The Worst Resurrection Story

John 21:1-14 might be the worst resurrection story. I know I’m probably not supposed to say that, but I think it’s true. Right before it, you get Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on his followers, which is a pretty big deal. Right after it, you get this emotional reconciliation with Peter. And sandwiched in between is this:

Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.
5 Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
6 He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
9 When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” 11 Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

 A fishing trip followed by breakfast. Why would the writer include this? It’s fairly unremarkable, so much so that scholars debate even calling it a miracle. If you’re writing a book about someone’s life, chapter twenty would’ve been a great place to wrap up, but that doesn’t happen, so apparently there’s something worth discovering here about resurrection.
In an attempt to find meaning in this oddly placed text, preachers and scholars have been incredibly judgmental of this fishing trip, suggesting that it somehow represented the disciples’ failure to live into the vision Jesus had for them. But I don’t think we need to judge their fishing adventure so harshly. In reality, they probably just needed to eat. They probably survived off of the generosity of others for the three years of Jesus’ ministry, and there’s a good chance that was drying up. 

So rather than judge it, I think we need to let this story be a little mundane, and see where it takes us. Let’s start at the beginning. John says Jesus “revealed” himself to the disciples (the translation above uses "appeared", but "revealed" is probably more accurate). That term had some background to it. In a lot of Jewish circles, when resurrection was revealed and experienced, it would be a huge deal. In fact, many thought it would be the end of the world. It was supposed to be centered in Jerusalem, and God would bring judgment and justice that finally set things right. It would be an undeniably flashy event that all of creation would see. 
But that’s not how resurrection is revealed here. Instead, resurrection is revealed in the middle of nowhere, to no fanfare, on an early morning fishing trip. Resurrection isn’t what we thought. It’s not always flashy and life-changing. Sometimes it’s slow and barely noticed. It happens in the simple moments of our life, when we choose to orient our life in the direction of love, forgiveness, generosity and hope. Don’t miss all of the small resurrection moments waiting for a big one. Resurrection is available here and now, in every moment of our lives. As George Beasley-Murray said, “"The end of all things had come into history, not as its conclusion, but for its remaking." 

When we read on, we find out even more about this. Jesus reveals himself in some really interesting acts to the disciples that teach us something about resurrection. First, we find that they don’t even recognize him initially. They just think he’s some guy yelling at them with fishing advice. They only recognize him when they catch a ridiculous amount of fish. Again, there’s some context here. There was this common expectation that when the messiah came, life would be more abundant. Check out this quote about the messianic age from around the same time:

The earth will also yield its fruits ten thousand fold. And on one vine will be a thousand branches, and one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a cor of wine. And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves, and moreover, see marvels every day…because these are they who have arrived at the consummation of time. – 2 Baruch 29:5-8

Again, Jesus is reorienting their expectations. The messiah is here now. Life is already abundant. There’s no more waiting for a future reality when everything will be better. See life as it was meant to be. 

So now that Jesus has his followers’ attention, they hurry to shore to meet him, and find him again in a strange place: around a fire, cooking for them. Cooking wasn’t exactly a messianic activity. It was, in a sexist culture, reserved for women or their servants. But in this triumphal, messianic moment, Jesus is lowering himself in service, providing them a much needed meal. 
Jesus and resurrection are revealed in service, provision and generosity. If we want to see and experience resurrection today, then we follow suit. Now, this isn’t some begrudging, draining generosity. It comes from a place of abundance. When the disciples roll up and see Jesus has cooked them breakfast, they’re then still asked to give up some of their catch. They’ve labored all night, are starving and exhausted, just hauled in the biggest catch of their lives, and now need to hold it loosely. Give it up. Because there is enough. If resurrection wakes us up to the abundance around us, then it also asks us to give it away, because it was never ours to hold onto in the first place. 

As Americans, we don’t get this very well. We’re individualistic and think we’ve earned everything we have, so it’s our right to keep it. But other cultures don’t think this way. Have you ever heard of the term “Indian giver”? It’s meant to be a slight at Native Americans, but it actually indicts us. In many Native American tribes, there was a tradition of giving a gift when you visited someone. Later, when that person visited someone else, they would pass the gift on to them. Eventually, it would make its way back to the original giver to be passed on again. It was a gift to be enjoyed by everyone, and not possessed by anyone. But when Europeans received a gift like this, they added it to their possessions. Then, when Native Americans expected them to pass it on, they would get angry at them and call them “Indian givers.” It has been suggested that a better term would have been “American taker.” 

This is what Jesus is trying to draw us into: the cycle of giving and receiving that fosters resurrection. But we have a tendency to hold on tightly to our things. Even science is beginning to show how silly this is. Physics is showing us that the universe is not made of up things to be kept, but interactions and relationships to be had. At our core, we aren’t finite matter, but an ongoing pattern of relationships between quirks, molecules and atoms. And the whole universe is this way. 

Physicist Carlo Rovelli explains it this way. We think of life in terms of things and events. A rock is a thing. A kiss is an event. But, with enough time and perspective, we find the even a rock is an occurrence. Over the span of a billion years, a rock appears just to be a collision of sand that sticks together for a “brief” time, just as a kiss is the coming together of two people for a brief time. How silly then to hold on so tightly to our cars, paper bills and collections?

All this to say, Jesus is inviting us into this universal divine dance, that doesn’t see the world as possessions to be had, but relationships to enter into. Relationships we can shape with generosity, service and love. Relationships that can foster resurrection. And this can happen every day, in the seemingly mundane, just as it did 2000 years ago over breakfast.