by Daniel Harrell
This serves as the last course in our food in the Bible series—we’ve partaken of milk and honey, figs and olives, wheat and barley and lamb and wine, both here in this room and in your own dining rooms. Many have cooked and shared ancient recipes around tables all season. In most every cultures to feed others is to give of your heart, to pledge peace and refuse to do harm. The simplest and most necessary of of gestures, food nourishes, brings joy and makes new. To practice hospitality as wide as the arms of Jesus is to welcome Jesus to the table. In the most meaningful of all Christian meals, Jesus goes so far as to feed us himself.
We gather around tables this Thursday to give thanks, despite hurts and brokenness and weird relatives who can sometimes make Thanksgiving more grating than grateful. Sorrow and loss will show up as unwelcome guests in some homes too, but gratitude will find its way in. Recall our Pilgrim forbears who barely survived a devastating winter upon fleeing to in New England. More than half the Mayflower passengers perished before that first harvest feast. Scripture declares that “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” The Pilgrims understood this well. And they thanked the Lord.
Having tasted the fruit of the air, land and field—I’m counting the bees and their honey as air, we finish up this morning with the fruit of the sea. The sea in our passage is really a Lake, known alternatively at times as Tiberias and Gennesaret as well as the Sea of Galilee. Jesus both calmed it and walked on it, and some of us got to float on it a couple of years back, using a boat of course. At approximately seven hundred feet below sea level, the Sea of Galilee is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. It is a major source of fresh water for Israel and for thousands of years a chief source of fish.
Jesus’ disciples were mostly commercial fishermen, which involved making and mending nets, repairing sails and boats, catching and processing fish by drying and salting, all of which occurred day and night as dark could often be the best time to catch.
Growing up my Dad would drag me out of my bed at 2:30 in the morning dark to go fishing, my father being as avid an angler as has ever been born. I think the main reason my parents had me was so my dad would have somebody to fish with. At least that’s what he wrote in my baby book. One single sentence on the day I was born: “Now I have a fishing partner.” It was brutal: The getting up in the dark, the soggy sandwiches for breakfast, the tangled lines, hooks in trees, the too-often meager results, the mosquitoes, the numbing boredom, the obsessive insistence of trying just one more spot before quitting, the giddiness that could be expressed at even the slightest nibble. Dad loved being out on the water while all I wanted to do was drown myself in it. He eventually grew fed up with my whining. So he and mom had my brother. Of course my brother turned out to love fishing just like my dad and they’ve been best friends ever since. Not that I’m bitter.
Simon Peter and his brother and others, had been fishing but not catching when Jesus found them and called them to follow. A crowd listening to Jesus preach had him pressed almost into the water. Noticing Peter and his friends minding their boats, Jesus imposed upon Peter to allow him use of his boat as a floating pulpit. Once the sermon was finished, Jesus told Peter to cast his nets one more time. Peter replied how the fish were not biting, but then again, what could it hurt? When the nets filled with fish to almost breaking, Peter realized this preacher to be no petty parson. He pled, “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” To which Jesus responded, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” And with that, Peter left his nets and his job and all that he knew to follow the Lord.
Fast forward to the end of John’s gospel and Peter’s back in his boat with his nets in the water. He’d given up everything for one who’d proven to be Son of God, and then witnessed him get executed by the authorities, crucified, dead and buried. Afraid for his own life, Peter lied about knowing Jesus, and then hid out with the others in fear, only to have Jesus show up all resurrected and totally freak them out. Though promised, none of it was possible or made any sense, so Peter and the others, unsure what to do, did what that they knew how to do. They went back to their old jobs, back to the what they could control and understand, full circle we say, as if all that had happened hadn’t happened at all. They went back to their boats and back to fishing for fish, even though there were no fish anywhere to be caught.
The literal depletion of fish is a sad reality in our seas and oceans in our day. Over the past sixty years, commercial fishing’s annual haul has more than quadrupled to some eighty-seven million tons, a rate that outpaces reproduction. Not only are we taking too much from the water, we’re dumping too much in. Fertilizers and pesticides that run off of gardens and fields end up in the ocean, as do chemicals used to maintain lawns and golf courses. One of the largest aquatic dead zones on the planet stagnates at the mouth of the Mississippi. Infected water infects the sky too. The most critical entity in the oceanic ecosystem are floating microscopic plants known as phytoplankton. They cluster to make the oceans blue and green, provide that tangy scent we associate with the sea as well as the seafood flavor we covet. They’re God’s gift to marine life, the ocean’s answer to soils rich with microorganisms.
Sadly, polluted oceans have precipitated a 40 percent decline in phytoplankton since 1950, meaning not only a diminishment of the sea’s signature aroma, but a serious decrease in oxygen since the photosynthesis phytoplankton employs is responsible for 50 percent of the oxygen production on earth. As such they play a critical role in the carbon cycle, the chief reason scientists call the oceans “big carbon sinks.” A 40 percent decline in phytoplankton makes the destruction of the rainforests seem almost insignificant by comparison. If there is less phytoplankton to store carbon, there’s less of a buffer against climate change. The fewer phytoplankton, the more CO2, the warmer the atmosphere, the even fewer plankton, and round it goes. CO2 levels just crossed the dooming 400 parts per billion threshold scientists have long worried about.
The Psalmist sings, “The earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the waters.” Our own bodies are made up of water, two-thirds, the same proportion as the earth. What’s true for the creature is true for creation, both exist by God’s grace. Jesus and the prophets both warned of environmental catastrophe as the harbinger of apocalyptic doom: we reap what we sow. Given humanity’s ineptitude at saving itself, climate-wise or otherwise, the gospel’s forecast of new creation provides the only real hope we have.
The resurrected Jesus, the first fruit of new creation, stands on the shore trying to get our attention. His disciples see him but don’t know who he is. Jesus calls them children, a likely term of endearment, but perhaps also an indication of their need to grow up. “You haven’t caught any fish?” he asked, a deliberate deja vu, a set-up for what’s coming next. He told them to cast their nets again, and like before they filled up, another sign of new creation, God’s bountiful provision and of our responsibility to steward and share. John did the math and realized it was the Lord. The ever-impulsive Peter impulsively acted—to the confusion of all who’ve read this since—by throwing his clothes on (he’d been stripped down for work) and then throwing himself in the water and making a trout line for Jesus. Here’s the church built on the site to honor that swim, we got to walk on the beach ourselves.
Jesus had fish frying already—out of nowhere—along with some bread, another bite of deja vu. He had fed thousands with less. “Come and have breakfast,” he said. It was a brand new day. He invited the disciples to add a few fish from their catch, so Peter, impulsively, handed over the whole haul—153 fish to be exact.
Since John’s gospel has a propensity for shrouding the profound within the pedestrian, scholars and preachers have never been able to resist trying to sort out the symbolism. For instance, why were seven disciples present? Seven is emblematic of perfection and completion. Why did the nets did not tear from the abundant catch? The word tear is the Greek word schism—maybe a comment on the importance of church unity? No matter how many, the circle will be unbroken. Already we’ve noted the menu of bread with the fish. Jesus called himself bread of life and the bread his body broken for us. As for the fish, early Christians used the mark of the fish as a sign of their identification with the risen Lord. The word fish spelled out in Greek is an acrostic meaning “Jesus Christ God’s Son and Savior.” Fish adorn bumpers of Christian’s cars in our time. One blew past me in traffic and cussed at me just the other day.
And what about that number 153? St. Jerome argued that 153 was the number of fish species Greek zoologists ascertained existed in the entire world. 153 thus meant the church was to catch for Jesus people from every nation. St. Augustine adopted a mathematical approach speculating that because 153 is the sum of the numbers 1-17 consecutively, meaning the number 17 was therefore important. Were there not 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Spirit? 9 choirs of angels and 8 beatitudes? 10 Lords-a-leaping and 7 swans a-swimming? It gets a little silly sometimes, to the point that we miss the the main point of this story; namely, that Jesus showed up. The crucified dead and buried Jesus showed up in his resurrected flesh. Never grow so accustomed to this that you take its enormity for granted.
At the same time, don’t get so caught up in the resurrection’s enormity that you lose the simplicity of this story. Jesus showed up on the beach and cooked breakfast for his friends. He could have walked out on the water to his disciples or even floated out to them on clouds surrounded by angels had he wanted—but I suspect he’s reserving the big splash for later.
In the meantime, Jesus’ ordinary appearance encourages us to stay on the lookout, not only in the eschatological sense of a second advent, but in all the ways Jesus shows up on the shores of our everyday lives—especially on the days when we’re feeling adrift, having tried all we know day and night, left with nothing to show and nothing to eat.
I finally decided to try fishing again a few years ago. You may remember me telling you about a good friend who invited me to join a little excursion off Cape Cod in search of striped bass. My gut reaction was to make up some excuse—visions of a tortured childhood dancing in my head. But instead I determined to overcome my childish ways and grow up. I still had to get up at 2:30 AM. Yet gratefully, there were no soggy sandwiches, no trees in which to snag my line, no mosquitoes and no numbing boredom—probably due to the fact that I spent most of the day throwing up in a bucket. Here was something which I had never experienced in all of those early mornings out on the lake with my father: seasickness. My friend chartered a small skiff with which we navigated the heavy roller-coaster swells of Buzzard’s Bay. What began as mild dizziness soon gave way to stomach-churning disorientation. My noble attempt at personal growth now looked downright idiotic. Somehow between appointments with the bucket, in an attempt to camouflage my humiliation, I managed to cast out a line. As I reeled in, the line ferociously jerked, and I yanked, and accidentally hooked a sweet monster of a bass which ended up being the catch of the day; accomplished, my friend remarked, with one of the lowest catch per cast ratios he’d ever seen. We grilled it and ate it that night on the beach. Delicious.
Now while my big fish story should not be confused with the disciples’ miraculous catch, it does provide one more parabolic reminder when it comes to keeping on the lookout for Jesus. You might want to pay particularly close attention during those times when life has you throwing up in a bucket and you’re called on to do something impossibly hard. Throw your line out anyway and you might just catch something. Or better yet, something or someone might catch you and invite you ashore to have breakfast.
Tilapia, called St. Peter’s fish, still found in the sea of Galilee but now mostly bred on farms. Pomegranates were admired both for their taste and their beauty, and their numerous seeds, red color and crowned top combined to serve as a symbol of righteousness—the seeds the good deeds, the crown our reward, and the red Christ’s blood that redeems all we’ve done.
Grilled Tilapia with Pomegranate-Balsamic Glaze
1 pound tilapia, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
pinch of cayenne
salt to taste
2 scallions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
pomegranate seeds as garnish