Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2019
John 21:1-19 Commentary
In a recent interview with Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Union Seminary President Serene Jones makes it plain that she does not believe Jesus physically rose again from the dead. She claimed this in part because “the gospels are all over the place” about the resurrection and she cited the fact that Mark rings down the curtain on his Gospel presenting only an empty tomb but before a single human being had as yet shared the news of any so-called resurrection. Well, it is true Mark ends in confused if not frightened silence but that hardly means the gospels just generally end the story there or that Mark failed to notice a miracle had taken place.
Luke gives us a memorable post-resurrection story on the Road to Emmaus that happened yet that first Easter day (and Jesus definitely seems alive and well in that story) but then Luke rather swiftly fast-forwards to an exceedingly brief account of the ascension 40 days later.
Matthew gives us just a handful of verses but you don’t really notice how little Matthew gives following the resurrection on account of his presenting the soaring words we now call “The Great Commission.” Still, that’s all Matthew has post-Easter.
Not to put too fine a point on it but the Synoptic Gospels are mighty thin on saying anything about Jesus once he showed up as a living presence again after Easter. I have always found that dearth of post-Easter narrative striking. Of course we ultimately have the Book of Acts to fill in a ton of blanks for us but still . . . the Gospels mostly end a little too soon in some ways. (Still, contra Dr. Jones, I think the living presence of a resurrected Jesus who could be touched and ingest fish is pretty clear actually.)
Then again, the only thing that strikes me even more than the absence of post-Easter stories in the Synoptics is the presence of what John does include. After all, in terms of reporting words or events that took place after that first Easter Sunday, Matthew contains 5 verses, Mark contains 0 verses, and Luke contains 4 verses (the Emmaus story was still on Easter itself). John contains 33 verses, including one brief story that happened one week after the resurrection (“Doubting” Thomas’s encounter with Jesus) and then an entire chapter of something that happened at an unspecified post-Easter time (but that happened presumably some weeks later into the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension).
John wins hands down in terms of the post-Easter Jesus. And yet look at what he gives us: Jesus tending a campfire on a beach!
Look, Jesus didn’t have to shake up the whole world and all its powers and authorities within the first 12-18 hours of his returning to life but all these weeks later the last place I’d expect to find the resurrected Lord of lords and King of kings hanging around is an isolated stretch of beach and the last thing I’d expect to find him doing in that remote place is frying fish and cooking biscuits.
Is this what life in this world looks like after Easter?! Is this how the resurrected Son of God behaves across 40 days while physically still on this earth?
You see, if we as preachers or if the members of the congregation as listeners to a sermon on John 21 isolate this text—make it one pearl on a long string of biblical narrative pearls nestled right next to the Sermon on the Mount, Joseph’s coat of many colors, and Elijah’s chariot of fire—then it becomes just another in a long series of nice, cozy Bible stories. But I suspect this story will never disclose its deepest meaning to us until or unless we allow its oddities to shine forth.
Hence we can ask: why are Jesus’ post-Easter words in some ways less startling than what came long before anyone thought to end his life by impaling him on a cross? Here we get no more parables, no more sermons (on a mount or anywhere else), no more walking on water or opening a blind person’s eyes. Instead across the first dozen or more verses of this story Jesus says just some very basic things:
“Come and have breakfast.”
Nothing earth-shattering there.
What is Jesus doing here? Why isn’t he in Rome lecturing the Caesar? Why isn’t he in Jerusalem telling old Herod and Pilate the truth of what had happened to him as a result of their execution orders? Why wasn’t Jesus anywhere else but that beach, maybe curing cancer, healing the blind, releasing some prisoners, making some crooked ways straight?
Even the spectacular catch of fish pales in comparison to stuff he had done before. Ever think of that? Consider: Earlier in John—as in all the gospels—Jesus took a couple of fish and a piece or two of bread and managed to do the eye-popping miracle of feeding 5,000 or so folks out of that meager fare. That was impressive!
But now in John 21 Jesus goes to the opposite extreme: he feeds 7 people from a catch of 153 fish. Not much of a miracle to that feeding!! Leftovers were a given this time. Why were the miracles before Easter so much more interesting than the ones after?
It’s really no wonder that scholars have for centuries sought ways to spice up this little story by looking for symbolism and hidden meanings behind every little detail. Depending on whose commentary you read, everything may be freighted with secret meanings: the boat, the net, the water, and most tantalizingly of all for those on the hunt for secret meanings: the 153 fish. (My favorite on that one comes from no less than Augustine. According to Dale Bruner, Augustine thought this was a symbolic number arrived at my remembering that there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. 10+7=17 and if you add the integers from 1 to 17 (1+2+3+4 . . .) you arrive at precisely 153. So there you have it: 153 fish = a symbol of both Law and Gospel! Nice try, Augustine.)
No, no, no. Attempts to complexify this story end up ruining the story. We are so desperate to imbue the resurrected Jesus with cosmic meaning that we do not remain content to let him show up in so ordinary a circumstance and performing so common a set of tasks. But when we think about it—and when we ponder how to preach this story two Sundays after Easter in the Year C Lectionary cycle—we probably need to see Jesus in exactly the everyday set of circumstances that John depicts.
Because isn’t that where we need to encounter the Savior, too? We don’t need only a stained-glass Jesus who is other-worldly and who speaks words only meant for the holiest and most obviously sacred of events and occasions. We need a Jesus in the kitchen, “amid the pots and pans” as Theresa of Avila put it. We need a Jesus on the beach and at the office, in the car with us and while shopping at the mall. We need a Savior who accompanies us on our everyday journeys, who sees us in those ordinary circumstances, and who speaks into those times and places, too.
So go ahead and heap lots of layered meanings and Dan Brown “Da Vinci Code”-like hidden symbols onto John 21 if you like. But I’m quite content with the Jesus on the beach, tending a fire, sizzling some perch, and saying to his friends, “Have some breakfast.”
By the way: Some may read the first part of this commentary and so will want to assert that if that little breakfast on the beach seemed a little on the trite side as post-Easter narratives go, at least things get more serious once the restoration of Peter takes place.
And true enough, Jesus’ extending his forgiving grace to the disciple who had so fiercely denied Jesus so as to save his own skin is a vital part of this story. But I’d argue that it, too, is part of the larger commonplace nature of this narrative—even Peter’s restoration emerges not from an incredibly spectacular context but, as it were, around the breakfast table.
I suppose those are the kinds of everyday settings where some of our best Gospel work of being gracious and forgiving need to happen, too. In fact, although some folks like Serene Jones thinks it’s enough for the love of Jesus to have been resurrected in people’s hearts or some such, John makes it clear that Jesus was really alive again and if the power of his love did go forward in people like Peter tending all those lambs and feeding all those sheep, it was only because one ordinary day in Palestine they encountered the once-more-living Jesus in ways that changed them and then, through them, changed the whole world.
They did not merely remember Jesus’ love and decide to keep it alive. They met Jesus. Alive. And that changed everything.
Scholars (many of them at least) assure us there’s nothing there. Twice Jesus asks Peter “Do you agape me?” and twice Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I phile you.” Finally on Round 3 Jesus picks up Peter’s word of choice to inquire “Peter, do you phile me?” and we’re told that Peter was sad because on the third time Jesus asked “Do you phile me” but nevertheless Peter does reply a third time, affirming that yes, he does have phile for Jesus. Semantic fields of meaning, lexical studies of various kinds, and historical inquiries into other writings at the time goad scholars into telling us that agape and phile were sufficiently close to being synonyms at the time that we cannot make too much out of the alternation in this conversation.
And anyway, who knows what the original Aramaic of the conversation was. Maybe. But I still think John was too careful of a writer to not know full well the words he was wielding in his report of this conversation. The import of this exchange does not change a lot whether you make a big deal out of those words or not. But if Peter’s phile was his own admission that he was loving Jesus as best he could—even if it did not rise to the sacrificial and hyper-confident level of a word like agape—how comforting to see Jesus accept Peter as he is, warts and foibles and feet-of-clay and all, but still love him and forgive him and restore him.
The ordinary nature of this scene reminds you of so many other scenes in the Bible and of so many other times when people bumped into God in the least likely of places. Jacob is in a bad place and has to use a stone for a pillow but wakes up to discover that he had bedded down in Bethel, the very “house of God.” Moses is tending his sheep on a mountainside when a bush bursts into flame and the next thing he knew, he was standing barefoot in the presence of the great “I Am.” The spies dispatched by Joshua to scout out Jericho make visiting a brothel the first thing they do in Jericho and though they didn’t exactly go there looking for God, they end up hearing an inspired sermon delivered to them by no less likely a candidate to preach a sermon than the establishment’s chief madam, Rahab. The travelers on that first Easter Sunday left Jerusalem quite literally “to get away from it all” and to escape the sadness they had come to associate with the big city. They end up at Emmaus only to discover Jesus after all.
And in John 21, the disciples are on a beach. Even having seen the resurrected Jesus twice already, they seem at loose ends. They seem bored and restless, uncertain what to do. They go fishing for lack of a better idea and only after they get skunked despite an entire night of trolling the waters for their prey do they suddenly find Jesus.
On the beach.
Of all places.
It happens again and again in the Bible. And it happens to us more often than not, too, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
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