3rd Sunday of Easter (C)
In the morning light, with a miraculous catch of fish hanging in a net off the right side of his boat, and after the beloved disciple spoke the words “It is the Lord,” Peter jumped into the sea.
Why did Peter jump into the sea? The text is concise. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” [John 21:7b]
The story of the miraculous catch of fish is beloved by many. In Luke’s Gospel it occurs early in Jesus’ ministry [Luke 5:1–11], and in John’s Gospel, which is read on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) it takes place after Jesus’ resurrection [John 21:1-14]. Both readings are thick with symbolic imagery having to do with Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to follow him, but John’s version, located at the end of his gospel, allows readers to witness the post-resurrection dawning of Peter’s spiritual and ministerial maturity.
A close read of the gospel invites all followers of Jesus, leaders and disciples alike, to plumb the depths of their spiritual waters. The story has a strong message for the Christian church. It raises questions about how we “fish,” it tests our faith in the capacity of the net and ultimately beckons us to be caught up in it.
The action (because there is always action with Peter) begins with Peter’s decision—impulsive, of course—to go fishing, at night, by himself. “I’m going fishing,” he says. Six other disciples decide to join him.
Wait, What? Read in the context of the timeline following the harrowing and glorious recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances to the disciples, one has to ask: What the heck were Peter and the others, including Thomas, of recent wound-probing fame [John 20:24-29], doing going fishing?
As with all of Scripture, it is important to pay close attention to the way the story is told.
Peter and the others, fishing at night, failed to catch any fish. Morning followed. A man standing on the shoreline told the fishermen to cast their net a different way. They did what he said and were immediately overwhelmed with a super-abundant catch, far more than the seven of them could lift into their boat, and far more than they thought the net could hold. While they were all marveling over the bounty, one of the disciples, the beloved one, the spiritually astute one, recognized Jesus and said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” With that, Peter jumped into the sea.
Why did Peter jump into the sea? Maybe he jumped in so he could quickly wade to the shore to see Jesus, but the gospel doesn’t say that. Maybe he jumped in to hide his shame from Jesus because he didn’t recognize him, but the gospel it doesn’t say that either. All it says is that when Peter heard the beloved disciple’s words “It is the Lord,” the fisherman adjusted his garment and jumped into the sea. Into the water. With the fish.
If any of the disciples were going to jump in, it would be the impetuous, all-or-nothing Peter, whose passionate, sometimes faulty certitude caused him to protest things he did not understand [John 13:4-8], whose braggadocio led him to make promises he could not keep [John 13:37], and whose misplaced zeal led him to cut off his enemy’s ear [John 18:10].
Peter’s spontaneous reaction to the beloved disciple’s recognition of Jesus in the miracle of the fish reminds me of how he responded to Jesus’ act of foot washing. “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” [John 13:8-9]
Examples of Peter’s impulsiveness populate the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and John. Although we shake our heads, we should also understand that these represent Peter’s sincere intentions, his deep desire to get it right, and his efforts to understand his friend, Jesus, whom he loved. We are so much like Peter.
By jumping into the sea, the fisherman Peter joined the fish.
Moments before, when the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction and cast their net a different way, it became so heavy with fish they could not haul it into their boat. Later, when Jesus asked them to bring some of the catch to add to the breakfast he was preparing for them, Peter was able to drag the net filled with one hundred and fifty-three large fish to the shore. In the very act of bringing the fish to Jesus, Peter brought himself, who like the untorn net was strong enough for the task.
And then “Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” Just like the last time they were together at the Sea of Tiberius, Jesus fed his disciples with a miracle of abundance.
Religious leaders, lay ministers, and all disciples can learn much about humility from Peter’s failed attempt to fish in the dark, to go it alone. From his act of jumping into the sea, we can examine our feelings about integration, detachment, control, equality, and of course, our baptism. Peter’s robust response to Jesus’ invitation to bring some “fish” to him is something we should all strive to emulate. Finally, I can’t think of a better analogy for the resilient, expansive, capacious fishing net than the merciful and welcoming church envisioned by Pope Francis in his recent document, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”)
In the presence of such great abundance we can all cry out “It is the Lord!”
Be caught in the net; be part of this beautiful, tangled and complicated mess that we call faith. Bring what dwells in the depth of your heart up into the light of Christ—the miracle of God’s abundance—Go ahead and jump in!
 Other than establishing the ego-driven motivation of the disciples (also known as going it alone without Jesus, and therefore, darkness), how might readers of John’s gospel have understood the disciples going fishing at night? For one, it was cooler at night than during the day. Also, larger fish that normally swim in deep water in the daytime come closer to the shore at night, so the fishermen don’t need to take the boat out as far to catch them.
 In Jesus-speak, of course, fishing refers to the missionary action of the church; the fisherman’s net represents the scope and unity of God’s church. This unity is threatened when human leaders forget whose net they hold and attempt to go it alone. As accurate and tidy as these interpretations are, they are mere aperitifs to the rich fare proffered in this passage.
Download the full text of Amoris Laetitia.
Read Fr. James Martin’s “Top Ten Takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”