WHEN YOUR NET IS EMPTY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 10, 2016; Easter 3, Year C
Acts 9:8-20; John 21:1-19

“Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’
They answered him, ‘No.’”
John 21:5

For that party of seasoned fishermen, it had been a rough night. “That night they caught nothing,” John somberly informs us. Nothing. Not a single fish.

For Peter, their leader, that had to be especially humiliating. He was a professional — or had been, before he began following Jesus up and down the land. That repetitive motion, of throwing a small weighted net off one side of the boat, then slowly pulling it in, hand over hand: it was second nature to him. He could have done it in his sleep.

You can bet Peter knew all the good fishing spots, too. This was his home country: the little fishing villages that hug the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But this night? Nothing.

It’s a bit of a mystery why Peter and the others decided to go back to fishing, after having seen — and even touched — the risen Christ on more than one occasion. Yet, as our Gospel-writer John and others tell the tale, the resurrected Jesus doesn’t show up with any degree of consistency. He’s there with them one moment and gone the next. He’s a hard man to pin down, the risen Jesus.

Maybe it’s not so strange that they would go back to fishing. It’s what they knew. People didn’t change careers in biblical times, the way they do today. In fact, the very concept of career as something you choose was foreign to them. If you were a man and had a trade, like fishing, it was very likely because your father had done the very same thing. There were no banks to offer start-up business loans for the purchase of boats and nets. You inherited such tools of the trade from your father. He had very likely inherited them from his own old man.

James and John are some of those in the boat with Peter that day. You can read elsewhere in the Bible of how Jesus had come along three years before, how he’d called them to follow him and fish for people. They were sitting on the beach with their father, Zebedee, at the time. They were helping him mend the nets, when the invitation came. Those two Zebedee boys got up and followed, without a word. You could just about hear the sound of old Zeb’s jaw hitting the ground, in astonishment.

But here they all are, back again, in a fishing boat. They seem to regard the years they spent with Jesus as a special period in their lives, a sort of pilgrimage. Now it’s over. Time to get back to the nets.

Except — the nets aren’t cooperating (or maybe it’s the fish who aren’t cooperating). Have these old-time net-flingers lost their knack?

Who’s to say? But there’s a guy standing on the shoreline a hundred yards away who seems to have an idea what to do.

They can barely see him in the early-morning gloom, as he cups his hands to his mouth and shouts out the perennial question those who love fishing must always endure: “Catching anything?”

Though that’s not exactly what he says. “You don’t have any fish, do you, lads?” is more like it.

Glumly they return their answer: “Not a one.”

Is that a dig — a criticism of their fishing prowess? Surely it’s a good deal more sympathetic than that, because when the man shouts back — something about casting their net on the other side of the boat — they do it, without questioning.

Bingo. They’ve just caught a whole night’s haul of fish in one cast. The net’s so full, fairly groaning with fish, they can’t even haul it in. The best they can do is tie it off, put their oars in the water and pull towards shore, dragging the bulging net behind them.

*****

Their nets had been empty. I’ve had times like that, in the course of my life. Haven’t you? Times when what you’ve always done, but that just doesn’t seem to be working anymore. It’s times like those when you find yourself doing the thing that’s supposed to be the classic definition of insanity: repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different result!

The thing about fishing, though, is: sometimes that actually works! Sometimes a little persistence is all you need. It’s one of the reasons why recreational fishing is so addictive — why people who like to fish are so eager to keep on repeating those motions.

Rarely do they use nets anymore: not for sport fishing, anyway. They use a cleverly-designed implement Peter, James and John never knew: a rod and reel. Check the tackle, pull off that hanging strand of seaweed, maybe replace the bait if it needs it, then lean back and cast your line again. Unless you’ve got one of those high-tech Loran machines, it’s a mystery what’s going on down there, beneath the waves. Maybe a whole school of fish just swam in, where there had been none before. You’ll never know unless you rebait your hook and drop your line back into the water.

That isn’t so true for professional fishermen, like the Galilean disciples. These guys don’t catch fish one at a time. They measure their success by the dozens, even the hundreds. But, after a disappointing night like Peter, James and John have just had, they know it’s no good. May as well just pack it in and head back to shore — which is exactly what they’re doing, when they hear that shouted advice from the pushy stranger on the beach, to try the other side of the boat.

Like they haven’t already! The advice sounds almost sarcastic. Is he making fun of them? But why not, give it one more try. What’s there to lose?

*****

What is it, in your life right now, that’s causing your nets to come back empty? Is it something to do with your work, your livelihood? Or is it maybe your retirement, that hasn’t turned out to be the “golden years” you imagined? Maybe you’re still young, and at school, and you just hate the situation you find yourself in: your place in the school pecking order you can’t seem to bust out of. Or maybe it’s a close family relationship — even a marriage — that’s grown cold over time, and you just don’t know how to breathe life back into it. Maybe it’s your Christian faith itself. It always seemed to bring you strength and comfort in the past. But now — you’re not so sure. The net comes back empty, no matter how many times you cast it.

Sometimes you and I get so caught up in the works-righteousness thing, the conviction that we’ve got to save ourselves, by dint of hard work and persistence. That’s exactly what’s going on in this Bible story, as Peter and the others just keep casting the nets again and again.

Yet, do you know what’s the most beautiful thing in this story? Those guys aren’t even looking for Jesus. But they don’t have to. He finds them! He finds them.

When Peter finally realizes it is Jesus, he does the strangest-sounding thing. It says in verse 7, “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea!” There’s something odd about that: who puts on clothes to go swimming?

But that’s not really what’s going on here. The Greek is hard to translate into English. A literal translation, which is what we have here, sounds bizarre — but most biblical experts agree that, rather than saying Peter is out there fishing in the nude (something no observant Jew would ever do), what the Greek is really saying is that he’s stripped down to a loincloth. He’s wearing something very much like a bathing suit. When Peter realizes it’s Jesus standing there along the beach, he grabs his tunic, wraps it around his waist a few times and jumps into the water. That’s what you’d do if you wanted to get to shore with your clothes, but had to keep your limbs free to swim.

Now, Peter could have just jumped into the water, wearing only his loincloth, but the fact that he takes his tunic with him says something very important about his state of mind. What it says is this: Peter knows — now that he’s seen Jesus — he’s not going back to the fishing boat again! In a few minutes he’ll do just that, lending a hand to his comrades as together they haul that bulging net aboard for the last time, but at the crucial moment of decision his intention is to leave his old fisherman-self behind, completely, and throw in his lot with his Lord and master once again.

*****

That couldn’t have been the easiest thing for Peter to do: because he and Jesus have some unfinished business. As unexpected and fleeting as those other Jesus-sightings had been, Peter and Jesus evidently haven’t had the chance to work out that unfinished business. But now, Jesus takes care of it. He makes it right.

John takes pains to tell us that Jesus has a little cookfire going there on the beach, on which he’s grilling a few fish. Turns out, Jesus doesn’t need the fish from the net: he’s brought his own. “Come and have breakfast!” he says to them: a greeting as ordinary as it is inviting.

The whole scene calls to mind something else that’s happened, earlier in John’s Gospel. It happened in a spot not far from this very stretch of beach. It was alongside that very Sea of Galilee that a hungry crowd had gathered, and no way did the disciples have enough food to feed them. They gather up five measly loaves of bread and two smoked fish, and Jesus tells them to start dividing them up, and — what do you know? — but it’s enough to feed a multitude!

Same spot: or very nearly so. Same menu: bread and fish. Whenever Jesus Christ starts handing out food — whether by the lakeshore or at the Lord’s Table — he does so in mind-boggling abundance!

*****

John provides us with a little detail, here, that may seem to be incidental — but in fact, it’s central to what’s about to happen. John tells us it’s a charcoal fire.

The Greek word he uses for “charcoal fire” occurs only one other time in the whole New Testament. Can you recall when that is? (If you can, you win the Bible trivia prize for today!)

It occurs in that scene when Peter denies Jesus the first time. It’s a dark, bone-chilling night. He’s stumbling through the streets of the unforgiving city when he comes upon a charcoal fire in a brazier. Several people are standing there, warming their hands over the flame, and Peter steps up and joins them. As he’s rubbing his hands together — rather like Pilate did, when he was washing his hands of Jesus — one of the others says, “I know you: you were with the Galilean rabbi they just arrested!” And Peter says, “No. I wasn’t. It was someone else.”

As he stands there on the beach, looking into the eyes of his Lord and master, the aroma that reaches his nostrils is that of a charcoal fire. The sense of smell is a powerful thing, and you know the scent of burning charcoal would have sent Peter’s thoughts spinning back to that dreadful night, would have brought tears to his eyes, would have made his voice husky and thick with regret.

Such are the memories that occur to Peter, all through that breakfast on the beach. Yes, he’s overjoyed to be with Jesus once again, but his joy is not complete: because there’s that unfinished business between them. The thing unsaid that Peter’s not sure he can ever bring himself to say.

Well, Jesus has it covered. At some point toward the end of the meal, Jesus’ eyes meet his. And then the Risen Lord says the most extraordinary thing: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Feed my lambs.”

The two of them repeat the exchange two more times. It’s ordinary conversation, but it’s also a strange sort of liturgy.

It’s no accident that the threefold formula corresponds to the three times Peter denied Jesus. Here, with infinite patience and grace, the Lord is walking Peter back through his greatest regrets, his most heart-searing memories.

What’s happening here is what they call the healing of memories — which is among the most profound and fruitful healings of all. Jesus gives Peter the chance to live that episode of his life over, and to make it right this time.

*****

So, what is it that’s making your nets come up empty, these days? There’s a very real possibility that, somewhere at the bottom of that net of yours there is a hole, a ragged tear in the fabric — and because of that flaw, the net can hold no fish. What you’ve got to do, by God’s grace, is to mend your net. You’ve got to sew that hole up. Only you can’t do it yourself. You need someone to do it for you. You need an expert fisherman, a true mender of nets.

What you need is Jesus Christ. He’s the one who will listen to your tale of shame and regret with infinite patience. He’s the one who will take your pain upon himself. He’s the one who, by his amazing grace, will walk you back through what you’ve done (or failed to do), and make you whole again.

“Do you love me more than these?” he wants to know.

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Then, do the thing I’ve called you to do. Feed. My. Sheep.”

Let us pray:

Deep in the hearts of all of us, Lord Jesus,
way down in the darkness where no one else can see,
there is that dread place we shudder to mention:
the place of infinite pain.
We strive to live our lives — we all do —
without admitting it’s even there.
We admit it to no one else.
We scarcely dare admit it even to ourselves.
But you are no stranger to places of darkness.
You have plunged into the infinite darkness of death
and have come back, as the rising sun returns at break of day.
And so, at the weary end of all nights of fruitless striving,
you await us,
stoking the charcoal fire against the cold
and offering that blessed invitation, “Come and have breakfast.”
Yes, Lord: you know that we love you.
And we will feed your lambs. Amen.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.