John 21:1-14 (Sermon Notes)
This sermon by Richard Higginson is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, prayers, songs, and readings about work, click on the table of contents to the right.
It may well have been a sense of anti-climax which prompted Peter to decide he was going fishing.
Certainly, he'd experienced the excitement of Easter Sunday, he had seen the risen Lord, but where was all that excitement leading? Jesus himself had disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared. Peter and the other disciples may well have had a feeling of being left in the lurch. With Peter in particular, there may have been a sense of unfinished business, of reconciliation as yet unmade, after the awful matter of denying Jesus. What were the disciples meant to do now? For three years they had been Jesus' near-constant companions. Now there was a gaping hole in their lives, and they were left wondering how to fill it.
Peter, always a man who liked practical action, comes up with a very obvious solution: back to work. Back to the practice and the trade he and the others knew so well, that of fishing. I have come across one commentator who describes this as an act of apostasy, an abandonment of discipleship. That is a very harsh judgement. It is entirely understandable that the disciples wanted to fill their time doing something positive. They may well have needed to do so for financial reasons.
These fishermen were real professionals. They knew what they were doing when it came to fish. That was why they went out at night: experience has taught them this was the most productive time. But on this occasion they fished with a singular lack of success. When morning came, their nets were as empty as when they'd begun. We can imagine their feelings: tired, frustrated, tetchy, baffled, hungry.
The simple phrase 'they caught nothing' is profoundly evocative. It calls to mind all the occasions when we work extremely hard over something and achieve nothing. There is the house that a housewife spends all day tidying up which is systematically untidied by the small child who trails round after her. There is the contract which the project manager has worked so hard to secure only for it to be awarded at the last minute to somebody else. There is the report which the secretary has lovingly transcribed on to the word processor and is lost when the disc develops signs of terminal damage. There is the employee with the alcohol problem who seems to be responding to the treatment for which the company has paid, and then all the progress is undone in an evening of wild drinking.
What we all experience at times like these is the futility of work. A sense of time, money and energy having been wasted: in the words of Ecclesiastes, 'a striving after wind... What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?' (Ecclesiastes 2:17,22). Like Peter and his colleagues, we catch nothing, and find it difficult to understand where we've gone wrong.
So exasperated were the disciples, so completely at their wits' end, that they are ready to act on the advice of a complete stranger, even though this must have been a serious blow to their pride. Who was this clever fellow on the shore who asked the painful question: 'Friends, haven't you any fish?' Never mind, from his vantage point he might be able to see something they couldn't. They cast their net in to the right, and this time they really do catch something. The realisation that it is the risen Jesus who is the mysterious stranger rapidly follows.
Christians who work is business should take encouragement from the fact that the glorified Lord makes himself known in their doing of a secular job. Jesus does not criticise the disciples for going back to their old occupation. They may have had an inflated sense of their own self-sufficiency, but the actual work they sought to do was not wrong. What Jesus does is bring success to their working endeavours, to lead their night out fishing to a marvellous conclusion.
This story raises the question of whether we expect, look for and long for the resurrection power of Jesus to be evident in our places of work. Do we believe he can transform our mundane, complex and often difficult situations just as he filled those fishing nets to the bursting point? Just as there are episodes of depressing futility at work, so there are also moments of exciting transformation. It could be a dreaded interview with a member of staff, which turns out much better than expected: a hostile relationship turned into a friendly one, with real reconciliation taking place. It might be the breakthrough in a research programme when months of painstaking investigation and experiments suddenly come to fruition. It may be a sudden influx of customer orders after a period of deep recession and constant cutbacks.
There is a delicate theological balance to observe here. Jesus' metaphorical presence with us on the shore does not guarantee that everything in the place of work will go wonderfully smoothly. The Christian faith is not that sort of insurance policy. Frustrations and setbacks, crossed lines and empty nets will continue to afflict us from time to time. But in Jesus Christ there is a scope for transformation, which is relevant to working life as well as to church life. In this particular story, change is effected through listening to a word of advice: 'Throw your net to the right side of the boat'. Christians need to be on the alert for similar words of wisdom. If they are living in a state of close relationship with their risen Lord, they may be surprised at the flashes of inspiration which sometimes come their way.
In this story there is a fine sense of Jesus and the disciples being co-workers. Admittedly, Jesus provides the decisive piece of information, but the disciples have to haul the fish ashore, and quite a weight it was too. When they reach the beach they find Jesus has already been busying himself cooking a breakfast, apparently having access to some private fish supply of his own. No doubt the disciples forgot their tiredness, the crossness about the long hours wasted catching nothing, and marvelled at the transformation which had taken place - all because of the risen Jesus in their midst.
(Dr Richard Higginson is Director of Faith in Business, Ridley Hall, Cambridge)