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"The Good Fisherman"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 5, 2019
By Pastor Ryan Tinetti, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 21:1-14

He has risen, He has risen indeed. Hallelujah!

The motto of the New York Times is "All the news that's fit to print." When I was in high school, I worked on the school paper and our motto was our own kind of spin on this. We said that, "All the news that fits, we print." It's funny, St. John and his Gospel, he actually says something closer to my high school's motto. He says that there are also many other things that Jesus did and were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

In other words, John's saying that what he includes in his account is only the tip of the iceberg. The signs that Jesus did, the words that He spoke, they're enough to fill up all of the world's libraries and then some, which raises kind of an interesting question. See, because sometimes John will include these curious little details, details that you might not think would make the cut in the narrative that he himself admits is only a small slice of a much, much larger pie.

Well, there's one of those curious little details in the passage that we're looking at today. It's in John 21:1-14. And I want to read it for you now.

"After this, Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius, and He revealed Himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas called the twin, Nathaniel of Canaan in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter says to them, 'I'm going fishing,' and they say to him, 'We're going with you.' They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

"Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore, yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus says to them, 'Children, you don't have any fish, do you?' They answered Him, 'Nope.' He said to them, 'Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you'll find some.' They cast it and now they weren't able to draw it in because of the quantity of fish, and so that disciple whom Jesus loved says to Peter, 'It's the Lord.' When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment for he was stripped for work and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

"When they got out on land, they see a charcoal fire in place with fish laid out on it and bread.

Jesus says to them, 'Bring some of the fish that you've just caught.' So Simon Peter went aboard and drew the net ashore full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus says to them, 'Come and have breakfast.' None of the disciples dared ask Him, 'Who are You?' They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after He was raised from the dead."

This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.

Now, did you catch the curious little detail? John makes it a point to say that the disciples netted 153 large fish—not a whole lot of fish or not even 150 or so but precisely 153 large fish. Why would he contain and include this mundane little bit of information? Well, you might be thinking, "Well, okay, that's kind of weird, but so what? They caught a bunch of fish, John included just how many there were, and we move on."

But listen, that's not the way that St. John works. If he took the trouble to record this detail in his already packed small slice of the giant pie narrative, he must have seen some meaning in it. And in fact, I think that there is a profound purpose to it—a purpose that speaks to the significance of the Gospel in your life and in mine. Okay, so then what? Why this 153? Why include that? Well, it might be that John mentions that they caught 153 fish because they caught 153 fish. In other words, it's just a matter of accurate reporting. Simple as that. There's one biblical commentator, he points out the John does have a love of exactness and a readiness to supply numerical detail. You think of John mentioning that there were six water jars at the wedding at Cana or the fact that Lazarus was in the tomb for four days. It's possible that John was just being a good journalist. He wants to get his details right.

It's possible, but it's one thing to count up a half dozen barrels or to remember how many days somebody had been dead before they came back to life, and it's quite another thing to count up the exact number of fish that you've caught, especially when it's such a large and seemingly random number. Now, don't get me wrong here. John is giving us accurate reporting. They did actually catch 153 fish. He's not just telling a fish story.

Okay. Sorry, I couldn't resist saying that. Yeah, I don't think that this tells the whole story. By including this number at all, it's like John is underlining it for us. He's putting it in bold and saying, "Pay attention to this." So there's got to be something more going on here. Well, others have said, "Okay, okay, well maybe the number 153 has a hidden symbolic meaning." This was actually the case for a lot of early Christians.

St. Augustine, for example, this towering figure in the early church. He was a theologian in the fourth century. This is what he thought about this story and especially this number 153. Augustine points out that if you add together every serial number up to 17, in other words, 1 plus 2 plus 3, all the way up to 17, it adds up to ... wait for it: 153. So what? Augustine says 10 signifies the Law, the Ten Commandments, and therefore God's Old Testament people, and seven signifies the Holy Spirit and that's God's New Testament people—10 plus 7 equals 17. Again, 17 in serial addition equals 153. You with me?

No. Okay. I didn't think so. Look, I don't really ever want to disagree with St. Augustine, but in this particular case, I kind of think that he missed the boat. That's another pun. Sorry, I promise that's the last one. Look, these symbolic meanings, they're incredibly ingenious, but I think that they have just a few too many contortions, don't you think? They seem to draw us away from the biblical story itself rather than draw us into it. I mean, if the Holy Spirit wanted to depict that kind of meaning, He could have done that in a simpler and more straightforward way, couldn't He have?

As fascinating, as interesting, as that approach might be, I think that we should dismiss this idea, this idea that John includes the number 153 for its hidden symbolic significance. Okay, so then, what? Well, let me suggest one more answer to this question—one more answer to this question, why John includes the number of 153 fish. But to get at it, I want to give you some other numbers. You ready for this? Okay. 7, 6, 22, 11, 45. You got that? 7, 6, 22, 11, 45. All right.

No, those aren't winning lottery numbers, at least not as far as I know. These numbers actually have a very particular and personal meaning for me. See, these are the vital digits of my firstborn son, Sam. He weighed in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces. He was 22 inches long and he was born at 11:45 p.m. Now, why do I have these seemingly random numbers etched in my memory and why do probably many of you as well, not for my son, of course, that would be weird, but I mean for your own kids. If you have kids, why do you remember these little mundane bits of info?

Well, it's because the birth of your first child is such a momentous, transformative moment. Those numbers become a kind of shorthand for life before and life after. They're like a numerical snapshot of a moment in your life that changed everything. I want to submit to you that something similar is happening in this story in John's Gospel, and that's why John included the detail of the 153 large fish. See, at first where we pick up John's story, it looked like a moment where nothing had changed.

The disciples are failed missionaries. They're still just hanging around. They're still just going fishing like old times, and they're still not catching anything, also, like old times. And what makes all of this so bizarre is that Jesus was already risen from the dead, wasn't He? He'd already breathed on them His Holy Spirit. Already He had sent them out as the Father sent Him to be fishers of men, but here they're hardly even fishers of fish. Why is that? It's like Jesus' commission to them still hasn't sunk in, or that the reality of the resurrection is still in some way unreal to them.

I mean, look, these are the same guys who on the very day that Jesus rose from the dead—do you remember this?—they were still cowering behind locked doors out of fear, and now it looks like that same fearful preference for the familiar is keeping them from going out with the Gospel. They're still not getting it, but then all of a sudden, they're dragging in 153 large fish onto shore for breakfast with Jesus, and it clicks. I mean, they themselves, they couldn't catch a single thing. In themselves, they are failed missionaries, but Jesus, Jesus with a single word, can give them enough mackerel to nearly sink their ship.

And it's like all of those things that He had been telling them, all of the teachings that He had been relaying to them, all the stuff He had been saying throughout His ministry, suddenly, that all makes sense. You think of how Jesus had said that no one could come to Him unless the Father Himself drew that person, or you think of how Jesus had said that when He was lifted up, He would draw all people to Himself—the way that now they're drawing that net up onto the shore. In other words, Jesus isn't just the Good Shepherd, He's also the Good Fisherman. He's got this. He's the One in charge of the mission.

The disciples are simply the servants who drag ashore the nets that He fills. And so those 153 large fish, they become like a numerical snapshot of a moment that changed everything. Just like those vital digits from the birth of my son, Sam. And think of it. When we see the disciples next in the book of Acts, they're not failed missionaries, are they? Instead, they're intrepid, confident missionaries. They're out there proclaiming the Gospel at the cost of their lives. They're sharing the Good News with boldness. They're throwing down the nets at any and every opportunity, and they're dragging in nets full of people that the Good Fisherman Himself has drawn in.

I like to imagine the disciples years later, maybe sitting around the fire again and relating this story of the miraculous catch to one another. Saying to each other, "Yeah, yeah. Peter as usual, he wasn't catching so much as a sardine. But then Jesus was like, 'Put the net on the right side,' and the next thing we know we're taking water because there's so many fish. Yeah. And John, tell them, tell them how many fish was it? 153 large fish. Guys, how did we ever doubt the Lord?"

Maybe you've had those moments, too, those moments when the good news of the Gospel, when the reality of the resurrection, when the power of the Holy Spirit suddenly sinks in in a more profound way. It's those moments where you can't help but just slap your forehead and wonder, "How did I ever doubt that the Lord was in charge?" I think of when I had one of those moments. It was several years ago, and I was feeling like a failed missionary.

At the time, I'd been living in this apartment building, and I got to know the doorkeeper. The place had a doorkeeper. I promise you it wasn't as fancy as it sounds, but I got to know the doorkeeper. He's a guy, I'll call him Phil. And Phil, he was a middle-aged guy, loved reading books. He didn't even have a computer, email, anything. Phil, he wasn't a Christian, but he was interested in talking about faith and spirituality and things of that sort.

Several times a week I'd come home, and we'd talk. We talk about life; we talk about the claims of Christianity; we talk about Jesus day after day, putting down the net, but I was catching nothing. Well, after a year or so I moved out of the apartment and I said my goodbye to Phil and he still hadn't come to faith. And to be honest, I was feeling pretty dejected. Like, here's the guy that I've shared the Gospel with maybe dozens of times and still nothing. I'm thinking, "What's wrong with me? Don't I have what it takes." I mean, I felt like a failed missionary. Maybe you've been there, too. But let me give you one more number. Four, as in four years, four years later, out of the blue, I get an email, and this email is from an address that I don't recognize. And so I almost don't even open it. I think that that's probably just spam, but for whatever reason I do open it, and it's from Phil. He had to go to the library and create an email address just to write me, and he says that, that he's come to Christ, he's come to believe in Christ, and he wants to be baptized, and he's trying to find a church in his town, and can I help him?

And in that moment, as I'm dragging that net onto the shore with Phil in it, I realize Jesus has got this. He had it all along. He's the One who draws them in in His time. How did I ever doubt Him? There was 153 large fish, John says. He didn't want to leave that one little detail out and you know, I'm glad that he didn't. It's a reminder to us that we have a gracious Lord who not only has loved us, forgiven us, accepted us, but also sent us and sent us with the power of His Spirit and the promise that He's not only the Good Shepherd, He's also the Good Fisherman, the Good Fisherman who Himself draws the fish, who Himself fills the nets.

Friends, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, and that changes everything. You can count on it. Amen.

Reflections for May 5, 2019

Title: The Good Fisherman

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. We just heard a message from our guest speaker, Pastor Ryan Tinetti. We'd like to thank Interlochen Public Radio for production assistance. I'm Mark Eischer, here once again in studio with our Speaker, Dr. Michael Ziegler. What stood out to you or maybe caught your attention in Pastor Tinetti's sermon?

Michael Ziegler: First, I just want to say that I enjoy listening to Pastor Tinetti as a preacher. I'll let you in on a secret. When the announcement came out that they wanted a new Lutheran Hour Speaker last year, I actually submitted Ryan Tinetti's name as a candidate. So I'm just delighted that he can be a guest speaker for us.

What stood out to me initially is he clearly loves talking about Jesus. You can just hear that; he delights in what he's saying, and it draws me in as a listener and I just really enjoy it. I love the way he set up it inductively, so he put the thing out about the little detail and considered a few possibilities of maybe he's just an accurate journalist, or maybe he's got some hidden symbolic meaning, and then he works you into what he thinks is the real answer—so just a very skilled preacher and fun to listen to.

Mark Eischer: In the introduction he mentioned that motto of the New York Times, "All the news that's fit to print," his high school papers version of that was, "All the news that fits, we print." What did he mean by that?

Michael Ziegler: The point is that John is telling us about a Person, and if you ask anybody say who's been married for many years, when I was a pastor, I would often ask about, "What did you learn about your spouse over the ...?" Some people in my congregation had been married for 50, 60 years. And almost always they would say that they continue to learn more about that person. And that's just the nature of personal knowledge; there's no tapping the depths of the mystery of what it means to be a human being and a person. How much more is it true then for the Son of God who is a human Person and the divine Person, the divine Son of God.

And so what John is saying is that there's so much you could say about Jesus that we can only put in what fits, and so the idea is that we're not trying to just get some information about things that we ought to believe so that we can be saved. Inherently, we are getting to know a person, Jesus, and to know Him is to be saved—to have eternal life.

Mark Eischer: Pastor Tinetti says, "Jesus is not only the good shepherd, but he's also the good fisherman." What do you think the difference is between those?

Michael Ziegler: I liked how he brought that point out. Maybe good shepherd has more to do with care and nurture of the sheep and also finding them when they wander. And good fisherman has more to do with bringing others in and letting down the net. And so, as Pastor Tinetti did in the sermon, he had us think about our own work as missionaries, as fishers of men, fishers of people. So it's helpful to remember that Jesus is the first fisher of men, and He's really good at it. He's not only a good Shepherd, He's a good Fisherman.

Michael Ziegler: And I think Good Shepherd Sunday is May 12th, next Sunday. So this is a good pairing that He's not just caring for His own, but He is bringing in all, everybody, drawing all people to Himself.

Mark Eischer: To be a shepherd implies that you have a prior relationship with your particular flock of sheep whereas the fisherman is going out and making the first introduction, as it were.

Michael Ziegler: Well said. Well said.

Mark Eischer: Why is it good news to think of Jesus as the good fisherman?

Michael Ziegler: He's good at bringing in people to the kingdom, and this is His work inherently. It's not ours, at least not ours on our own. A lot of pastors that I talk to, a lot of Christian people that I talk to, in this time and era in North America, we are demoralized often by numbers. We don't have the same numbers of attendance in our worship services. We don't have the same numbers of offerings that we might have had and my congregation that I had served as a pastor, both of them had experienced some growth, but the second one in particular had experienced devastating loss and catastrophic loss from say, 1960 on, and that can be very demoralizing.

When I remember that Jesus is a good fisherman, not just the good shepherd, it reminds me that He's got this, as Pastor Tinetti said, He's drawing in the catch, and we just get to pull in the net. I was talking to a Pastor Tinetti about another image he had played with as he was thinking through this message, he talked about the difference between—going back to the New York Times—he talked about the difference between the number of subscribers that a periodical would have and its readership.

And so subscribers is a number that you can count, and newspapers in some ways live and die by this because that's the paying customer. But then there's this other number and that's the readership. And the readership could be much bigger than the subscriber number, and you can't really tell what your total readership is because it can happen in an unexpected way when someone puts the newspaper down somewhere and someone else picks it up, or even if it's more intangible where they just talk about something they read in the paper.

And so I think it's comforting to know that Jesus is working through all those things. Even if we don't see the numbers of people in our pews or in our groups or in our organizations, even organizations like Lutheran Hour Ministries, Jesus is still at work and He's still got this, and He's bringing in the fish.

Mark Eischer: Could we give our listeners a look at what's ahead?

Michael Ziegler: We're gonna loop back into the Gospel of John and look at some details in chapter 14, 15, and 16. We had to skip those chapters. That's the discourse that Jesus shares with His disciples before He's arrested and crucified. And we had that. We wanted to keep on track with Easter and get there in time, so we've done that. So in these next few sessions, we're going to come back and look at some details specifically on the work of the Holy Spirit, which figures prominently in those chapters. That's what we plan to do.

Mark Eischer: Okay. And in the work that you've done so far on the Gospel of John, what has impressed you or caused you to know Jesus more deeply?

Michael Ziegler: He is who he says He is. And I am convinced of that more profoundly now than I have been before. Going through John's Gospel, He's inspiring. He knows just what to do. He's not a pushover, but He'll suffer evil. He knows the right word to say, so I am just inspired by Him. I truly, I want to live my life to make Him famous, understood properly. I just want more people to know Him. Especially the passion account, I guess I'm deflated on my ego. I see how willingly He suffers, how firmly He is in His identity as His Father's Son. And I see that my heart is so small and my willingness to suffer for the sake of the Father's will is so limited. And He deflates my ego in a lot of ways. And then the other thing is that in that He enlarges my heart. I think the scene of Him washing His disciples' feet always gets me, and it fills me with a love that I know that it doesn't come from me. He's the real deal.

Mark Eischer: And we hope our listeners will come to know that more deeply as well.

Michael Ziegler: Amen.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"With High Delight Let Us Unite" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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