Resurrection must change a person.
The resurrected Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene; she didn’t recognize him until he called her by name (John 20:14-16). He appeared to Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus road, and even had a long conversation with them. But they didn’t recognize him until he broke bread with them (Luke 24:30-31).
And later, the resurrected Jesus called out to Peter and his companions from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was barely dawn, and the men were bleary-eyed from a fruitless night of fishing. They didn’t recognize Jesus either.
But they figured it out pretty quickly. All it took was a miracle.
John’s narrative is sparse on the details:
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. (John 21:5-6, NRSV)
He says nothing about how these seasoned fishermen, frustrated and exhausted, took to being told their business by a stranger. Did they think he could see something from the shore that they couldn’t see from the boat? (Unlikely.) Did the stranger’s words tickle something in their collective memory, so that they already began to suspect that it might be Jesus? (Perhaps; given the story in Luke 5, it’s hard to imagine that at least Peter, James, and John would make no connection at all.) Or did they just look wearily at each other, shrug their shoulders, and say, Why the heck not? When all else fails…
Imagine their surprise when they suddenly found themselves struggling with an enormous catch.
That must have woken them up in a hurry.
The beloved disciple, the only one in the gospel said to have believed before seeing the resurrected Jesus in the flesh (John 20:8), was the first to understand. He turned to Peter and said, “It’s the Lord!” (21:7). In response, Peter, who had stripped down for work, girded his clothes about him, dove into the sea, and swam to shore.
Why? Some have suggested that Peter must still have been ashamed of his earlier denials of Jesus. That’s possible, of course; who would be surprised if the shame of that betrayal continued to haunt him? Haven’t we obsessed over less?
On that reading, Peter jumped into the water to get away from Jesus, the others, or both. After dragging himself onto the beach, he may even have hung back to take on the busywork of counting the fish while the others greeted their Master.
That reading, however, may suffer from conflating this story with the one in Luke 5, where Peter reacted to an earlier miraculous catch with a sense of shame and unworthiness. That incident was before Peter had any relationship to the man who would become his Lord and friend. Moreover, this was not the first time they had seen Jesus after his resurrection. Nothing in the previous passages suggests that he and Peter still needed to be reconciled.
Better, I think, to read Peter as being eager to see Jesus. After all, that’s what he had been wanting in the first place — not to go fishing. Thus, in his usual impetuous manner, he dove into the water and swam straight to Jesus, leaving the others to figure out what to do with all the fish.
Jesus had commissioned the disciples in grand fashion to be his witnesses to the world — and left them hanging, probably for days. What were they to do? In the face of that uncertainty and ambiguity, they went fishing. It’s what they knew, an activity that would give them a sense of familiarity and control.
They wasted a whole night — and then Jesus showed up. They didn’t recognize him at first. They had to hear his voice, calling to them as his children. They had to obey his command, even if they didn’t understand what good it would do. They had to experience the miracle that followed.
And then they knew.
It’s the Lord.
That seems an appropriate way to begin their ministry of catching people instead of just fish. When all else fails, wait for Jesus, and listen.