Week of Sunday April 14 - Easter 3
Gospel: John 21
Not my turn for the overwhelming grief today; just the exhaustion, physical tiredness beyond anything reasonable for what I have been doing. Tiredness that leaves me feverish and ill. Trauma, says my doctor, disrupts all the physical systems of the body. He clearly has reservations about my trying to return to work, and talks for a while about trauma and the war veterans with whom he has worked. All that pain inflicted for a life time.
My trauma is nothing! I think of my Dad; night patrolling a bridge just downstream from a sniper, under orders to carry a torch, and not even allowed to put it on the end of a stick. It's the only story I ever heard about active duty, and even then only because I overheard him talking to another veteran.
And Vietnam veterans; thirty years later and still not able to function, screaming in their sleep in hospital wards. Did the risen Jesus have post traumatic stress after the crucifixion? If he were fully human he should have done.
John's gospel has an add-on. If we were to cut off what we know as Chapter 21 and give the book to someone unfamiliar with the gospel, they would notice nothing missing. The story makes sense and ends well at Chapter 20:31. Someone had another go; maybe John, maybe a follower of John.
I think a follower wrote the second ending; I suppose that the world could not contain the books.... It's too chatty for John. It sounds like something I would write. John would have felt free to take the end of chapter 20 and put it at the end of Chapter 21 where it belongs.
Some of the postlude; I'll call it that, is to address rumours that "the disciple whom Jesus loved" would not die before the Lord returned. Jesus did not say this. (21:20-24)
Whoever the author, the flavour of John is all through the postlude. Seven disciples, the same as the perfect number of signs, (20:31) are carefully listed so that the story emphasises the God imbued nature of all these happenings. There are three questions asked of Peter, one for each of the denials, and at that time they are again standing around a charcoal fire. (18:18) And now, with this beach event, there are three appearances to the disciples, matching up another of John's favourite numbers. (Does this mean the appearance to Mary is now downgraded?) In verse 7 Peter hears it is the Lord, and immediately swims to him. Trusting- pistos- in John is not about touching or seeing, but in responding when we hear of the resurrection.
Despite its careful splicing into the themes of John, I think this appearance of Jesus was an independent story. They've already met him in Chapter 20, but are afraid to ask who he is in Chapter 21!? Chapter 21 is its own story.
Peter is full of grief after Jesus' death. What can you do at a time like this? Blokes know there is no point sitting around miserable; do something!
"I'm going fishing."
"Yep. What's the point of sitting around? We'll come with you."
Seven fishermen is the perfect number of disciples, but because Jesus is not with them, it is night. They catch nothing. It's only in the dawn of a new day, Easter Day, in fact, if this is its own story, that you can catch these fish. That's because Jesus has risen with the sun. And now the net is so full it can't be dragged into the boat.
They are again by the sea of Tiberius. (cf John 6) And again, there is bread and fish. The seven disciples, the perfect number, will be the ones who administer the holy feast from now on. Five loaves and two fish: Andrew had said, "What are they among so many?" Now there are more fish than can be managed; it is the time of the heavenly feast. The sign is being repeated.
Is John reflecting on the Lukan story of the failed night of fishing? (Luke 5:1-11) In Luke the nets begin to tear. They needed help from another boat. In John, Peter is enough, and nothing is torn. (No one seems to know why there were exactly 153 fish. It is not like John to use a number without some symbolic purpose, but there is no scholarly consensus about its meaning.)
Peter is sent from the fire to get fish. He pulls the net ashore himself; the primacy of Peter in the early church is shown here, and the net is not broken.
Peter is everywhere in this story, despite the other names listed. Thomas and Nathaniel play the role of the flawed yet faithful disciples in John; Nathaniel features in 1:43-51; Thomas is the a-pistos one who, despite this, ends up making the crowning confession of the Gospel. The sons of Zebedee are strangely absent in John, barely named.
It's Peter who hears it is the Lord, and responds, throwing himself into the sea. Jesus' words to Thomas in 20:27 use the same word; bale, in his command to 'throw' his hand into the wound in his side. The disciple whom Jesus loved knows it is Jesus, (just as it is he who gets to the tomb first) but it is Peter who jumps in.
And it was Peter who denied him round that charcoal fire in the dark night of the arrest. Three times he denied him, and three times now, by another charcoal fire, Jesus asks "Do you love me?" It is formal and searching: "Simon, Son of John...." And it is an anointing: "Feed my sheep."
Peter is stripped naked again. He was naked on the boat; "stripped for work," I remember one translation saying. It is wrong, I think. He is naked. Like Adam, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Peter tries to cover his shame before coming before the Lord, but Jesus strips him naked again, dragging him back to that fire. But now it is in the light. His deeds are exposed. (3:20)
I always imagined them taking a quiet walk down the beach. But it's there at the fire, in front of everyone.
Three times he asks him. Three times he anoints him; feed my sheep, and three times he crucifies him, or so it feels to Peter. Three brutal reminders of his failure in front of everyone round the fire, just as Peter denied him in front of everyone.
And Peter still fails!
"Do you love me more than these— the way God loves" He uses the word agapas.
"Lord, you know I love you like a brother!" Peter uses the word philo for love.
Jesus tries again. "Simon, Son of John, do you love me with the greatest love of all?" agapas
"Yes Lord, you know I love you like a brother!" philo
And Jesus says, So you love me like a brother?" phileis
And Peter is hurt. "Blazes! I bawled my eyes out when I denied you and realised what I'd done! You know I love you like a brother! You know everything." philo... and a subtle reminder of who Jesus is
And the disciple whom Jesus loved rolls his eyes and says, "Whoosh!" as it all goes over Peter's head.
But Jesus still says to Peter, "Feed my sheep." We are allowed to be imperfect.
And then Peter learns the difference between philo and agapas. "When you were young, you did your own thing. Now you follow me. And they will kill you for it." This will need much more than the fondness we have for our brother. We might even give him a kidney, but die for him? That is something else.
"Why me?" wonders Peter. "I've given everything. I've always been the one at the front." And he sees that other disciple there. The one who always has the good connections. The one who knew the High Priest. (18:15) Always in the right circles that one. Now known as the disciple whom Jesus loved. And Peter says, "What about him?"
Still hurting. He's feeling like the minister who's always been in the remote country parishes; always gets the hack jobs; always relegated to being an also-ran. This other disciple always knows the right people, always has a plumb city parish. "What about him?"
"What about him?" says Jesus. "Just follow me." Same old same old.
His hands are tied already! To whom else can he go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. (John 6:67-69) And really, he wants nothing else; this is life.
But sometimes... sometimes Peter wishes he could just be a fisherman. When he is so tired that it hurts; when he gives everything, and it's still not enough, and he imagines the disciple whom Jesus loved looking down on him with that knowing, superior smile. When it feels like his hands have been stretched out and life has him hanging already.
But he will remember, too, the days when the nets are full, and nothing tears, or aches. You feel like you can haul in the whole world. The water is warm, and you know life in all its fullness. (John 10:10) Sunny afternoons when the world never ends.
So he stretches out his arms again and follows on. Where else would he go?