Third Sunday in Easter, Year C
Simon Peter said to them, “I’m going fishing.” The others said to him, “We’ll go with you.”
This is a really odd scene. In our appointed gospel passage today, we miss a sort of jarring transition that happens in St. John’s gospel. In the scene immediately preceding this passage, the scene we heard in last Sunday’s gospel, the disciples are huddled in a room in Jerusalem. The resurrected Jesus appears to them there. It’s the second time he has appeared to them, and it is the familiar scene in which Thomas finally sees and believes that Jesus is alive. It is a dramatic and climactic scene.
Now, suddenly, the story has moved 150 miles north to the shore of the large lake Genneserat. Also known as the Sea of Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee. We’re not told how they got there, when they got there, or what they’re doing. The scene simply opens, and Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”
That, to me, is a startling. One moment, the story has Peter and the boys in Jerusalem, wrestling with the astonishing event of the resurrection. The next moment has them back in Galilee, back in their old home town, doing something totally mundane: getting ready to go fishing.
What I find fascinating about this gospel is the different ways it can be heard. When Peter says “I’m going fishing,” and then his comrades say “We’ll go with you,” what kind of image does that conjure up in your mind?
My image is rooted in the rural south. In little towns in the southern countryside, it used to be not at all uncommon to visit a little store or barber shop or the like and find a sign that said “gone fishin.” It was just an accepted part of small town life that if the fish were biting, it was a perfectly good reason to close up shop and try to catch a few. “Gone fishin” ranked up there with Sundays and major holidays, and it meant that something more important than business needed attending to.
So the image this passage conjures in my imagination is of a couple of Galilean boys taking time off to do a little fishing. Which seems sort of odd given the extreme tension and emotion of the scene immediately before. It’s like Peter saying, “Boys, this has been a bit much. I think I’m just gonna go fishing.”
And yet, what better thing could Peter and the guys have done. They needed space. They needed time. The events in Jerusalem had been too much to absorb. They needed to ponder the bizarre things they had heard and seen. They needed to pray. And so, it seems altogether natural for these men of Galilee to return home and do the very thing they knew best. To fish.
One of my most treasured friendships is with a guy named Skip Adams. He was a priest colleague of mine long ago in Virginia. In January of 1994, Skip moved from Virginia to the gorgeous little town of Skaneateles, New York. Six months later, I moved to Albany. And roughly every six weeks thereafter, he and I would split the distance between us and drive to the little town of Richfield Springs, NY, and have a long lunch and deep conversations in a little diner there. A very significant factor in Skip’s decision to go to Skaneateles was that the rectory and church sit right on the edge of Skaneateles Lake. Skip’s true passion is fly-fishing. And the best thing about his life there in Skaneateles was that he could put on his waders at any time and head out into the lake. He claimed he did his best praying waist-deep in ice-cold water.
One day, Skip decided to use his lunch hour to fish. So he put his waders on and headed out. He must have been a funny sight, standing in the lake with his clerical collar on, because soon another fisherman waded over nearby. Skip and this man struck up a conversation.
To make a long story short, the man was unchurched, but intrigued by this clergy collar wearing fellow fly-fishing in the lake. A long conversation ensued, which gradually came to be about the spirituality of fly-fishing. A week later that conversation and a picture of Skip in his collar and waders showed up in the sports pages of the Syracuse newspaper. The man, it turned out, had been a sports writer. And in the weeks and months that followed, Skip received dozens of letters and phone calls, and even a few face to face conversations, with people who felt they could relate to what Skip was saying. Skip told me that in all his years of ministry, nothing he had ever taught, preached, or done, had functioned so effectively as evangelism as had going fishing that one afternoon on his lunch hour. About two years after that conversation, Skip was elected the bishop of Central New York. Fly fishing is still a core component of his ministry.
“I’m going fishing.” It seems such a profoundly underwhelming response to the awesome event of Jesus’ resurrection. But was it really?
What else was there to do? They returned home. Home to their families, home to their friends, home to the fishing boats and nets they had left to follow Jesus. Home to the mundane realities that, perhaps, they had thought they would leave behind when Jesus took power as king.
But, of course, Jesus never did take power as king. He never did become the messiah they had believed he would become. He died. And then, somehow, he was alive again. Something bizarre and unexplainable had happened in their midst, but they had no idea what it was. So, they returned home, and began to resume the lives they had lived before Jesus showed up.
They went fishing. They got back to work. They resumed their familiar old routines. But then, suddenly, in the midst of the totally familiar, the totally ordinary, there he was again. On the beach, tending a little breakfast of bread and broiled fish, he came among them again.
It was there in the utterly routine that the Risen Jesus visited those fishermen that day. And that is still the place where the Risen Jesus visits us in this day. In our workplaces, in our public places, in the backyards and kitchens of our lives. In the middle of a lake with our waders on. That is where the Risen Jesus awaits to be encountered. But, as did the disciples there on the beach, we usually at first don’t recognize him.
The meeting places where God seeks us are ever so unremarkable. A lake, a table, a little bread and wine. Where in your ordinary life might God be waiting? For Peter and his friends, for Skip and that sportswriter, it was a lake. What about you? What sign might you hang on your door for a few hours? Go fishing. Go looking. Allow yourself to be found and welcomed and fed by the living Jesus.