The Third Sunday of Easter rounds out the Resurrection stories: Easter Vigil is from the Year of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Easter morning is John (or optional Luke), and the Second Sunday is the appearance to Doubting Thomas, which John tells us occurs a week after. The Fourth Sunday will be Good Shepherd, and the rest of Easter is from the farewell discourse in John 13-17.
This year our story is Peter and the guys out fishing. Peter puts his clothes on and jumps in the water when he hears Jesus call. It’s one of my family’s favorite slapstick moments in the Gospels—Peter’s enthusiasm is infectious—and I have been thinking about the humor of John’s Gospel, which returns again and again to the confusions of fleshy people trying to think about Jesus’s words.
But I did a little research about fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and what strikes me even more than the humor is Peter’s vocation.
Peter is a fisherman. Jesus sends them home to Galilee, and Peter says, “I am going fishing”—all night. It’s who he is.
He has no luck that night. But Jesus’s ability to give them fish points to how much providence there is in fishing. I don’t think it suggests that Peter was a bad fisherman.
Our translation says, “He tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad.” That’s polite. It’s more like, “he pulled on a pull-over, and tied a belt around it”—casual fishing clothes, I think—“because he was naked.”
Now, it’s fair enough to conjecture that “naked” just meant “under-dressed.” Okay. But it sounds like the way this kind of fishing worked, you’d throw a net in the water with weights on one side and floats on the other, and then use your boat to pull it around in a circle, so you have a kind of cylinder. Then someone has to dive down and pull the bottom of the net closed: my favorite Bible dictionary describes seeing fishermen do this in late nineteenth century Galilee, so it’s not impossible, and it might just be the traditional way to do it. It would explain why Peter was naked—swim trunks are a new thing—and why he thinks nothing of jumping back in. Peter was a serious swimmer.
Then we hear that Peter swam to land, while the others rowed. Yes, Peter’s swimming is enthusiastic. But it’s also athletic. It says they were a hundred yards from shore, which was short for their little boat. But for a swimmer, that’s two lengths of an Olympic-size pool, or four lengths in a normal pool—fully clothed, just after grabbing that net from the bottom. That’s athletic.
Then Peter rushes over and single handedly drags ashore a net full of one hundred fifty-three large fish—these were probably Mango Tilapias, about eighteen inches long and three and a half pounds each, so five hundred thirty-five pounds of fish, plus soaking wet netting: no wonder the guys couldn’t get that net into the boat. Peter is really athletic. Perhaps he has the miraculous strength of the Resurrected One, but he is really athletic.
Then they eat fish and bread over a seaside fire, as if to drive home Peter’s natural environment. Peter was a fisherman, the kind who fished with big nets.
But the Lectionary, always brilliant, pairs that story with the next one, “Do you love me?” People are right to focus on the love part—and perhaps that love is the perfect explanation for Peter’s swimming enthusiasm.
But I’m interested in the fisherman. It’s fascinating that in such a fisherman context, Jesus changes the subject, mixes the metaphor. He
doesn’t tell Peter to be a fisherman. He says, “Feed my lambs.” (The threefold repetition brings out three parts of shepherding: food for the baby lambs, watch over the big sheep, and feed the big sheep.) Peter is not a shepherd, he’s a fisherman. I imagine shepherds and fishermen didn’t understand each other.
And then the punchline: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted.” In fact, we have just seen Peter’s athletic youthfulness, his dressing himself and freedom with his clothes—naked, wet clothes, he does whatever he wants—and his going where he wants: fishing, not shepherding.
Nice that Jesus calls him, “Simon, Son of John,” pointing to his origin—and tearing him from it.
John tells us this was Jesus’s third appearance to the apostles. He had appeared to Mary Magdalene (not the apostles) and said, “Do not touch me.” He appeard to the Apostles the first time in the Upper Room, and showed them his hands. He appeard to Thomas and the Apostles the second time and let Thomas touch his hands. And now he is helping them fish and eating with them. He gets fleshier and fleshier.
And the more real he is, the more the power of the Resurrection tears Peter from his comfortable home place and drags him out, to pastoral concern for others instead of fishing with the guys whenever he wants—“I am going fishing!”—and to his own crucifixion.
Where is the power of the Resurrection drawing you?