John begins today’s gospel (John 21:1-19) by telling us that Jesus “showed himself in this way.” Throughout this post-Resurrection story, the Evangelist gives a lot of small, seemingly unnecessary and even strange details, when he could have said just as easily: “While the disciples were fishing, they saw Jesus on the shore. This was his third appearance.” But John didn’t. Instead, he focuses on the details in which Jesus showed himself; so maybe we should too.
First, the context: The disciples have returned home. Discipleship, the upper room, the cross, the empty tomb, the house with its locked doors are all now things of the past for them, and (more importantly) these seven disciples seem to have lost sight of “resurrection” in their lives. They’ve moved back to the familiar waters of the Sea of Tiberias, to the place where it all began. They’ve traveled some 70 or 80 miles from the place of Jesus’ resurrection and given themselves to their old routine of fishing. They’ve returned to the same boats, the same nets, the same water, the same work. And that’s when and where Jesus now “shows himself”—precisely in the ordinary circumstances and familiar routines of their lives.
So, what about us? It’s now two weeks after Easter Sunday, and I suspect we’ve all returned to the routine of our lives. But according to this morning’s Gospel, that’s just where we can expect Jesus to reveal himself to us. “Resurrection” does not happen apart from the routines of life but in them. Resurrection is not about escaping life but about becoming alive. This, I believe, is what comes across in the little details John gives us in this morning’s scene. So, let us consider a few of them.
First, we are told that Peter decides to go fishing. He knows how to do that. It is familiar and comfortable. It takes him back to life before Jesus. The others are quick to join him. But perhaps Peter is not really trying to catch fish as much as he is fishing for answers. Simply going back to his former life isn’t the answer.
We know from our own experience that we can leave the places and even the people of our life, but we can never escape ourselves or our life. Wherever we go, there we are. Peter may have left Jerusalem, but he cannot so easily get away from three years of discipleship, the last supper, the arrest, a charcoal fire, denials, a crowing rooster. He cannot leave behind the cross, the empty tomb, the house with its doors locked tight, the echoes of “Peace be with you.”
So, he fishes. Peter fishes for answers. “What have I done? What were those three years about? Who was Jesus? Where is he? Who am I? What will I do now? Where will I go? What will happen to me?” Peter is searching for meaning, a way forward, a place in life. We find him “dark night fishing,” and that’s not just because nighttime is the best time to fish on the Sea of Tiberias.
We all have spent time “dark night fishing”—asking the same questions as Peter, looking for our place in life, seeking peace and some sense of understanding, meaning. More often than not “dark night fishing” happens in the context of our failures, losses, and sorrows. It happens when we come face to face with the things we have done and left undone. We have all been there, fishing for answers in the darkness . . . and coming up empty.
That’s the next detail that we are told: “That night they caught nothing.” Their nets are empty. The empty net is not only descriptive of their fishing efforts; it’s descriptive of the disciples themselves. They are as empty as their nets. We know what that’s like. We work, we do our best, but we still come up empty. In those moments we have come to the limits of our self-sufficiency. We have nothing to show for our efforts, and nothing left to give. We’re empty.
But that’s just when Jesus, still unrecognized by the disciples, shows up and asks: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” That’s not so much a question as it is a statement. Jesus is not asking for a fishing report. He is commenting on the reality and emptiness of Peter’s and the other disciples’ lives. Perhaps Peter is living in the pain and the past of Good Friday. He is fishing on the “Good Friday side” of the boat, and the net is empty. There are no fish, no answers, no way forward. The nets of dark night fishing contain nothing to feed or nourish life.
If now just two weeks after Easter we too have gone back to our ordinary lives and feel empty, maybe we should wonder if we have been fishing on the wrong side of the boat. We know that when we become lost, confused, afraid, unable to deal with what life throws at us, we tend to run away. We try to go back to the way it was before – to something safe, something familiar, pre-Triduum. Often, we revert to old patterns of behavior and thinking. Even when we know better and do not want to go backwards, it seems easier than moving forward. Maybe this is what Peter and the disciples were doing, and why they were fishing unsuccessfully on the wrong side of the boat.
Notice now that Jesus doesn’t suggest that they abandon their nets again, as they had done when he first called them. No, he is about to show them that their present emptiness is not the end or a failure but a beginning. Jesus shows up when the nets are empty; they are the very places where he reveals himself. Only nets empty of self-sufficiency can be filled with a “catch” that is sheer gift, nourishing, life-giving. This why he tells them from the shore: “Cast your net to the right side of the boat and you’ll find something”—we might think of it as the “resurrection side” of the boat. One commentator has suggested that this movement of the net from one side of the boat to the other symbolizes the disciples’ own experience of resurrection, a movement from death to life in an ordinary circumstance of ordinary life.
“Jesus showed himself in this way”: Jesus revealed himself in the empty nets that were suddenly filled with large fish (153 of them!), in the darkness that gave way to morning light, in a charcoal fire of denial that became a fire of welcome and invitation, in a last supper that became a first breakfast, and in three disavowals that were forgiven with three affirmations of love. (No doubt Jesus knew that Peter loved him, but Peter needed to know that he loved Jesus. Peter needed to understand that he was not bound to or identified by his past.)
Perhaps this, then, is the meaning of the “third appearance” of the Risen Lord to his disciples. At an unexpected moment, having retreated to their ordinary lives, the disciples recognize Jesus— “It is the Lord!” In their daily ordinariness they encounter, experience, something of the reality and power of the Risen Lord. A resurrection moment! Dark night fishing is over. This is again Easter. Good Friday is real. Pain, death, sin are realities of life. But the greater and final reality is Easter resurrection. The Good News this morning is about Jesus rising and appearing in the darkness and emptiness of the disciples’ lives, in the darkness and emptiness of our own lives. Whatever darkness has overcome us, whatever darkness we might be going through today, that darkness is the circumstance in which Jesus will show himself to us. It is the very context for our resurrection and is the raw material from which new life will be fashioned. The resurrection happens not in some distant, heavenly future, but in the small details of our everyday life.
The last two words of this morning’s Gospel are simply: “Follow me.” “Follow me and live as resurrected people. Follow me, and fish in a different place.” Follow me is the invitation for us two weeks after Easter to examine where we are fishing. On which side of the boat do we fish? On which side of the Cross do we live? Good Friday or Easter?
This morning's homily by Father Dominic.