The Resurrection Way of Memory

Proclaimer: Zack Johnson | Scripture: John 21.1-19 | Sunday, April 23, 2023


Growing up, I spent many evenings fishing in the family pond. In  fact, some of my fondest memories involve sitting, fishing pole in hand, beneath the same old sycamore tree along the pond’s edge, watching as  the last bits of sunlight filtered through the distant pines. Sometimes,  my dad, brother, and I would venture out onto the waters in an old  aluminum boat, giving our best effort to bring home the fish we’d eat  for supper. Every now and then, we’d catch what we’d refer to as a  “mess of fish,” and this meant we’d reeled in an ample amount for one  or more meals. Other times, we’d wait and wait, melting in the thick  Georgia air and fending off gnats and mosquitos, and we wouldn’t catch  one thing. But this didn’t deter us! A few nights later we’d faithfully  return to our ancestral watering hole, recalling all the times before when we had caught fish after fish so quickly that our hooks hardly had  time to hit the water.

The resurrection way of memory, as our Gospel lesson this week demonstrates, operates something like this. Just when we’re convinced that all the proverbial hooks we’ve cast out into our lives will inevitably return void, we find ourselves recalling the times before when God felt eminently present to us and, by God’s providence, all manner of good things returned to us because of our willingness to simply keep casting our line.


As in last week’s sermon, we meet Jesus again in a post resurrection appearance story. Today, we meet him on the banks of the  Sea of Galilee. The text reveals that Jesus “showed himself,” but he does more than just show up here. This is a miracle story! What makes this  one a bit different than some others is that it comes after all the post resurrection stories in Jerusalem. In this text, the disciples have moved  into Judea, and it is there, some time later, that Jesus appears to them.  

At the beginning of our passage, Peter announces to his gathered disciple friends, “I’m going fishing.” In this post-resurrection world, Peter is ready to get back to the day-to-day routines of his life and  figures the fish will be biting. So, off he goes with all his fishing  equipment to the Sea of Galilee. Now, Peter and the disciples know these waters quite well! They’ve fished here countless times before, and they know all the best strategies for a successful fishing excursion.  Even still, they fish all night, and they catch nothing.  

Just as the first bit of light appears over the horizon, they see someone on the shoreline. They don’t recognize this person as Jesus,  but Jesus knows who they are. From the edge of the water, Jesus  watches as the disciples give up their task, convinced they’ve endured a  whole night of fishing with nothing to show for it. Into their despair,  Jesus floats out the most simple instruction across the water: “Try tossing your net out into the sea on the other side of your boat!” 

Peter and the disciples do so, and let me tell you, they catch a  “mess of fish”! 153 fish to be exact, of all sizes and kinds. The precise  significance of this number of fish is unclear, but the meaning of this piece of the story is not: the Jesus proclaimed by John draws in an  ecumenical crowd, inclusive and diverse. 

Additionally, this text begs us to recall other stories. First, we  ought to be reminded of another story we’ve heard concerning the  work of the disciples as fishermen—particularly the one where the  disciples are given their more radical call to become fishers of people.  

Then, we also ought to recall what is, in this text, a repeated reminder  of John’s Jesus that “apart from me you can do nothing.” By alluding to  these prior stories, this miracle story sends us right down the  resurrection way of memory. 

In the final scene of this text, over a breakfast meal of fish and  bread which is reminiscent of the last meal the disciples shared with  Jesus before his death, we hear a dramatic exchange between Jesus and Peter. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This encounter brims with symbols we have already seen—for the glow and  aroma of a charcoal fire previously surrounded Peter’s three-fold denial  of Jesus, but this fire burns again. This time, Peter redeems himself, and what we hear is the confession, three times repeated, “Yes, Lord, you  know that I love you.” In response, Jesus bestows on his disciples one  last charge, one as simple as it is profound: “Follow me.” By asking the disciples to follow him, Jesus is instructing them to love as he has loved.  Furthermore, in the charge to follow him, Jesus is indicating that the  disciples’ love for him should translate into their care for his flock. 

The very last couple of verses in this week’s text move to the  subject of Peter’s martyrdom. Verses 18 and 19 follow directly out of  Jesus’ command to “feed my sheep.” Here, Jesus speaks a short  parable, contrasting the freedom of Peter’s youth with his captivity in  old age. Most scholars read the words “stretch out your arms” as  referring to Peter’s own crucifixion, and verse 19 connects Peter’s  death on a cross to Jesus’ death in the same mode by describing them  both as glorifying God. So, the final portion of our text helps us  understand what it means to follow Jesus. Like Peter, we can walk in  the Jesus Way by laying down our lives for Jesus and loving like the  Good Shepherd loves.


Today, we inherit the same charge that Jesus gave to Peter:  “follow me.” What does this mean for us? Well, as with Peter, Jesus  meets us in our doubt and denial, and he simply keeps asking: “Do you  love me?” And time and time again, we are extended an inexhaustible  invitation to respond: “Yes, Lord, you know I do.” As many times as we  might fail to live up to our highest callings, Jesus is prepared to come  into sight, offering sound advice from the distant shores of our lives.  Like Peter, our task is to heed Jesus’ call.  

You see, Peter, as we’ve said, was familiar with the waters he was  fishing. He and his friends had drawn up all the schematics and  determined their strategy. Doing so, they fished all night, and they  ended up with little to show for it. However, when they were present  to that stranger on the shore, present enough to hear his still, small  voice, they knew to follow his simple, yet effective, command to cast  the net on the other side of the boat.

We know Peter and the disciples had to be wondering what good  simply casting the net over the other side of the boat could possibly do.  This was surely too simple an approach to work—so simple as to seem  nonsensical. However, even in the mundane task of casting out their  fishing net, something they’d done countless times before, Peter and  the disciples decide to give the Jesus Way a try. We know from today’s  gospel lesson that they reaped a tremendous reward for their  obedience.  

Our call to follow Jesus sometimes feels a bit like this. The task of  walking in the Jesus Way is at once somehow too simple and too  profound for us to truly fathom. Even still, if we’ll find ourselves  attuned to the one who makes himself known in the dawning of new  days in our lives, even new days that follow nights of fruitless toil, we  might just find ourselves heeding our call after all. We often meet Jesus  with resistance, saying, “That’s too easy a strategy to work, simply  casting the net over the other side. I know these waters better than  you!” And Jesus waits patiently for us to follow in his way, prepared to receive us on the distant shore in something like eternal communion  and fellowship.  

Indeed, to walk in the Jesus Way, will require that we hand over  not just our best fishing strategies to be reimagined in Christ, but our  very lives. Jesus forecasts what will come of Peter. Like Jesus before  him, Peter’s life will end on a cross. And it’s this kind of radical similarity  we’re being called to reflect in our efforts to follow in the Jesus Way. Like Peter, we’re tasked with continually showing up to our day-to-day  tasks, seeking to follow Jesus, listening attentively for what he’d have  us do, even to the end of our days. Throughout our lives, the  resurrection way of memory holds us, even in our shortcomings, and  reminds us that we’re loved endlessly by a God who is forever willing to  receive us and gently guide us unto a better way.  


You know, when I was fishing with my dad and brother all those  years ago, I learned something of all of this. The truth is, I was never a  very good fisherman. I would get bored if things weren’t going like I had hoped, and I’d become too loud, too rambunctious, or both. I was  convinced I had the formula figured out—all I had to do was bait the  hook, cast my line, and wait. Simple as that. The problem was that I was  never actually very good about waiting. I thought I had this fishing thing  figured out, and I’d quickly get rather annoyed if the fish didn’t  cooperate. Before long, if I hadn’t caught a fish, I’d be ready to give up  the task and resign myself to simply sitting on the tailgate of the truck  and eating all the snacks we had brought with us.  

Without fail, just before I’d decide to reel in my line one final time  and give up on fishing for the evening, my dad would call across the  water and offer a simple word of instruction like: “Be still!” or “Quiet  down!” Being the independent young person I was, I never had much  faith that following this kind of simple advice would work, and, truth be  told, I usually didn’t want it to work because I didn’t want to prove my  dad right. But, I’d give it a try and get back to the task of simply casting  my line and waiting with as much patience as I could muster for  something to happen. Generally, much to my surprise and chagrin, his advice would work when I put it into practice, and I’d start catching fish  after fish! 


The resurrection way of memory must be something like this—for  I imagine it calls us to more still and quiet lives, ones attuned to hear the gentle instruction of Jesus who shows us a better way. This way of  course is modeled after Jesus’ own way, the way he demonstrated in  his own life. Like Peter before us, we are called to have our lives  intimately reflect the Jesus Way in the most embodied sense. No part  of our lives is not bound up with Christ—indeed, today’s gospel lesson  illustrates that we’ll be best served to heed the call of Romans 12:1,  which says: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating,  going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an  offering.” 

The resurrection way of memory demonstrates that we can place  our trust in Jesus because he has been faithful to us before. Just as  Peter is ushered down memory lane to recall the ways in which Jesus had been ever-present to him, we too are invited to leverage daily a  similar kind of memory—one which keeps us walking in the Jesus Way  out of trust in a Jesus who is always prepared to receive us and forgive.  In asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?”, Jesus offered him a shot  at redemption—an opportunity to replace every former denial of Jesus  with a present proclamation of love for him. We too are continually  invited into this kind of redemptive love, the kind that restores what  had been broken and builds up what was once lost.  


The resurrection way of memory, it would seem, is in fact a  resurrection way of life. Jesus is floating a word of instruction across  the waters of my life and yours. For each of us, this gentle nudge of  guidance and care will sound a bit different, and each of us will  determine a distinct way to respond. Regardless, each word we might  be offered is backed by the same core command: “Follow me.” In  following Jesus, we can reliably trust him to show up at first light on the  far edges of our lives time and time again, waiting for us to see and recognize him there. Our darkest nights, our gospel lesson illustrates,  might just proceed the redemption of our new dawns. This is the Jesus  Way after all, for we don’t get to Easter without first enduring a few  very dark nights. 

And each time we are tempted to think we’ve failed Jesus one  time too many, he’ll simply ask us again: “Do you love me?” Whether we’ve denied Jesus three times like Peter or more times than we can  count, Jesus will always be prepared to meet us where we are and  listen for our lives to speak: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  

In the end, the resurrection way of memory doesn’t erase our  pasts, but it redeems them all the time. We’re held in its embrace, constant and true, so that when the seas toss and the fish won’t bite,  we might be reminded to listen again for a word from Jesus and  perhaps cast our line just one more time. Amen.