by Pastor Cherie Johnson
This week the disciples try to regain some kind of normalcy in their lives after the strain of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, resurrection. Jesus has appeared to them and provided the Holy Spirit. He has given them a task. He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (c.f. 20: 19 – 28) A week later they were still huddled in the upper room, when they saw Jesus again. Today’s passage starts sometime after that, but we don’t really know how long. It just says, “Afterword.” It might have been a few days, as long as it would take them to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee, or it could have been a couple of weeks.
John 21:1-19, 25 NIV
1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: 2Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”
11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
The author, who we are intended to think is the Apostle John, presumes that we are familiar with the disciples and their background, as he tells us very little about them in this gospel. In fact, this is the first mention of the sons of Zebedee, one of whom, which if we believe tradition, is the author of this gospel, John. In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we learn that many of the disciples were fisherman by trade. Jesus had a special relationship with an inner circle within the disciples consisting of Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. He would go off with them on special occasions, such as the Transfiguration where on a mountaintop Jesus temporarily transforms, or transfigures, in front of them as he meets with Moses and Elijah. He sends them out in groups of two to do around the countryside all the things they had watched him do. The Apostle John does not refer to any of these things, but seems to presume that we know them. This gospel is considered the last one written of the four. These stories and gospels have been circulating for decades, so this would be a reasonable supposition on his part.
So after the resurrected Jesus appeared to them, now all of them, given them the Holy Spirit, and given them their assignment, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” “Afterword,” what have they done? They have gone to Galilee and gone fishing! They have gone home and returned to their life before Jesus.
It’s not as if they don’t understand what being “sent” meant. They saw what Jesus had done during the past two to three years. It’s not like they had not been sent themselves before. In Luke 9, we learn that, “Jesus called the Twelve together, and he gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases, [and] he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick.” Then later he sends out 72 others. They know what it was to be sent, but they were fishing.
Perhaps, they were looking for a little normalcy after the traumatic experience of the last several weeks. Going back to life after the mountaintop experience. In a manner of speaking, the last two to three years of their life with Jesus could be considered fairly high up the mountain. Perhaps, after living this VIVID life and even experiencing life after Jesus’ resurrection, they were ready to take the resurrection glasses off for a while and look at life in varieties of grey.
If you remember last week, we saw a video of a color-blind man, putting on a pair of special glasses that allowed him to see the full color spectrum for the first time. He was able to see the color of his children’s eyes for the first time. He was obviously very moved by the experience. We talked about how looking at existence in the light of Jesus’ resurrection can be like that. When we have our Resurrection glasses on, we can see the world in an entirely new way, where the new creation has begun, and we get to be a part of it. We may not understand what we are seeing yet. We will consider more about that next week, but we can only see it if we leave the glasses on. However like with the color blind man in the video, all this new information can be overwhelming, and like him, we may feel the need to take the glasses off for a while, as we adjust. This is all figuratively, of course, and perhaps that’s the reason for this fishing trip. A chance to breathe and process all this new information they’ve been given.
First, they entered Jerusalem thinking that they are about to kick out the Romans and become part of new King Jesus’ court. Then, Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. Then, on Sunday most of them see him alive, seeing that he has defeated death, and they receive the Holy Spirit. Talk about information overload! It seems rather intense saying it now. So they go back to Galilee; they go fishing.
Isn’t that so like us? We have the mountaintop experience, and no matter how transformed we may feel at the time, when we are faced with the details and complications of everyday life, we go back as if it never happened. That is what I like so much about the disciples as presented in the gospels.
In today’s passage, we get a last glimpse of the disciples getting it totally wrong. They have been given the Holy Spirit. They have been told what to do. They have been trained how to do it, and they still can’t get on with business.
Knowing that they eventually do get it right provides a great example for us. It gives us hope. Knowing that they struggled like we do, struggle to stay motivated, struggle to get it right. Knowing that despite being given the same Holy Spirit that we have, they still messed up, as we do.
There can be a tendency to regard the disciples, and other figures of the Bible, as cardboard cutouts, not flesh-and-blood people with hopes and dreams, with families, responsibilities, and insecurities, people who laugh and grieve.
This narrative highlights their human-ness. It makes them relatable to our own experiences. They don’t have it all figured out yet. They still need help and guidance. That’s what makes them inspiring. If even they can get it right, and when we read the rest of the New Testament, we see that they certainly do… If they can get it right, so can we.
So, they try to go back to their old life, maybe as a break before they start in earnest, maybe because they don’t know where to start, maybe they’re going back to what they think they know. And, that doesn’t work either. They fish all night, and … nothing … until Jesus shows up.
Jesus suggests that they give it one more try, and now they have such an abundance of fish that they can’t pull it all in. It is in the realization of all of this abundance that Jesus is recognized on the beach. This reminds us of something Jesus says in John chapter 15: 5, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
The mission of the United Methodist Church, of Joseph United Methodist Church, is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Sometimes we forget The “for Jesus Christ” part. We think that we have to do it all on our own strength or smarts or effort. Yes, we have things to do, but Jesus is really the primary actor. When we say we are doing something for Jesus/for God, are we doing it in God’s honor and in gratitude to fulfill a duty, or are we doing it as the tool of God, the agent, acting on God’s direction, in concert with God. We are just one of the many moving parts that God directs to achieve God’s goals.
So often we get caught up in the former when it really is the latter. The truth is that it takes off a lot of the pressure when we realize that this is God’s Ministry, God’s project, God’s worship service, even, or especially, God’s sermon.
We are still called to do our best for God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” (Luke 10: 27) We are called to give our “first fruits,” our best, the cream from the top, first. Whether it is our time, money, or effort, not our leftovers if there are any leftovers. Yet, it is still for God’s purposes, and under God’s direction. The disciples seem to try to return to their old lives, but even that didn’t work for them.
In his book Remember Who You Are, Bishop William Willimon, of Duke University, recalls one thing his mother always told him whenever he left the house to go on a date during his high school days. As he left the house, she would stand at the front door and call after him, “Will, don’t forget who you are.”
We know what Will’s mom meant don’t we? She didn’t think Will was in danger of forgetting his name and street address, but she knew that alone on a date, or in the midst of some party, or while joined by friends, he might forget who he was. She knew that sometimes all of us are tempted to answer to some alien name and to be who we are not. “Don’t forget who you are,” was the maternal reminder.
The disciples that morning, as they fished without success were called from the shore by the one who was calling them back to who they were. They were his children. They were his, with a mission to do. And that mission would not and could not be successful without his guidance and presence.
What they could not escape is after years of contact with Jesus, they were no longer the same people that used to be. Oh, Peter was still impetuous and spoke boldly, and used that to great effect in his new role, but they were not the same fisher-folk they were when Jesus first called them to drop their nets and follow him.
Jesus is there to remind them who they really are, who God created them to be. He reorients Peter for his new task. Peter will live up to his namesake, The Rock, upon which Jesus will build his church. Peter, who claimed to love Jesus more than any other disciple, but deserted him just like the rest. Here Peter no longer claims to love Jesus more. It’s not a contest. It is enough to love Jesus and to do the work he prepared for us. In the end it all comes to Jesus command, “Follow me.”
“It’s almost as if by deciding to follow Jesus, we return to our true selves, beloved of God.” [Emphasis mine.] (Robert Hoch, “Commentary on John 21:1-19”, workingpreacher.org)
Though Peter thought he was returning to his true self by returning to his fishing life, Jesus shows him his actual true self. He gives Peter back his resurrection glasses that allows Peter to see things as they really are. Jesus final command in the Gospel of John is “Follow me.” We would all do well to listen to Jesus mother’s directive at the Wedding Banquet in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
Next week, we start examining what it really means to be citizens in the resurrected life, of the new creation while still living in the old. What it means to be in the world but not of the world. You don’t want to miss it.