What is your relationship with numbers? Or is that a question you have never considered? Jackie and I are certainly different. I will happily set an alarm for 6:39. She would want it to be either 6:30 or 6:45 but at a push might bear 6:40. She likes numbers to be in a pattern; I, perhaps, like looking for a pattern in numbers. For some, such as my mathematician daughter-in- law they are a thing of beauty; for many they are an awkward necessity.
In the Bible many numbers come with a whole history or have a specific understanding attached. 40 for example. There were forty days and forty nights of rain that caused the flood; 40 years of eating manna in the wilderness for the Israelites; 40 days in the wilderness for Jesus and hence Lent is 40 days. One way or another 40 designates something significant.
The number 7 represents the days of creation in Genesis and hence is often used to suggest perfection. The number 1 represents an indivisible God; two unity, as in marriage and so on.
So, what about 153? Was that just a very careful eyewitness of the catches tally or does the number have some special meaning? Would it have made any difference if John had simply said there were a lot of fish?
Well both biblical scholars and indeed the theologians of the time like to see significance in numbers and there have been various suggestions as to the significance of 153.
Augustine noted that if you add up all the numbers from 1 to 17, they come to 153, you might think that is interesting in a pub quiz trivia kind of way but for Augustine it was much more significant.
He said: ‘The catch of fish tells us of the salvation of men, but man cannot be saved without keeping the 10 commandments. But, on account of the fall, man cannot even keep the commandments without the help of grace and the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the number 7 signifies holiness, since God blessed the 7th day and made it holy (Gen 2:3). But 10 plus 7 equals 17, and if all the numbers from 1 to 17 are added together (1+2+3…+17), they equal 153. Hence, the 153 fish signify that all the elect are to be saved by the gift of grace (7) and the following of the commandments (10).’
St. Gregory the Great says: ‘10 and 7 are perfect numbers, which added together make 17. This, times 3, for the perfection of faith in the Trinity, makes 51. This, times 3 again, makes 153’. St. Cyril breaks 153 into 100 (the great number of gentiles to be saved), plus 50 (the smaller number of Jews to be saved), plus 3 (the Trinity who saves all). Perhaps most convincing of all is the theory of St. Jerome: It was thought at that time that there were only 153 species of fish in all the world. Hence, the disciples caught 153 fish, signifying that men of every class and time would be saved through the Gospel.
More recently I read that in first century Judea there was a religious group who based their lives on the philosophy of Pythagoras. Can you remember his famous theorem? The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This was the third appearance of the Jesus since the crucifixion and there were 12 apostles. If you have a right-angle triangle having sides 3 and 12 in length, then the hypotenuse is √153, which is, of course, totally amazing!
And that is what I think 153 is supposed to say. That catching, suddenly, 153 fish when there were none before is totally amazing. Clearly what happened, was that Jesus has performed a miracle of enormous, almost outrageous generosity, just as he did right at the start of his ministry, when he turned gallons of water into wine at a wedding in Cana.
So why did he do that? Was it to convince them again that he was really Jesus? That he really had risen from the dead? Perhaps.
But I think it was to move them on. I suspect that I will feel much like they did at this point when I come to the end of my licensed ministry in October. They, like I, have had several exciting years of ministry and suddenly, unrequested, unexpectedly even, it comes to an end. What are they supposed to do now? For three years they have had enormous highs and some lows. Indeed, they just had the biggest high, Palm Sunday; the biggest low- Good Friday- and the frankly weird- Easter Day.
They are probably in a state of confusion. Don’t know what to do; where to go. So, they go back home to Galilee and go fishing, because that is what they know how to do. A night’s fishing was possibly as far ahead as they could think.
And now here is Jesus demonstrating that the adventure hasn’t ended; miracles still happen on earth. God is with them and is overwhelmingly generous. 153 fish certainly gets their attention! So now they need to listen and learn what is to be done.
So, after breakfast Jesus starts with Simon Peter. Peter, who denied knowing Jesus three times just days before. And what does he ask? Do you love me more then these? That is do you love me more than anyone or anything else in the whole world. For that is what Jesus needs of someone, who is to proclaim the gospel news to the whole world. Jesus must come first. Not to the exclusion of others but Peter’s love for others, and indeed his whole life must stem, from his overwhelming love for Jesus. Jesus asks him the same question three times, perhaps to forgive him for each act of denial. And Peter is given his mission to care for all Jesus’ flock, children and adults and to tend them and feed them. Jesus also warns him of the consequences. Eventually, he will be led reluctantly to his death by others.
The next verses after the section we read, have Peter asking what was going to happen to John and Jesus tells him only to worry about what he, Peter, has to do.
So the apostles’ task, once Jesus leaves them, is to spread the gospel good news to all people. To do this successfully, they must concentrate on loving Jesus and then to utilise the amazing and generous love that they will consequentially receive to tend and feed all those that they meet, without being concerned whether or not, in the world’s terms they are doing better or worse than others.
I may have told this story before but when I first came to Cheltenham, I had a very good but somewhat fiery secretary. Let’s call her Fay. One day I returned from lunch to be told Fay had gone. ‘Oh, dear’ I said. ‘Is she ill?’ ‘No’ came the reply ‘She has left for good’. As far as I could unravel the situation, Fay had thought another secretary had obtained some advantage by pushing herself forward. A row had ensued.
Late in the afternoon, my secretary’s sister rang up to see if Fay could come back and withdraw her resignation. I was delighted. The next day we had a chat to see what the problem was. ‘It’s not fair’, Fay began, referring to the perceive slight. After the third ‘It’s not fair’, I found myself saying ‘You would be much happier, if you accepted that life is not fair and concentrated on what is good’. Surprisingly, in retrospect, she didn’t storm out.
I met her about ten years later. She was married, with children and working at a much higher level. You changed my life, when you said that, she said.
And now I have to listen to the words myself. It doesn’t seem fair that my ministry should be paused at the end of October and I could let it eat me up. But what today’s gospel tells me is that I should concentrate on loving Jesus and let his amazing 153 times love guide me to the sheep that I should tend and feed. Where I wonder are your sheep?