There are times when work seems futile. Like the fishermen in John 21, we ‘catch nothing’. But Jesus changed all that. This story raises the question whether we look for the resurrection power of Jesus to be evident in our places of work.
It may well have been a sense of anti-climax which prompted Peter to go fishing. Certainly, he’d experienced the excitement of Easter Sunday, he had seen the risen Lord, but where was all that excitement leading? Jesus had disappeared a suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared. Peter and the other disciples may have felt they’d been left in the lurch. With Peter there may have been a sense of unfinished business, or reconciliation as yet unmade, after the awful matter of denying Jesus. What were the disciples meant to do now? For three years they had been Jesus’ near constant companions. Now there was a gaping hole in their lives, and they were wondering how to fill it.
Peter, always a man who liked practical action, comes up with an obvious solution: back to work. Back to the practice and trade he and the others knew so well, that of fishing. I’ve read one commentator who describes this as an act of apostasy, an abandonment of discipleship. That’s a very harsh judgment. The disciples needed to spend their time doing something positive. They may have needed to for financial reasons.
These fishermen were real professionals They knew what they were doing when it came to fishing. That was why they went out at night; experience told them this was the most productive time. But on this occasion they fished with a singular lack of success. When morning came, their nets were as empty as when they’d begun. We can imagine their feelings: tired, frustrated, tetchy, baffled, hungry.
The simple phrase in John’s Gospel, ‘they caught nothing’, is profoundly evocative. It calls to mind all the occasions when we work extremely hard over something and achieve nothing. There is the home that a housewife spends all day tidying which is systematically untidied by the small child who trails round after her. There is the contract which a project manager works so hard to secure only for it to be awarded at the last minute to somebody else. There is the report which the secretary has lovingly transcribed on to the computer and is lost when it crashes. There is the employee with the alcohol problem who seems to be responding well to treatment, and then all the progress is undone in an evening of wild drinking.
What we experience at times like these is the futility of work. A sense of time, money and energy having been wasted. In the words of Ecclesiastes, ‘ a striving after wind…What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils under the sun?’ (Ecclesiastes 2:17, 22). Like Peter and his colleagues, we catch nothing, and find it difficult to understand where we’ve gone wrong.
So exasperated were the disciples, so completely at their wits’ end, that they are ready to act on the advice of a total stranger, even though this must have been a serious blow to their pride. Who was this clever fellow on the shore who asked the painful question “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” Never mind, from his vantage point he might be able to see something they couldn’t. They cast their net to the right, and this time they really do catch something. The realisation that it is the risen Jesus who is the mysterious stranger follows rapidly.
A Marvellous Conclusion
Christians should take encouragement from the fact that the glorified Lord makes himself known to the disciples in their doing of an ordinary job. Jesus does not criticise the disciples for going back to their old occupation. They may have had an inflated sense of their self-sufficiency, but the actual work they sought to do wasn’t wrong. What Jesus does is bring success to their working endeavours, to lead their night out fishing to a marvellous conclusion.
This story raises the question of whether we expect, look for and long for the resurrection power of Jesus to be evident in our places of work. Do we believe he can transform our mundane, complex and often difficult situations just as he filled those fishing nets to bursting point? Just as there are moments of depressing futility at work, so there are also moments of exciting transformation.
It could be a dreaded interview with a member of staff, which turns out much better than expected: a hostile relationship turned into a friendly one, with real reconciliation taking place. It might be the breakthrough in a research programme when months of painstaking investigation and experiments suddenly come to fruition. It may be a sudden influx of customer orders after a period of deep recession and constant cutbacks.
Scope for Transformation
There is a delicate theological balance to observe here. Jesus’ presence with us on the metaphorical shore does not guarantee that everything at work will go wonderfully smoothly. The Christian faith is not that sort of insurance policy. Frustrations and setbacks, crossed lines and empty nets will continue to affect us from time to time. But in Jess Christ there is a scope for transformation which is relevant in working life as well as church life.
In this particular story, change is effected through listening to a word of advice. ’Throw your net on the right side of the boat’. Christians need to be alert for similar words of wisdom. If we are living in a state of close relationship with our risen Lord, we may be surprised at the flashes of inspiration that will sometimes come our way.
In this story there is a fine sense of Jesus and the disciples being co-workers. True, Jesus provides the decisive piece of information, but the disciples have to haul the fish ashore, and quite a weight it was too. When they reach the beach the find Jesus had already been busy cooking a breakfast, apparently having access to some private fish supply of his own. Putting all their food together, they concoct what must have been a marvellous meal: a barbecue to beat all barbecues, a breakfast party in a class of its own. No doubt the disciples forgot their tiredness, their crossness about the long hours wasted catching nothing, and marvelled at the transformation which had taken place – all because of the risen Jesus who was in their midst.
From Called to Account, pp.160-163