A Sermon for Easter 3C, John 21:1-19. Dark Night Fishing or Resurrection?

The collect and readings for the Third Sunday of Easter may be found here. The appointed gospel is John 21:1-19.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Monastery

When life gets difficult, when we become lost, confused, and afraid, when the changes of life are not want we wanted or think we deserve we tend to run away. We try to go back to the way it was before – to something safe, something familiar. 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.

Peter and six others have returned to the sea. They have left Jerusalem. They have come home to the Sea of Tiberias, the place where it all began. Discipleship, the upper room, the cross, the empty tomb, the house with its locked doors are some 80 miles to the South. Peter decides to go fishing. He knows how to do that. It is familiar and comfortable. Perhaps it takes him back to life before Jesus. The others are quick to join him.

My hunch, however, is that Peter is not really trying to catch fish as much as he is fishing for answers. We can leave the places and even the people of our life but we can never escape ourselves or our life. Wherever you go, there you are. Peter may have left Jerusalem but he cannot 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 his 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. Peter is dark night fishing.

We have all spent time dark night fishing; asking the same questions as Peter, looking for our place in life, seeking peace, and some sense of understanding and meaning. More often than not dark night fishing happens in the context of the failures, losses, and sorrows of our lives. 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.

“Children, you have no fish, have you,” Jesus says. This is more a statement of fact than a question. Jesus is not asking for a fishing report. He is commenting on the reality and emptiness of Peter’s and the other disciples’ lives. 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.

Wonder if we have been fishing on the wrong side of the boat? Jesus seems to think so. “Cast your net to the right side of the boat,” Jesus says, the resurrection side of the boat. This movement of the net from one side of the boat to the other symbolizes the disciples’ resurrection. It is the great passover. Jesus calls us to move out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. In so doing we see and proclaim, “It is the Lord,” and

  • Emptiness gives way to the abundance of a net full of fish, large ones, a hundred fifty-three of them;
  • Darkness dawns a new day with new light;
  • A new charcoal fire kindles hospitality in place of the cold ashes of rejection;
  • The last supper has become the first breakfast;
  • Confessions of love overcome denials of fear.

“It is the Lord.” Dark night fishing is over. This is Easter. Good Friday is real. Pain, death, sin are a reality of life. But the greater and final reality is Easter resurrection. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and live as resurrected people. Follow me and fish in a different place. Follow me.” “Follow me” is the invitation to examine where we have been fishing. On which side of the boat do we fish? On which side of the cross do we live? Good Friday or Easter resurrection.


  1. Nicely done. And, out of the dark night, the life of light that the Apostles go to is one of more trouble, pain, sorrow and ultimate death. How paradoxical it is that we are to find peace in a life of tribulation.


  2. Thank you, Michael. Yes, dark night fishing is, indeed, nonproductive for me. I see it as the obsessing, the moving away from the Present Moment into some old, familiar painful place. And Jesus’ invitation to fish on the right side – the “new life” side – is difficult to respond to. Except for the “follow me” I don’t think I could let go to the extent Jesus seems to be asking. The “follow me” has to be a promise and the key part of the metanoia for me. Otherwise, I just can’t do it – not today.


  3. mike. this is awesome. it is beautiful what you are doing; that your poerful vision and insigh is being communicated to many. thanks. peace, jeff


  4. You have spoken well. The ? that haunts me; If this scene occurs after the upper room appearance, why do the disiciples act surprised that Jesus appears agai


    1. Tom, that’s a great question that in some way reveals we are always a bit surprised when Jesus shows up. I wonder if we believe the resurrection as a historical event but not so much as a present reality.

      Easter blessings,


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