“I’m going out to fish”

“I’m going out to fish”

Consider six months after the crucifixion of Jesus; back in Galilee, some of his closest followers, after an exhilarating couple of years, gather together. Peter decides to go fishing: would his mind really be on the job? A few of his compatriots accompany him - all to no avail – they catch nothing according to chapter 21 (verse 3) of the Gospel according to John.

The words of Peter “I’m going out to fish” sound as though he is trying to recover his former life. If he had re-entered the fisheries business again on any professional basis he surely would not agree to Didymus, Nathaniel, the two sons of Zebedee and two other ‘unnamed disciples’ going along with him. Who were these compatriots anyway? The sceptic Thomas? Nathaniel? As the story is developed the ‘beloved disciple’ is also referred to. Interestingly Nathaniel and the ‘beloved disciple’ are figures introduced only in the Fourth Gospel. The disciples apparently see Jesus appearing on the shore; the instructions which somehow they receive are to throw their nets on the right side of the boat implying that they were (all?) fishing from the left side. What is going on? The trip is hardly an afternoon’s angling.

Bishop Shelby Spong believes that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is written as an Epilogue and that most scholars believe it is the product of another hand added to the various authors who created the Fourth Gospel. He believes that the Galilean lake was where the moment of Easter took place, possibly months after the crucifixion in Jerusalem. He is convinced that this chapter is based on a very early primitive record that may reflect a tradition even earlier than any of the gospels’ resurrection stories. The meaning of Jesus broke into the consciousness of the disciples; understood as a non-physical event –important enough to attach to the Fourth Gospel. That is what the Easter experience did, but the Easter explanation was later increasingly literalized. The former was both real and life changing whilst the latter became increasingly unbelievable.

No need for empty tombs, white coated angels and apparitions, writes Bishop Spong: the Resurrection story on the third day was a later liturgical imposition to allow Easter to be observed on the first day of the week, following the crucifixion on Friday and the Sabbath on Saturday. However the dawning consciousness of the meaning of Jesus took place some months after his death. In the words only recorded by Luke “He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). John asserts that Jesus is the “bread of life.” The original Easter experience was an inner experience of transformation which over the years became externalized.

Michael Goulder, in 1994, writes about the controversy between the followers of Peter and James, the Jerusalem leaders (the Pillars), who had an inner spiritual – resurrection view and the Pauline evangelists, Mark, Luke and John; who supported the physical-resurrection doctrine. He says that the Petrine visual evidence is much earlier, and goes back to the events immediately following the crucifixion, but they should be understood today as internal events. Jesus did not really rise from the dead, either physically or spiritually. Rather his followers had conversion-visions which they interpreted in line with the biblical categories of their time.

The time is well after the crucifixion and realization dawns while they are eating the early morning Eucharistic meal by the lake. Peter’s internal battle rages; he has said and done some regretful things; he is still a work in progress. He is always keen to learn but so slow to learn the Jesus way. He is always outshone by the Pauline hero, the beloved Disciple. It is at this point, however, Peter realises that he is looking in the wrong direction: he will never be the same man again. He finds the courage to walk into the unknown; he can’t stop hurling himself, clothed, into the water. So Peter is a sort of stumbling hero.

Peter is the one who eventually sees and opens the eyes of others to see. He is Everyman and Everywoman. He hears Jesus’ command to feed, love, and care for others. What a message that is to all of us! We are all works in progress. Bishop Spong suggests that perhaps John is trying to say to us that the resurrection we seek is not so much that of Jesus as it is of ourselves.

Brian Parr, March 2015


The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. John Shelby Spong. Harper Collins 2013

A Tale of Two Missions. Michael Goulder. SCM Press 1994.

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