First Look: 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.”

Though it appears in the lectionary as a single narrative, this text from John’s gospel can actually be divided into two distinct units, each having a different focus.  Verses 1-14 contain John’s version of the “miraculous draft of fishes”, which here is located after Jesus’ resurrection rather than before (see Luke 5:1-11) as well as Jesus’ breakfast with the disciples on the beach, which is his final meal with them.  The final block consists of verses 15-19, which contain a repartee between Jesus and Simon Peter.  Though easy to gloss over, chapter 21 forms an interesting and rather abrupt ending to John’s gospel.

There is some debate over the authorship of chapter 21.  It is a major departure from the rest of John’s gospel in both style and content.  Readers are right to wonder whether the author who gave us the poetic and high-minded prose of John 1:1-5 would end his gospel with the clunky oddity of John 21:25.  In fact, the entirety of John 21 contains vocabulary and sentence structure that is markedly different from what precedes it.  While this is evidence that chapter 21 of John’s gospel is likely not original, but was added to the gospel some time after it was written, it doesn’t mean that we can discard this chapter on the grounds of authenticity.  Chapter 21 is still God’s Word to us, and still says something about who Jesus was and is.

The Miraculous Draft of Fishes and Breakfast on the Beach (John 21:1-14)

Here the author has transformed the well-known story of the miraculous draft of fishes into a post-resurrection story.  Rather than locate it as a part of Jesus’ earthly ministry before his crucifixion, it is the risen Lord who witnesses their inability to catch anything.  By his command, the disciples cast their nets into a certain spot and haul ashore an incredible number of fish (John’s gospel is curiously specific, numbering the fish at 153).  Laying aside questions of historicity and authorship, what can we learn from this text?

It is interesting here that even after seeing the risen Lord and receiving his blessing and charge (“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”), the disciples largely go back to what they were doing before Jesus called them in the first place.  It is striking here that instead of going out to continue the spiritual ministry of Jesus, they are seen simply returning to the way of life that they knew.  In other words, when faced with the choice between embarking on a new and  challenging (but vital!) ministry blessed by their Lord or staying where life is familiar and comfortable, they chose the familiar and comfortable.

Do you see the connection and implication for Christians today?  How often to we retreat from new and challenging forms of ministry to simply remain in the familiar?  All Christians and all churches have the tendency to adhere to traditional practices simply because they are known, even when those practices yield nothing, even when Christ calls them to do things in a different way.  Our task as followers of Jesus is to remain open to his instructions, open to new ways and methods of carrying out his ministry.  The truth is that we have been blessed by our Lord and charged with a vital mission.  Guided by the Holy Spirit, the results could be miraculous.  Guided by our own desire for comfort and sameness, we could persist in old patterns for years with nothing to show for it.

That John’s account of the miraculous draft of fishes contains clear echoes of the feeding of the multitudes (see John 6) simply reinforces this message.  So often, miracles happen because God blesses the gifts and efforts of those who seemingly have nothing to offer.  God will do amazing things through us and with us.  Our role in the process is to keep our eyes open for new possibilities, and our ears attentive to the commands of our Lord.

In John’s gospel, the miraculous draft of fishes ends in a communal setting, with the disciples seated around Jesus.  He gives them the bread and the fish, echoing the scene of the last supper.  One might look at this meal as the true “last supper”, as it is the risen Christ’s last meal with his disciples.  It has the feel of communion to it, and serves to remind the disciples (and all of us) that though the risen Christ eventually departs physically, he remains with his followers in a spiritual sense.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples continue the ministry of Jesus.  It is a message of which we are reminded each time we take the bread and cup “in remembrance of Jesus”.

Jesus and Simon Peter (John 21:15-19)

Here we find that the fish aren’t the only thing grilled by Jesus on the beach that morning!  He persistently asks Peter some very direct questions pertaining to his love.  This is obviously a reenactment of Peter’s denial of Jesus, only in reverse.  Just a few chapters earlier, Peter publicly denied even knowing Jesus three times.  Here, Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to perhaps undo his previous denials.  This is a remarkable illustration of Jesus’ faithfulness even to those who are not faithful to him.  It is the grace of God at work in the life of Jesus’ followers.  Have you let him down?  Have you looked at the grim shadow of the cross and run the other way?  Have you denied the presence of Christ in the lives of those around you?  In the faces of friends and strangers alike, Jesus is there.  How often do we take that presence seriously?  How often is it easier to simply deny, deny, deny because of what it might cost us?

We are Peter, and Peter is us.  The second chance comes not through some penitential act of Peter’s, but through the sheer grace and love of Jesus himself.  What must it have been like for Peter to look Jesus in the eyes as they sat together on that beach sharing a meal, after denying three times that he even knew the man?  Jesus’ questions to Peter are questions of grace, and they come with a repeated command to feed, tend, and follow.  As Jesus was being crucified, Peter had three chances to follow him to his death.  Instead, three times he turned his back.  Now, Jesus gives Peter a renewed chance to do the same thing: follow, even if it means following to death.  Like Peter, we all have our moments of denial.  However, Jesus repeatedly pursues us.  “Do you love me?” he asks.

If we do love Jesus, his ministry becomes our ministry.  We are to feed, tend, and follow.  But we do so knowing that Jesus’ path to the cross becomes our path.

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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz.  It is usually published on Mondays.

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