Recognizing Jesus

John 21:1-14

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 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. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to 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 there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”


When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


These few verses include some truly fascinating items. One translator has the evangelist  writing this clarifying sentence: After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  The city of Tiberias was established in 18 AD by Herod Antipas and he made it his capitol.  But the Jews of Jesus’ day wouldn’t live there and didn’t for over a hundred years because it wasn’t kosher, having been built over an old cemetery.  Ultimately they moved the graves outside the city walls. It was only then that the city’s name  replaced Galilee for the name of the body of water. It’s also a reminder that there was evidently a lot going on in Palestine at the time not reported in scriptures.


Another interesting note — in the resurrection story told by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we are told that an angel tells the women to tell his disciples that Jesus was going before them into Galilee and “there you will see him”.  The Gospel of John doesn’t mention it.  However it relates the event in some detail including naming seven of Jesus’ disciples being met by Jesus on the beach.   Of the synoptics only Matthew refers to Jesus making this appointment but instead of being breakfast on the beach it occurs on a mountain with eleven unnamed disciples attending.


There is another interesting connection with this Gospel and the tradition of the synoptic Gospels.  Here, literally in the epilogue, for the very first time in the Gospel of John, a mention is made of the “sons of Zebedee” an identification we’re familiar with from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.


Not counting his first appearance to Mary Magdalene, this is the third time Jesus’ appeared to this same group.  These were people who knew him better than anyone else.  And yet in none of these incidences do they recognize him. Mary thinks him a gardener until he calls her by name.  In the first locked room appearance Jesus appears and startles those gathered there and it wasn’t until he spoke, saying Peace be unto you, that he was recognized. Then, the text says, they were filled with joy when ‘they saw the Lord’.   A week later, this time with Thomas present, things were a bit different. The text doesn’t say they didn’t recognize Jesus but to have him appear among them though the door was locked evidently startled them.  And now, in the morning on the beach Jesus wasn’t recognized by the seven disciples. In Luke’s story of the Emmaus road event it says the eyes of Cleopas and his walking partner were kept from recognizing Jesus.  We aren’t told that such was the case in these other appearances.  Once recognized Mary says “my Master”, the fearful disciples were filled with joy and Thomas declares ‘My Lord and my God’.


In our story Jesus, not yet recognized by his disciples, a carpenter by trade and a teacher by practice, shouts instructions from the shore to men who have been professional fishermen since childhood.  ‘…toss your net to the right side of the boat’ he says.  No fisherman who knows his salt would think of fishing from the starboard side.  The right side is the starboard side. The designation starboard is from an Old English word meaning the side of the vessel from which it is steered.  On first century fishing boats, before rudders,  a steering oar was attached to the right side.  The risk of tangling their net in the tiller and losing their catch was too great. Jesus’ direction to cast their net to the starboard was to their minds ludicrous.


But when they did the text says that the school of fish that filled their net was so large they couldn’t haul it in to the boat.  It was in that moment when the stranger on the shore, telling them to think differently about how to catch fish, was identified as Jesus by one of the disciples. Was it the draught of fish or the suggestion to challenge traditional habits and practices that caused the disciple to know it was Jesus?


It was common practice to net fish without clothes because it was often necessary to dive into the water.  So Peter, before, swimming to shore, gets dressed.  Around a charcoal fire Jesus had fish and bread.  The others manage to beach the boat leaving the net full fish.  Jesus asks them to bring some fish from the catch and in response Peter goes on board the beached boat and hauls the catch ashore astounded by the facts that there were so many fish and large at that and that the net wasn’t torn. Jesus invites them to breakfast and then we read this line  “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.   So still, after all that, in appearance they didn’t recognize Jesus.  I’m reminded of a line I’ve used many times around a grave site.  “death is only an horizon, and an horizon is only the limit of our sight.”  We’ll never know what it was about Jesus’ resurrected being that made him unrecognizable to his closest followers.  We’ll never know whether there is any meaningful significance to the 153 large fish the Peter wrestled to shore. But I’m left with the impression that  even today Jesus appears to us in many forms and is unrecognizable until we listen to hear his voice call our name, say something as simple as Peace be with you or invite us to breakfast.  The fact that one of the fishermen knew it was Jesus after being told to break with tradition and fish in a different way seems pretty expected from Jesus who turned everything else upside down.  To risk being open to ministry in unfamiliar and disconcerting ways may be the strongest message from this whole passage.



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