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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 21:1-19
“Fish for Breakfast”
April 14, 2013 - Third Sunday of Easter

         “How many fish did you catch?” That’s the key question for any fisherman. It’s one we love to answer. We will gladly share that statistic, along with answers to questions you didn’t ask, like length, weight, and how many minutes the big one took to land, how many were almost caught, and maybe the water temperature and the size of the leader and fly being used.

         A fisherman’s love for measuring his catch is probably only matched by a mother’s love for the measurements of her newborn. Once again, if you ask, you will be happily subjected to hearing about length, weight, hours of labor, Apgar score, and the child’s percentile among other babies of the same age.

         In any case, Jesus’ disciples were just like any other fishermen. Writing his gospel maybe forty or fifty years after the events we just read, John wrote verse 11. As Oregon writer David James Duncan points out in his marvelous book, The River Why, “we learn that the net contained not ‘a boatload’ of fish, nor ‘about a hundred and a half,’ nor ‘over a gross,” but precisely ‘an hundred and fifty and three.’”[1]

         For two thousand years, Bible readers and theologians have operated on the principle that if John was so careful to write down that precise number, then it must be important. There must be some great significance to 153. The great Bible translator and interpreter Jerome cited a classical writer named Oppian who wrote a long poem about fishing for the emperor Marcus Arelius. Oppian was supposed to have named 153 kinds of fish in the world. So Jerome concluded that the 153 fish in the net were 1 of every kind, demonstrating that Jesus would bring people from every tribe and nation on earth into His kingdom.

         The problem is that the best counts on Oppian’s poem make it about 157 sorts of fish, so Jerome either miscounted or was fudging, a practice not unknown in fishing statistics. Other interpreters have been even more imaginative. Augustine was maybe the first to note that 153 is the “triangular” sum of 17. Like the rows in the triangle of bowling pins, you add up all the numbers in a “triangle” in which each row gets bigger by one, 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 and so on. So those ten bowling bins are the triangular number of 4 and 153 is what you get if you go all the way up to 17.

         Well, said Augustine, 17 is obviously the Ten Commandments plus the seven-fold Spirit of God from Revelation 1:4, which I mentioned last week. Or you may remember that Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves of bread and then they took up twelve baskets of leftovers. 5 + 12 = 17. What could be more plain?

         Other writers have gone after 153 a little differently, adding up those digits. 1 + 5 + 3 = 9. 9 is 3 X 3, the Trinity squared. What could be more obvious?

         More recently, scholars acquainted with Jewish methods of interpretation have applied a system called “gematria” to the sum of those fish. In gematria, every letter of the alphabet is linked to a number. So in English, A = 1, B = 2 and so on. So now, stay with me, turn over to Ezekiel 47 where we read about that great River which flows out from the Temple and transforms the Dead Sea, making salt water into fresh. Verse 10 of Ezekiel 47 says that fishermen will stand on the shore and spread their nets from En Gedi to En Eglaim and will catch fish of many kinds. Do the gematria on Gedi and you get 17. Eglaim gives you 153. Well how about that?

         Of course, someone else tried it in Greek and found that the gematria number for Simon equals 76 and for Fish it’s 77. Add them together and, voila!, 153.

         And, you can also take the number of the apostles which is 12, square it and get 144, plus the number of the Trinity, square it and get 9, add them together and once again there it is, 153. All in all, it’s a very cool number and we could probably go on finding all sorts of spiritual meanings in it for the rest of the morning.

         The truly fascinating thing about this number, though, is that we have it. Listen to David James Duncan again. He writes:

Consider the circumstances: this is after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; Jesus is standing on the beach newly risen from the dead, and it is only the third time the disciples have seen him since the nightmare of Calvary. And yet we learn that in the net there were “great fishes” numbering precisely “an hundred and fifty and three.” How was this digit discovered? Mustn’t it have happened thus: upon hauling the net to shore, the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,…” all the way up to an hundred and fifty and three, while the newly risen Lord of Creation, the Sustainer of their beings, He who died for them and for Whom they would gladly die, stood waiting, ignored, till the heap of fish was quantified. Such is the fisherman’s compulsion toward ru­dimentary mathematics![2]

         The significance of the number is the very fact that we’re given the number. The disciples counted the fish. They cared about how many they caught. They cared enough to put off talking with Jesus for a little while. Maybe Jesus Himself wanted to know.

         We need to make the connection now that John himself, the beloved disciple, shared with Peter in verse 7. This miracle is the same kind of thing that happened when they first met Jesus in Luke 5. They had been fishing hard all night, but not caught anything. Then Jesus comes along and suddenly they’re catching huge amounts of fish. And how did Jesus explain that to them? As they followed Him, they would learn to fish for people, they would learn to draw men and women into God’s kingdom.

         This after-the-Resurrection fishing miracle happened, and the number was recorded by John, to say that the mission was still the same. After all that had happened, Jesus still wanted them be, in the old words, “fishers of men.” He still meant for the apostles to help bring in every person who wants to be saved by the grace of Jesus. And each and every one of those people is important enough to be counted.

         A few weeks before Easter we read Acts chapter 2. Remember that they counted how many people, three thousand, believed in Jesus on the day of Pentecost. And then we heard that “God added to their number each day” after that. Jesus wants to bring everyone into the circle, into the net of His love and grace, and every single person counts.

         That’s why we keep church records. It’s why we appointed deacons last year. Everyone counts here. We are joining in Jesus’ mission to bring the world to God. So like good fishermen do, we count the fish.

         Peter, it seems, was already to join up once again. When he knew it was Jesus standing there, Peter jumped out of the boat and swam to shore, leaving the other disciples to drag in and count that pile of fish. Jesus already had some fish and had cooked them for breakfast. They sat down and broke bread and ate fish with Jesus, like they did there with the crowd a couple years before.

         But then in verse 15, the focus changes, gets a little more serious. Jesus begins a conversation with Peter, by asking the question, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He either meant, “Do you love me more than all this fishing business, more than the boats and the nets and the water and all that?” or He meant, “Do you love me more than these other disciples do?”

         Either way, Peter immediately understood that Jesus was looking for a reaffirmation of his personal commitment to his Lord. Jesus was looking him in the eye and asking for a declaration of his love. And Peter responded like you or I might respond to a spouse or a child who asked us that question, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

         Now you may have heard sermons or read books where someone makes a big deal out of the fact that Jesus used one word for love while Peter used a different, supposedly weaker word. So that Jesus was supposed to be askingng something like, “Do you love me with all your heart?” and Peter replied with something like “Yes, you know we’re friends.” But forget all that.

         In John’s Gospel, those two words for love are interchangeable. John just likes to vary his language a bit to make it sound more interesting. Right here in the same passage, as Jesus responds to Peter and says what He wants him to do, Jesus uses different words, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” Feed my sheep.” Same idea expressed with slightly different words each time. It’s the same with the two words for love. It’s as silly to look for subtle differences in those words as it is to start mathematically carving up 153.

         The point, the point, the point is that Jesus asked Peter the question three times. That’s what shook Peter down to the core of his soul. That why verse 17 tells us Peter felt hurt when asked the third time if he loved Jesus. Three was a number he remembered very well, because three times was how often Peter denied Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. After declaring publicly three times that he didn’t know Jesus, Peter was now being given the opportunity to declare publicly three times that he not only knew but loved Jesus.

         This was Peter’s rehabilitation, his welcome back into that mission of catching fish, of proclaiming the good news about Jesus and bringing people into the kingdom of God. But now as Jesus dealt with Peter’s own failure, regret, and pain, Jesus added another dimension to that mission. He wasn’t talking about fish any more. He was talking about sheep.

         Sheep get counted too. Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who knew exactly how many sheep he had and when one was missing. But unlike fish, sheep also need care. “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” Jesus was telling Peter that other people would be like him. They would be so troubled and hurt by their sins and the sorrows of life that they would need to be loved and cared for like Jesus was caring for Peter.

         So right here at the end of John’s Gospel, it’s not just “count the fish,” it’s “feed my sheep.” Those were the two parts of Peter’s mission and just as Peter was the leader of the apostles, Peter represents all of us who follow Jesus. Our mission has both dimensions to it. We do count the fish. We want to find every way possible to reach out into our neighborhood and into the world and bring people to Jesus Christ.

         Yet as we encounter those men, women and children, as we bring them to Jesus, drawing them into His kingdom, we also realize how much they, and how much we need to be fed and cared for like sheep. We can’t treat each other or the people around us only like fish to be counted then tossed in the cooler while we try for another. With Peter we have a mission to love and feed and care for our Lord’s sheep, for the people He brings into the net of His love and grace.

         I hope I can say this right and not sound like a jerk. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a person or a family come to our church and I’ve thought something like, “What a great catch! These are wonderful folks, this is a gifted individual. We landed a keeper today.” That’s all true. But then I get to know those people, and I also learn that the same family, that same person, has hurts and sorrows and needs, that here is a sheep, one of Jesus’ lambs that needs to be loved and tended.

         My prayer is that we all keep learning this together with Peter and with each other. We need to go out and cast the nets and draw people in. Let’s have a warm building and beautiful flower beds and nice signs. Let’s talk to our friends and neighbors and invite them to church and Sunday School with us. Let’s open our doors to the homeless and to the neighborhood association and to the Scouts and help them find Jesus. Let’s count the fish.

         But then with Peter let’s also learn to join the Great Shepherd in caring for the people He is saving. Let’s greet each other warmly and take time to listen to each other’s stories. Let’s take meals to those who are sick. Let’s teach the children in Sunday School and care for those little ones in the nursery and children’s church so both they and their moms and dads can hear about Jesus. Let’s always, always, always be praying for each other. Let’s feed the sheep.

         Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and then asked Peter to love those whom Jesus loved. We net the fish with love and we feed the sheep with love. At the end of The River Why, Duncan quotes Meister Eckhart who says God’s love “is like a fisherman’s hook… he who is caught by it is held by the strongest of bonds…”

         Love is the way Jesus caught Peter and kept him from running away. Love is how Jesus reaches down and pulls in each of us. And that line of love runs through us to those around, hooking and drawing them to Jesus as well.

         May you and I stay hooked on our Savior’s love, counting and caring, until that time He finally draws us all home to fish forever in that beautiful River which flows from the Throne of God and to cast our nets into that crystal Sea which spreads out before it.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] The River Why (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books: 1983), p. 14.

[2] Ibid., p. 14f.

Last updated April 14, 2013