Jesus, Jokes, and Joy — a sermon on John 21:1–14

you can listen to the sermon here, beginning at 25:44

This morning we gather around a fire pit with Jesus. Is that not a wonderful thought? I wonder if you think of Jesus as a good fire pit friend? Do you know what happens around a fire pit? There is peace, solace, warmth, delightful crackling sounds, relaxation, silence that isn’t lonely, and good conversation.

Several of you know this about me: I’ve spent many hours around a fire pit. When we lived in Louisville, this is what my friends and I would do two or three times a week. I can remember putting Beau down at night, and as I waited for him to fall asleep I would hear the drop of the axe and know that somewhere out there in the darkness they were getting the fire ready for us. If you sometimes struggle to think that Jesus would be good company around a fire pit, well, I hope to persuade you otherwise.

After These Things (21:1)

We are headed to the fire pit this morning, but our passage starts with the words after these things. After what things? These words refer most immediately to Jesus’s appearances to his disciples after his resurrection, but we have to back up a little further to understand the tension of this opening scene in chapter 21.

In our passage, Peter and his friends spend the whole night fishing and catch nothing. I can’t help but wonder if during that night Peter thought back to the fire pit he stood around several nights ago. We’re flashing back now to passion week.

As Jesus was being questioned by Pilate, Peter stood in the light of a fire pit … and hid. Through busted lip and shackles Jesus was speaking openly to Pilate, but Peter wouldn’t even say he knew the guy. On that night, there was no peaceful solace by the fire, no open conversation in a safe space. Once… twice … (I hear Brandon dropping the cross walking down the isle) three times Peter swore with cussing and cursing that he did not know Jesus.

Now, since that night, Jesus has appeared to his disciples twice in group settings. Peter was presumably in the group both times, but we haven’t seen Peter and Jesus interact. Where do they stand? They were tight. Peter was his right hand man, but now? Even if things are OK, could they ever be the same? That’s where the story starts.

I’m Going Fishing (21:3a)

It’s evening. There are seven men in a room, and apparently not much was happening. The air seems tense and awkward because everyone is just sitting there unsure what do or say next? There’s no definitive agenda and everyone seems worn out. It seems like the type of stuffy room where you just want to go and get out. They know Jesus is alive, but he’s not with them at the moment. Now what? That’s the questions that lingers in the air. These men aren’t exactly driven, apostolic church planters yet. The disciples seem to be walking through some post-Easter blues.

Peter has had enough, and exercising one of his spiritual gifts he breaks the silence, “I’m going fishing.” Maybe it was a sudden, resolute “That’s it. I’m going fishing!” Or maybe it was a hands-through-the-hair, [sigh], frustrated, “I don’t know what else to do. I’m going fishing.” Either way, it strikes a cord with the others. “We’re coming, too,” they say.

You see what is happening here? This was their job before meeting Jesus. Now, Jesus is gone and what are these men going to do? Well, today they are going back to what they know. When I read this passage, the vibe feels deflated.

They Caught Nothing (21:3b)

The final words of verse three confirm this because things get worse. They fish all night and catch nothing. No one goes fishing and catches nothing without some deflation and frustration. I’ve done this before. Three hour out to sea, fishing all day, caught nothing, three hours back to land. I’ve never had this experience, however, at night. It’s gotta be even harder at night. Everything is more difficult at night.

What was running through their minds that quiet night on the Sea of Galilee as they stared at the still water? Do they feel the pressure to perform? How are they going to move the mission of Jesus forward? What even was Jesus’s mission? What should they focus on first? The scene fades to black.

The Man on the Beach (21:4–5)

As the new scene fades in, you see feet on a beach. The camera pans up just far enough to see a boat about a hundred yards off shore. The man on the beach calls out, “Hey, boys! You don’t have any fish, do you?!”

You see a couple of the men onboard look up, look at each other, — the man on the beach smiles — they clearly don’t recognize it’s Jesus calling to them. You hear them mumbling in the boat … no doubt choice words, but you can’t make out what they say. There’s silence, and then a one word reply: No.

And it’s all the man on the beach can do to keep from busting out laughing.

Why does Jesus greet them this way? He could have just said, “My disciples, come hither to the shore and share a breakfast meal with thy Lord,” but he doesn’t. He could have just said, “Hey, guys. It’s me. Come here,” but he doesn’t. He jokes with them, “Hey, boys!”

This is one of those passages where you’ll see different English translations in just about every version you look at. The word I’m translating “boys” in a concrete sense means children, but it’s sometimes used when someone in authority just wants to speak lightheartedly.

For example, when I walk into the classroom and see two students standing in chairs trying to knock each other down and I say, “Boys, what in the world are we doing?” Or when I was a construction inspector and the boss man walked in on Friday at 4:45 and said to a group ranging from 20 years old to 60, “Boys, y’all get out of here, and have a good weekend.”

There’s another aspect to hearing this greeting correctly. The way the question is asked in Greek clearly expects a no reply. This happens many other times in the New Testament, and we always understand it this way. Many commentators, however, hem and haw on what to do with it here because they just can’t imagine a Jesus who makes jokes (see the comment from Raymond Brown, for example: The Gospel according to John [XIII-XXI]: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Vol. 29A. Anchor Yale Bible, p. 1070) and it affects the translations.

ESV: Children, do you have any fish?

NIV: Friends, haven’t you any fish?

NRSV: Children, you have no fish, have you?

CSB: Friends … you don’t have any fish, do you?

Once you get the wording straight, you still have to deal with the tone. This question expecting a no could be heard in two different ways using the the same words:

  1. [Sharp connotation] “Hey, boys. Y’all didn’t catch any fish, did you?”
  2. Or you could hear it lightheartedly: “Hey, boys! Y’all didn’t catch anything, did you?”

Jesus is messing with them! And the disciples one word reply adds the comedic exclamation point. You can’t play the part of the man on the shore and say, “Y’all don’t have any fish, do you” without a smile!

So … does your Jesus smile? Does he have the capacity to makes jokes?

Why is it important to get the tone and understand the humor here? Because, for one thing, the humor-ramp-up sets the tone for the climactic joy the story is building toward.

But more than that, it’s important to understand that Jesus makes jokes because what person in your life do you truly love that doesn’t smile and have a sense of humor? Do you love anyone that you can’t laugh with? If you can’t imagine Jesus laughing, is it any wonder why you might struggle to have affection for him? Realizing that Jesus laughs has everything to do with your love for God, particularly the Son. Our Jesus smiles and laughs, and here in this passage he jokes with his disciples.

On the beach we see a happy man, who is the happy God.

Try the Other Side (21:6a)

And he’s not done yet. Listen to his next words, [laughing] “TRY THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BOAT! You didn’t catch anything on the left side all night. Well, did you try the right side?!”

He’s slapping his leg at this point. In the boat, they are like, “Who is this lunatic heckler?” They still don’t yet recognize who it is! For whatever reason — desperation, the desire to shut up their heckler, maybe they are tired and just want to try one last thing so they can go in — for whatever reason, they actually do it. They cast on the right side of the boat.

Before we move on, let’s think about this for a minute. What does it mean that Jesus stepped into their frustration and deflation with a joke? What does this say about Jesus and us and the ebb and flow of life?

For one thing it says that humor and laughter and lightheartedness are good. We talked a lot about how Jesus wept and said blessed are those who mourn and how that means once and for all we are right to do those things. Well, this passage says laughter and joking and levity are right and good, as well.

You see, it’s both. You have to have Lent and Easter. There’s a reason both are in scripture and both are on the calendar. The human experience requires both weeping and mourning and, yes, sadness, AND it requires smiling and laughing and even joking. Sure, we as individuals tend to fall off the horse on one side of the other, but we have to have both.

What we see in Jesus is peak humanity. When Jesus wept over Lazarus he said, “This is how you respond to death because it hurts.” And when he poked at his friends with jokes and smiles and knee slapping laughter, he said for all time “This is good. Laughter is good.” If you pay attention to Jesus in the Gospels I think you’ll find he’s laughing and joking a lot more than you might have previously thought.

Jesus knows that levity helps lift up our drooping heads. We are about to see it: The disciples didn’t begrudge his joke. I bet they told this story — “Try the right side of the boat!” — for the rest of their lives. When you are laughing with your friends, you are not being unholy and stepping away from Jesus. In fact, it’s the opposite.

It’s the Lord (21:6b–8)

When they cast on the right side of the boat, the nets filled so full they couldn’t even get the fish in. Everyone is singularly focused on the business at hand, and I mean business. This is money and their livelihoods. They have to get the fish to the shore, but a voice rings out through the chaos. One fisherman isn’t looking at the fish. He’s staring at the man! The man on the beach! Peter gets slapped on the arm and hears, [smile and with resignation and intrigue] “It’s him. Or maybe with straight giddy delight: “IT’S THE LORD!”

This is it! Jesus and Peter. How’s Peter going to react as he turns from the net and flapping fins? Shame, more hiding? Guilt? Hesitance? SPLASH! John turns around, and Peter is gone! Peter ain’t the same man we saw at the courtyard fire pit! There’s no bitter weeping this morning! There’s a hundred yards of water between him and Jesus, and Peter says, “There’s nothing keeping me from the Lord! I’m not waiting even 10 minutes or 5 minutes more!”

John watches Peter swimming to shore, and Jesus, no doubt laughing and smiling, starts a working on breakfast.

Jesus Has What We Need (21:9–11, 13)

They wanted fish, and they caught none. Then Jesus shows up with joy, and what does he have for them? Fish, and more than they can handle. He doesn’t just give them one or two or a good catch. He fills their nets. Does that mean Jesus will make us rich? No, but it is a picture of how Jesus will make our lives full.

I was talking to a friend recently about how these days we desperately need pointers toward what is true, good, and beautiful in this world. Jesus’ truth, goodness, and beauty are found reflected in so many places—math, language, fishing, friendship, literature, family, the church, good food and drinks, kindess—but the good found in these things is just a reflection of Jesus himself.

The resurrected Jesus has what we are looking for, and Peter knows it. That’s why he leaves the fish — the thing he was looking for, the thing he was given — behind and swims straight for Jesus himself: Jesus the compassionate, Jesus the jokester, Jesus the one who cares about people who mess up, Jesus who does the hard thing for you even when it hurts, Jesus who smiles, Jesus who is the almighty, powerful God but doesn’t play the popularity game and hang with the “cool kids” to the exclusion of others. Jesus who cooks breakfast for you and sits by the fire. Peter knows Jesus, the Son, is worth jumping out of the boat and swimming a hundred yards to.

Do you believe this about Jesus? John wrote these words that we might believe. Do you talk to him? When you mess up, do you run to him? He is there.

Jesus Calls Us to Come and Eat (21:12)

The rest of the disciples eventually got the net to shore, and Jesus tells them to all come and eat. Throughout the Gospel, this has been his call. To some Jesus says, “You refuse to come to me that you might have life” (John 5:40). He has life to give because he is life itself: “I am resurrection and life” (John 11:25). “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

You don’t have to worry about being turned away. He says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). One more quotation from Jesus’s own mouth. Hear this invitation:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37–39)

Well, he has been glorified now, but he isn’t here with us in his glorified human body. He’s at the right hand of the Father. He did, however, send the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the helper. We are going to ask and answer the question in just a few minutes. Let’s practice: “Is the Spirit here?” [He is.]

Remember the creed:

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son

Paul in Romans 8:9 calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Christ, and so does Peter in 1 Peter 1:11. Jesus is present with us now through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. We can come to him.

Think about this: What is more real? The furniture in this room that will rot and fall apart soon or the Spirit of Christ, who created the world and all the individual elements of it.

What’s more truly present and real? The seat you can touch with your hand or the Spirit of Christ, who holds the world together by the word of his power?

As Paul says in Romans 10: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”

Jesus knows where you are and is present with you. He knows how to step into frustration and deflation and bring hope. He knows how to laugh and lighten the mood. He calls to us and we can come to him by calling out to him. “With the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10).

Even if he seems distant, try. Talk to him. Be daring enough to say words to the living Christ — whether for the first time, or for the first time since a truly hard season (like Peter), or for the five hundreth time, call out to him. We come to Jesus the same way from start to finish.

Psalm 10 says, “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’” But there’s a man on the beach with a smile yelling back, “Hey boys, you haven’t caught anything have you … in all the emptiness you’re chasing. Come to me.”

Conclusion

As Jesus and Peter sit by the fire pit, we hear little echo of that awful courtyard night again, but this time it’s the sound of Peter’s three denials being pitched into the crackling fire one by one. Three times Peter denied him, and three times with a smile Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three denials pitched in the fire, replaced with three affirmations of love.

On the beach by the fire pit, Jesus restores Peter and gives him something to focus on — to care for his brothers and sisters, Jesus’ sheep. The one who has been forgiven much, loves much. Peter has been forgiven much, and so he’s the perfect one to take the lead. When you say “forget the fish” and swim to Jesus, you’re met with affirmation and restoration.

Let’s pray:

Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread; who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen. (2019 Book of Common Prayer, p. 676)