Gospel: John 21
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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.
A Way for the Binding of Wounds
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There was a rumour that the disciple whom Jesus loved would not die. What people meant was that Jesus would return before this disciple died. The disciple whom Jesus loved is unnamed, but is often understood to be the author of the Gospel of John. And in the last carefully added on chapter of John's gospel, the disciple whom Jesus loved rubbed out the rumour that he would not die before Jesus came. He says
the rumour spread in the community [Gk among the brothers] that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to [Peter] that [the disciple whom Jesus loved] would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
Why is this story here? (And why, I wonder, does the lectionary leave it off today's reading when it so clearly a part of the story of Chapter 21?)
Here is a way of seeing Chapter 20 and 21 in John. It allows us to see the additional chapter as a very finely crafted addition and final word rather than it seeming like a rather crude "add on." In the post from which I quote below I noted that Mark's alternate endings look a bit like "the khaki drill patch a single man crudely hand stitches over the cuff of his denim jeans, where they have frayed and torn," but that this last chapter in John is actually "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." I asked, "Is it a patch?"
And my answer was that it is not a patch over a hole, it is an addendum drawn from the wisdom of a long life.
John comes to the first end of the Gospel at Chapter 20:30-31, and then he asks
How shall we now live, since the Lord has still not come?
In our bibles today, we'd put this in as a chapter heading in bold. And this is John's answer to his question.
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…. [and so the chapter continues.]
Chapter 21 [I said,] is our victory song. It is the coda to the gospel. Here we are shown our shortcomings and failures are forgiven, and [we are] given our challenge. And our victory is affirmed. (One Man's Web The Final Acceptance 2010)
Central to this story, and to how we shall now live, is the rumour that the disciple whom Jesus loved will not die. Here's how that disciple may have been reading the mood of his community: They were hanging on, longing for Jesus to come, and he had begun to realise that they were losing faith in the risen Lord among them and, instead, trusting the rumour. That is, they were saying, we know we will be saved because the beloved disciple will not die. Jesus will come first. The beloved disciple is still here, so Jesus has not come; we can hang on until then because, clearly, he's going to die soon; he's really old.
This is not a subtle shift in the object of faith. How will these people feel and react when the beloved disciple dies?
John's Gospel is always about the deeper faith. Yes, we can trust in the signs if we can't quite trust in Jesus himself: "even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." (John 10:38) But that trust is inferior. That is to trust in an icon rather than to live in the experience of the Spirit breathed upon them and given to them and us in John 20.
The author of John may understand our weakness, but he always draws us on, always calls us to the deeper faith which is faith in the risen Lord who comes and stands among us (John 20:19,26) in the weekly gathering of the church. Signs and icons are too easily misread and made into something they are not: "26Jesus answered them [in Chapter 6, and said,] ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life..."
So in this story, John takes away the sign to which people were too attached; a sign which was a rumour generated because people had drifted from faith in the risen Christ himself. And John calls them back to that faith in what seems to us a most peculiar way. He shows them the heart of life— its hard reality— and the heart of the Gospel. He puts before them, and before us, a choice.
In Peter, we see the reality of life. Peter is dead by now. Verse 19 makes that clear. But in the lyrical double level language of John we see not only Peter's binding and crucifixion, but also our own endings.
Our older selves find our hands are bound. We are not in control. There is no getting out of life, only a going on from one beach fire to the next with an awful lot of fishing in unsafe, unknowable night and, sometimes, unexpected breakfasts… or a giving in to the fire of human failure which sacrifices and betrays life. (One Man's Web Life Between Two Fires 2016)
This is the truth. The idea that we are in control of our lives and our destiny is ridiculous and... idolatrous. It is an artefact and hubris of the few short years of our lives and the lives of our parents in a few privileged countries of the world, and not even universal here! For most of humanity the idea that we are in any sort of control is, and has been, a delusion only of the very arrogant and the very rich who have not yet grown old enough to see the reality of the world: most of where and who we are is luck, privilege, and injustice— injustice against us, or in our favour. In earlier times, the very rich were wont to build chapels and provide for the living of a priest so that mass could be said for their souls, for they knew they were nothing but sinners, and were not in control. Today they trust in museums and other benefices for their eternity.
Perhaps the Beloved Disciple would write this to us today: If you trust in rumours about the coming of the Christ to preserve your soul and protect you, it will be for you a more bitter day than for most when the coming climate catastrophe drags us all into a place where we not want to go. Trust the Christ you meet when you meet, not some rumour from someone who cannot know. No person knows how this world ends.
But where is the gospel in this— the good news of God for the people of God? How is this chapter a good ending to the gospel?
It is in two places. Firstly, it was Peter who said, as everyone else was deserting Jesus, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68-9) This sounds almost like despair on his part. And perhaps it had a sense of being trapped within it. For Peter surely knew— he was human— just how chancy life is. I repeat what I have said earlier, for our age lives in a huge denial.
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. (One Man's Web Dive Deeply 2016)
The good news is, firstly, that we are given a way to follow. A way that takes us through this life where so much of our self is otherwise bound and imprisoned.
Secondly, we are forgiven. As we grow older, "There comes an age when we know that our shortcomings in faith have been denials, and that our denials have been betrayals." (Life Between Two Fires 2016) Yet like Peter, we can own this and find that we are "anyway forgiven." Not that it is an easy owning up; it demands of us a kind of brutal self-honesty where those watching can clearly see if we are lying to ourselves.
I always imagined [Peter and Jesus] taking a quiet walk down the beach. But it [all happens] 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 yet in this, Peter is given a ministry.]
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 (One Man's Web Stretched Out 2013)
In the Greek, Jesus twice asks Peter if he loves him— the way God loves. And Peter doesn't. In fact, he doesn't get what Jesus is asking him. And Jesus then accepts that Peter loves him only like a brother— better than most people, in fact, but not the way God loves, not the way Jesus loves Peter.
But Jesus accepts us, gives us a way to live, and gives us the task to love his sheep, to love one another, even when we are not up to it and don't even understand what it will mean. It means that while we will be bound like everyone else, pushed and pulled by life, we will also find that our wounds are bound and healed, and we come, even as we are being pulled where we do not want to go, into the fullness of life. (John 10:10) There is the promise of a freedom within all the chaos of life. I summed it up as I imagined Peter's feelings; I have felt something the same:
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? (One Man's Web Stretched Out 2013)
I find this to be a great gift. Not only do I ask where else I could go, but I know nothing richer.
(Andrew Prior 2019)
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