by Rev Austin Newberry
John’s resurrection stories are, if such a thing is possible, even more densely packed than the rest of the Fourth Gospel. The text chosen by the Revised Common Lectionary for the Third Sunday of Easter this year has enough material for multiple sermons. My first suggestion would be to narrow down the scope by focusing on either the fishing story or the dialog between Jesus and Peter. Furthermore, I think separating the breakfast from the miraculous catch of fish is also helpful. Taking my own advice, this commentary will focus on John 21: 1-11.
As a child I felt different from my peers, but also from my family. One of the big things was that I came from a family that loved to fish. I had absolutely no interest in fishing. I was thrilled when finally old enough to say that I didn’t want to go and could stay home. How strange it would have been if suddenly I had gone with them and then told them how they might improve their odds of actually catching something?
That is precisely how strange it was that the risen Jesus, the carpenter, should show up on the Lake of Tiberius to tell people who fished for a living how to do their job. Perhaps over the years together, Peter and the others had taught Jesus a bit about fishing, but that he was suddenly an expert? Strange, indeed. Perhaps even queer!
One of the gifts queerness brings to the church is a different perspective, a kind of expertise that comes from our unique experience as people who have been outsiders. Like a carpenter on a fishing boat, we let people know that there is another way. And this way that we offer is not simply an alternative of equal value, but an invitation to the fuller, richer, more abundant life we call resurrection.
Jesus said “Cast the net to the right side of the boat….” (Actually, “tossing the net from the other side” sounds like a mid-twentieth century euphemism for homosexuality.) Jesus doesn’t just make a suggestion but, rather, is insistent. And though they have yet to recognize him, Peter and the others in the boat, do what Jesus tells them to do. Jesus obviously spoke with authority.
I think it is safe to say that whenever you find a boat in the gospels, it is an image of the church and the message is primarily ecclesial rather than personal. An ancient term for the church is, in fact, the barque (boat) of Peter. Like the unrecognized Jesus, we are called to speak from the authority of our experience and to challenge the church’s insistence on fishing from only one side of the boat, to queer the church’s understanding of how things are supposed to work. By refusing to simply watch from outside the boat where we have so often been relegated by the church and by insisting on the need for a different way of being church, we act “in persona Christi”, in the person of Christ.
The truth that Jesus teaches here is that abundance is to be found on the other side of “we’ve always done it this way.” It is in the abundance of a miraculous catch of fish that the apostles finally recognize the risen Christ in their midst and what the risen one wants to share is nothing less than that very same risen life. Christ offers that life to the church in the present. Resurrection is not simply a future event for us, a reward for being good. The gospels never speak of an afterlife, but always, rather, of eternal life. Eternal life does belong to the future but it also embraces all of history and is always experienced in the now.
The preacher’s job, week after week, is to queer the gathered church (which always, of course includes ourselves). Our vocation is to challenge the status quo, to pry open the places where the church gets stuck, to speak out against our casual acceptance of empty nets, and to invite participation in the fullness of risen life. And then, in the midst of all this challenging, prying, speaking, and inviting, we must always point to the one who in spite of everything loves, forgives, and feeds us all.