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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Who Ordered the 153 Fish?

2016-04-10 Jn 21 "Who Ordered the 153 Fish?"


How many of you are now or have ever been servers at a restaurant? God bless you. Restaurants are the hardest work in the world. Especially serving - waitressing, waitering, wait-personing. I think everybody should have to wait tables. Or do military service. Either one. I waited tables. I think I'd prefer the military. I was awful. I worked in an Italian chain that went out of business. Not my fault. I can't tell a cannelloni from a can o' worms. Noodles, sauce, a bottle of wine. What's the difference? It's Italian. It's delicious.


Jesus was a server. In so many ways. Jesus served food all the time. Big food. Big tables. He turned six jars of water into 180 gallons of the finest wine (John 2). One supper, he fed 5000 men, plus women and children (John 6). Under-plan for your party? No problem. They called him a "glutton and a drunkard" because wherever he went, there was always food (Luke 7:34). So. Much. Food.


But that's kinda how God rolls. Right up to the banquet table.


Of course, this is hardly news to anyone who reads the Bible. Way back in the Old Testament, God gave a mouthwatering vision to the prophet Isaiah. He said:


...the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,

    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.

And he will swallow up (pun probably intended)...

[he will swallow up]

    the covering that is cast over all peoples,

    the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;

and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,

    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth....

(Isaiah 25:6-8)


God will ring the great dinner bell. That's the glorious way the Messiah renews the world. He comes to fill every hungry soul on the face of the earth. That's the abundant table Jesus served up. He did it so many times during his life. And he did it after his resurrection. After Easter. He did it then. And he does it now, too. So. Much. Grace. Such a feast he brings. It's hard to reel it all in. Do we deserve it? Do we cause it? No and gimme a break. The Bread of Heaven is more than we deserve. It's more than we can believe. But he doesn't call us to believe. He doesn't call us to figure it out. He calls us to feed the lambs. To tend the sheep. And to join the feast.




Some Bibles call this passage, "Breakfast by the Sea" (NKJV). I like that. But then, I like breakfast. Breakfast is "the most important meal of the day." You know who said that? John Harvey Kellogg. The man who gave us Frosted Flakes. They're grrreat. Breakfast is great. The bigger the better. Bacon. Biscuits. Gravy. Eggs. Hash browns. Should we adjourn to Shoney's?


The disciples – seven of them – had been out fishing (for food) all night long. Why only seven disciples? Why not all of them? I mentioned this to Greg and without batting an eye he said, "Because that's how big the boat was." Never thought of that. Can't have more people than lifejackets.


These not-so-magnificent seven professional fishermen had been out all night. Not a bite. And then, at daybreak, beyond the mist rising over the water, the stranger on the shore calls out.


"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…."


So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.


It says this is when they recognize him. Did they hear him laughing at them from the shore? Good one, Lord. You got us again.


Jesus tells them to bring some of their fish. Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them.


One hundred fifty-three. That's a very precise number. Apparently, they counted. Seriously? The resurrected Christ stands before you. And you're going to count your fish? "Be right there, Jesus. Oh, now I have to start over. One. Two…."


Nobody knows for sure why Jesus would order up 153 fish for the church's first ever Men's Breakfast. But St. Jerome, one of the Early Christian Fathers, had an idea. He wrote that according to the "science" of the day, there were – are you listening? – 153 species of fish on all the earth. Which means one fish of every kind just happened to be in this lake, schooled together, on the right side of their boat, swimming into the net. So, in the Bible, we have the first time a fisherman ever exaggerated.


 "Hey John, how many fish did you catch?"

"All of them."


Anyway, Jesus says to the disciples, "Bring some of the [153] fish that you have just caught." Which is odd, because it also says, When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus didn't need their fish. He had enough already. Loaves of bread, too.


Loaves and fishes. Where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, the Feeding of the 5000. Now it's Breakfast for Seven. Jesus doesn't need their fish. He fed 5000 with as much. He can handle seven. Jesus already brought all he needs. More than enough.



In some ways, I think John put this in the Gospel as a warning to churches. And pastors. It's just human nature to think Bigger Is Better. We think 153 is better than zero. We think 5000 is way better than both. And IF we can somehow catch all the fish in the sea (and provide parking)… IF we can build a long enough, tasty enough buffet of services to lure 'em and hook 'em and keep 'em… IF we can build it, then, THEN, we'll be good disciples, right? and God's work on earth will be done? Right?


Do we really think that's how Jesus wants us to spend our time? Counting fish? Fish that we didn't catch – and couldn't possibly catch on our own? The huge haul of fish in this story is not for Jesus. It's for us. It's a lesson. It's a sign – for us and for all disciples. The abundance is meant as a sign. A sign of the great feast, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine at which the veil that is spread over all nations will be lifted [by God], and every tear shall be wiped away [by God]. Not by us and our superhero powers. By God.


But then the language changes. Jesus switches. He goes from fish to sheep. (He can mix his metaphors; He's The Lord.)


As they're finishing the fish breakfast, Jesus goes over to Peter. You remember Peter. He's the disciple who denied his own discipleship three times. "I tell you, I do not know the man" (Matthew 26:74, John 18). Jesus gets up in Peter's face and asks him – three times – he says, "Simon, son of Jonah" (you know it's serious because he uses Peter's full, proper name) – "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?"


And each time Peter answers, Jesus teaches him a lesson. It's not a punishment. It's a lesson. You can count them. Like fish. One fish, two fish, three fish, lesson.

Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?

"Yes, Lord."

"Feed My lambs."


Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?

"Yes, Lord."

"Tend My sheep."


Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?

"Yes, Lord."

"Feed My sheep."


I think this is Part 2 of the lesson for the disciples – and for us. Whose sheep are they? Jesus's sheep. Not Peter's sheep. Jesus says, "My" lambs, "my" sheep. They're not your sheep. They're Jesus's sheep. His sheep. His lambs. That's really, really, really important. That's why I said "really" 3 times. Whose church is it? Not our church. Jesus's church. We can never, never, never forget it.

What does Jesus say to do for his church, his sheep? Entertain them? No. Extract money from them? No. Breed them? Really no. He says, Feed them. He says, Tend them. He says, Feed them. Feed them, tend them from lamb-hood to old-goat-hood.


Feed them, tend them. Feed them again. That's all. I think Jesus is saying that if you start doing a whole lot more, you're not being a church. You can be more. But be honest about it. You want to be a church of Jesus Christ? Stick to the basics. Serve breakfast. Loaves and fishes. Catfish and cornbread. Pizza for the Youth Group. Because, everyone loves Italian. Eat together, pray together, worship together, be family together. 


Tend them. Teach them, tell them, visit them when they're sick. See how they're doing. We unpack it with the Mission Statement on the back of every Sunday's bulletin. We Welcome, Worship, Educate, Celebrate, Tend, and Send. We have to expand it because we're Presbyterian. Why use two words when six cost the same? Serve. Share. Repeat.


Every time we worship, we gather around a table. We overlook it. Literally. But here it is. The centerpiece of our life as a church. Not a big pile of smelly fish, thank goodness. A table. The last words of the last Gospel are about the infinite abundance Jesus brings to the table. God's old and new testament is to serve up this over-abundant feast of grace to all people, to all the world, and even to us. Our job is to be disciples: trainees and trainers. Our job is to joyfully follow in his footsteps and take on the work of the server, too. Waiters. Caregivers. Disciples who feed body and spirit. Just like Jesus. 

Church at heart is basic care and feeding. It works. It works whether you've got 5 or 5000. It works not because we're so skilled fishers and servers. It works because Jesus provides in abundance. You might want to bring more of your own stuff to the feast, but why? Jesus already has the meal cooking. And it's more than enough for us all.









Karoline Lewis



The idea of a healthy breakfast was first invented by John Harvey Kellogg around 1900.



Perhaps most convincing of all is the theory of St. Jerome: It was thought at that time that there were only 153 species of fish in all the world. Hence, the disciples caught 153 fish, signifying that men of every class and time would be saved through the Gospel.




W. Hall Harris



IVP New Testament Commentaries



William Willimon



Karyn Wiseman



Robert Hoch