Today we reach the shore of a lake and we see that Jesus has cooked a fish breakfast on a campfire.
(A campfire: This campfire might stir our memory. Didn’t we see a campfire not too long ago? Yes: Peter huddles beside a campfire that is burning just outside the house of Annas the high priest. Peter tries to warm himself on that terrible night when he betrays his friend three times. And so, maybe he is approaching the seashore campfire this morning with a growing anxiety: will the risen Lord mention the unmentionable? Will he name Peter’s betrayal, and hold him to account for it?
Yes. Yes, the risen Lord will do just that.)
But first let’s talk about the fish Jesus is grilling. Fish swim through all the waters of our Bible. They flourish in lively joy at the Creation. The prophet Ezekiel says that when God returns to the temple, the sea creatures will teem in the fresh waters that flow from God’s presence. God speaks to the sea beast that swallows Jonah and spits him out again, preserving his life. The sea beast dances in Psalm 104, the Leviathan that God made just for the fun of it! But in Psalm 74 God slices open the sea beast and feeds it to the creatures in the wilderness. Then we find Jesus hanging out with smelly fisherfolk, calling them from their nets to be “fishers of people.” And then a child’s sack lunch of fish and bread becomes the nourishment of a multitude.
The sea beast, the great fish, is terrifying and terrible, but it is also life-giving food.
The sea beast, the great fish, is chaos itself, but it becomes a lifeboat for Jonah.
The sea beast is a busy biblical symbol. Though it is often drawn in opposition to God, it may speak to our conflicting feelings about God, the Gracious One whose Spirit broods over the chaos and creates food for every living creature … but also the Terrifying One who searches our hearts and calls us onto a difficult Way of justice, and peace, and love.
The sea beast is sizzling this morning on a breakfast fire, tended by the risen Lord. And so we are reminded that Christ has trampled death with death, and in his rising from the grave, we too are resurrected: sin and death are defeated, the terrible fish is caught, its head is crushed, its flesh is cooked perfectly for our nourishment.
All this grisly imagery reminds us, most importantly, that the fish is Christ himself. In Greek, the full name of Jesus forms an acronym for ‘fish.’ Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior: the first letters of this title spell ἰχθύς, the Greek word for ‘fish.’ This is why cars on our 21st-century roads have the ancient symbol of a fish on their bumpers: when Jesus followers of the first century hid from their persecutors, the image of the fish became code for the movement. But it is primarily a reminder that we feed on the flesh of our Savior. Christ is the great fish split open to nourish all the creatures in the wilderness (that includes us). By eating his flesh, we are strengthened to live out our identity as the baptized who are joined to his death and resurrection; we are nourished for our work as fishers of people; we, feeding on Jesus, rise up in triumph over sin and death, not at all by our own power, but only by the power and grace of God.
All that in a little fish breakfast by the sea!
And … the fish is another ominous sign for poor Peter. (I preach about Peter a lot, I realized the other day. A lot! Practically every sermon! But that is because he is, so deeply, so perfectly, our beloved brother, our companion in all the ways we get it wrong and get it right, and then get it wrong again. We know this man.) Poor Peter will also become the fish on the campfire, crucified just like Jesus for the sake of the Gospel. Today Jesus pivots from all this fish imagery to make Peter a shepherd, a tender of sheep. And Jesus tells Peter that to be this shepherd, to feed the lambs and tend the sheep, to be reconciled to Jesus and to follow him—this will inevitably lead to Peter’s death. He will have to give his all to the movement.
And all he had said as he first set out in the boat the night before was, “I am going fishing.”
I am going fishing: this is a Monday-morning kind of thing to say. It’s Peter’s way of saying that everything that had happened was exciting and scary and immense, but … now what? I might as well go back to my day job, the job I had before all this started. He and his brother and friends had all left their nets to follow Jesus, and even in light of the Resurrection (a bizarre, scary, and confusing event!), it seems like the Jesus Movement really didn’t work out, in the end. If your hopes have ever been dashed; if you have ever thought you were on the verge of something incredible, only to be left deflated and disappointed; if you have doubted that life will ever be as good again, as vivid again, as important and vital and pregnant with possibility again—if you have ever felt these dreary, dull forms of grief, then you will understand what Peter means when he says, “I am going fishing.”
But of course Jesus isn’t done with Peter, or with us. Jesus meets us exactly here, in this Monday-morning place, to serve us grilled sea beast, to confront us with his living presence and with our own identity as his followers, to transform our Monday mornings into something More.
But first, he messes with the fishermen a little. He has them throw their net in the other direction, and boom, 153 fish are straining their net. 153: St. Jerome tells us that the ancient Greeks counted 153 types of fish in the sea. And so these disciples, who in the other Gospels Jesus calls “fishers of people,” are now going to go forward in the Resurrection light and catch all people in their nets. They—and we, their descendants—are going to be fabulously successful apostles.
Then the ever-impulsive Peter jumps into the water to swim ashore, while the others row there, as sensible people do. And then the awkward breakfast begins. They don’t want to talk to him, because they know who he is, and the risen Jesus is, let’s face it, very strange. He had ignored the locks on their doors after his death, passing into their midst without any misguided “fear of the Jews,” without any small-minded fear of anything or anyone else. He had breathed peace on them, but he had done so with open wounds on his body. Their friend and Lord is intense! So this breakfast is, well, deeply weird. Finally, Jesus turns to Peter, and in a three-fold process, he does these things:
Jesus shows Peter that yes, he knows his secret heart: Jesus knows what Peter did, who Peter is, and even who Peter will become.
Then he compels Peter to repair all three of the painful denials from that terrible night.
And finally he teaches all of his followers that the light of Resurrection is also the difficult Way of justice, peace, and love.
And now, we approach this campfire. A Thanksgiving breakfast will be prepared here, at this Table. When we eat it, in a circle facing each other, we will take into ourselves the flesh of our Savior. We will eat the slaughtered sea beast. We will be strengthened once again to go out and live our baptismal identity in this good yet troubled world.
This meal, like the risen Lord, can be scary, powerful, daunting. But we know that Christ has gone before us, walks with us, guides us, knows our hearts, gives even his own body for us. We know that this “fish breakfast” is the Way of life, and that God is here, making us all into fishers of people. Come, and be nourished. Come, and be strengthened to make your song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C), May 5, 2019, Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, Virginia.