Fish And Guilt

Daily Devotional for Monday, April 12, 2021 from Rev. Eric Douglass

Meditations for Easter: Fish and Guilt
John 21:4-6: Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

Peter looked down at the aching muscles in his arms. Throwing the nets over the boat’s sides was taxing, but dragging them back through the water was exhausting. Hour after hour, throw out, drag in, repeat. The same actions in the same meaningless way. The only good thing was that they were fishing at night…and it was cool with a good breeze. But they caught nothing. Not even a small fish. Yet they had to go on. Hour after hour.
“This is a waste of our time,” John muttered under his breath, but just loud enough for Peter to hear.
Peter gave him an angry look: “Do you want to eat?”
John looked back to the sea, avoiding Peter’s gaze and ignoring his attack. He was exhausted. He hadn’t shaved in days, and only scarcely eaten. His cheeks were hollowed out from hunger, but this was nothing compared to the hollowing out of his heart: his best friend was dead. John put his head down and threw his nets out again…and again…his grief held at bay by the exhaustion of the work.
If he stopped, even for a moment, he saw that night when the soldiers came…the shouts of the mob…the smell of the burning torches…the sounds of chains and swords. He remembered the fear of being caught—for the Romans were merciless—and how he turned and ran recklessly down the hill, tripping over a tree root and smashing his hands and arms into a boulder on the path. Getting up, he darted across an open field, rushed behind the nearest house, and lay there in the darkness, gasping for breath, praying that he wouldn’t be seen. He had left his best friend in chains. He was a coward. He couldn’t live with himself.
And so he was tossing and dragging the nets. The same actions in the same meaningless way.
When Peter saw the look on John’s face, his angry look softened and bled away. He knew exactly what John was feeling. His life had also been shattered by the events of the last few days. Only Peter didn’t simply turn and run when the soldiers came…he told, confessed, agreed to, swore, affirmed, and vowed that he did not know Jesus. And he did it three times. Where could he go? Who would trust him after that? His life was one of betrayal. He threw his nets out again…and again…his guilt held at bay by the exhaustion of the work.
As Peter looked to the east, the beginnings of dawn had begun, with red streaks appearing between the clouds on the horizon. “All night,” he sighed to himself, “and nothing.” The nets were empty. He had fished these waters all his life, and never had done so poorly. He tried every trick he knew: adjusting the nets, changing the weights, letting the nets drift, stopping all noise on the boat, moving to deeper water…but nothing worked. And now the clouds were gathering in the predawn horizon, smudging it with their dirty gray color.
That’s when he saw the fire on the beach. Beside the fire, a lone figure got to his feet. He waved at us, getting our attention, and then shouted: “Throw your nets on the other side of the boat.” Of course, people were always giving advice on how to catch fish…such was the way of amateurs who made their living on the land. John and I glanced at each other, knowing that there were no more fish on one side than the other. Snickering to ourselves, we decided to show this amateur the ignorance of his advice, and tossed our nets on the other side.
As we began drawing the nets in, they suddenly stopped…as if they were caught on a rock. I looked at John in surprise, and then my eyes widened as the nets began to pull us out to sea! We grasped the nets with both hands and braced against the side of our boat. Slowly, we stopped our movement, and began—inch by inch—dragging the nets back into the boat. We had caught something big…really big. As the nets broke the surface of the water, we saw that it was an enormous school of fish…the size of which I had never seen before. I looked back to the man on the beach. He was smiling. And somehow, in that moment, I knew who it was.
The next moments were a blur. I found myself in the water, and then on the beach, and then John was with us…and we were laughing and crying and holding each other for dear life, fearing to ever let go…and the loneliness and guilt seeping away. Jesus put it to an end by telling us to bring the fish to the fire. By now the sun was up and we could see the fish shinning in the dawn’s light…the silver scales of carp mixed with the red of tilapia. As the fish sizzled in the fire, we remembered our times on the road…and the healing of the blind man…and teaching the crowds on the hillsides of Galilee.
Then Jesus turned to me, and I knew my time to account had come. But, he didn’t attack. He didn’t even question my loyalty. Instead, he took in the whole sweep of the landscape with his hands—the cities, the fields, the sea—and asked: “Do you love me more than these?” Three times he did this, one for each of my denials. And then he vanished, leaving me to wonder if I really did.

Our Lord:
We have all betrayed you,
Some of us less so, some of us more so.
We have all denied you,
Some of us less so, some of us more so.
When we value our safety above all else…
When we value our wealth above all else…
When we value our position above all else…
At these times, we betray you again.
Forgive us.
Show us the way home.
Reveal to us the path of love.
Help us to become the children of God.
And so restore to us the joy of our salvation.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.