One Hundred Fifty-Three

Preached By K Karpen  April 10, 2013     John 21:1-14

Listen to the recording:

“Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them, and though there were so many, the net was not torn.” John 21:11

This is my favorite story in the Bible. In case you’ve ever sat there wondering, Hmmm, what’s K’s favorite story, well, now you know.

There’s so much to love, starting with the beginning of the story, where Peter, still recovering from the horrific loss of his friend and teacher, still not sure what this resurrection thing means in his life, tells his friends, “I’m going fishing.” Basically, ‘I’m rewinding things, I’m baffled by everything I don’t know and I’m going back to something I do know.’ Fish.

And the other disciples, do they say, ‘Uh, Peter, I think there are things we’re supposed to do…?’ No, they say, “We’re going with you.”

And that makes sense. I know that some of you have gone through traumatic loss of one kind and another, and I’m sure that what makes the most sense is to try to find something, anything, that feels solid, something familiar, something you’re sure about, something you know you can do.

The thing is, neither Peter nor these other disciples are particularly good at fishing. Which is odd, considering what they used to do for a living…

Nowhere in any of the gospels does anyone catch a single fish without help from Jesus, and today’s story is no exception.

Of course Jesus does come along. This risen Christ who a chapter ago came to the disciples through locked doors has made the 80 mile trip up north to the Sea of Galilee. And, as they’re learning, Christ goes wherever he needs to be.

Of course, the disciples don’t know it’s him. They just see this guy on the shore taunting them, ‘Hey, kids, you don’t have any fish, do you??’

And they’re like, No. But he tells them where to cast the net, and soon they have so many fish, they can’t haul the net in. How many fish? Funny you should ask. Back to that in a minute.

Two things to notice first. One, that’s when they recognize it’s Jesus. And second, who recognizes him? The disciple Jesus loved, the Beloved Disciple, we sometimes call him, probably code for the author of John’s gospel, who is never actually named.

How does the Beloved Disciple recognize it’s Jesus, in that murky, misty, early morning light, when the boat is still a hundred yards from shore, out deep enough for large fish to be around it? Because Jesus is the one who always knows what they need. Jesus is the one who always steps in when they are making a hash out of things. And Jesus is always the one who always helps them to actually catch fish when they are fishing.

The difference between fishing and actually catching fish was taught to me by my father, who was something of a fishing addict. My dad could go out fishing all day, and not actually care whether or not he caught anything.

My dad didn’t take us fishing at night, of course, with one memorable exception. The night we went frost-fishing. Not ice-fishing, frost fishing. Somebody told him once that if the weather gets cold enough, so that the ocean temperature drops below freezing, but doesn’t freeze because of the salt content of the sea and the motion of the waves, then whatever random cold-blooded fish are around will slow down so much, they’ll get caught in the surf, and you can wade into the surf with a bucket, and simply pluck them out.

There are a few problems with this. Beyond the fact that we never actually figured out if the whole thing is true or not.

First of all, if the ocean is that cold, it’s not that good for wading. Even with a pair of waders. Second, if it’s nighttime, which it was, it’s hard to see the fish, even if they’re there. That aside, we piled into the car and headed to Jones Beach.

I won’t tell you that we fished all night, as the disciples did. But we fished a lot longer than we wanted to, and we ended up completely frozen and thoroughly frustrated. My dad, of course, thought it was great fun.

I can imagine that these seven disciples are not in a great mood after a night of fish-free fishing. But all that disappears when they realize who has come to find them and help them. And when he helps them catch so many fish? How many fish? We’re getting there.

Because Peter. Who could not love Peter? Clueless, hapless, spineless, Jesus-denying, redemption-defying Peter. Simon son of John, whom Jesus nicknames the rock, in what’s got to be a boulder-sized bit of irony.

I had a New Testament professor who pointed out that if we really translated his name correctly we’d call him Rock Johnson, which sounds more like a prize-fighter than the first apostle of the church founded by Jesus Christ. But maybe that’s part of the fun.

Peter. Peter. What does Peter do?

Okay, he puts on his clothes, ’cause why? he’s naked! Naked fishing. Don’t ask me, they didn’t cover that in my Gospel of John course.

And he jumps in the water and he swims for shore. Never mind that this is the Peter who early in the Gospel of Matthew actually walks on water but then begins sinking and needs Jesus to rescue him because he can’t swim. He hasn’t learned to fish, but evidently he’s learned to swim.

Why? He’s so excited. He’s so excited to see the Lord he loves, the Lord he let down, the Lord he lost. The Lord, who against all odds, has found him.

So he jumps and swims, and the other six follow in the boat, towing the net full of so many fish, and when they get to shore, Jesus has a fire going and breakfast ready, bread and fish, because nothing says Good morning like lox and bagels.

And when Jesus asks for the fish, Peter leaps back in the water and drags the net ashore, a net full of how many fish?

A hundred and fifty three. 153.

For the past 20 centuries scholars have sought to tease out the meaning and significance behind that number. 153.

Someone has claimed that the divine name of God appears 153 times in the book of Genesis. I’ve never actually counted, so I couldn’t tell you.

Some of the more mathematically inclined of the ancient scholars point out that 153 is the triangulation of the number 17, in other words, if you add 1+2+3+4+5+6 all the way to 17, you get 153! And since 17 is equal to the number of the ten commandments plus the four gospels plus the trinity, there you have it!!

My teacher Raymond Brown suggested that John uses the number 153 because that’s the number of fish they actually caught and somebody made a mental note of it because it was a lot, but that’s too simple!

I like the explanation offered by St Jerome, who conjectured that the 153 represented one of each species of fish in the Sea of Galilee, which in turn represented the 153 ethnicities of people known to him at the time, which therefore symbolizes everyone God loves and Christ came to save.

I was prepared to go with that until I stood up here this morning and quietly and unobtrusively began to count everyone in this sanctuary this morning, which – could it be a coincidence? – turns out to be exactly 153.

Here’s what it really means, if it means everything. God’s net of love and compassion is cast wide. Really wide, wide enough for everyone.

And in this net we call the Church of Jesus Christ there is room for everyone, every strange and marvelous kind of fish. Because St Jerome was right in this, I believe – no two fish in that net were alike, and they were all big and beautiful and uniquely precious to God. Just like us.

So we might ask, what kinds of fish are in that net that day? Are they gay fish or straight fish? Transgender fish or cis-gender? Are there any refugees or migrants or undocumented fish caught up in the net? Are they brown or white or black fish? Asian or Australian fish? Are they republican or democrat or independent; are these fish young? Old? Are they all Christian fish? Are they fish of many faiths?

If we here today are fish of a feather, it is only because we flock together, and we only flock together because we are drawn in the Spirit’s tether, caught up in the beautiful net of the Gospel of God. Drawn by the impossible, un-limitable grace of the one who comes to draw all people into a great web of compassion, where there is room for all and none are left out. And those who were once strangers are strangers no longer, as St. Paul says, but sisters and brothers, children of a loving, doting parent.

What are we doing here in this net of the church? We’re working together for a world of compassion. Laboring for a world of love, justice and reconciliation.

One final question. Have we hit the limit of who fits and who doesn’t? Once we hit some magic number is that the number of the elect?
That also was settled long ago. Because though there are so many, the net is not torn. So there is room for fish number 154, and 155, and 7 billion and seven. The net stretches as wide as the world, as wide as the mercy of God, and whosoever will may come.

We’re wrapped up in this together, tied up in the Spirit’s tether
Like fish of a feather, we’re caught up in the net

And it’s not much use complaining, or wasting lots of time explaining
Like those fellows who were seining, we’re caught up in the net

We’re all fish of different flavors, once were strangers, now are neighbors
And combining all our labors we’re caught up in the net.