April 14, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”
Dawn’s light may have been a welcome sight for the disciples. There were other times on the Sea of Tiberias that they longed for it. You can recall how these men had been in their boat during some rough nights. Twice they had endured incidents with Jesus on that big lake: the storm that blew up during the night while Jesus slept nearly drowned them; another night journey that Jesus had sent them on had turned into a frustrating effort. Both times Jesus had come to their aid: He calmed the storm; He strode across the waves to them.
But this evening on the Sea of Tiberias was a little different. The disciples had gone on the lake out of their own desire. It was their decision to go; no command had come from Jesus. Of course, you know that the timing of this excursion was a bit different than the earlier ones. Great events had preceded it. The crucifixion of Jesus had been followed by His resurrection. The Risen Lord had appeared to His disciples; twice He appeared, standing in the midst of them who had been cowering behind locked doors. But they had not seen Jesus for a while. So some of the disciples decide to take up again their expert skill of fishing.
That is what you heard: “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’” These seven disciples revert back to what they knew well. But the Gospel Writer mentions the outcome of their fishing venture: “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” A whole night of fishing, but not one part of the nets is filled. The amazement at this must have been great. How could they have lost their skills at this trade? Since when do dragnets catch nothing? You can easily think about the disciples’ frustration at this. When the sun starts rising, there would be the sense of putting a lousy night’s work to an end, putting it behind them for good.
But this event is meant for the disciples to receive something essential and beneficial. This is more than just a bad night of fishing. No, this event will be a revelation of Jesus’ identity for the disciples. That is how John introduces the event: “After this Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and He revealed Himself in this way….” A revelation is happening. It begins with Jesus’ appearance on the shore while the disciples are still frustrated on their boat: “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’”
Jesus’ question is a leading one. To put it in our English idiom a bit better, it’s more like this: “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you?” Jesus’ question is based on what He already knows about the disciples’ failed fishing expedition. Not that Jesus was in the boat with them, but that He knew that their attempts to go back to their former lives of fishing would fail. So Jesus gives them a command: “He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of the fish.” With Jesus’ command given to them, the disciples fill their nets—something they were unable to do after an entire night’s worth of work. And this leads them to the conclusion about who that Man on the shore is: “That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’”
So why does this event occur? What is the point of it? The answer is seen in what Jesus had once again done: He had revealed His identity as the Authoritative One by giving a command that it fulfilled. But it is also seen in what the outcome of that revelation is: the disciples are shown that their identity is no longer fishermen, but to be the apostles that Jesus had made them by sending them out with His authority to forgive and retain sins. Their livelihood was no longer with the fishing nets on the Sea of Tiberias. Their calling had been transformed because of what Jesus had done for them and to them. Apart from that, they could do nothing. But with Him, abiding by His authoritative command, these men would be able to fulfill their new tasks as apostles—to do the tending of Jesus’ sheep and to obediently follow Him, even to death. And this is where the event along the Sea of Tiberias where Jesus reveals Himself also has meaning to you.
Former lives are meant to be left in the past. A change has happened for you, just as there was a change for those disciples. A new identity has been given to you. Jesus gives it; His work establishes it. That was alluded to in the vision of the heavenly worship of Jesus that you heard in the Second Reading today: “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” It’s a big statement! Several points are made in it: Jesus had ransomed people; His ransoming made them God’s people; the ransomed people are no longer identified by what earthly group they came from, but as God’s kingdom.
That work of Jesus is the foundation for your new identity. You are the ransomed people. Jesus’ death and resurrection has made it so. You have been made participants in His work through your baptisms. That changes your identity, just as it changed Saul from being a persecutor of Jesus to being a believer in Him. A transformation has occurred. With that transformation comes an entirely new way of life. There are new allegiances and new responsibilities for you. There are new tasks that you are assigned.
Each Easter Season, the Church recalls that new identity given through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is done at the Easter Vigil, when the Service of Baptismal Remembrance is conducted. The scrutinies are asked of the members again: “Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways?” These questions refer to a setting aside a former life and a desire to keep it away. What is renounced is put in the past and meant to remain there.
At Pentecost, confirmands are asked questions about the new way of life that they are entering: “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully? Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” Now these are putting in front of them the new acts, the new responsibilities that they have. Those who have been ransomed and brought into the kingdom of God are given responsibilities. Chief among them is to be people who receive Jesus’ benefits through the ways that He instituted: hearing His works done for them in the Gospel accounts; receiving the sacrament that recalls His giving Himself into death for forgiveness of sins. Then having received these benefits, the people of God live according to the statutes that He established.
There is a connection between these aspects of your new identity and the new identity that was given to the disciples. They were commissioned by Jesus, granted His authority to carry His benefits out into the world. As they did so, they began to feed Jesus’ lambs and tend Jesus’ sheep. Through the line of men who carried His authority and acted according to His commands, Jesus’ ransoming work was applied to you. They didn’t go back to fishing, but became the fishers of men. When they acted according to the authoritative command of Jesus, then what the Lord said was carried out: sins were forgiven, new life was granted, places in the kingdom of God were assigned. You are called to trust in the promises that Jesus attaches to His authoritative commands. Hearing them spoken by those whom Jesus authorizes to speak them, you receive the benefits that Jesus accomplished for you.
So what effect does that have for you? You now no longer consider yourself first and foremost by whatever earthly category you may have. No, your true identity is being a subject of God’s kingdom, being one of His priests. So you offer your worship to Jesus alongside those in the heavenly realm: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” You gather with those who have also been given that identity and partake of the feast of victory for your God. Then while you are here in this creation that your Lord created and redeemed, you live for His honor, for His glory.
But note well: the living for your Lord’s honor and glory is not one-dimensional. It is not given only in the words of praise that you speak of the Crucified and Risen Jesus. It is also given in the lives that you live—in faith, word, and deed. That may indeed mean suffering for the sake of Jesus’ name during this life. The suffering can be the pain that comes from putting the old self to death by daily repentance. The suffering can be the pain that comes from being persecuted for what you believe and do. You have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, no longer counting your own self greater or most important. You walk in the cruciform life that Jesus made your identity when He said to you, “Follow Me.” It becomes the way that you want to go, just as it did for Peter and Paul.
Trying to go back to your former way of life will also lead to nothing truly good. Attempting to establish your own way of discipleship, you will not be successful at all. There will be nights full of fishing that result in empty nets—or choose whatever metaphor you like. But when there is the trust in Jesus’ commands and the promises He attaches to them, there will be the intended result for you, just as it was for those disciples and the others whom Jesus called. That is what this event along the Sea of Tiberias is meant to teach you. So receive the benefits that Jesus gives where He reveals Himself—in the apostolic preaching, in the sacraments He instituted, in the places where He has put His command and promise. Then go take up the responsibilities and duties that are part of the new identity that He has given you as the ransomed people in God’s kingdom.