After Peter Retired

Gary Simpson


John 21:3-19 (King James Version) Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.  But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No.  And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.

      According to the Biblical story, the fishers caught 153 fish.  Skipping down in the story to verse 15, where we pick up the famous conversation between Jesus and Peter.

      When they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.

      He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

      He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.  Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

      This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.

      In verse 5, Peter says he is going fishing.  In Greek there is a shade of meaning we do not see in our English translations.  A meaning in the Greek text is "retire."[1]

      This story, in the gospel of John, comes after the passion of Christ, after the crucifixion.  At times, I assist people as they choose careers and as they change careers.  Imagine that Peter comes to my office, with his high school transcript, and tells me that his career (for church people - a calling) is to follow in the footsteps of a religious teacher who was widely criticized by religious leaders and was crucified.  What do you think I would say?

      As non-directive as I am, I would be strongly suggesting a change in career plans.  Retirement sounds much better than emulating the life of a man who was executed.  A career that is only three years long and that ends not with a gold watch, not with a party and not with an indexed pension, but ends with a crucifixion fails on many levels.  You want a career like that?!  No wonder Peter retired and went fishing.

      Peter learned what many people who retire learn.  Being retired is not always a wonderful thing.  I have listened to colleagues complain about their jobs, anxiously looking forward to a time when they could retire.  Within weeks or months of retiring, they are working at a job that has worse pay and worse working conditions than the job they spent years complaining about.  I know a man who retired from one of the traditional professions to do something less strenuous and ended up logging and farming.

      Peter goes fishing.  He spends all night fishing and gets not a minnow, not a guppy - nothing.  A night without sleep and nothing to show for the night of hard work.  And some guy on the shore asks if they caught any fish.  The fishermen reply, "No man."  And this unknown man on the shore says, throw your net on the right side of the boat. 

      Some people find in this story insights into the need to change.  They can almost hear the disciples reply, "Right!  Like that is going to work."  After all, we have always fished off the left side of the boat.  As fishers, we honor tradition.  Church must start with the same hymn.  The same choral prayer response every week.  In the church, our liturgy is written in books and we repeat it weekly, until we can recite it in our sleep.  In many churches, we weekly pray The Lord's Prayer, the Our Father.  Many of us pray Hail Marys daily.  In the low churches that pride themselves on not being churches of tradition, we always sing choruses twice, never once and never thrice.  Twice is what we do. 

      Change can make a difference.  At times, being faithful to God, following the risen Christ means we change.  When we do the same thing over and over again and we are not getting results, we may need to do what Jesus said and fish off the other side of the boat.  But I am not sure that is really central to the story.

      The fishermen threw the nets out on the right side of the ship and the unexpected happened.  The nets were so full of fish the fishermen had problems getting all of the fish they caught in the boat.  You may read commentators, such as William Barclay, who do not feel the catch was not a miracle,[2] while other commentators see the catch as a miracle.[3]  Contributors to the NIV Bible Commentary state 153 fish and the nets probably weighed as much as 300 pounds.[4]  Our ancient spiritual ancestors recognized this story as a miracle, possibly because of the amount of fish caught, the fact that the directions were given by the risen Christ or by the spiritual meanings we can gather from the story.

      You will notice Jesus affirmed the fishermen as fishermen. The miracle involved fish.  He did not perform a miracle involving cattle or sheep. The men were affirmed as fishermen and you do not affirm fishermen by trying to make them into shepherds or cattlemen.  At times, the church of Christ, through colonial powers, tried to change everybody, making them look, dress, walk, talk and approach God like White, middle-class European, Christian men.  The spiritual voice of male colonizers drowned out the spiritual voices of women and of Asian, African and Aboriginal peoples around the world.

      The reality is that there are many rich and distinct Christian spiritualities, each with its own perspective on our ancient faith.  The affirmation of the Spirit and the miraculous is not as easily seen when we do not affirm who people are, because the Spirit can and does move inside the cultures in which we live better than it replaces one culture with another culture.

      The fishermen ran out of resources.  They did everything they could do and got nothing.  Rodney Buchanan, a retired Methodist pastor, who gave a sermon on this passage observes, "We meet God when we come to the end of our resources."[5]  From the Methodist roots of our faith, we get a reminder that God is present when our personal resources fade.  At the times when we tend to feel the least blessed, the least affirmed, God is still present.  In fact, it is at the times we are most challenged that we may see God's presence in the most powerful ways.

      In the Biblical story, the exact number of fish caught is given.  Commentator William Barclay notes that the gospel of John has ways of hiding meaning in the story, so there could be a reason why the story says 153 fish are caught.[6]  Three different reasons are handed down to us, one by Cyril of Alexandria, one by Augustine and one by Jerome.[7]  Each of the reasons, in my opinion, points to the diversity of people who are included in the Kingdom of God.  I like Jerome's explanation best, because it seems the simplest and because it provides a little better sense of the inclusive nature of God's grace.  To Jerome, there are 153 types of fish, so the number 153 shows that the people of every nation are gathered together by Christ.[8]  The Kingdom of God is inclusive.

      In our church, we understand the gospel is inclusive and that is why our covenant indicates to the effect that we welcome people of all races, genders, ages, sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions and abilities into the full life of the congregation.  Our faith is not the faith of just the White, not just the European, not just the middle class and not just the men of the world.  The beauty of the Kingdom is that the Kingdom of God is bigger than we are.

      At the end of the story, a story that symbolizes the wonderful grace of Jesus, we hear Christ invite Peter to follow Him.  Peter is the man who denied Him three times the night of Jesus' unfair trial.  And a personal invitation is extended to Peter.  To the retired Peter, Jesus said "follow me."  The Christian faith, the Christian calling is one from which we can never retire.  The call to reach out and touch lives is a call that does not end with the first Canada Pension Plan cheque.  Today, the risen Christ invites you to "follow me."





[1] Spiros Zodhaites.  The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible.  (n.p.:  AMG Pub., 1991), Greek Dictionary, 73.  The meaning of the word translated "go" (5217) in Strong's Dictionary can mean "to lead (oneself) under, i.e. withdraw or retire (as if sinking out of sight), literally or figuratively:--depart, get hence, go (a-)way."

[2] William Barclay.  The Daily Study Bible:  The Gospel of John.  Vol. 2. Revised Edition.  (Burlington, Ontario:  G.R. Welch, 1975), 281.

[3] Henry Halley describes this as a "miraculous haul of fish" in Henry Halley.  Pocket Bible Handbook.  (Chicago:  Henry Halley, 1953), 496.

[4] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger, III, Eds.  NIV Bible Commentary.  Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 373.

[5] Rodney Buchanan.  "Cast Your Net on the Other Side."  Sermon Central.  Oct. 2005, 12 Apr. 2013. <>.

[6] Barclay, 283.

[7] Barclay, 283-284.

[8] Barclay, 284.