Sermon for Easter 3 C, April 14, 2013 on Lectionary text John 21:1-19
The Text: 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.” He 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 he said to him, “Follow me.”
Spiritual Rehab, post Faith-fail
This is an extremely difficult text – but also an extremely powerful one. On the surface it seems like a dreamy little wonder-story with great moments of emotional human drama. But since it doesn’t start with the standard “Once upon a time…” fairy tale introduction, we have to decide how to read it – and that’s just the start of the difficulty.
What is this story? It’s complicated. It starts as a resurrection-appearance story; then it’s a fishing miracle story, then a reconciliation, or perhaps a rehabilitation story, and finally a short prophecy. Each of these parts, when you look at them closely, is quite strange.
Before we get into it, I have a bit of a confession to make. For some people faith is very easy and comes naturally. I bet you probably think I’m one of them. But I’m not. Faith is difficult for me. Doubt lurks around the bend, quite a bit. I wish it were not so, but it is. The truth is that I have to work hard, practicing spiritual disciplines on a daily basis to hang-in there.
Why is it hard for me and others (you, perhaps)? There are several things that make it hard, like the evil in the world, of course. But another one of them is the nature of the bible itself, of which this text is a perfect example. The more you look into it, the stranger it gets.
Problems in the Text
The text we just read from John has all kinds of difficult issues in it. Without any explanation of how or when, the disciples who had just been in a locked room, one foot-race away from the tomb in Jerusalem, are suddenly up in Galilee, out in the open, fishing. It’s where they started. So is this symbolically “full circle”, or what? Not all of the eleven are there: only seven of them. Is that number symbolic? Otherwise, why enumerate?
They fish all night without success – is the darkness of night and the lack of effectiveness symbolic? After all, Jesus, who came to be “the light of the world” and to be “the vine” that produces fruitfulness, for those who “remain in him,” (Jn. 15) is absent.
Then, at daybreak (is that symbolic?) Jesus shows up, but they do not recognize him (also symbolic?). He tells them to fish on the other side of the boat – instructions which make no literal sense – but they heed his instructions, and catch a miraculously huge number of fish.
The quantity of abundant fish cannot help but make every good Jewish person remember the river, teeming with fish, that the prophet Ezekiel had used to picture the new age, when God would intervene on behalf of his people, producing abundance – rivers in the desert – full of life. Is that how we are supposed to read this?
There aren’t just a lot of fish, there are exactly 153. I cannot even begin to go into all the symbolic possibilities of that number, but the fact that it is an exact number certainly makes it feel symbolic.
Issues with Jesus
“That disciple whom Jesus loved” – which most people take to be John – “the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper” was the first to recognize Jesus – Why? because his eyesight was better? or because, symbolically, he had loved him most unreservedly? So, Peter – as naked as Adam on the day of Creation – somehow abruptly clothes himself and dives in, to reach the shore before John – just has Peter had outrun him to the tomb back in Jerusalem on Easter morning. The primacy of Peter is getting predictable.
Back on shore, Jesus has a fire going and is cooking fish. We never actually hear if he himself eats any, but in any case, he cooks. So what are we supposed to make of his body? He has suddenly appeared in locked rooms, like a ghost, but had crucifixion scars on his flesh. He can build a fire and cook fish – but can he eat it?
Jesus is the host here, providing food, just like Messiah who will host the great banquet in the new age. Is that what this is about?
Jesus also, it says, “took the bread and gave it to them” – like he did when he fed the multitudes, and which sounds like eucharist language; is this another Lord’s Supper after the Last Supper in the upper room?
Multiple Readings Offered
Each of these issues could be explored, but a huge take-away lesson from all of this is that you could read it all in more than one way, and you would have solid reasons for doing so.
And this is exactly what the life of faith is like. Do we get to see Jesus? No, not physically. Is he present or not? Is he able to produce abundant fruitfulness from our lives, to feed us in faith-sustaining ways that give us hope?
I love that line:
“none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.”
It sounds like they “knew it” like you “know” someone is bluffing in a card game. You just know it – more or less certainly (except that certainty is the opposite of “more or less”). It’s like the man who needed Jesus to come heal his little boy who said “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
How do we become conscious of the presence of the risen Christ among us? It’s not cut-and-dried. Very few of us (certainly not me) has had the kind of self-authenticating, incontrovertible religious experience that allows no alternative explanation.
But yet, somehow, we do experience his presence, often in odd ways, and in unusual glimpses, only partly recognizable, like a man on the beach, seen from a boat offshore. And yes, we do meet him in the breaking of the bread, at the sacramental table where he is host, and we are fed.
The Past is Present
“I deny the resurrection.”
That’s a quote from a young British theologian and author, Peter Rollins. He goes on to say that whenever he sees hungry people and doesn’t care, he is denying the resurrection. Whenever he sees victims of abuse or discrimination and does nothing, it’s a denial of the resurrection.
By that same measure, I’m afraid that I’d have to say that I’ve denied the resurrection plenty of times myself. I guess you could say that every failure to live as Jesus taught us is a functional denial. When I fail to forgive someone who wronged me, when I put my needs first, when I seek happiness in external conditions, are these not denials of the resurrection?
This is were this text becomes most powerful. Peter himself, who famously denied Jesus three times, now comes to him, as Jesus has called him to do, past included.
What is the goal here? What does Jesus want from this exchange? Does he shame Peter? No. Does he make him grovel and beg for mercy? No. Does he extract a promise to “do better next time”? Not at all.
But neither does he simply pass over Peter’s recent denials as if they did not matter. As many times has Peter denied him, Jesus asks him for one thing only: a statement of love.
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Jesus’ Reason for Doubt
Does he? Should Jesus believe him? Hasn’t Peter’s recent past given Jesus reason for doubt? And this is the amazing place we have come to: that both parties on the beach, sitting at the fire, must choose either to trust the other or not, not on the basis of solid proof, but on the basis upon which every love relationship is founded: trust.
The gospel of John started with this nearly impossible notion that the the Word that was the source of all Creation became flesh. Well, here is that Word, at the end of the story, not just in the form of breakfast-fixing human flesh, but in the position that all humans find themselves in, having to trust a person with only their word to go on.
And this is exactly what John is telling us that God does with us. In spite of all of our denials, all of our past failures, he is willing to renew the relationship he offers to us, on no more solid grounds than our feeble words of commitment. No shame, no groveling, no promises of improvement required. Just a “yes” to the question, “Do you love me?”
So what does Jesus want now, from newly rehabilitated Peter? Not proof of love by self-inflicted suffering – no horse-hair shirt to put on, and no desert cave to live in. Neither does he want Peter to build a cathedral nor a monument, not even a pilgrimage site-marker.
Three times Peter is told to do the work of a good shepherd, and feed his sheep. Take your eyes off of yourself, stop letting the past define you. Do what is in your power to do, in the real world, for real people. This is what it means when Jesus says,
Just as Jesus had said when it all started, back in Chapter one, at the same seaside in Galilee, he extends the call again:
So this is our calling. Not to be certain, but to be faithful. Not to a life of perfection without failures of faith, but a life of purpose, lived not for ourselves, but for others.
We have been called to go all-in, like every couple on their wedding day, at the moment of saying “I do” – not because they know how it will all turn out, not because they are certain, but because they have heard “I love you” and have chosen to believe it, and have said “I love you” and meant it to the best of their ability. And they go all in – because there is no such thing as more-or-less married. So we go all in, extending the Good Shepherd’s mission of mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, tending his lambs.
Fellow deniers; fellow doubters, let us all hear the call: Jesus is saying to us simply and only this: “Follow me.” That much, is certain.