(A sermon on the John 21:1-19 preached at All Saints' Church, 4/18/2010)
Perhaps the best way to describe this morning's Gospel text is this: this story is really, really, weird.
The disciples have gathered in Galilee. Despite having seen the risen Christ, and given the Holy Spirit, they apparently have nothing to do or talk about.
“I’m going fishing!” grumbles Peter, and everyone agrees to go with him.
They get in a boat, fish all night, and catch nothing.
Day breaks, and Jesus is on the beach, but the disciples don’t recognize him. The “stranger” tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat to find some fish, and suddenly their nets are bursting. John, also known as the disciple whom Jesus loves, who also happens to be for whom this Gospel account is named, says to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”
Peter, who, by the way, happens to be naked (???!!!), puts on his clothes, only to jump into the sea to swim to shore. The other disciples come by conventional boat, dragging the net full of fish.
When they all get to shore, Jesus has already lit the charcoal for a Bar-B-Que, and tells them to bring some, of the EXACTLY 153 large fish, over to the grill. They eat fish and bread for breakfast, which is weird to me, but might be normal for them.
Jesus then asks Peter three times if he loves him, Peter responds positively three times, and Jesus tells him to:
a) Feed my Lambs
b) Tend my sheep, and
c) Feed my sheep
…along with some strange stuff about fastening belts and going places to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God, before finally telling Peter to “Follow Me.”
It’s the kind of Gospel that invites the preacher to take a closer look at the other readings…
So, here’s what I’m going to do: to protect my sanity and peace of mind, I am going to, for the moment, conveniently forget that the 21st chapter of John exists.
As far as I'm concerned, the Gospel of John concludes with its 20th chapter and its three Easter accounts. Mary Magdalene first meets the risen Jesus. Jesus tells her that he is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Next, Jesus meets behind closed doors with the disciples and tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus breathes on them, and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.
The third account ends with last week’s gospel account, where Thomas sees the risen Jesus for himself and states his belief, to which Jesus replies: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
John’s unique and mystical story of Jesus has now been told: a story of inspiration and belief, that Jesus was actually one with both God and with God’s people. It has been constructed so that people who have not seen with their own eyes can still hear and experience the impact of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Our storyteller sums up and concludes with these two lines: “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.”
The account is complete. If this was a movie, the credits would now be appearing and most of the theater would be getting up out of their seats and going home.
Perhaps, however, your one of those people who stay and watch the movie credits. Perhaps you want to hear the music. Perhaps you’re looking for the answer to a particular question: was that really so and so, in a cameo, or perhaps you’re wondering where the movie was really filmed?
Sometimes, the patient viewer is rewarded with some extra material: perhaps some outtakes from the making of the movie where something funny happened. (This is especially rewarding if it’s a Pixar animated movie, where the “outtakes” are, of course, not mistakes, but are created, often ingenious material.)
Sometimes, the movie provides an epilogue during the credits. Usually, this epilogue material is a look into the future of the characters: showing the good things that happen as the result of the movie story. Other times, the movie epilogue shows the antagonist of the story, and suggests that everything continues to go wrong for them. (Think Mr. Rooney, the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) It is the last attempt to answer some of the questions that the main story was unable to address.
The 21st Chapter of John, our weird reading for this morning, is the epilogue of the Gospel of John: rewarding those who were waiting around for more. Sometime after the original story was completed, someone chose to revisit the Gospel and add one more resurrection account. Perhaps it was the original writer. Perhaps it was the writer’s student, or an admirer, or a member of the same community. Whoever it was, the writer of the 21st chapter wrote an additional account in the spirit of John’s story in order to address issues that had come up in response to the original story.
With limited space, and time for only a single setting, the 21st chapter is crammed full of symbolic details, and moves quickly from the barely believable to the outright far-fetched. With this technique, however, the author touches on a great many things.
The epilogue supposes that the disciples go back to Galilee, back to their homes, and at least in part, back to their lives before they met Jesus. “I’m going fishing” is a statement of frustration and defeat, suggesting that the disciples struggled with how to carry out Jesus’ ministry without him. Belief and faith, the crux of the Gospel of John, did not initially translate to mission and ministry in the world. This epilogue, as a whole, points to a change.
Jesus’ encountering the disciples fishing parallels the account found in Luke, which we heard earlier this year. In Luke’s account, it is the story where Jesus first meets Peter, James, and John. The story, despite being at a completely different place in the story, is in essence the same. Jesus is calling the disciples into mission, and it draws special attention to Peter.
The nakedness is odd, but it makes me think of the young man following the arrested Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. He is wearing nothing but a linen cloth, and when he is seized by soldiers, the young man escapes, leaving the linen cloth and running away naked. For Peter, the reverse happens. He starts out naked, stripped by his denials, and puts on his clothes in order to move towards Jesus. Peter is so heartened by the opportunity to interact with Jesus that he can’t restrain himself. He jumps into the water to swim to shore, for the fishing boat will not get him to Jesus quickly enough!
Upon everyone arriving at shore, we learn of the specifics of the catch: 153 large fish. This number was the number of known species of fish at the time. This neatly ties in the “fishers of people” idea found in Luke’s version of the story of the catch, with the idea being that all the people of the world are part of the mission.
While grilled fish and bread may not sound like an appetizing breakfast, the symbolic message of sharing a meal with Jesus reflects not only that this risen Jesus is flesh and blood, but also recalls the shared meals found throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus already has fish and bread on the grill, but he has the disciples contribute some of their catch to the meal. It becomes a potluck, with everyone bringing something to share. Easting together continues to be the shared experience of the Christian community. Shared meals reflect the belief of Christ’s continued presence, and gives strength and encouragement for life beyond physical nourishment.
The charcoal fire Jesus has going parallels the charcoal fire that the police had going on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter finds himself at both places, warming himself. On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter is asked three times if he knows Jesus, and each time he denies knowing him. While warming himself by the morning fire, Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and each time Peter responds, “You know that I love you.” In one sense, the threefold asking is to reopen the wound, the damage that Peter did to himself on that painful night, so that the guilt can bleed out and he can truly be healed. The deeper message is the active ministry that Jesus is now calling Peter to. Faith and belief is the understanding of one’s personal relationship with God through Jesus. Now Jesus adds something else, the call to ministry: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep. Care for people just like I did. Love one another as I have loved you, and do so publicly, without fear.
“When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go where you wanted to go.” In other words, Peter went and did what was comfortable, what was familiar, and what was safe.
But now, Jesus says, when you are old, stretch out your hands, let someone else fasten a belt and take you where you do not wish to go. In other words, start risking! Stretch yourself and live your faith! Reach out towards the uncomfortable and the unknown, and then you will be living the love that you profess.
Jesus says, “Follow me.”
This makes for a weird story, but a worthy epilogue to the Gospel of John.