One of my favorite Bible stories takes place only in the gospel of John. Early in the first weeks after the brutal cruxifixction and surprising resurrection of Jesus, the disciples are off by themselves near the Sea of Tiberias. It is night and Simon Peter can’t sleep. Perhaps there has been another rehash of Jesus’ death and questions about what they are to do now that he is gone. Simon Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” Before he can get too far, the other disciples follow him saying, “We’ll go too.” (John 21:1-14)
When I have an opportunity to give a sermon on this story, I always talk about grief. It’s hard for me to sit still when I am deep in sorrow. I’m uncomfortable in my own skin. I can’t sleep. If I can go to sleep it doesn’t last long, and I am awake in the night. I may get up and walk around my house or go sit in a comfortable chair. Maybe I will try to read, but usually I can’t focus. I’ll make a cup of tea. If the weather is reasonable, and even if I have to wrap up in a blanket I may sit outside and look up at the stars. In these times I just acknowledge that this is my way of working through loss. This is something I can’t change. People need to be released from their earthly journey and while there is comfort in their release, I miss them and it just takes time for me to find peace with their passing.
Simon Peter does what he knows. He goes fishing. The men are out all night and catch nothing. As they turn toward shore at daybreak, they see a stranger who calls to them, “Children, have you any fish?” They are close enough to holler back, “No.” He instructs them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they cast off the right their net is so full they can hardly pull it in. This is when one of them realizes the stranger is Jesus. Simon Peter jumps in the water and swims to shore leaving his friends to pull it all in.
When they get on the shore they see a charcoal fire with fish already cooking. Jesus also has bread. He encourages them to bring some of their freshly caught fish over and “come and eat.” The gospel of John tells us this is the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples. This story reminds me of a camp song, “Have you seen Jesus my Lord? He’s here in plain view.” It leads me to believe that I can experience Jesus’ presence if I pay attention. The story tells me Jesus meets us in all situations and in the ordinary duties of our lifework, gives us instruction. Then Jesus includes our best efforts into a feast that nurtures and sends us back out to serve.
One of my parishioners was baptized and taken into membership on Palm Sunday. He had grown up in a family business that worked on Sundays and had never gone to church regularly until he and his wife began attending this year. His parents and brothers are all deceased. In the week before Easter his mother visited him in a dream. I don’t know all the details, but he told me at the end of the dream she asked him, “Have you seen the butterflies?” In his dream he responded that he had not. She replied, “ Well, you will!” His face never lost a big smile on Easter morning. I wore my favorite stole with butterflies over my robe and marched down the aisle as everyone sang, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”
My daughter lives in San Francisco and works remotely from home. This week she called me for a quick chat between meetings. The birds chirped in stereo as we were both outside. “You won’t believe the experience I just had with a butterfly,” she said. “It landed on my knee and then my arm. We actually had a moment when we locked eyes.” A hummingbird fluttered above me and then flitted over to my garden.
The Rev. Patricia Stout is the pastor at Old Stone Presbyterian Church and a substitute teacher in the Delaware City School District.