When I was a child it would never have occurred to our family to barbecue on a beach, even at the best of times – we went in for sandy sandwiches unfortunately! But barbecues are not a modern invention. John’s Gospel tells us that, after the resurrection, Jesus was barbecuing by the side of a lake. The disciples, meanwhile, were in a boat out on the lake, fishing: ‘Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus … they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught”’ (John 21:4, 9-10). I’m looking forward to the day when we’re all free to have a barbecue again with our church friends! Of course, Jesus wasn’t having to socially distance – far from it: the resurrection experiences are about close sharing with friends.
This was a bring-and-share barbecue. The idea was that the disciples should contribute some of the fish they had caught. But they had caught nothing! So, the story continues: ‘Jesus called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” ‘No,’ they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.’
|Canterbury Cathedral, 'Ministry of Jesus' window, The Miraculous Draft of Fishes|
The right side of the boat is where the disciples need to be. In English, we can enjoy a play on words at this point – in this case, the right (not the left) side is the right (correct) side! This year we will miss the Olympics, but it is the only time I ever watch sailing. I’m intrigued that when you see people racing, they sometimes have to move over to one side of the boat and almost hang over the edge to make sure the boat is moving properly through the water. They have to go to the right side. If they moved to the wrong side the boat would presumably not move as it should or even capsize.
Whatever your purpose in sailing, you really have to know what you are doing with a boat, and veer to the right side, whichever that side is. The disciples should have known what they were doing – some of them were fishermen, after all – but, evidently, when fishing they had caught nothing. They were not in the right place physically or mentally. They were still coming to terms with the resurrection of Jesus and what it could mean for them.
Evidently, at first, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not recognise him. But even when Peter realised and shouted ‘It is the Lord’ there was still some hesitancy about their daring to trust, and maybe a bit of wondering whether others would actually believe them, though they knew in their hearts it really was Jesus:
‘Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.’
Last year I was watching a programme, I think it might have been ‘Songs of Praise’, where they were showcasing a church that had begun to offer a much needed service for the community. I remember the minister saying that all it took for a church to see what needed doing, and then to offer it, was a small movement in their way of thinking. He referred to this barbecue-breakfast resurrection story and pointed out that the resurrection experience simply gave a slight shift. The disciples did not have to move far – only from one side of the boat to another – to receive more than they could have dreamed of. On one side they caught nothing and nothing was working for them – but with just a small tweak in their way of thinking and their actions they were able to haul in a great catch of fish and provide people with more than enough.
The church is sometimes thought of as like a boat. In fact the symbol of the World Council of Churches is a boat afloat on the sea of the world with the mast in the form of a cross. We are all, including the church, facing challenging rough waters at the moment. I wonder, are we on the right side to keep the church afloat and on course? Do we need to make any slight shifts so that, instead of bringing nothing to the table, we can bring and share a net full to overflowing that Jesus, our risen Lord, can use to satisfy people’s deepest longings? Just like at that lakeside barbecue!
Frail is our vessel,
and the ocean is wide;
but as in your mercy you have set our course,
so steer the vessel of our life
towards the everlasting shore of peace,
and bring us at length to the quiet haven of our heart's desire,
where you, O God, are blessed,
and live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer attributed to St Augustine (354-430)