The Miraculous Catch

Third Sunday of Easter. Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Ps 30:2,4-6; Rv 5:11-14; Jn 21:1-14

Today’s Gospel account of the miraculous catch of fish probably seems rather familiar to us. The story of how the apostles catch an extraordinary number of fish – once they follow Jesus’ instructions – is one of the most well known miracles of the New Testament. In fact, one of the reasons why it is so familiar is that Jesus works this miracle twice. The first time is recorded in Luke’s Gospel, which we read earlier this year on the 4th February. The second time is recorded in John’s Gospel – which was read this morning. Although both miracles are similar, what makes their comparison interesting is that the Jesus works the first miracle before his Resurrection and the second after his Resurrection. Since there is no such thing as an accidental detail, the subtle changes between these two may teach us something about the Resurrection.

The first detail in today’s Gospel is that the first word Jesus says to the disciples from the shore is “children”. Now, normally one would probably not call a group of seven, presumably strong and fit Galilean fishermen “children”. However, this term carries considerable weight because the beginning of John’s Gospel states Jesus mission as follows, “to all who received him … he gave power to become children of God.” The apostles have changed since they were fishing in their earlier life. They are no longer merely servants, but children of God. And this tells us that the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has enabled us too to become children of God.

Second, what the apostles do also changes. In Luke’s account of the miracle before the Resurrection there are two boats and the nets tear; in John’s account after the Resurrection there is only one boat and the nets do not tear. Given that the fish in some sense represent the Faithful, that is ourselves, there is a change before and after the Resurrection. If the miracle beforehand represents the Church in this life, we can see the problem of disunity. There have to be two boats, representing the Jews and Gentiles, and the tearing of the nets signifies the problem of schism and division. The fish are also something of a mixture of good and bad, like ourselves, and it is hard to hold the whole together. After the Resurrection, signifying the Church in glory, there is only one boat, and the nets do not tear as Peter (and his successors the Popes) drag the net safely ashore.

Finally, there is the odd detail that the fish are counted in today’s Gospel: there are one hundred and fifty-three large fish. The recording of the exact number of fish caught, 153, has long been a puzzle. However, St. Augustine had a theory. He noticed that 153 is the combination of every number added up to 17. Augustine suggested that 17 is 10 plus 7. The 10 symbolises the perfection of nature, following the Ten Commandments, and the 7 symbolises the perfection of grace, due to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. If this interpretation is correct, then the number is emphasising the characteristics of the Church in glory. The Church is perfectly united, since the nets do not tear, and its members enjoy the perfection of nature and the perfection of grace.

So it seems that the spiritual purpose of this miracle is partly to give us, in a symbolic way, a little glimpse of the Church in glory. This final chapter of John’s Gospel is somewhat unusual. After the politics and drama of the crucifixion, and the appearance of Jesus to the apostles and Thomas, there is this strange epilogue of a miraculous fishing trip. One has the impression of stepping outside the normal flow of history, stepping outside of time and space in the normal sense. We catch a glimpse of an eternal reality, where the strong arms of Peter pull the miraculous catch of believers, the Church in glory, to the shore where Christ is waiting.

May we follow Christ faithfully all the days of our lives, so that we too will one day enjoy the perfect unity, fellowship and joy of the Church in glory.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 21st April 2007

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