Wednesday, 18 April 2007

a net full of fish John 21 1-19

“I’m going fishing”, said Peter. The others – a motley crew in total 4 short of the 11 – though mystically making up a very complete team of 7 agreed to go with him. But in that dark night the familiar haunts Galilee seemed a very hostile Tiberias. In the murky waters no fish were to be found. It seemed that after the adventures of following Jesus there was going to be no easy return to the old ways that they had abandoned only three long years ago. Three years, three hours, three days, Saturday night and Sunday morning, days seemed to stretch into eternities and eternities condensed into the twinkling of an eye. Time no longer made sense. But somehow the three years, three hours and three days had changed everything and now their past was inaccessible to them. Perhaps new fishing companies had sprung up in their old haunts with new technology and greedier boats and had fished Galilee empty. Perhaps the knack had gone. But the dawn greeted tired, disappointed, hungry and penniless men with nothing to show for a night of toil.

Some of them (particularly Peter) may have remembered the dire warnings of Hosea: “There is neither faithfulness nor loyalty in the land ….. and even the fish in the sea will perish” (Hosea 4 1-4). Someone was standing on the shore watching them. “Children!” he called out. They were hardly in the mood to be patronised by a passing tourist. “You don’t seem to have caught any fish, have you? Try putting the net on the right side.” Amazingly they took notice.The result was spectacular. Suddenly they have a new problem; the net was so full it could hardly be brought to Land. Only Jesus could have been responsible for such a reversal of nature. Peter leapt overboard to meet his Lord.

When they counted the catch they found 153 fish. The amount written on this catch would out-weigh even that quantity of fish. For me by far the most coherent explanation is that of T A Emerton at -. It has long been known that 153 is triangular number based on 17. (That is if you add all the numbers from 1-17 you get 153). 10 plus 7 is itself the sum of two complete numbers, thus giving 17 a particular significance. The ages of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all based on 17: books 3 and 4 of the Book of Psalms each contain 17 Psalms. The prophecy in Ezekiel 47 that the sea between En Gedi and En Eglaim will be full of fish when the water from the temple flows into the Dead Sea is surely relevant. Already John has described how Jesus had stood up in the temple and talked about streams of living water flowing out him, and those who believe in him. In Hebrew all the letters have a numerical value. If we add the Hebrew letters making up the word GEDI we get 3+4+10, = 17. When we add up the Hebrew letters of the word EGLAIM we get 70 +3 +30+10 + 40 = 153!

Hardly anyone in the Old Testament is described eating fish: by the time John’s gospel was written the word fish and the emblem of a fish were codes for the church. Jerome seemed to think that there were 153 known species of fish and that the net was the symbol of the church. Thus the church could embrace all types and conditions of men without being torn asunder. (Would that this were true!) That theory has since been doubted. It certainly seems as if the number 17 is again at work. Then number of different groups of people who heard the gospel at Pentecost was 17. More likely than it being the known species of fish 153 may have been a symbolic number for all the nations on earth.

In any event what is surely being suggested by John is that the resurrection of Jesus had set in motion a whole new creative order. On the eighth day God had arisen from his Sabbath to begin a new work of creation so that even that which seemed dead was now alive. The tired toilings in the night of a disappointed people were not going to be sufficient to turn things round. Any success depended on the creative spirit of God. His presence ensured that even dead waters would teem with life. But that presence was as reliable as the dawn which follows the night. Eternal day had dawned. The new creation was already in train.

Jesus had already been out fishing for there was already fish on the barbecue. Peter, as had Adam before him, realised that he was naked. But now the curse has been lifted. His sin did not bar him from table fellowship with his God. In the new creation he would have the opportunity to be a Good Shepherd like his Lord, though that might mean laying down his life, too.

Men came from the sea
with their unusual catch -
one hundred and fifty three.
A fire burned on the beach.

They had expected nothing,
now there was a glut,
and also this man waiting.
The charcoal was white hot.

But was the man there?
One moment it seemed so,
the next he was not.
Master, they said, don't go.

Like thin air shimmering
when powerful heat bakes it,
he continued his waiting.
Indefinite. Definite.

The fire burned on the beach
with their unusual catch.
They had expected nothing.
Now there was too much.

copyright Andrew Motion, 2004

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