Each of the four Gospels ends differently. Each describes the Crucifixion, but Marks’ Gospel ends abruptly with the discovery of the empty tomb. Luke’s ends with the story of two men walking along the road to the village of Emmaus. John’s ends with a meal, where Jesus shares fish with his disciple, Jesus’ speaking to and rehabilitating Peter and emphasising the true witness of the Beloved Disciple.
In Sunday’s gospel reading from John, some of the disciples fish without any success. A stranger calls to them from the shore recommending that they let their nets down from the right hand side of the boat. They net an enormous catch and only then does the Beloved Disciple recognize that the stranger calling to them is ‘the Lord’.
This story resembles several others where Jesus appears to his followers but is not immediately recognizable. Mary Magdalene, in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, mistook Jesus for a gardener until he called her by name. In Luke’s Gospel, two disciples walk and talk with a stranger on the road to Emmaus, but only recognize him as Jesus when he breaks bread with them.
These delays in recognition suggest that recognizing the Risen Lord is something that requires a special moment of insight. In the case of Mary Magdalene and the men walking to Emmaus this insight was triggered by Jesus performing a familiar action. These stories also suggest that the post-resurrection Jesus existed in a different way. This point is reinforced by the fact that he appeared among the disciples at will. However, this does not mean that there was anything ‘ghostly’ about the Risen Christ: his physical nature is shown when he displays his wounds to St. Thomas and when he eats with the disciples – as he does in Sunday’s reading (he has breakfast with the disciples). This is important for Christians because it means that Christ’s promise of resurrection life is not simply of a life continued – not our present life ad infinitum– but of a life changed.
There is another dimension to the story: the miraculous draft of 153 fish. What does it mean? Even though there is no lakeside call of the disciples in John’s Gospel – a scene that occurs early in the other three gospels – here we have the disciples responding to Jesus’ instructions (call?) and miraculously filling their nets with a draft of 153 fish.
Here are two, different explanations. St. Jerome saw a symbolism taken from the beliefs of ancient Greek zoologists who believed that there were only 153 types of fish. Consequently, the disciples as ‘fishers of men’ may have caught a representative of every species; in other words, they could draw in every type of person.
But the reference to 153 may also have a numerological significance. Followers of Pythagoras at the time of Jesus found nothing odd in expressing their faith with number symbolism. To them the significance of 153 would have been obvious. The fish were caught on the third appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples, traditionally known as the Twelve. If 3 and 12 are the sides of a triangle, Pythagoras’ theorem means that the square of the third side, the hypoteneuse, will be the sum of the two other sides squared (9 + 144 = 153). I think an observation better made in print than in a sermon but quite fascinating.