There’s two big fish stories in the gospels.
Just before Jesus calls the fishermen to be his first disciples, Luke says that they hadn’t caught anything that day. Jesus sends them out to “the deep water” and they catch full nets of fish. Then Jesus tells them to come with him and they’ll fish for people together.
The other one’s in John and it’s right at the very end of the gospel. After the resurrection story and Jesus’ encounter with Thomas, the author of John seems to wrap things up with a closing paragraph that sounds very much like “The End.” Except it isn’t. There’s another chapter. In that chapter, the disciples have gone back to fishing. They’ve worked hard all night and not caught anything, when a figure appears on the shore and tells them to fish “from the other side of the boat.” They do and catch a ridiculous abundance of fish. One of them recognizes Jesus, they end up on the shore having a meal with Jesus, he talks to Peter and sends them on their way. And that’s the end. It’s as if the author of John thought they needed an epilogue, a little something more about what could happen next.
I like both these fish stories because I think that’s what they’re about: what happens next.
For Luke, what happens next is that four fishermen are inspired to leave their boats behind and follow Jesus. I wonder if the fish story here isn’t meant to foreshadow what was happening next: they go “deep” with Jesus and find abundant life.
In John, the disciples have already experienced life with Jesus. They’ve also experienced the trauma of his arrest, the grief of his death and the wonder of the resurrection. And, after all that, Jesus tells them “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” It’s been a whirlwind. And then there’s that first ending.
But I wonder if the author of John then thought, “after all that, what would the disciples do? Would they go and do as Jesus said? Would they even know how? Or would they, after all that has happened, be looking for a little normalcy in their lives? Ordinary, frail human beings, perhaps they would want to find something familiar and comfortable, something they know with certainty. Like fishing. And so they do. And what does it bring? Nothing. They fish all night and catch nothing. Because you can’t go back.
Then, Jesus appears again and tells them to try something different, to turn another way, to some nothing new, something opposite what they know, opposite what’s familiar and comfortable. And then they find what they’re looking for: a way forward.
One tells a story of finding abundant life in following Jesus and learning how to love, to go deep into the self and the spirit, the other of finding abundant life in living that love into the world. Both offer life-giving experience that comes from being open to something different and willing to step fully into it. Into the deep or to the other side, wherever we go, Jesus goes with us and we go forward.