Yr C ~ Easter 3 ~ John 21:1-17
Ok, let’s just call it what it is. This is a wonderfully weird reading! It’s all over the place, there are about 5 different themes in it, people say and do baffling things, and it ends on such a bizarre note that I left a couple of verses out this morning.
The scholarly consensus is that this chapter was probably added in sometime after the rest of the book was written, and perhaps by a, shall we say, less gifted writer. This doesn’t faze me in the slightest. My lens for reading the bible is that it reveals deep truths about people’s experience of the Presence of God in their lives and their interpretation of events. It’s like reading someone’s diary – absolutely true, very personal, but not the ideal place for objective, factual information. The community that produced the gospel of John decided this needed to be added. That makes it interesting to me! So let’s have a look at this weird and wonderful text.
The story is about a third appearance of Jesus to the disciples after his resurrection. The first two were in the upper room, one without Thomas and one with, and now he’s present again for this one. Here’s the first weird bit. Do you remember the first season of Gilligan’s Island and how the theme song named 5 of the 7 castaways? Gilligan, the Skipper too, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star, and the rest! (They changed it in the second season and the professor and Mary Anne got their due.) In our passage today 5 disciples get named and then there were two others. Perhaps it was the professor and Mary Ann!
In verse 3 we learn they’re fishing – so it’s back to business as usual – and apparently business is bad because they can’t catch anything. Jesus appears on the shore – 100 yards away so it makes sense they don’t recognize him. Can you easily identify people a football field away?
And this unknown figure says, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong! Try fishing on the other side!”
[sarcastically] “The other side? Wow, what a great idea! We hadn’t thought of that before!”
But they do it, and lo and behold they catch a lot of fish. And in that miraculous moment Peter figures out who’s on shore, puts on his heavy cloak, and jumps into the water and starts swimming. It’s nutty! But I guess he just couldn’t contain himself. I don’t suppose you’ve ever done anything foolish because you were excited, right?
We’re told the net is super full of fish and that the other disciples (including the professor and Mary Ann) had trouble getting it in, then they came ashore. I wonder if they beat Peter in and laughed at him as they sailed by.
In verse 9 we learn that Jesus has a fire with fish on it and some bread. And then he asks for some fish from the catch? He already had breakfast ready! Weird!
And Peter goes and single-handedly hauls the net on shore and we learn that there are precisely 153 fish! You all know what that means, right? The symbolism of 153, everyone knows that, right?
Wrong! No one knows! Nobody has a clue. It’s this bizarre, specific fact whose meaning is completely lost.
So they all have breakfast, and they know it’s Jesus, but for some reason they’re afraid to say so. Weird!
And then verse 13. “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”
What does that remind you of? Communion! But there’s no wine, it’s just bread and fish.
In fact, the last supper in John’s gospel doesn’t have the bread and wine bit at all. It has foot washing instead. The closest thing to communion in John is in chapter 6 where Jesus does the loaves and fishes thing and takes bread and blesses it and shares it and then does the same with the fish.
What do you make of that?
Maybe in the community that produced John’s gospel they did communion with bread and fish?
Maybe there were different practices depending on where you lived?
Maybe Christianity has always been a diverse and contextual thing?
Then, after all that wonderfully weird stuff, we get to what is probably the point of this chapter – verses 15-17 the dialogue between Jesus and Peter where a question is posed three times:
[played a song clip of “Do You Love Me” by the Contours!]
Had you been there that’s exactly what it would’ve sounded like! 🙂
There are a couple of curiosities about this exchange.
What does Jesus mean by “do you love me more than these?” – the answer is probably “more than all else.”
There are different Greek words used for love here – sometimes it’s agape sometimes it’s phileo – the answer is they’re probably meant to be interchangeable here, and since they would have been speaking in Aramaic and not Greek it’s probably not worth trying to make hay out of it anyway.
And are we supposed to read something into the different instructions Jesus gives each time? Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.
But let’s not get distracted by the weird parts – let’s focus on the big picture.
Why do you think Jesus asks Peter this question 3 times?
The consensus is that it’s because earlier in the story Peter denied knowing Jesus 3 times and this gives Peter a chance to make amends. That makes good sense.
Now, let’s think about Peter’s state of mind in this scene.
He’s living with the guilt of having denied Jesus earlier.
Peter sees him and leaps out of the boat fully clothed and swims in to meet him.
He races over and hauls in the 153 fish.
And now he gets confronted by Jesus.
Peter’s having quite a day!
What do you think Jesus’ tone of voice was here? Angry? Judgmental? Sad? Frustrated? Compassionate?
How do you think Peter would’ve felt standing there listening to Jesus ask this question? Bad? Embarrassed?
He’s asked again: Confused? Uneasy?
He’s asked a third time: Frustrated? Humiliated?
How would you feel?
So, Jesus gives Peter a chance to clearly state his faithfulness and his love, and Peter is redeemed. But it doesn’t stop there. Peter doesn’t just get to say his piece, make his apology, and go have a fish sandwich. Jesus gives him a job to do. What is it?
Shepherd. After all this stuff about fish and fishing we suddenly switch to a sheep and shepherding metaphor. So weird! But let’s go with it.
Peter, and by extension we, need to know two things: who are these sheep, and what does it mean to feed and tend them?
Who are the sheep? Well, the first thing to notice is that they aren’t Peter’s sheep they belong to Jesus. Maybe it’s important that we switched from the fish metaphor, because fish don’t seem to belong to anyone, but sheep are clearly part of a flock. We catch fish but we tend sheep.
So there’s a sense here that Peter is being called to a ministry of feeding and caring for those who would call themselves followers of Jesus. Indeed, Peter ends up becoming the leader of the People of the Way in Jesus’ place.
Now, what does the feeding and tending look like? Before I go into that I want us to remember the question that’s driving this. Jesus asks: Do you love me? Three times! Whatever feeding and tending are they are clearly an answer to and an expression of love.
The sheep metaphor is wonderful but I wonder if we shouldn’t cut right to the chase and say it plainly.
Do you love me? (You know I love you!) Then love!
What are Jesus’ three commandments?
The first is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The second is to love your neighbour as you love yourself.
And the third is to love one another “as I have loved you.”
Love as I love. Feed as I feed. Tend as I tend – says Jesus. Love, love, love!
So how should we love? I can’t answer that. You need to figure that out for yourselves. There isn’t some secret formula of certain steps to follow.
You are known and loved by God, and you are known and loved by Jesus – and that love working in you and on you will create the unique shape and form that your love will take.
What does feeding sheep look like? It’ll look different for each and every one of us.
In order to figure it out we need to play the part of Peter.
We need to realize where we’ve fallen short.
We need to be longing to see Jesus revealed to us.
We need to be ready to look ridiculous and leap joyfully when we notice the Sacred Presence of the Holy One with us.
And then the hard part: we need to be willing to stand, vulnerable, exposed, utterly open in the overwhelming radiance of love, and hear the question.
Do you love me? ~ Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.
Again, do you love me? ~ Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.
And again, penetrating through our easy answers, digging into the deepest parts of us where our real truth resides, our innermost self, laid bare where nothing can be faked, or hidden, or contrived – Do you love me?
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Love like I love.
How do you think Peter felt after this exchange? Don’t you think he felt…reborn, renewed, resurrected?
The resurrected Christ resurrected Peter.
Don’t you think the invitation is extended to you too?
This is not a history text telling us about what happened to a fisherman in Galilee. It’s not just history – his story – it’s your story, it’s my story.
We are Peter.
We’re human, which means we’re not perfect, which means we’ve fallen short of being our best selves and we carry that with us. It’s probably getting in the way of our doing the things we do (like fishing).
We’re longing and yearning for a glimpse of the Holy so we can embrace it and feel the warmth of its glow. And in our humanness we stand in that perfect, loving light and we let down our guard and open ourselves to the fundamental question: Do you love?
God is love. Jesus is love incarnate. The Spirit is love in motion.
“Do you love?” is the only question love can really ask.
And if your answer is yes – if your answer is really yes – then love will resonate within your deepest self and you will know harmony and peace.
And it will feel like you’ve been given new life.
And that new life will take the only shape it could possibly take: love.
Do you love me?
Yes, Lord; you know I love you.
Then you too are love – so love!
This is the wondrously weird mystery of Easter. Letting go of our former way, dying to what was, and being reborn, resurrected in love – to love.
We may never have as vivid an encounter with the risen Christ as Peter is written as having, but we can and do encounter God’s Presence every single day – as Christ, as Spirit, as Love.
As love sings its song we are drawn to its beauty and our hardness and cynicism soften. Joy and wonder and awe and fear fill us all at the same time, as the lyrics invite us over, and over, and over again to sing along.
“Do you love me?”
Yes, Lord; you know I love you.
Then you know what to do!