Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 1, 2022
John 21:1-19 Commentary
Perhaps like you, most of the times that I have preached this text I have honed in on Peter being re-rooted in Christ and commissioned for what will come in his life and ministry. So, this year I’m focusing on what happens to the group of disciples, Peter included.
It helps that our text today approaches similar themes in two different ways. In verses 15-19, Jesus has a one-on-one with Peter and commissions Peter for what’s to come. In verses 1-14, seven of the disciples represent the community of faith interacting with Jesus and their conversation can be seen similar to Peter’s one-on-one: a re-commissioning.
Since last we left the disciples, they have followed Jesus’ instructions (Matthew 28.10) and returned to Galilee to wait for him there. (The Sea of Tiberias is also called the Sea of Galilee.) They’ve gone home, and perhaps to keep busy and distract themselves in their waiting game, they’ve gone back to fishing.
Some biblical scholars frown upon putting too much emphasis on cross-text interpretation, but if you’ve been following the lectionary this year, I would not be surprised if you, like me, couldn’t help but think about the time when Jesus first called these men to be his disciples in Luke 5.1-11. Both stories have the men on unsuccessful fishing trips, being told by Jesus to put out their nets one more time; in both instances, an abundance of fish is hauled up. And, if you read all the way through to verse 19, both stories end with Jesus saying, “Follow me.” At the very least, this Resurrection Beach encounter is an echo of that earlier event.
I happen to think it was a purposeful act by Jesus the Christ to re-commission his apostles. Remember how our Easter Sunday text emphasized the lack of apostling by the apostles: by the very title, they were supposed to be the ones with the message of good news, but when the women came to give it to them, they did not believe or accept it. Then, in last week’s text, Jesus met them on two separate occasions in an upper room in Jerusalem, where he commissioned them with the Resurrection new life posture of peace and forgiveness.
Now, Jesus appears again, as he has done so many times, to re-orient the disciples’ understanding of what they are to be doing as God’s apostles. Like that first commissioning, when Jesus turned them into “fishers of people” through his abundance (see the commentary for Luke 5.1-11), Resurrected Jesus repeats and extends the call.
Jesus shows himself to be a God of abundance yet again, miraculously working to give his disciple-apostle-fishers a catch of fish that should have broken their nets—an abundance just like that time Jesus made them disciples and told them that they would be people who would share that abundance with others. In that earlier instance, they were overwhelmed with awe and wonder at this abundance; here it leads to the quick realization that it is their Lord who stands on shore.
Then, when the whole crew catches up to the very excited Peter, they are met with a meal that Jesus has prepared over the open fire. Though it is seemingly unnecessary, Jesus invites them to contribute some of their own catch to the meal.
In his commentary, Dale Bruner reminds us that “Jesus always communicates and accompanies his spiritual Word and work with some physical-social manifestation or expression of that Word and work.” Here we see the overflowing goodness of God expressed through the abundant catch; the servant heart of the Messiah in the prepared meal and invitation to eat of his abundance; the call to be apostles of that abundance by sharing the catch… These patterns were not just true for Jesus as the Word Incarnate, they are true for all of his followers as part of our new Resurrected life: our words and our work manifest spiritual truths in our physical and social realities.
The disciples’ response is quite telling to the mystery of it all (another hallmark of the way of the Resurrected God). They know it is Jesus, but they also feel this need to ask him who he is. Jesus is both someone they know, and someone who is so different that they cannot help but wonder about it all. (The verb for “knowing” in verse 12 is in the perfect tense, implying that they knew who Jesus was and that this knowledge had significant impact on pretty much everything else they know…)
I appreciate Herman Ridderbos’ interpretation of their “nervousness”: the disciples’ hesitance of “entering into the mystery of his presence” is one we continue to struggle with as well. It’s the sort of feeling we have when we realize (or come to know…) that what we’ve said “yes” to is much bigger and wilder and amazing and scary than we ever imagined. It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed by not only goodness and abundance, but the kind of power that destroys all of the things we fear. It is the feeling of being near a God is who is, to use C.S. Lewis’ description of Aslan, good but not “safe.”
What are we to do when God is revealed? If we look at the biblical narrative pattern, it usually leads us to a combination of faith and doubt/wondering. Notice in this account that, along with causing them to wonder about this man that they know as Lord, the revelation is for the purpose of re-rooting and expanding their original calling: the disciples will become the apostles and carry on Jesus’ ministry. They will be agents of God’s abundant gathering of his church, symbolized by the catch of fish in a net that will not break. God reveals his provision through the meal that waits for them as they come ashore; God reveals his purposes for them as he invites them to contribute their own fish as well as inviting them to eat and rest in what he has provided. God will tell Peter to “follow me” and, like they have always done, the others will follow right along… Even in the midst of their wondering, doubts, and overwhelmedness, they follow the path of faith, following the Resurrected new life and purpose that Jesus provides.
If you felt like last week’s lectionary passage felt like a good end, you’re not the only one. Most scholars believe that chapter 21 was an addition to the Gospel of John. What is interesting to me, however, is how the addition adds to the metanarrative that is the closing of John’s gospel. Along with similar epiphany moments (that Jesus is Lord), this a third encounter between Jesus and his disciples, and the second of which, at the very least, echoes their callings as apostles of Jesus. It’s as though, like Peter having to answer about his love and be told three times to care for Jesus’ sheep, that Jesus patiently and lovingly returns us to our vocational calling as his messengers over and over again.
The Greek word “revealed” is used twice in verse 1 and a third time in verse 14; each instance describes what Jesus was doing on the beach that morning: “showing” himself or “appearing” to the disciples. Of course, the “revelation of Jesus Christ” holds a bit more theological weight and meaning to it. What happens with revelations? Along with God being seen, God’s will and purpose is made manifest, and when we receive revelations from God, our lives are transformed as we are commissioned with the message of the revelation.
Maybe you know of someone like my Grandpa, who reminds me a lot of the disciples in this passage… My Grandpa worked his whole life as a mechanic. His favourite hobby, when/if he had free time (with eight children) was fishing. In fact, at his retirement party, his co-workers all chipped in and bought him a small aluminum boat with a motor propeller. Even though he spent a significant amount of time fishing, you know what else my Grandpa did after he retired? He kept being a mechanic. Like the disciples, he went back to doing the thing he knew to do.
I think that part of the issue is that my Grandpa had a hard time “doing nothing” while he waited to figure out what his retirement would be about. It seems to me that Peter and the other disciples, like my Grandpa, thought that it was better to do something productive while they waited for whatever was coming next.
Call it a coping mechanism, call it a distraction, call it a physical working out the recent roller coaster of experiences, call it needing a purpose to keep sane… whatever we call it, what is also true is that Christ comes and meets us there, that dawn will break and whatever the new thing is going to be, will be. Like the disciples who met and ate with Jesus on the beach, and who realized that they were still called to be part of God’s “fishing for people,” my Grandpa eventually diversified his fishing and mechanic hobbies to include Disaster Response work, campground hosting, and spending time with his grandkids. He passed away almost five years ago, but I still think regularly of the way he lived his faith through service; I am grateful he responded to God’s continuous re-commissionings throughout his life.
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