Week of Sunday April 10 - Easter 3
Gospel: John 21
In this story Peter has gone back to his old job fishing. We sometimes read it as going back to his old life now that Jesus is dead, and being surprised by the resurrection— the story appears to be an independent resurrection narrative.
But it can also be read as the disciple Peter looking deep into himself, going out across the sea of his unconscious life, and fishing around for the things which swim deep within us, mostly unseen. In this reading, we are all invited to be a Peter.
He's doing it at night. In John's gospel, Nicodemus comes by night; Judas goes out into the night; night is a symbol of "dulled perceptions and closed consciousness." (John Petty) And in the night, the disciples catch no fish. Looking for meaning in their current way of seeing things bears no results. It's only when the light shines— remember Chapter One; 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it— it's only in the light of Jesus that they can see clearly and life comes together. It's only then that they catch fish.
And then… Peter plunges into the sea. It reminds us of the burial of baptism, a full giving of oneself. But it is also about diving deeply into life, being immersed in the unconscious, seeking the Spirit deep within us— standing at the edge and dipping a toe in does not lead to finding the deep truths within us, or being freed from the deep fears and woundings.
We might notice, too, that there are seven people in the boat. Seven is a good number. But look at the ones who are named: Peter, Thomas, Nathanial. They are all disciples whose faith has been criticised. Peter denied Jesus, Thomas doubted his resurrection, Nathanial was sure nothing good could come from Nazareth— he doubted Jesus from the very beginning. But these are the ones who catch the fish. Going out on the lake of life and seeking healing promises a catch to we who would seem to be the least deserving!
Of these, Peter is perhaps the one who denies Jesus most blatantly. In two places in John people stand around a charcoal fire. In the courtyard of the High Priest, Peter stands with others and denies Jesus three times. And now, by the lake, Peter stands with Jesus and reaffirms his faith— he is forgiven and given a task— three times.
There are other references to a fire of burning coals in scripture: In Romans 12, Paul quotes The Book of Proverbs when he says, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."
Peter had burning coals of shame on his head as he received reconciliation and was given food. There is no avoiding this. Fishing does not offer us a shallow conversion: we will face the depths of our failures, or find few fish.
But when we face these things the results are staggering. There were too many fish for the disciples to pull in, but when Peter has thrown himself fully into the depths of life, he can pull them all in himself— did you see that change in the text!? And although in the original version of this story in Luke 5, the nets begin to tear, in this telling… life holds together. It tells us: the net was not torn. There is strength for living in following this Jesus. Will we trust it?
We might notice, too, that when Peter has thrown himself into the dangerous sea, Jesus feeds him.
But the gospel is not merely an inner journey. Nor is it self-serving navel gazing. John suddenly shifts the story from the symbolism of the inner world to the pragmatism of sheep. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.
We are called to discipleship, which is to look after the sheep, God's people. We are to be the precise opposite, the antithesis, to the nation's leaders, the shepherds of whom God says in Ezekial 34
4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. … Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: … I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand…
The false shepherds will not thank us for being the church. But three times— three times is a solemn oath— three times Peter is called to be the real shepherd. His claim to love Jesus is a promise, in Ezekiel's words, to "strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and— significant words these— bind up the injured… (34:4)
So there is a choice. Will we go fishing, or will we stay and paddle in the shallows of life? Will we climb into the boat and go out to the depths of life, and immerse ourselves in it, be confronted with all our failings and fears, and be immersed, too, in the lives of those whose wounds we seek to bind up? Or… will we be one of the five disciples who were missing that day?
And with the choice…. there is deep challenge. When Peter says he will follow and serve— Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you— Jesus responds like this— the very next words:
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.’
The next verse is one which some scholars think is an add-in— He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God. But it's not just about the tradition of Peter's death by crucifixion, hands stretched out. It's about discipleship and age.
As we grow older, we learn just how much we are led. We begin to see the forces that push and pull at us, and seek to lead us. Only the very fortunate young think they are free agents.
Here, Jesus is telling us that if we want freedom from being pulled around by the world, then we have to accept being bound and led by Christ. He will bind us and lead us to places where we do not wish to go. Yet this very binding might also prove to be the binding up of our wounds...
Those who dive deeply into life will see the truth here. To be free, we have to embrace something— commit to it. And to be true to it, we must let it guide us and bind us.
What we join, what we become part of— who we follow— is the critical life choice. Not to follow, to do our own thing— which sounds very modern— is most often to be adrift in the unenlightened dark, thinking we are being profound, and an individual, whilst those with clearer vision see us effortlessly pushed and pulled by forces invisible to us.
(Or it just may be to embark upon a deep and lonely journey which will make us one of the great saints or destroy us. Or both. Do not seek this.)
No one is an island entire of themselves, said the poet John Donne. We are always, and we can only be, a part of things. Other people's choices will always challenge us, frighten us, criticise us—even seek to enslave or destroy us.
Freedom is to listen to Jesus, says John. And to remember Jesus words, when, like Peter, we see "that other disciple" who bothers us is also following him, "What is that to you? Follow me." That is where freedom and resurrection lie.
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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
The Text of John 21
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.’
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.