Fishing in the Dark with an Empty Net – John 21:1-19

At the end of John’s Gospel, the Epilogue, we find Peter and some other disciples hanging out near the Lake of Galilee. Peter is in a miserable state; his soul is in a place of darkness, having recently denied the Lord three times. At this point, Christ has appeared to them after the Resurrection, but perhaps the full impact of the post-resurrection era has not set in yet. Peter doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he falls back on what he knows. “I’m going fishing,” he says. In other words, “I’m going back to my old job.” Peter isn’t saying he isn’t going to believe in the Lord anymore. He isn’t saying he will not follow Christ. He is saying “I can’t take this.” He’s miserable with himself, so it’s comforting to him to go do something he knows he’s good at and can count on. He has fished this lake much of his life. He knows how to do it, and he knows what to expect. He knows the fish are there, and he is confident in his skills as a fisherman. Perhaps in a show of support and camaraderie, his friends go with him.

They catch nothing. They are out all night, and don’t get anything out of it that they expected. This has to be extremely disheartening for Peter, it’s “the straw that broke the camel’s back” considering the shape he was in.

The anguish of Peter’s soul cannot be short-changed, nor can the process he is going through. It’s liminal space, and we can all relate to it. It’s a gap between seasons of life in which we feel naked and as though the ground we stand on is not ground at all – it’s nothingness. We feel unstable and tremble with anxiety. It’s a dark place and the night is long. We have limited visibility, and the only thing we see or don’t see is the productivity we desire for our efforts. Peter caught nothing. All night – nothing. Surely, there have been such nights before, but not on this night. Now, more than ever – he deeply wants results, and is coming up much worse than short.

The text doesn’t say God withheld the catch, but God may have. If God did, it wasn’t to mess with Peter or cause him added distress. Or was it? Perhaps what looks and feels like added distress is simply an anxiety that is already there but is called out in full measure to be dealt with under the heat lamp of travail. While Peter is focused on circumstances outside of his inner being, God is invested in the process of his inner being’s development and trust in God in the context of their relationship. However, that can be hard to see when the soul is in that place of darkness, and we can’t see past the empty net.

Then, the sun rises. After a long and stressful night, the dawn appears and the Lord is on the beach. He had been there, but Peter couldn’t see him because of the darkness, and maybe because he didn’t look for him. Nonetheless, the Lord is there, and has breakfast ready. Before he lets the fellas in on this, though, he asks them if they’ve caught anything. It’s probably  embarrassing for them to admit they have nothing to show for the long night, but they say “no,” and the Lord tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. Now, the net is bursting with large fish, but doesn’t break. If God held back through the night, it was to set up the lesson Peter has just received – that he can rely on his own abilities, but God owns him. God will release the outcome according to God’s planning and timing. God’s interest was not in holding back the catch, but to let Peter know deep in his soul that God is sovereign over Peter’s affairs. Later in the chapter, the Lord even foretells Peter’s death – indicating to Peter that though horrible, it will not reflect a lack of love on God’s part or a helplessness on God’s part, concerning humanity’s free will and the evil sometimes carried out in its abuse.

This final chapter depicts Christ finding his men the way He found them to begin with: fishing. He once told Peter he would be a “fisher of men,” but to make certain Peter doesn’t get confused by the wordplay, the Lord switches up the analogy by telling him to feed His sheep – three times over a charcoal fire. This is the same kind of fire over which Peter denied the Lord. The third denial was seared into Peter’s soul when the rooster crowed. So, here he is over a charcoal fire at dawn. Somewhere, a rooster was crowing and the Lord asks Peter if he loves him. There is an interesting change of words here in the original Greek. Twice, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, using the word “agapao.” Christ asks Peter if he loves him with an unfailing love – divine love, and Peter can’t say he does. He answers, using the word “phileo,” which is a human love; the kind shared between close friends and family members. So, Christ asks Peter if he loves him with an unfailing love and Peter says “Lord, you know I’m your friend.” On the third occasion, the Lord comes down to where Peter is by using phileo when He asks Peter if he loves Him. Peter is grieved and relies on Christ’s omniscience when he says “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you (phileo)” and he is given the third command to feed the Lord’s sheep.

After the denials and a long, hard night of travail on the waters of anxiety, Peter is restored.

Christ, then, tells Peter how he is going to die. By the time John wrote this, he knew what the Lord’s words meant for Peter, though the text doesn’t say Peter understood at the time. He did, however, understand Christ’s next words: “follow me.” Not “worship me” or “serve me,” but “follow me.” Following Christ would not be an easy path for Peter. There would be many more nights – long, dark nights when all he (and we) may see is an empty net, but this night would remind Peter (and us) that God is still sovereign, our Savior is still on the shore, and breakfast is waiting.

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