READING 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. 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. Simon 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. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”
Jesus 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. That 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 sea. But 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. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus 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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.” A 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.” He 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. Very 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.”
MESSAGE “After These Things” James Renfrew, Teaching Elder
What I am about to describe may make no sense to anyone who was born into the age of computers and the internet. These days, if I’m writing a message to someone it’s nearly always on the computer. Before I send it I read it over one more time. If there’s anything that I want to add to my message I simply insert it in the appropriate place using the keyboard and cursor. And off it goes into cyberspace, perhaps with you as the final destination.
But it wasn’t always like that. When I used to write letters and send them in the mail, I would review what I had written by hand or on the typewriter. If I had left something out, I added something called a postscript at the end of the letter. PS – I’m looking forward to seeing you next week. PS – my check is in the mail. PS – Don’t forget to water my houseplants. I remember using a lot of postscripts. Sometimes three or four of them.
I think Chapter 21 in John’s Gospel is like a postscript. It seems like an afterthought, as if John realized that his gospel was incomplete and one more story needed to be added. Chapter 20 seems to be the end of the story: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.” That sure sounds like the end of the whole story, but then there’s this extra chapter added, which John begins by writing “After these things”. .
John’s stories about the resurrection in chapter 20 happen immediately after the empty tomb, but the story in chapter 21 might be weeks, even months or years after Easter.
Here’s why I think that. We like to think of Easter as a world-shaking event, with Jesus alive after the Cross, and disciples charging off into the world to tell the story. But in Chapter 21 the good news of the resurrection seems to have only taken them so far, and no further, and now they’re back to fishing in Galilee. As if the world has gone back to what it once was before Jesus. As if nothing has changed. It’s all captured perfectly by what we said together during the first reading, “I am going fishing”, echoing the words of Peter, but revealing that this disciple stuff had reached a dead end and there was no future in it.
So this postscript tells us something honest about the aftermath of Easter. There was a lot of excitement on Easter Sunday, but in the end nothing has really changed and they’re back where they started, trying once again to find fish stubbornly resistant to being caught. And it’s not just the original four fishermen, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, but also Thomas and Nathanael, and perhaps several others.
Jesus appears on the beach, and like the other resurrection stories even his closest friends do not recognize him at first. In the early morning mist maybe they couldn’t see him at all, but just heard a voice calling from the shore, asking if the fish were lining up to be caught. “No”, they said. “Well, try fishing over there, on the other side of the boat!”, suggests the voice on the beach. And you know the result, the net is quickly filled with so many fish that the net is close to breaking.
I suspect you are wondering why the disciples have such poor memories. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the miraculous catch of fish immediately led to Jesus recruiting them to be disciples in the first days of Jesus’ ministry. This story in John seems to be almost an exact replay, but this time it’s after the resurrection. John does not record any of the disciples saying something like, “Hey, remember when this happened three or four years ago on the day we first met Jesus?” Maybe John is trying to emphasize that a certain fog seems to appear in the days following Easter, when the excitement and joy seems to fade away and even our own history gets mixed up.
The text reports that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” saw that it was Jesus. “It is the Lord!”, he says. This mysterious disciple is often mentioned like this in John’s Gospel, and some suppose that it refers to John. But it is Peter who upon hearing it jumps into the water and wades ashore.
By the way, I’ve always hoped for this scene to be included in a baptism experience, not just a few drops of sacramental water, but jumping full-in to the water with a big splash. That would be a baptism to remember!
Meanwhile, the rest of the fishermen come ashore with their huge catch of fish. John is very specific about the number of them, 153. Some have tried to see the number as symbolic. One view is that this was the known number of species of fish at the time, so that it represents the world-wide appeal of Jesus. Some have found complicated mathematical properties in the number. Google “153” and you can see some of them. My favorite is a numerical series, 1,2,3.4,5 all the way to 17. Add them together and you get 153. I don’t know what this might represent, except perhaps the sublime features of a story with many layers to it, we never stop learning more from it.
Jesus invites them to share breakfast on the beach. I think this is John’s way of emphasizing that Jesus was no hallucination because they actually shared a meal with him.
The final part of the story suggests a major loose end that needs to be tied together. Three times Jesus asks Peter about his commitment; “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers yes. Why three times? Many have noted that Peter betrayed Jesus three times on the night of his arrest, so this final scene in Chapter 21, is all about the restoration of those who fell short at the time of the Cross. I think this may be the key to the whole of this postscript Chapter 21. Is there anyone among us who has never needed restoration in our faith? Jesus doesn’t leave us behind, he doesn’t forget us, reject us or condemn us, he keeps coming back for Peter, for you and for me. And what he says next is what he said at the very start, “Follow me”.