landscape photo of man fishing on river near mountain alps

Gone Fishin’

I preached this sermon on July 22, 2012 at Trinity United Methodist Church, Hackettstown, NJ.

When I learned that I would be delivering the final sermon in Frank’s fishing sermon series I thought about trying to switch to avoid the topic. I’m not much of a fisherman. I don’t have the patience required and never really liked it even as a child, so I cannot offer much about fishing from personal experience.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t like fish stories.  So the topic gives me an opportunity to tell a favorite.

A Methodist pastor was a fisherman, but he hadn’t fished in months. One perfect Sunday morning he couldn’t resist. He called up his District Superintendent and claimed he had laryngitis. The pastor then headed out to his favorite fishing spot. The hook hadn’t been in the water five minutes before he got a strike, and landed the biggest fish he had ever caught–although he had seen bigger ones. A half hour later he caught the biggest fish he had ever seen. Another forty-five minutes later he landed a fish that broke the world record. All this time Saint Peter and God had been watching the pastor from heaven. Saint Peter turned to God and said, “How can you reward this guy? He lied. He let down his congregation.” God smiled at Saint Peter and replied, “I am punishing him. After he finishes, who can he tell his fish story to?”

OK, now I apologize for telling it. It’s an old one that you’ve probably heard many times. There’s a version for golfers as well, which is where I first heard it. I just cannot help myself! And it just fits our topic for today too well.

The pastor in that story had hung out a “Gone Fishin’” sign in response to God’s call when he should have been fishing with Jesus. The disciples in our Gospel lesson for today had done the same thing. This event follows chronologically after the instruction from Jesus to the disciples, found in Matthew 28, to go to Galilee and wait for him to meet them. They had done that, but then decided to go fishing. Not all were fishing though. John only lists seven involved. We don’t know what happened to the other four. They may have been together waiting for Jesus, or they may have scattered. Clearly though, the group had come apart and may have been giving up on seeing Jesus again, and were possibly falling back into their old lives.

It is easy to understand. They had spent three years in the presence of Jesus, being nourished daily by him spiritually. Now they were cut off. When he was crucified their minds had to be spinning. That had to be disorienting beyond comprehension. Then Christ rises and appears to them. Just as his crucifixion had to be incomprehensible, so too must the resurrection. They had seen all of his miracles and knew he was of God, but still, rising from death just was beyond any ability of humans to grasp. That Thomas doubted is perfectly understandable, perhaps more understandable than those who did not. So they see Jesus and are overwhelmed by his resurrection, then he tells them to meet him in Galilee and disappears. They had to be frustrated and confused, if not downright depressed. They were emotionally drained and probably in a bit of a desert spiritually.

I could not pass on speaking today because I really like the story in our scripture. When preparing for today I read a number of commentaries on this passage and some have suggested that it was not originally part of the Gospel and was later added to illustrate a point rather than to recount actual events. From my perspective though, if this didn’t really happened then the author had brilliant insight into men. I relate to this scripture as it seems to me to be a quintessential “guys story” and it rings perfectly true as what a group of men would be doing under the circumstances.

A number of years ago I and eleven other golf disciples were in Myrtle Beach for four days of golf. Unfortunately, a tropical storm was also in Myrtle Beach for four days of high winds and torrential rain and the tropical storm won. On the second day of waiting, we found ourselves gathered in a room at 9AM watching a western movie in Spanish, when someone said, “That’s it. I’m not waiting any longer. I’m playing golf.” A majority of us followed and we played golf in the torrential rain and among trees felled by the wind. You simply cannot underestimate how foolish a group of frustrated, impatient men can be!

So I relate perfectly to the disciples. I can just see Peter, ever the impetuous man of action, standing up and saying, “That’s it. I can’t take this waiting any longer. I’m goin’ fishin’.” Immediately others chime in, “Me too.” “I’m in.” “Let’s go.” In their frustration and isolation they return to their comfort zone…on the water and fishing. They need something to do, even if it is not the right thing. So off they go. We know that at least Peter strips down for the hard work involved and they fish all night, as was the custom on Lake Galilee at the time. But all of their work brings them nothing. As the first light of dawn begins to break, they start to turn back to shore empty-handed, now probably even more frustrated.

And what do they find as they approach the shore, this wise guy standing there pointing out their failure. For that is how I hear this. I know it’s popular to portray Jesus as the calm ascetic, but I just don’t see him that way. He connected with the disciples, who as fishermen were undoubtedly pretty tough men, on their terms, as one of the guys. I have no doubt that he laughed and traded barbs with them just as guys do. I also know that sarcasm is a staple of “guy-talk” and I can just hear Jesus calling out sarcastically, “Hey boys, catch anything? How’s this fishing thing working out for you?” The disciples do not recognize him, which would not be surprising in the early morning mist, but we also know that there was something about the body of the resurrected Christ that made him harder to recognize as he was not initially recognized by the disciples in almost every account of an appearance after the resurrection.

So we have this wise guy on the shore needling them about catching nothing. The Gospel recounts that they just politely said “no” but I suspect that the response of seven guys accustomed to the rough and tumble life of fishing, who had just spent the night on the water without catching anything, was probably a little more colorful to this stranger than the writer of the text recounts. I mean, if you were John wouldn’t you clean up the story for publication? So I imagine there was also something like, “You’re so smart why don’t you come out here and show us how?”  To which Jesus tells them to cast the net on the other side. Now from what I understand, this also was not unusual. Apparently it is sometimes easier for someone standing on the shore of Lake Galilee to see the disturbance a school of fish makes in the surface of the water than it is for those in a boat. So even though some in the boat may have been more interested in getting to shore and “greeting” the stranger, you can just hear someone saying, “Come on, let’s try it. We have nothing to lose.”

And that’s when the story changes. They obey Christ. They cast the net and come up with a mass of fish. That’s when John, always insightful, recognizes Jesus and Peter, the man of action, puts on his clothes and jumps into the water, heading straight for Jesus. But there is one more part of the story that makes it sound true for me. They counted the fish. The Gospel recounts that they caught 153 large fish. Commentators have worked to find all sorts of symbolic meaning for the number to justify its inclusion, but I think it is far simpler. Counting the fish is exactly what guys would have done! They had to divide up the catch and would have counted them to make sure everyone got a fair share. They also would have recognized that something special had happened and would have counted them to better understand the facts. So for me, the number does not have to have special meaning. By itself it gives the story a further air of truth.

That does not say that the passage has no deeper meaning, for it is rich in meaning. It directly parallels the call of Peter, James, and John from Luke 5. Fishermen being fishermen, I imagine that the first and second events probably occurred near the same fishing spot, with the same boat, and the same net. If you recall, at the time of the first call, the men also had been shut out from fish the preceding night. Jesus told Peter to get back into his boat and cast out his net. Peter was skeptical, but he followed and made a great haul of fish, so much that his net broke. On that occasion Peter was so intimidated that he sought to avoid Christ, but Jesus told him he now would be fishing for men.

In today’s lesson, Peter has returned to his old profession of fishing, at least for a day. I’m not willing to read into that a lack of faith and a decision to abandon Christ as have some commentators, but I do see for him a temptation to go back to his own path instead of waiting for Jesus. I think the men were at a crossroads and Jesus knew that. Their daily needs were drawing them back to fishing for food and money to pay the bills instead of fishing for men. They were beginning to adapt Christ’s call on them to their lives, instead of adapting their lives to the call of Christ. So when Jesus is pushing them on not catching any fish, what he really is doing is re-focusing them on their call to be fishers of men and asking them to consider how that was going for them without him. They had not only not caught any fish, but they also had not caught any men. But this time when Jesus shows them where to fish, they not only caught a lot of fish, but unlike the first miracle their net holds here. Jesus is giving them a telling reminder that when they work within his call, they will have everything the need to succeed. And this time that is all of a reminder they need. This time Peter does not push away, but jumps into the water immediately to get to Jesus. This time, once and for all, they got it. From this time onward, they followed the call. From this time onward, they did not succumb to the temptation to follow their own path instead of that set before them by Christ. Their “Gone Fishin” sign may still have been hanging, but now they were fishing for men.

Hanging out a “Gone Fishin” sign to the call of Jesus is a very predictable thing for us to do. Humans hate uncertainty. Humans are impatient. We want to be in control, or at least think we are. Probably one of the greatest temptations to sin for Christians is not going rogue and abandoning Christ, but rather thinking that we do not have to follow the path Jesus has set before us because we can accomplish the purpose by a plan of our invention. Look at Abraham in our Old Testament lesson. He had every reason to trust that God would deliver on his promise, but  when God was not acting fast enough,  he decided to “go fishin’” on his own. Instead of waiting any longer on God, he decided to pursue a path more comfortable and understandable to him. The result was a child that did not fit God’s plan. As Jesus taught the disciples with the second miracle of the fishes, God taught Abraham that we cannot walk the path of God by our own will and to our own purposes. And when Abraham obeyed, God delivered.

Instead of adapting our lives to the message of Christ, Christians have for centuries adapted the message of Christ to their lives. We want Jesus to fit comfortably within our lives. We hear the message, but just find it not suitable enough for modern times. The Kingdom of God just seems too archaic at times or just not politically correct enough for our society. We think we are following Christ, but the hard truth is that all too often we just take him and wrap him around our lives, instead of making him the center of our lives. And I fear that Christ’s Church has too often been complicit in changing the message of Christ to fit the culture instead of taking the message of Christ out to change the culture. We too often strive to be a part of the culture, when Christ calls us to be apart from the culture.

I am certain of one thing: if you follow Jesus he will not call you to fish in your favorite fishing hole. He will change your life and you will fish in places and catch fish that you never imagined were possible. One of my greatest fears is that although I pray, “Christ use me for your will” I really mean “Christ bless my plan” and behave that way; that I will go off fishing on my own instead of looking to Jesus to tell me on which side of the boat to cast my net; that I will use my gifts and talents to serve my ends rather than God’s.

Jesus does not often call us to abandon our lives. What he asks is that we surrender our talents and gifts to him and allow him to mold our lives that we may fulfill the goals of the Kingdom. He does not have a problem with us following our desire to fish, just that we fish from the right side of the boat! So friends, it is OK to hang out a “Gone Fishing” sign, it just needs to read, “Gone Fishing with Jesus.”


© 2012, Thomas M. Trezise


  1. Jenny on August 8, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks, Tom! I heard a few snippets of this while waiting outside the chapel the morning you preached it, but I am glad to have the opportunity to take in the whole thing. Very well done. I look forward to hearing more from you.

  2. Laura Stealey on August 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Tom you are a gifted speaker! I enjoyed your commentary on the passage very much. Well done!

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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