Fishing in the subconscious


Scripture   John 21: 1-14      Jan Savory

After the resurrection, some of the disciples went fishing.  Were they also fishing in their subconscious minds to find meaning for the changes in their lives?  


Deep waters – synonymous with chaos and danger

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Genesis 1

Set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters.  Psalm 144:7

Rescue me from sinking in the mire; …  and from the deep waters. 15 Do not let … the deep swallow me up.  Psalm 69:14–15

[God] set for the sea its boundary So that the water would not transgress His command, Proverbs 8:29

At your rebuke [the waters] flee; at the sound of your thunder, they take to flight. Psa 104:6–9

In these and many other passages we find that, in the Hebrew scriptures, the sea, also called the deep or the deep waters, was synonymous with chaos and danger. We have to be rescued from the sea; God has to rebuke and tame the sea and set boundaries for it.

Jeremiah (5:22) wrote that God said: “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; Though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it.”  

Is this a parable?

In today’s Gospel reading,  Jesus meets his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Some of you will have heard us say before that, just as Jesus used every day happenings to explain his message in his parables, we believe that the disciples used events in Jesus’ life as parables. We know from reading the four gospels that the writers chose to tell those stories about Jesus that fit their purposes. These stories had been handed down orally before being written down and may have been embellished or changed. Some, like many of Jesus parables, may even have been made up to teach a spiritual truth.  Literal truth isn’t the only kind of truth.

A parable is story which can be read at many levels and has many interpretations over and above the obvious surface meaning.  So, I want to look at today’s Gospel story as a parable and pull out one meaning that I think is still very relevant today.

Catch fish – with Jesus

The story, on the surface is simple. The disciples go fishing; catch nothing; a stranger suggests where to try next, they catch a load of fish; realize this is the risen Jesus. Jesus has a fire ready, feeds them breakfast and then talks to them.


The shore symbolizes the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness,

As I read through this story, I was reminded of something I read years ago. However much I tried to ignore it, it wouldn’t leave me alone!  Allan B. Chinen, in his book In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life, writes that there is a symbolism in folk tales and myths that seems to transcend individual stories and cultures. Psychoanalysts and mythologists have observed that folk tales portray timeless paradigms of human life, and often mirror the scripts which individuals play out in their lives.

One such symbolism is the shore, between land and sea. river or lake – which symbolizes the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, the combined wisdom of the ages, which, as Christians we refer to as the Communion of the Saints. The shore alludes to a major task required for the passage to a more mature life. 

Their executed leader is alive. Last week we heard that he had appeared to them in a locked room, breathed the Holy Spirit on them and sent them out to continue his work: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.  What did it mean? What would their lives be like now? They were crossing from being disciples, followers, learners to becoming leaders and teachers – apostles sent out to continue Christ’s work bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

The disciples went fishing – in the subconscious!

When we go fishing in the subconscious, the fish we catch are ideas
Fish symbolize ideas floating in the subconscious

Faced with a dilemma, Peter decided to go back to what he knew. He went fishing, and several other disciples went with him. Maybe they hoped, as I often do, that by focusing on something else, my subconscious will make sense of what is perplexing me. Interestingly, in folk tales and also in dreams, fish symbolize the contents of the unconscious that are “swimming around” in our psyche.  When we fish in the subconscious, they can be “caught,” i.e. brought to consciousness, and then “eaten,” i.e. integrated into the personality.

I’m sure by now you can see the message I an extracting from his story. The disciples had been driven over the boundary between their old life and new life into the chaos of the deep. They were trying to make sense of this, but alone they could not. When Jesus appears, they take his advice, even though they don’t yet realize it’s Jesus, and are able to dredge up ideas from their subconscious and make sense of what is happening. By “eating the fish” prepared by Jesus, they can see the way ahead more clearly. Peter gets his mission “Feed my sheep”.

The church at a crossroads

The Church today is at a threshold. Even before Covid, numbers have been declining and congregations aging. Individual congregations, especially smaller ones, are faced with the dilemma of how to keep the doors open, both financially and as parishioners become too old to do the many volunteer talks needed to keep the church viable and vibrant. As we come out of Covid (and we will) what will this congregation look like? What do we want it to be? How can we serve our community in the world?

But the question is much wider than that. In his book, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, John Philip Newell writes that we are in the midst of the collapse of Christianity in the Western world as we have known it.  There is a spiritual hunger around us, and our churches are not meeting this need. Church attendance is falling; Young people are more likely to be “spiritual but not religious” than to be church goers. Influences from other faiths, especially Eastern religions, are entering our so-called Western world and Western church. The polarity between the evangelical denominations and more liberal or progressive ones is widening. Where is the Church going?

Come with me – fishing in the subconscious

John Philip asks:  What is it that’s trying to be born? What is it that’s trying to come forth from within the soul of the Christian household at this moment in time? These are not just questions for our church leaders. The change will come from the grass roots of the church, the members of the Body of Christ, people like you and me. It’s time to recognize that we are at a boundary, to get in our boats and go fishing. If we cast our nets where Jesus says, we’ll catch fish.

I don’t have the answers.  But I’m going fishing.  Who’s coming with me?