Gospel: John 21:1-19
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So 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. 12Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
The gospel of Mark ends abruptly. Our English translations often supply a couple of endings which were written later. These are notable for their difference of style from the rest of Mark. They’re as obvious as the khaki drill patch a single man crudely hand stitches over the cuff of his denim jeans, where they have frayed and torn.
By the time of John’s gospel, that man has found someone who knows how to sew. What I mean is that John appears to end with chapter 20.
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Once we see this, it’s hard not to wonder if John 21 is also an add-on, or later ending. It’s like seeing a previously unnoticed mend for the first time. We can’t not see it.
But this ending is an add on with an invisible mend. This is no crude patch covering a (perceived ?) hole in the story. Threads of the earlier part of the gospel are finely darned through the fabric of the patch.
Is it a patch?
Or is it the striking hem that makes the garment whole, and gives it the practical edge which means it will wear well in the world?
Perhaps the gospel of John ended something like this:
Jesus appears a third time to the disciples
….30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
How Shall We Now Live?
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,* Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing….
Chapter 21 is our victory song. It is the coda to the gospel. Here we are shown our shortcomings and failures are forgiven, and given our challenge. And our victory is affirmed.
The coda begins at the beach, that place on the edge of heaven and earth.
I remember a beach baptism on Easter morning. It was barely light. Literally translated; John says, "But morning was now coming to be." (Petty) The swell was enough to make standing difficult. We were chilled, and slowly turned blue as the service progressed in the breeze across the beach. It was elemental, and thrilling.
Later, after breakfast around the fire, we affirmed the baptism, and shared the story, in a more traditional Easter service in the church building.
At this time the congregation was struggling with the urge to retreat into a nice safe past, and familiar ways of doing things. A good service it was that morning- but how tame we look. How domesticated! For those of us who had been on the beach, there was a sense of flatness about it all.
We are called to live by the sea, on the beach, next to, and in, the depths of life and reality. We do not go back fishing for former things on our own, but follow the risen Christ. Then things happen.
John very carefully says there are seven disciples present. Seven is the number of signs in the Gospel of John. Seven is the number of churches in The Revelation to John. Seven is the gentile number in Mark’s feeding miracle. There were 70 nations in the world. Seven is wholeness and completeness.
Oddly, though, John only names three of those disciples!
Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,* Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. (“Sons of Zebedee” is the only reference to James and John gospel, and we only know their names by inference from the other gospels!)
They are the three disciples who are shown to be very fallible in the gospel. Peter betrays him, Thomas doubts him, even Nathanial, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth. Thomas doubts; perhaps Nathanial is the first skeptic! (1:467)
But on this third appearance to the disciples, these are the people privileged to be present and named. Jesus comes to the fallible and the weak. And if we look carefully, we see the disciple Jesus loved is, like us, an unnamed disciple.
Jesus especially comes to Peter. He is waiting at the beach for Peter, by a charcoal fire. It’s the same kind of fire which was burning back in Chapter 18, where Peter stood with the oppressors, and betrayed him.
18Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Three times, Peter denied him. Now, three times, Jesus asks him, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Bill Loader writes poetically about this:
... Peter’s story is ... a recycling of denial into affirmation. Three times Peter had not loved Jesus more than all else (18:25-27). The potential leader became a figure of shame as the cock crowed. Jesus had brought Peter’s enthusiasm to follow him anywhere to ground with a prediction that he would surely follow him (unbeknown to Peter - to a cruel death), and before that fail him (13:36-38). Here the enthusiasm is back and again Peter is out of his depth. We might think of Matthew’s story of Peter’s failed attempt to follow Jesus on the water. John just has Peter back in deep water, confronted again with loyalty and love in a threesome with which the ancient world typically highlighted its key texts.
Resurrection celebrates the risenness of Jesus. The appearance to Peter celebrates divine grace. The world and the church (across its history) are littered with smashed lives and vessels ground beneath vengeful, judging feet. Thus far and no further: cross the line of shame and there is no way back; impossible, Hebrews tells us (6:4-6; 12:16-17); not to be prayed for, instructs 1 John 5:16. Not so the divine initiative at Easter. The veil of death is parted; through it a hand reaches out to a Peter, shamed and probably resigned to former routines. Wherever and however it happened, Peter was turned from death to life. The God who had not abandoned Christ in death would not abandon Peter in his. Against all odds and against the prevailing values which would later ascend to rule in much theology, God proposed love to Peter again. Almost irritated by the persistence of divine grace, Peter opens himself to life and leadership. Peter will feed the sheep. Peter will follow Jesus, as he had said. The makeshift swim suit of 21:8 has by 21:18 been replaced by the rags of death. Yes, he would follow, as once he declared he would and as Jesus challenges him to do in 21:19.
We are called from that night, where Peter, giving up and back in his old life, fishing in the dark, could catch nothing. Now, as the light dawns on us, resurrection means we are able to receive the love God proposes us. Life becomes fruitful beyond measure. In the strength of this forgiveness and grace, the net, once too heavy to be pulled in, can be hauled ashore by Peter alone. Or should we say, by Peter alone, when he follows the Christ’s direction?
Perhaps the final victory of this gospel offers us, comes from the knowledge of John’s community that Peter is dead. The tradition of Peter’s unwilling death, (13:36, 21:19) is not prediction for this late gospel. It is historical knowledge.
Peter is clearly subordinate in wisdom and understanding to the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:20-24). In chapter 13:24 Peter uses this disciple as his intermediary to Jesus. Peter is a literary device John uses to show the limitations of the church and the calling for his community to do better. And yet Peter, enthusiast, failure, and now dead, is represented to us as the great hero of the gospel. His good is not only something to emulate. His good is something which he, and we, can carry out faithfully to the end. We know this, because somewhere, tried by fire once more, Peter did not recant. He won through. This is a path we, too, can walk.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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