John 21:1-14 – Adaptable & Flexible

A reflection by Dan Spragg

I would have to say that this is just about my favourite story of Jesus and his disciples. There is something incredibly inviting about the idea of breakfast over a fire on the beach with Jesus. Josh focused on this passage a few weeks back and linked it to the idea of hospitality – that this is how God is with us and so this is how we are to be with others – living the invitation into a spacious, grace-filled hospitality. I’m going to focus on another aspect of the story today and as a way to help us enter the story and make it our own, I’d like to invite you into a reflective space for a moment. I have five questions for you. Each question will come and follow with a period of silence. As you consider the questions keep the story in mind. Here we go:

  1. The morning in this story was probably different from yours. Reflect below the surface on how.
  2. They were frustrated at having caught no fish! What are your frustrations?
  3. What was Jesus’ invitation to them within these frustrations?
  4. As soon as Simon Peter saw it was the Lord he jumped into the water. How can you jump into the water to be closer to Jesus?
  5. Jesus had bread and fish for them. What does he have for you today?

It is good for us to sit a little deeper with a scripture story. It helps make them our stories. All those questions were good but there is one question I believe is particularly relevant for us as a church family today. Within the frustration, what was Jesus’ invitation to them?

They were frustrated at catching no fish. But I imagine they were frustrated in a larger sense too. This was as it says after Jesus’ death and resurrection the third time he appeared to them. I imagine they were still feeling a number of things. Perhaps they were feeling betrayed, deflated, confused, like they were in limbo a bit, leaderless, lacking direction… I imagine Peter to be wanting forgiveness after denying Jesus the night before he was killed. We can almost sense they’re going fishing out of a sense of larger frustration. Peter, not one to be able to sit idle, wants to at least do something, and so the fishing trip gets underway. Then to top it all off they aren’t catching anything, if you talk to anyone who knows things about the sea of Tiberias, or the sea of Galilee as it’s also known, there was no shortage of fish. It was good fishing, normally… talk about frustration upon frustration. And then, Jesus invites them to throw their net ‘on the right side.’ Which is generally understood to mean the ‘other side’ than they were already using. And so, they do, and the net fills to overflowing.

There is a similar story in Luke’s gospel (chapter 5). The nets there too were overflowing. One strong train of thought between these two stories is that the fish are symbolic of people. That as the disciples had been called to be ‘fishers of people’ (Matthew 4) these nets overflowing become metaphors for the work of mission and outreach.

In working through our vision – our values and beliefs – we find ourselves looking into the statement that ‘we need to be adaptable and flexible.’ This is found in the category of ‘loving service.’ Our values and beliefs can be found in three categories – Faith. Community. Loving Service. As we seek to serve the communities around us, being a God-filled presence, our hope is that we will be useful to the community but also surely that some people might become interested in the faith and that we can be a part of God working in people’s hearts as well as helping them materially. This end story in John 21 is kind of like the end part of Matthew’s gospel – a final instruction or teaching about what it is to be followers of Jesus. That we are to be part of the good news of Jesus landing and taking root in other people’s lives. That we as students in the way of Jesus (disciples) are to grow other students in the way of Jesus. We are to ‘cast the net’ and gather people up into the ways of God. The implication of them catching an abundant load of fish after listening to Jesus is that with guidance from the risen Christ they will enter into something abundant! Within this work that is our work as much as it was theirs, we believe we need to be adaptable and flexible.

Who here has seen the 2011 movie ‘Moneyball’? Moneyball tells the story of Baseball coach Billy Beane who one day has an epiphany… Baseball’s conventional wisdom is all wrong. His team has to compete against clubs who have a lot more money and, it appears, a lot more talent. For all intents and purposes, they are going backward in the league. So, Beane sets about challenging the ‘way things have always been done’ and ultimately finds success for his team against the other clubs by going against the status quo. He hires the players the other teams don’t want and works with them in all sorts of unconventional ways. It’s a great movie. At one point Beane says something quite succinct in relation to the need to reinvent how Baseball is run and how the teams are organised, because it just isn’t working for them anymore. He says, “Adapt or die.” Now that’s quite a statement! But it is quite applicable in many situations outside of his. One of the big examples of the failure to do this is Kodak. Before the digital revolution, Kodak was an industry giant in film and print photography. One of their technicians actually came up with an idea that would lead to the digital camera, but the executives and board of Kodak buried the idea saying it would never work… so they stuck to what they had always done and as digital technology gained massive momentum around them they watched their market share disappear almost overnight. Adapt or die…

We need to be adaptable and flexible. As I said in my study report, ‘Simplicity, Harmony and Generally Being Useful’, under the idea of embracing simplicity:

It is also no surprise that the society around us is changing, rapidly and constantly, which increases the need for the church to think about how it is relating as part of the communities it finds itself in. And, it offers opportunities for us to consider what is helpful for us to adopt from the places we find ourselves. [So], As we are open to where God is leading us, as we follow the way of Jesus together, we need to be able to adapt to what is in front of us.

As the world around us shifts and changes, as the people around us experience deep shifts and changes almost constantly we need to be able to shift and change. We of course are not going to shift and change ‘who’ we are but rather ‘how’ we are responding and offering a different perspective on how the world works. We need to be looking and listening to where God is at work wherever we may find it. We need to be willing to cast our nets on the other side of the boat.

In difficult seasons what is the invitation? What is Jesus inviting us into? What might it look like to be adaptable and flexible and cast our net in a different way? Which might be embracing a totally new idea, or it might be simply saying, ‘that thing we’ve always done that way, we could do that differently…’

The number of fish the disciples caught that day of course has been debated and analysed. Is it some meaningful number? Does it contain some hidden message? There have been many theories. The best one though is the simplest. That 153 fish barely contained by the net simply points to the abundance that is to be found when we follow Jesus. ‘I have come that they might have life to the full.’ (John 10) The way of Jesus, is the way of life and so surely we should be willing to follow that wherever it leads.

Remember the story again for a moment. Put yourselves on that boat again. This morning for these disciples was a different morning to ours but it’s also a story that we can call our own. We can find ourselves in this story. Doing something that is familiar to us, something that we might be good at and have had success in the past, but for whatever reason is no longer working. Finding ourselves frustrated and perhaps like the disciples feeling as though we’ve been left alone. We, like them, need to listen to what Jesus is inviting us to do. To listen and look for God at work and follow the invitation to adapt and be flexible, to cast our net in a different way. In this, like those early disciples, we might see Jesus and join him in an abundant feast where others hopefully might also see Jesus at work too and come to experience the expansive grace-filled hospitality of God.