2018 04 15: St. Peter’s Fish

Posted on 16 Apr 2018

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Tourists visiting almost any restaurant along the Sea of Galilee will be surprised and curious to see “St. Peter’s Fish” listed on the menu.  Today’s bulletin cover shows a typical serving of St. Peter’s Fish; it is a kind of tilapia.   Every waiter will tell you that it is one of the most popular dishes, and is especially delicious when freshly caught and fried.  Most readers of the Bible, however, will scratch their heads searching for the reference to Peter and this fish.  It is there, hidden in between Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and his teaching on who is greatest in the kingdom of God.  It is found in St. Matthew’s gospel, chapter 17:24-27.  There we read that Peter, while visiting the town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, was asked by the collectors of the temple tax whether Jesus had paid the sum. Later Jesus explained that as the sons and daughters of Israel, the disciples shouldn’t have to pay the temple tax, but in order to avoid offending others and those in authority, Jesus told Peter, “Go to the sea, cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel in its mouth.  Take that and give to them for you and me.”  Sure enough, for one of the brave souls in our group who ordered the entire fish, with the head and eye still in place, there was a shekel coin in the fish’s mouth. The story of St. Peter’s Fish teaches us that regardless of the circumstance and what is lacking God provides his followers with what is needed to proclaim the good news. 

Now I can’t be certain that Jesus was served St. Peter’ Fish, on the first Easter evening, but whatever fish he was served it was broiled or at least fried.  Fish was regular a staple to Jesus and his disciples, and was the first symbol of the Christian faith- even before the cross. .  You may recall that the first disciples were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee who knew how to prepare and filet a fish.  Jesus told these men that if they followed him they would become fishers of men. We can all remember the miracle of Jesus’ feeding 5000, but do you recall the meal?  It was fish and bread.  Yes, fish can be found throughout the New Testament, so it is fitting that Jesus’ first supper after his last supper, his first meal after the resurrection was broiled fish. Yes, fried, smelly smoky fish. 

And after that Jesus recalled all the words that he had taught them over the past three years.  He began to open their minds to understand the scriptures, and how his life, death and resurrection were the very fulfillment of everything that the prophets had foretold.  He instructed them to teach repentance and that the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations.  Then as abruptly as he had asked them for something to eat, he turned to the disciples and said, “So get to it. You are witnesses of these things.”  The disciples must have gasped.  Perhaps they thought a fish bone was caught in their throat.  Certainly, Jesus didn’t mean that they were to be his witnesses here and now.  Today.  They were just getting over the crucifixion. How could they take on the work of God’s kingdom with all their doubts and personal failings?  Apparently, Jesus’ own disciples had forgotten the story of St. Peter’s Fish.  Regardless of the circumstance and what is lacking, God will provide his followers with what is needed to proclaim the good news- even you and me. 

My friends, the world is still filled with hungering skeptics who doubt the resurrection.  They are men and women you know personally, who are hurting from the disappointments in life.  They are friends and family who refuse to believe the good news- even when they see Jesus standing in their midst.  They regard Jesus as nothing more than a ghost from the past.  They will believe, but only when they see him eating broiled fish.  What a challenge!  And yet God has called you to be his witness, because he trusts that you can make a difference in someone’s life- in the life of someone you love and care for.  So, let me assure you God will provide you with what is needed to proclaim the good news. 

But before you set out to the task, let me share with three truths for the  task God has called you as witnesses: First, be aware, all people at some time in their life have doubt. Second, we all have our wounds, so do not hide them.  And Third, God has given us scripture and the Holy Spirit to help us see his hand in our lives.  

I imagine we are all like the cautious and skeptical disciples huddled together in the Upper Room.  We have questions about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith.  There are the big questions such as, “Is there a God?” or “How do we know the Bible is true?” or “Why is there evil in the world?”  And we often have personal questions such as “Why did I get this heart attack?  Why cancer? Why did my child die so young?”  So we are like the doubting disciples: we have questions and we don’t hide them.  But we are also like them in another way. We too want proofs and signs. We would like God to work some miracles in our lives so we could more easily believe. We would like God to rearrange the stars up in heaven to spell out, “I exist” preferably in English as a sign that there really is a God who cares for us.  We would like to see him eat “broiled fish.”  

Doubt, however, doesn’t necessarily lead to despair. Instead it can lead to discovery. Indeed, doubts and questions often lead to deeper and richer faith.  In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus doubted the traditional teaching of the day that the earth was the center of the universe, stating instead the sun was the center of the universe.  Christians around him were quoting the Bible to prove that he was wrong and misguided.  His doubts of their reading led him to a larger and richer understanding of the Christian faith and universe.   

Let us now turn to the wounds of Jesus’ hand and side. To those who have lost loved ones to the sting of death, people say that time heals all wounds. Now as true as that may be in mending the pain and sorrow that comes with a loss, the wounds never truly disappear.  Nor is it time alone that heals.  The psalmist writes in Psalm 147:3 says, “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”  Ultimately, it is God’s grace that removes the heartache that we experience, but the wounds remain.   

As witnesses to Christ’s resurrection and the power his resurrection brings to our lives, you and I need to acknowledge our wounds in order to bring good news to those who are hurting and hungering.  We cannot pretend that all is well, and that our scars have disappeared.  St. Paul tells us that the resurrection of all believers will be likened unto that of the risen Christ. If you want to know what a healed follower of Jesus looks like, you should start by studying Jesus’ resurrected body.  In the Upper Room, Jesus invited his disciples to look at his hands and feet, and to touch and see. Even in his glorious resurrected body, Jesus remained scarred. Moreover, Jesus’ wounds were an integral part of his identity. It was by his wounds that his disciples recognized him as Jesus himself.  That is what we must learn as Jesus’ witnesses.   When the world and those you love look at you to see if you are real, and if the faith you profess is truly approachable and trustworthy, then they need to see your scars.  They need to see and hear in you, that God has healed your wounds, but your scars are still there.  My friends, be assured God will provide you with the courage and strength to be open and honest. 

Finally, Jesus shared scripture with his disciples so that they could see God’s hand in their lives. Jesus understood that even his own death and resurrection could be misinterpreted by those who didn’t know scripture, and so he opened their minds to God’s purpose that the Messiah must suffer, die and rise from the dead.   

The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of this in one of his most familiar quotes. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  It is probably one of his clearest thoughts.  When musing about life and the way we tend to think about it, Kierkegaard reminds us of what we already know. We can only really understand our lives by looking back on things we’ve already done.  The same is true for God’s promises.  But Kierkegaard also warned that we can’t spend all of our time living in the past.  We need to take what we’ve learned from our experiences and use it to make new decisions for the future.   That is ultimately the work of God’s witnesses and so God provides you with the Holy Spirit.  For you alone cannot make another person believe or change their course.  Yet you can make a difference.  

It is a daunting task, my friends,  but it is this word of life- this testimony of the love and life of Jesus Christ that has the power to change lives. It is the word of forgiveness that sooths the sin-sick soul; it is the word of comfort for the mourning heart; it is the word of encouragement for the broken spirit; it is the word of life in the face of death; and the word of hope in the hour of peril.  It is the promise of a new beginning for those who embrace it and believe.   

“You are witnesses of these things.”  And if God could place a shekel coin in the mouth of a fish for Peter to pay the temple tax,  how much more will he do for you to share his good news with those you love, with those who are hungering and hurting.  It is said, “We do not understand:   Joy… until we face sorrow.   Faith… until it is tested.   Peace… until faced with conflict.  Trust… until we are betrayed.  Love… until it is lost.  Hope… until confronted with doubts.”  God will provide with all that you need to proclaim the good news.  Amen. 

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.