Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
153 fish. It’s one of those details in the Bible that makes you sit up and take notice. What is so special about 153? It’s not an approximation. It’s not a round number. But it hardly seems likely, either, that anyone would have sat down on the beach and counted, and then felt it important enough to keep a record of exactly how large this catch was. Yet the Bible is specific. 153 fish.
St Jerome, in the fourth century, suggested that this was the total number of species of fish known to exist at the time, and so it symbolised the completeness of this catch, though there’s no foundation for it in ancient literature. Other people have pointed out that if you add up all the numbers from 1 to 17 you get 153 – I’ve tried it; it works – and 17, as these theorists say, is the sum of 10 and 7, both numbers which in the ancient world also suggested perfection and wholeness. The truth is that we don’t know where this number comes from. I am sure that Dan Brown could make a blockbuster novel out of it. But in the Gospel writer’s mind it probably does have something to do with totality. We can tell that not only from the context, but also from other references in the Bible to nets and fishing. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a sort of mini-parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” he says (Matthew 13.47). In the Old Testament too, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of his nation as God wants it to be. Central to that vision is a great river, flowing down to the sea, making stagnant waters fresh, bringing life to all that is in it. “People will stand fishing beside the sea* from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.”
John echoes that vision in this story. Here is God’s kingdom, coming to birth among you, he says, a vision of abundance and plenty, a kingdom which is for all. That fits with everything else we see Jesus saying.
The early church struggled with that, just as we still do. We set limits. We make conditions. For the early church the tensions were between Jews and Gentiles. For us they may be different. We might find ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, saying “you’re welcome if you think like I do, if you worship like I do, if you behave in ways that I approve of, if you are prepared to fit in to the way we already do things, if you go through the right rituals.”
But I don’t think this is just about the boundaries we set between people – those who are in and those who are out. It’s also about the inner boundaries we create as we try to keep parts of ourselves from God. The disciples in this story – and Simon Peter especially – knew that they had failed Jesus when they ran from him as he was arrested. They couldn’t turn the clock back. That failure is a part of them, a part of their life stories. What are they going to do with it? They go fishing to remind themselves that this, at least, they can do – to try to kid themselves that that bad stuff never really happened. But even in this, they fail. There are no fish - until Jesus comes along. It is only then that they get the point. They are accepted as they are, in their wholeness, good and bad.
I think that is a message most people need to hear. We often expend a great deal of effort covering up those things we are ashamed of in our lives. We try to look good, but in order to do so we have to cut off bits of ourselves, leave them at the door of the church. But God wants us to come to him as whole people. If we don’t come like that, we might as well not come at all.
There were 153 fish in the net, and the net was not torn, says the Gospel. How far do we think we can stretch the love of God before it breaks? Are we anxiously trying to protect him from being overloaded, cautiously sidling up to him, and trying to stop others doing things which we fear will offend his delicate sensibilities. It sounds daft when I put it like that, but I think that is sometimes what we are trying to do. Of course, it is daft. God can cope with us, and with others. The net of his love, the net of his kingdom is big and strong enough for the whole catch, for whatever we put into it. It won’t break. Whoever we are, and whatever we’ve done, he can hold us securely.