Of nets and fish

Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937. Miraculous Haul of Fishes, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Church of the Covenant
Grafton, WV
May 1, 2022

I’m honored to be with this congregation this morning, and thank you for the invitation to lead worship. I have known of this church for many years, but have never had the occasion to be with you in worship. I’m glad that is rectified.

Since we are new to each other, let me tell you a bit about myself so you can perhaps better assess what follows. I am one of the shrinking pool of folks who can say they are a cradle Presbyterian. My roots are in the Southern branch of Presbyterianism, growing up in Greenville, S.C., and attending Westminster Presbyterian Church there. And, for better or worse, I have never been a member of a non-Presbyterian church.

In fact, when I was asked to lead worship today, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I was a bit nervous as I’m aware that Lutheran and Presbyterian understandings of what happens at the table are a bit different, and I certainly didn’t want to do or say anything that would be out of kilter with either of our traditions. So I got in touch with my friend, who some of you may know, Matt Riegel – better known perhaps as the Rt. Rev. Matthew Lynn Riegel.

I’ve known the bishop since he was a campus pastor at West Virginia University where is also served on the University’s Institutional Review Board, which vets research that involves human subjects; he still serves as an alternate member. Also, he and I share some close friends. Matt assured me I needn’t worry.

So, that’s who I am – briefly. Shall we turn to today’s Gospel reading, the 21st Chapter of John, verses 1-19. I know you’re probably used to reading along, but I would ask that you not do that. You can read it anytime, but hearing it sometimes opens new understandings, so if you will, please LISTEN for the word of God to the church today.

John 21:1-19 (NRSV) Chapter 21
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.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This reading is one of my top five favorites in the entire Bible, and when I talk about it, I usually focus on the three questions Jesus asks Peter – and resulting commandments.

In a nutshell, I believe that those commandments – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep – form the basis of what the work of Christianity should be. Put another way, the appropriate work of the church is its action, not words. And if you think I mean the church must be active on political issues – not candidates, but issues – you would be right.

But this time something else stood out to me, and that’s why it’s important to keep coming back, even to familiar and favorite passages, because there’s almost always some more to be gleaned. As a friend of my often says, “You don’t read the Bible; the Bible reads you.” That’s another way of saying that what you take away at any given time often depends on what’s on your mind.

What’s on my mind these days is division. Division within the church. Division within society. Division globally. And, yes, even division locally.

Verse 11 says, “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.”

I must confess that – beyond wondering why the specificity of the number of fish – I’ve kind of skipped over this verse, not understanding its deeper meaning.

But in my preparation for today, I learned what many if not most commentators suggest what this verse is really about. While there are different interpretations, one leading scholar notes that Greek zoology at the time held that there were 153 species of the fish in the sea.[1]

The late Lamar Williamson Jr., a professor from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, then says: “In many communities that treasured the story, however, the number was and is interpreted to mean that all kinds of people will be won to Christ.”[2]

The untorn net, commentators say, represents the strength of the church.

Charles B. Cousar puts them both together: “(T)hat the net was not torn despite the vast number of fish may suggest that the unity of the church is maintained even in the face of a diverse and growing company of people.”[3]

Perhaps a more pointed way of saying it comes from The People’s New Testament Commentary by Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock: “Here is an expression of the inclusiveness of the Johannine church that includes Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, and a plurality of Christian traditions.”[4]

And that, I suggest, is what we need to hear and remember today.

I know that both Presbyterians and Lutherans, at least the main branches, have been through the wrenching debates and policies regarding LGBTQIA+ people, and both have come out (no pun intended) at the same place, that of inclusivity and acceptance. But there are still many professed Christians who adamantly oppose those conclusions and see our denominations, and those who have reached the same conclusion, as being apostate.

But it’s more than sexuality or gender issues. Or that other issue that divides many, abortion. The angry debates that have roiled our society are happening in our sanctuaries as well, causing even more anger and divisiveness and dismissal of the “other.”

Recently there was this exchange on Facebook. I am a member of First Presbyterian in Morgantown, a church for which social justice issues have always been a part of its ministry. However in recent years, that activism has become even more visible and active – deliberately so, I might add. Our congregation firmly believes that as Christians, we are called to action in whatever arena it needs to occur – not only in the streets and alleys of Morgantown, but also at city council, the state capitol, Washington, D.C. And the church needs to work with whomever it needs to accomplish its tasks, be they people of a different faith, or no faith.

Several months ago, someone from another church tradition posted on Facebook that one of the benefits of the pandemic was the “wokey mcwokes” at First Presbyterian had to close.

Well, first off, we didn’t close, thank you very much; all our ministries continued full speed even though we were not holding in-person worship. And secondly, both the pastor and I had a good laugh at being labeled “wokey mcwokes” and even talked about having t-shirts made.

But isn’t it sad, and telling, that someone who professes to be a Christian, one who follows the teaching of Jesus, feels compelled to denigrate and dismiss the work of others who are actively feeding and tending Christ’s sheep?

I must remind myself however, that no matter how much I would like to toss that particular fish out of the net, it’s not my call. It also is not his call to throw me back into the sea.

The net – the church – is strong enough to hold us all, frankly even if it’s more than 153.

And isn’t that what we’re about to celebrate as we partake in the Lord’s Supper together?

One of the traditions of celebrating the Eucharist, of which you may not be aware, is that Christians all over the world use the Nicene Creed, the oldest of the creeds in the PCUSA Book of Confessions, in a Communion Service: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and most other Protestant churches. Even in that ecumenical act, however, there is disagreement between the Eastern and Western churches on language surrounding the origin of the Holy Spirit.

But that disagreement is put aside as we say together: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

And in the words of institution you’ll hear in just a few minutes: “(A)fter supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.”

“Gave it for ALL to drink … blood shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin.”

Remember, even Judas was served at the Last Supper.

As our last hymn says, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all UNITY may one day be restored.”

May it be so.

To God alone be the glory, amen.

Please pray with me: Good and gracious God, we are experiencing great division on many things, and we definitely have not figured out yet how to love our enemies. And yet. And yet: we are all your children and we do pray for the unity you desire. Amen


[1] Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 293.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 293.

[4] M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004),361.

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