Today we continue to explore another of the Easter narratives in John’s Gospel. John 21 seems to have been added as a post-script or as an epilogue to the original conclusion of the Gospel at the end of chapter 20 which seems to quite neatly conclude the purpose of John’s Gospel. But in the end perhaps the writer felt there was a little more that he wanted to add.
This Easter Resurrection narrative takes place in Galilee by the Sea of Tiberias, which was also known as the Sea of Galilee. John doesn’t give a time-frame, he simply says that this revealing of Jesus, as he terms it, took place later on. In verse 14 the passage states that this was the third time that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.
Again, one would have to acknowledge that John’s sequence of events doesn’t fit with Luke’s sequence of events.
John’s sequence of events takes the disciples back to Galilee where they go back to their former trade of fishing. But Luke’s Gospel keeps the disciples in Jerusalem right up to Pentecost after which they are so busy preaching the gospel that there is no time for them to go back to their old lives in Galilee. In terms of factual events, either John’s Gospel is correct, or Luke’s Gospel is correct.
But as I suggested last week, truth is greater than fact. Truth can be communicated in other ways other than in a list of facts. And so I invite us to explore briefly the deeper truth and meaning that this narrative has for us today. I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true. What truth might it contain for us today?
Some commentators suggest that this narrative in John is in fact a symbolic narrative that has more to do with the mission of the early church than with eye-witness events.
The image of the disciples fishing in a boat symbolically suggests that the disciples were engaging in the mission of Jesus. When they had first been called, Jesus called them away from their nets and instructed them that from now on, they would be engaged in a different kind of fishing… fishing not for literal fish, but rather, fishing for human beings. Catching human beings out of the oceans of chaos and helping to bring them ashore onto dry land.
Is it possible that this narrative is a symbolic narrative showing the disciples trying their best to fulfil Jesus commission to them they they would now be fishers of men and women?
But in the story, the catch only happens as the disciples listen to the voice and the instructions of the Risen Christ. Working in their own efforts, they catch nothing. Listening to the voice and the instruction of the Risen Christ, the disciples make a large catch.
And that brings us to the mysterious number 153. In verse 11 we read that Simon Peter went aboard the boat to help drag the net to shore full of large fish, one hundred and fifty three of them.
That is a very specific number. It raises the question why the author seeks to be so particular about the number of fish that were caught? John’s Gospel often has a tendency to be quite symbolic. Is it possible that the author is wanting his readers to see this number as symbolic? Some scholars point out that in the ancient world it was understood that there were 153 different species of fish. From this perspective, the disciples have just caught one of each species of fish in the then known world. If the disciples new mission is to be fishers of people, is it possible that the number 153 is symbolic of the disciples mission that is now to include people of all varieties, of every known colour and every known race.
To make the catch, the disciples have to change the way they have been fishing? They have to consider throwing their nets in a new direction? I wonder if there is a message in that for the church today? Is it possible that the church as a whole, and also local churches, need to think about doing church in a different way if we are going to catch all sorts of new varieties of fish? Is it possible that business as usual, fishing off only one side of the boat is no longer going to bring in the fish. Perhaps a new direction is necessary?
Secondly, isn’t it significant that Jesus prepares a meal for them and after saying to them ‘Come and have breakfast’, he steps forward, takes the bread and gives it to them.
It has echoes of other moments in which Jesus shares bread with others. It reminds us how early on in Jesus ministry Jesus is criticized by other religious leaders for sharing his bread with sinners and outcasts. Then at the end of the Gospel narratives, it echoes the moment of the last supper where Jesus takes bread, breaks it and shares it with the disciples saying, this is my body. Also significant, the narrative in Luke’s Gospel when two forlorn disciples walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus. They are joined by a stranger who opens the scriptures to them. At the end of the journey when they invite him to share a meal with him, when he takes the bread and breaks it, their eyes are opened and the see it is the Risen Jesus. What is it about the action of breaking bread and sharing it that enables us to see Jesus? Perhaps it reveals the very pattern of his life, a life of self-giving love, a life lived in open welcome and sharing towards others, where all were welcome at the table of Jesus, both saint and sinner alike.
And that takes us to the third point for today. In this narrative Jesus shares his bread with a group of disciples who had abandoned and disowned him. When he needed them the most, they headed for the hills. And yet the Risen Jesus is still willing to share his bread with them, still willing to welcome them to his table, even before they have asked for forgiveness. In fact the story that follows shows not the disciples seeking a healed relationship with Jesus, but rather Jesus seeking a healed relationship with the disciples. It is Jesus who comes to them and not the other way around. And it is the character of Simon Peter who becomes the symbolic focus of this part of the narrative.
In Verse 15 we read, that when they had eaten, Jesus drew Simon Peter aside and said to him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’
Do you hear the echo of the words of Peter earlier in the narrative, before Jesus was crucified, Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." Or as the New Living Translation puts it, "Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will."
It seems that Peter had thought that he was better then everyone else. He had pretensions of having an heroic faith that would show that he was a cut above all the other disciples. Even if all fall away, I will not. Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will.
In John’s Gospel, Peter says to Jesus ‘I will lay down my life for you.’ To which Jesus replies ‘Lay down your life for me? In all truth I tell you, before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.
And now Jesus asks him, ‘Simon, son of John,’ (Jesus is no longer using his nickname of Peter. He is using the name given him by his parents). Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do? It is a probing question, that is digging in to Peter’s prior sense of superiority to the other disciples. Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will. Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?
Peter’s reply is interesting, ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ He is no longer making superior claims of his love and loyalty to Jesus. He is no longer claiming to be better than the others. Rather than making any claims of his own, he appeals to what Jesus already knows about him, that despite his failure, despite his having deserted Jesus in such dramatic fashion, Jesus does indeed know that he loves him.
To which Jesus replies, ‘Feed my sheep!’
What Jesus wants from us is not claims of heroic superiority or attempts at perfection. What Jesus asks of us is simply our love, no matter how weak or fragile or imperfect that love is.
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than all of these?
Lord, you know that I love you.
There is more that can be said on this beautiful passage. More to be reflected on. But perhaps this is enough for now, except for a closing comment. When we are invited to share bread at the table of Jesus, what Jesus is asking of us is not our worthiness, not that we have a heroic or perfect faith. All he asks of us is our love, no matter how weak, fragile or imperfect it may be. This is not a meal for the perfect, only for those who love Christ, even if just a little, and long to love him more. Amen.