The Untorn Net in John 21:11 & Church Unity
Scripture’s truth comes to us at a variety of levels, as the miraculous catch of fish (part deux) makes clear in John 21:11. In the gospels, fish are a common symbol for humans, as when Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 5:10, “I will make you fish for people.” The gospels relate two similar miracles about catching fish. For our purposes here, perhaps the most significant difference in this two stories is what happens with the net.
In Luke 5, we are told that the net begins to break because there are so many fish. But in John 21, the author is careful to tell us that though there were 153 large fish in the net, it did not break. It is also significant that the John miracle takes place after Easter. What could this mean?
I was intrigued by A.T. Lincoln’s comments:
The details about the size of the catch and the untorn net not only attest to the miracle but may also at the other level of the narrative suggest the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. In fact, the verb ‘to haul’ (ἕλκω) is the same verb translated as ‘to draw’ earlier in the Gospel when Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’ (6:44) and ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32). Peter’s action, then, can be read as the disciples’ involvement in the mission of God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. If the untorn net has symbolic significance, it points to the unity that is effected by Jesus’ mission and should characterize the resultant believing community.
Thus, the untorn net may be a symbol of Jesus’ ability to hold the entire “catch” in his net. The linguistic links vis-a-vis ” draw”/”haul” are fascinating as well. In the way of grace, none of us have put ourselves in the net. All of us have been hauled in by Jesus; we may have come in at different times and in different ways, but the net is one, and all of us owe our place in it to Jesus’ drawing, not our swimming.
The net is one. We are all caught up in the life of the same God together.
The church should reflect that.
Of course, unity is not the highest good in the Church. “No one is good but God,” as the carpenter said.
But God’s will is certainly for one people united in one Body. The net does not have to be torn. There is plenty of room for all God’s people, but only if the sharp edges of our disputes and our egos, our power games and our tragically individualistic ethos do not fray the net from within.
How is your corner of the net looking?
 Lincoln, A. T. (2005). The Gospel according to Saint John (pp. 512–513). London: Continuum.