This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on April 10, 2016.
John’s epilogue provides a powerful conclusion to the gospel, despite the number of perplexing elements to the story. A number of unanswered questions arise from the text. Why do the disciples return to fishing? Why are we told the specific number of fish caught in the nets (153)? Why are there two different words for “love” mentioned in this text? Why were the disciples able to catch fish simply by casting their nets on the other side of the boat? While these enigmatic issues are fascinating, the preacher is better off centering the sermon on the clearer declarations within the text.
The setting invites some intertextual observations which can inform the sermon. The disciples are fishing on the Sea of Tiberius (21:1). The only other time the Sea of Tiberius is mentioned in the gospel is when it serves as the setting for the feeding of the 5000 in chapter 6. In that story, Jesus provides a miraculous meal for a large crowd. In this story, Jesus provides an ordinary breakfast for a small crowd. In both stories, Jesus proves to be the provider for those who follow him. Like God who provided manna in the wilderness, Jesus provides fish and bread to sustain his people in their need.
The link between these two texts is only strengthened by a semantic link between the two texts as well. The word “drawing” (helkuo in Greek) is common to both stories. In 6.44, Jesus says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” In chapter 21:6, the disciples are not able to draw their nets because of the great haul of fish. Both of these stories illustrate the futility of attempting to do Christ’s work apart from his guidance, provision, and power. It is Christ – and only Christ – who does the drawing. The disciples are of no use apart from Jesus. Given the close association between fishing and missionary activity, this word for the church is all the more potent. The church’s goal is not to “draw” but to be a faithful expression of the way of Jesus in the world. When the church is faithful, God will draw the nets, and the nets will not tear (from the Greek word schizo). There will be no schisms within the body of Christ. The church will be vibrant, robust, and united when it is faithful in obedience to the words of Jesus.
Peter’s action of clothing himself before jumping into the sea necessitates comment as well. Normally, people take off clothes before jumping in the water for a swim of some distance. Conversely, Peter adds clothing before jumping in. One can almost feel a palpable reverence for Jesus here. Peter will not stand before him unclothed. Furthermore, when the disciples arrive at the shore, none of them ask Jesus about his identity (21:12). Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus has professed his identity through the various “I Am” statements. When the disciples reach the risen Christ on the shore, none of them ask, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. The high Christology of the gospel of John remains intact at the end.
Peter’s jumping into the water was surely a sign of how much he longed to be right with Jesus, whom he had previously denied. The charcoal fire on the beach should remind the preacher of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, which also took place beside a charcoal fire. Three times Peter was asked whether or not he was one of Jesus’ disciples and three times he denied. It was his utter failure as a disciple. At the end of the gospel, however, Jesus seems to reinstate Peter as a disciple, when three times he asks Peter if he loves him. Surely, Peter could hear a rooster crowing in the back of his mind. Surely, Peter was haunted by the echoes of his denials. However, Jesus seems determined to reinstate Peter into his company of his disciples. Indeed, Jesus is not sweeping Peter’s denials under the rug, but neither is he allowing Peter’s past to determine his future. Peter will continue to be a disciple solely by the grace of Jesus. His love for Jesus will be grounded in Jesus’ love for him, and it will be revealed in his care for Jesus’ sheep.
The shift from fishing to shepherding in this text seems abrupt, but it should remind the reader of the shepherd imagery in the gospel of John. Jesus has already taught that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (10:1-16). His sheep know his voice. Peter and the other disciples are to shepherd their sheep with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as their model. Finally, the disciples are to remember that the sheep belong to Jesus (“my sheep,” in 21:15-17), and the disciples are only undershepherds.
Jesus’ final words to his disciples in this text are familiar words, “Follow me.” This was his first invitation to the disciples at the beginning of the gospel (1:35-51). It is the invitation of Jesus which echoes down through the centuries and across the continents. We, his would-be followers today, receive the same invitation as the first disciples. Today the risen Christ summons us the same way as the earthly Jesus did then. May we accept the invitation, absorb his habits and patterns, watch his life, mimic his attitudes, walk in his ways, and follow him!
Dr. Preston Clegg
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
Tags: Peter, Church, fire, resurrection, discipleship