‘I’m going fishing’ was my father’s way of signalling to us that he was feeling stressed and that he wanted some space. He usually decided to go fishing for one of two reasons: either he was under a lot of pressure at work, or there had been a family disagreement and he felt that, for a day or two at least, it would be wise for him to maintain a low domestic profile. He never told us which of these two circumstances applied on a particular day, but we could tell what was going on from the tone of his voice. If he had been under pressure at work, there would be a listlessness in the way that he said ‘I’m going fishing’: but if there had been an argument, ‘I’m going fishing’ would have a stronger sense of determination about it.
At the beginning of this evening’s second lesson Peter said ‘I’m going fishing’ (John XXI,3) and, true to his word, that’s precisely what he did, with six of the other disciples: but what we cannot tell from the text is how Peter was feeling when he said that, or what tone of voice Peter used, because ‘I’m going fishing’ can be interpreted in several different ways.
‘I’m going fishing’ might indicate that Peter was feeling under pressure as a result of the first two appearances of the Risen Christ. Perhaps Peter needed somewhere quiet and peaceful to think about things, and to make up his mind? That’s quite possible because, while it must have been a wonderful experience for Peter to see the Risen Christ in Jerusalem, it must also have been a thoroughly confusing experience for Peter and for all the disciples on both occasions; so where better for them to go and sort it out than Galilee – their home – the place where they had first met Jesus, and where their great adventure with him had begun three years earlier. So Peter might have been feeling the strain of it all, and wanted to spend a night back home, quietly fishing on the lake and collecting his thoughts, hoping (almost beyond hope) that the appearances of the Risen Christ were real and true. That’s one way of looking at it.
Or perhaps Peter said ‘I’m going fishing’ because wanted to escape – because he was so fed-up and disillusioned. Everything that he had hoped for had come to an end when Jesus had been arrested and executed: and the resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ had been so strange and unworldly that they could have seemed like nothing more than a bad dream. Perhaps Peter felt that his three-year adventure with Jesus of Nazareth had come to a tragic end, and so he decided to go fishing to try to forget the whole episode, and to put it behind him. After all, fishing can calm the soul as well as the body: it can soothe a tortured mind and refresh a tired body. And let’s remember that, after the terrible traumas of Holy Week, the disciples were not in good shape – they had been hunted men, who had gone into hiding for fear of their lives; so we can understand Peter’s sense of needing to escape.
Looking at it another way, ‘I’m going fishing’ may indicate that Peter had recovered sufficiently from the trauma of recent days to take up his old job fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and that he was trying to lead the other disciples back to fishing as a way of life. Peter was a natural leader and he probably realised that the others would look to him for an example and for encouragement, if they were to rebuild their shattered lives after the Jesus experience.
On a different tack ‘I’m going fishing’ may indicate quite simply that the disciples were hungry and needed some food: and what could be more obvious than for professional fishermen to go out onto the lake to catch fish. Of course, throughout their three years with Jesus the disciples had not had to worry about finding food – the women who followed Jesus had gathered and provided food for Jesus and his disciples: but, now that everyone had been scattered, the eleven were left to fend for themselves once again, and it’s certainly possible that they were hungry and were short of the money that they would need to buy enough food to eat.
Well, there we are: four quite different (but equally plausible) interpretations of just four words of Holy Scripture ‘I am going fishing’. As I am sure you will agree, ‘I am going fishing’ is not one of the most significant phrases in the New Testament, but it is a splendid example of the need for us to look carefully at each sentence in scripture and then try to imagine what was going on in the hearts and minds of the characters in the story.
Now I cannot tell you which of the four interpretations I gave you might be the right one: none of them may be correct, or perhaps they all have an element of truth in them – in a sense, it doesn’t matter too much. What is important is that, having thought through all the possibilities, the story that we heard as this evening’s second lesson has become much more alive and interesting for us: it has become less flat and more three-dimensional, and so it becomes much more engaging as a result. That’s the first point that I want to make this evening – the importance of using our imagination when we read the bible, so that we bring the text to life in our minds and in our hearts.
The second point that I want to make follows from it, in that, once we have brought the text to life, we need to listen to what the Risen Christ is saying to us today through his word of Scripture. So let’s return to the lakeside for a moment to illustrate what I mean.
Until that night’s fishing on the lake, the Risen Christ had appeared to his disciples only in Jerusalem. And that raises an important question: why did the disciples leave Jerusalem, if that is where the Risen Christ was appearing? We cannot be sure of the answer to this question, but I have a suspicion that Peter and the disciples were overwhelmed by their Easter experience and that they were trying to run away from the consequences of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead – running back into their old jobs – back to their former way of life. And what could be more natural? It is true of even the greatest saints that there were times when they wanted to give up practising the faith and to turn their back on their particular calling. Perhaps the same is true for some of us here today? There may have been times when we were tempted to give up the Christian way of life: times when we have made a serious mistake; times when we have faced what appear to be overwhelming difficulties; times when we are feeling tired or even desperately weary.
Peter and the other disciples must have been facing just that kind of dilemma in those first few days after the Resurrection of our Lord. Peter was still painfully conscious of his forthright denial of Jesus and of his inability to stand by his promise to lay down his life for Christ. This experience of failure had a profound effect on Peter: it shattered his illusions about himself. No wonder Peter left Jerusalem and returned to familiar home territory: he was ready to give up following Jesus. But even though Peter might have been ready to give up on Jesus, our Lord was not ready to give up on Peter: and so the Risen Christ made an appearance in Galilee – miles away from Jerusalem – in order to seek out Peter, to assure Peter of his renewed life and presence after crucifixion, and to recall Peter to the task of being a fisher of men and women.
Peter’s experience, then, is a lesson for us today: a lesson from which we learn that acceptance of our failures is an essential part of our growth in the faith. As we look back over the decisions and events of each day, we have two options. Our first option is to allow our mistakes and failures to lead us into depression and disillusionment, or to run away from our calling. Our second option is to allow these painful experiences to turn us humbly back to Christ, who will lead us to a more mature and realistic faith and to a greater love of God. The fact that we are gathered here this evening suggests that, by the grace of God, we are inclined towards the second (and more constructive) of those two options.
As we do so, let us pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and call on the Risen Christ to be present with us in our lives today. Let us ask our Lord to bless us as we go out to cast the church’s net to fish for men and women of all ages, for that is the task to which he calls you and me each and every day.
Canon Andrew Piper, Precentor, Hereford Cathedral
29th May 2011