John 21:1-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.”
What we’ve heard is a story with mixed metaphors: Fish and sheep. Within these 21 verses there is a lot of story and unpacking it all in study this week has been a challenge. Comfort, however, came with the realization that over time many hands wrote many different pieces that tried, I think, not very successfully to knit this all together into one.
There was one commentary of many I reviewed, that I found to be the most helpful in trying to connect the dots. In a few words Martin Smith (Living the Word, Sojourners, May 2019) brought a newer and fresher awareness of this story that other commentators did not see at the time of their particular writing. Insight always seems to be evolving, and allowing us to see things with new eyes and understanding.
After this week’s study I am reminded of the UCC quote attributed to Gracie Allen – do not put a period where God had placed a comma – God’s revelation continues to work in an among us even today. Thank God.
Another commentator, Thomas Troeger (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 2), wrote about our current reading of scripture as “a dramatic appeal to us not to reduce Christ and the wonders of his ministry to a story in the past, not to leave the gospel in a time and place long ago and far away.” The story reveals to us what he calls “the resilience and vitality of God’s word [even though] the curtain may have come down on John’s narrative, the real-life drama of Christ is continuing. Everything John has shown [us] continues past the last scene into the present moment and beyond.” and that’s part of the work of sermon writing – bringing the “there and then” to the “here and now” – also known as exegesis and hermeneutics. Yes, every profession needs hard and fancy words.
What I thought seemed to be lacking in other older commentaries was found in Martin Smith’s reflection of this stories that really spoke to my head as well as my spirit and my heart – knowing when I read them that these were the words that found me, and words that I just could not come to on my own.
Smith writes: “In the fourth gospel, John recounts the impulsive decision of Peter to return to Galilee to relaunch the boat he had abandoned a few years earlier, and now trying his hand once more at fishing. Peter would not be the first to rely on something deeply familiar to help in the process of recovering from shock, [and grief].” This is part of the insight I felt was missing in other commentaries – the real life impact of loss in Peter’s life and the life of Jesus’ followers after Jesus’ death. This made their grief very read to me.
In each of our lives is our own unique way of dealing with grief and loss. Sometimes we recognize it in the person who travels great distances to get away from the loss – not quite running away but not really facing it eather. Sometimes we recognize it in the one who is so busy that there is no time for grief. Sometimes we recognize it in the person who jumps back into a taxing work routine. Sometimes we recognize it in the person who is numb and unable to move. In this account, Smith helps us to see how Peter handles it by his return to a work he knew very well and only gave up to follow Jesus.
In this scene this small group of Jesus’ followers are told by a stranger to cast their nets again – even though they had been fishing unsuccessfully all night. But they listened and brought in a mighty catch. As they approached the stranger on the beach there was a charcoal fire burning and this man was cooking breakfast for them. He asked them to supplement the meal with some of the fish they had caught. Then came the invitation to join him for a simple meal of fish and bread. Sometimes, with grief is the need to be fed that helps to restore the body, mind and spirit. There is something comforting in the offering and sharing of food during times of grief within a community. It’s not only practical, but sharing a casserole is a loving and caring and sacred gesture. It is Communion.
Through grief, hard work and nourishment came the awareness that the stranger in their midst is Jesus. This is the third time Jesus has appeared to his disciples following the resurrection, and each time there is always confusion about who this unknown person before them is – yet there is always someone in the group who usually comes to recognize the risen Christ in their midst. Here he cooks for them and feeds them and surprises them with his presence and his offerings and compassion. Maybe we should add how Jesus has again placed himself in the role of servant.
Then the story after they’ve eaten shifts gears again and the metaphor used moves from fish to sheep and the tone of the encounter seems to shift from grief to remorse on Peter’s part. Jesus asks Peter three times: Simon Peter, do you love me? which most theologians agree reflects Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus before his death. But in the asking there is no rebuking or blaming or shaming of Peter’s earlier behavior. But Martin Smith does believe that Peter feels a sense of shame because of his past denials. However, rather than allowing the shame to shatter him, he moves on toward healing and wholeness, even if this is a painful conversation for him, he doesn’t run away from it. In fact, he gets a bit testy.
Jesus asks: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter, caught a bit off guard says, “Of course, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus responds by saying, “ok then, feed my lambs” A second time Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter responds again, perhaps a bit more frustrated. “Yes, Lord, you know that I do!” This time Jesus says, “Then tend my sheep.” Tend my sheep, Jesus said. Love one another as I have loved you. Take care of one another.
But Jesus asks Peter yet a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This time Peter gets totally exasperated. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” to which Jesus says, Ok then, feed my sheep.” And concluded by saying, once again: “Follow me.” (DOC A Week of Compassion Reflection; 2/25/2020)
Do you love me? A simple question? Not really. What we say can only be backed up by how we love. Do you love me? What is the quality of your love is perhaps the more accurate question that Jesus is asking. If you love me, follow me. Give all that you have right back to God. This is what it means to love me well. Do you love me? Then love one another as I have loved you. Follow me, is the invitation.
It is often a long, painstaking journey to learn to follow Christ. It take courageous compassion. It takes a commitment. It takes sacrificial giving so that others may not suffer but have enough. That is loving well. On our own journey of discipleship, what is the quality of our love? Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?
Although our own past behaviors may make us feel shameful, expressing our love for Jesus is all that matters, as we too are tenderly healed as we grow in our love for him. The opportunity to take the responsibility for nurturing and caring for the ones who Christ calls his own leads us to new life .
Love well. Feed and tend God’s people as best you can each and every day. Go from here this day knowing that God loves you beyond measure. As you are blessed, go and bless all you meet with loving kindness. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019