In the Gospel reading for Sunday 1st May two of the special stories of Easter are, to me, linked by
a charcoal fire. Cast your mind back to that terrible night when Jesus was arrested. He is in the
courtyard of the High Priest’s house in Jerusalem and Peter is outside the gate. “You were with
him” says a voice; “No I wasn’t” Peter says. It’s cold, it’s evening and he moves closer to the fire to
warm himself. Twice more he is recognised, twice more he denies knowing Jesus – then the cock
crows. I wonder how often the memory of that cock-crow had repeated itself in his head, the
sound, the sight of the fire as he gazed into the flames to avoid looking at his ‘accuser’; the smell
of the charcoal fire.
And now – here from his fishing boat on Lake Galilee – as dawn breaks Peter recognises Jesus on
the beach and swims to the shore only to find – a charcoal fire burning. The sight, the smell – the
cock crow echoes in his head as Jesus asks him three times “Simon Peter – do you love me?”
“Of course I love you Jesus” says Peter – and Jesus gives him the greatest task he has ever given
to anyone – Peter is forgiven – completely. We can’t earn forgiveness – it is given freely but it carries
with it the responsibility of care. As I read this story I can imagine myself on that beach – it is, after
all, one of my favourite places in the world – and when I’m there I can almost smell the charcoal
fire and the cooking fish and hear Jesus asking ME – “Do you love me?” I have to admit that, like
Peter, I can find myself challenged by that question.
It’s a wonderful story – just as the day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples
did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “have you any fish?” “No” they reply and Jesus
says, “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, for the quantity of fish. THEN Peter recognises Jesus, “It is the
Lord!” and he jumps into the sea leaving the rest of the disciples to bring ashore the boat and the
fish, which they did, dragging the net full of fish.
The fishermen disciples have fished all night – unsuccessfully – when Jesus calls out and tells them
to throw the net on the other side of the boat. They do it and hit a bonanza – 153 fish, we are told
later. Jerome, one of the early commentators, said that was because there were 153 known
varieties of fish in the world at that time. And, as the net was not broken by all those fish – the writer
later makes a point of that as well – we can only suppose that it was a symbolic picture of Jesus
and his disciples drawing the entire world into the net of God’s great purpose.
That’s the common interpretation but let’s have a look at the story again.
Let’s begin with the lake itself, the place where they were fishing. Lakes are strange and symbolic
places – partly because they are often deep and hold secrets that can’t be discerned from the
surface. Galilee isn’t deep but it doesn’t always respond as you would expect – especially for the
disciples – storms blow up and Jesus calms them, on another occasion Jesus comes to them
walking on the water – and Peter has a go too! And here was the location for the call of several of
There is something almost dreamlike about this scene, isn’t there? Halfway between night and day,
with the first hint of dawn creeping over the hills, patches of mist rising from the water and the
gentle noise of waves slapping against the boat or dripping from the nets. The deep sighs of the
fishermen, whose muscles ache from the toil of the fruitless night doing what they know – in the
way they know. Then, there on the beach – as large as life – standing on the shore and calling to
them through the mist is Jesus telling them they will catch something if they will lower their nets on
the other side of the boat, the right side. They had been fishing on the left side – apparently the
usual side to throw out the nets. Jesus, not a trained fisherman, telling the ‘trained’ fishermen how
to do their job! AND, at this point they didn’t know who he was – I wonder how grumpy they were
about doing a different thing?!
Now – and the disciples can’t have known about what I’m about to say and I’m not suggesting that
there is a connection but I think it’s quite interesting – medical research shows that for most of us
the left side of the brain is the calculating, orderly side, the side that analyses, does figures, gives
names to things. The right side is the dreaming side, the creative, artistic side, the side that
responds to pictures and images, such as the one we are thinking about here.
Jesus had dealt with a lot of left-brained people in the Gospel. They were the ones who were very
legalistic, who thought everything could be got down in black and white. Maybe Jesus was saying
to the disciples here that they were not to be like those people, always trying to take the measure
of things, they were to live and act out of their right brains, as visionaries and artists. Maybe Jesus
was saying to the disciples – if you are going to work for me effectively you are going to have to do
things in different ways. They were to trust God and live nobly, generously, without counting the
cost or stopping to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. If they would do that, they would always find their
nets full, they would live in the overflow of grace and excitement.
But suppose there is something even more personal in the text, something for each one of us, that
goes beyond the more obvious and general meaning. What if the story of the lake and the
fishermen suggests something to us about our own stories, about the way we may have been
fishing a long time without any luck, without catching any fish? Sometimes it feels like that doesn’t
it? Some of us have been plodding along in our church jobs week after week, year after year, with
no sense of reward no feeling that we are getting anywhere.
Or maybe we haven’t been getting any return on our personal spiritual efforts. We have been
praying, reading our bibles, going to church or listening to religious programs – or maybe all of the
above – and nothing has been happening, our nets have been coming up empty.
BUT – says Jesus – why not try something different – cast your net on the other side – in a different
place – not necessarily the place you have been taught to cast it – the lake is deep and has far
richer resources than we usually imagine. It is never completely fished out, not for any of us. We
only need to learn to readjust, to let our nets down in a new area, to rediscover the riches.
And when we do – this is the point of the story from the Gospel – when we do, when we pull up our
nets full of fish again, then we suddenly realise the presence of God in our lives. It is after all, when
the fishermen let down their nets on the right (wrong!) side and pull them in teeming with fish that
they suddenly recognise Jesus on the shore and realise there is a connection between him and
what has happened. “It is the Lord!” – they cry. I wonder what this story might be saying to the