples shift around us uncomfortably, but I did not care that they were witnesses. This was between me and the Lord. I had to compose myself before I managed to answer again, “Yes, Lord, you know that Iphileoyou.”
“Tend my sheep,” Jesus replied. Another stretch of silence. Then He ventured once more, “Simon, son of Jonah, do youphileome?”
I bit my lip to keep the tears at bay. I flashed back to the night of His trial, to my three denials that I even knew the man who was dearest to me in the world. He asked me three times to affirm Him now, to erase those denials. But He’d downgraded the word love now fromagapetophileo, the word I insisted upon using. The Lord knew how badly I wanted to use the wordagape—the word that meant I would do anything for Him, even die for Him, as He had for me. But I had made that declaration once before, and broken it hours later. I knew better now. I knew my own weakness.
“Lord, you know all things,” I whispered. “You know that Iphileoyou.”
Jesus did not speak for such a long moment that I finally looked up and met His eyes. He gazed at me so tenderly, like a father to his newborn child. No wonder He had called us children. “Feed my sheep,” He said. “Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”
I swallowed, understanding what He meant. I would indeed die for Him one day. Had He given me such a prophecy at any other time, it would have seemed almost like a curse. But right now, it was the purest blessing He could have pronounced. He was telling me I would get another chance, and the next time, I would pass the test: the very thing I wanted most in the world. Briefly, I let the Lord’s pure love, His agape, His acceptance wash over me, to cleanse and restore me.
No sooner did I bask in this, though, it was marred by a stab of jealousy as I glanced at John, sitting very close to Jesus. I’d always been just a bit jealous of John’s closeness to the Lord. I think we all had. Before I could stop myself, I pointed at John and said, “But Lord, what about this man?”
Jesus raised his eyebrows at me, and John looked taken aback. I immediately regretted that I’d said it out loud.
“If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?” was Jesus’ gentle rebuke. “Youfollow me.”
I bowed my head, and turned to look at the enormous catch of fish strewn on shore. He had performed the same miracle when I first met Him, and now again at the end—for I knew this was the end. His remaining time on earth was very short. The first time He had said, “From now on, you will catch men,” and I had left everything to follow Him. Now, after His resurrection, when all of us wondered what our purpose could possibly be, this side of the cross—His answer was the same.
Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs. Go and catch men.
I had fished all night with all my worldly equipment and skill and partners, and caught nothing. Yet everything changed when I went whereHedirected, and fished whereHe commanded, with the powerHeprovided. I could not fail.