Piecing together the resurrection appearances of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.5-7 is no easy task; but what we do know is that, by the time we join the disciples on the Sea of Galilee here in John 21, they had all encountered the risen Jesus on at least one occasion – probably more – though always in Jerusalem.
Now, about ten days after the resurrection, they have arrived back in their home territory about 100 miles to the north, somewhere around Capernaum, and have gone fishing. There is no reason to suppose that (as some would have it) the fishing trip represents a disillusioned abandonment of their discipleship. Not at all. It is rather a way of occupying themselves as they wait to see what is going to happen next. For they have the promise of Jesus to the women who met Jesus on their way from the empty tomb that, once in Galilee, “there they will see me” (Matthew 28.10) and they are presumably more than eager for that to happen – though at the point we join them, it hasn’t happened yet.
Given that likely sense of anticipation, however, it may seem odd to us that the Eleven didn’t immediately realise that the stranger on the shore was the risen Jesus. The probability is, however, that they were only just within earshot so that the voice was indistinct and that it was still very dark. Furthermore, the shoreline near Capernaum would not have been nearly as deserted as we might imagine it to be, so the person calling to them could have been any one of the other fishermen working from that part of the lake – or indeed a member of the Zebedee’s fishing business to which James and John had once belonged (Mark 1.20).
Yes – but surely a suspicion as to who the stranger was must have begun to dawn on them when they heard him tell them to cast their net to the right side of the boat with the promise that then they would catch some fish? After all, Simon Peter had been told to do something similar once before – with unforgettable consequences (Luke 5.4). Perhaps so, perhaps not. But the point that struck me powerfully this morning when I read this story again was that they did it anyway. They did what they were told and it was only then that it become clear that the one who had spoken to them was indeed Jesus. Only then did they recognise him and were able to move into a place of deeper fellowship with him.
So often that has been the pattern of things for me, and maybe for you too. We hear a distant voice, a barely sensed prompting to do or to say something or other. Is it the Lord? We’re not sure. Perhaps so, perhaps not. But is it the sort of thing Jesus might ask of one of his followers? That should be our next question. And if the answer is Yes, then we should do it, say it anyway. And as we do, Jesus will become present to our spirit in an unmistakable way. The mist will clear, and there he will be. “It is the Lord!” And so we shall enter deeper into fellowship with him. That was the experience of the Eleven here in John 21 and it will be our experience too.