Michael Barrett reveals new insights from the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on the Sea of Galilee.
From the Beach
John 21:1-19 May 5, 2019 by Michael Barrett
Jesus provided far more God revealing signs than are written in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in that act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it. John 20:30-31
The Past is Prologue
With these words, Kathy closed last Sunday’s scripture reading. And to many, its words seem a perfect place at which to close John’s Gospel. But this morning, as we listened as Tom read, we discover as the page is turned– yet another chapter! Further, this chapter, chapter 21 is not some sort of expected recap or restatement or simple synopsis; it is a completely new resurrection appearance narrative. Its words are important.
Moreover, this story takes place, not in the context of Jerusalem or its immediate environs. No, this story’s context is not a tomb or an upper room, or along a road to Emmaus; but occurs 80 miles north along the Galilee shore. Away from Jerusalem, there is a greater sense of the gospel going out into the real world.
This morning, John concludes his gospel by writing about the difficulty of recognizing Jesus, the difficulty of dealing with failure, and the difficulty of accepting forgiveness. For the disciples, this chapter may seem an appropriate epilogue to the recent past. To them, perhaps, a summary of what was. Yet with its themes about recognition, failure, and forgiveness, issues of continuing concern, for us it stands as prologue to the future. It is prophecy of what is to come. The Past is Prologue.
The Difficulty of Recognizing Jesus
After three years of incredible adventure and having just experienced the Garden of Gethsemane, sudden betrayal, brutal arrest, frightened denial, mocks trials, vicious mobs, a bloody execution, an empty tomb and multiple resurrection appearances, seven of the disciples return to Galilee.
Perhaps, they are simply exhausted, they desire to get on with their lives, to do something sensible, to make some money, and to take care of their families. In this spirit, Peter says, “I am going fishing,” and the other six immediately hop into the boat with him.
Together, they sail at dusk, because it is always easier to catch more fish at night than it is during daylight. Yet, as expert fishermen, as they are, as hard as they toil, as long as they struggle, and as far as they sail, in the darkness they catch nothing. Some of the best fishermen to sail the Sea of Galilee are a spectacular failure. Of course, they are also fishing without Jesus.
Then, suddenly, daybreak dawns – light begins to infuse our narrative. Jesus appears on the solid ground of the shoreline. The disciples are still at sea, 100 yards (the length of a football field) offshore. They have difficulty, just as did Mary Magdalene at the tomb or the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, in recognizing the resurrected Jesus. Jesus is somehow the same, but very different.
How would you or I recognize Jesus? He showed up in the lives of the disciples. He has or will show up in ours. John’s words caution us that Jesus may not be wearing the sometimes portrayed neatly pressed alabaster robe, accessorized with a flowing cranberry scarf, sporting a Sassoon styled perm with a perfectly clipped beard, and shod in Brunello Cucinelli suede sandals. What do we expect Jesus to look like? How do we watch out for Jesus? Where do we look for Jesus? Do we really try to look or listen or sense his possible presence?
Do we wonder why our preconceived notions of his expected appearance don’t seem to materialize? Is he likely closer than what we choose to see or hear or think? Is the problem in our perception and not in his presence?
The Difficulty of Handling Failure
Friends, you haven’t any fish have you? How does Jesus know that – he’s a 100 yards away standing at sea level? He cannot see down into the hold. In John’s Gospel, Jesus knows everything. But does Jesus criticize or upbraid or scold them, does he jeer, scoff, or tease them because of their failure. No!
Perhaps, failure to Jesus, to our Father, and to the Spirit does not carry the same shameful, harsh, emotional, physical, and psychological significance that we sometimes tend to inflict upon ourselves. How often is it easier to accept and deal with the failures of others, but never our own? How often do we say to ourselves, “For that, I can never forgive myself!”?
Failure, to Jesus, is expected. It serves as the start for correction rather than criticism. It is an important means of progress. Failure gives us the opportunity to assess both what we are doing that works as well as that which doesn’t. Experiencing failure opens the gateway to jettisoning the obsolete and to experimenting with something new. Dealing with it is how all improvement is made. How can we perfect something unless we deal with its flaws? God uses failure as a step to turn us in the right direction.
I’ll give you the story of a frequent failure – a real loser.
Once a man runs for the state legislature and loses.
Next, he opens a business, but partners up with a dishonest associate. After the enterprise fails miserably he spends the next 17 years paying off debts.
Meanwhile, he falls deeply in love with a beautiful woman, and they become engaged, then, she dies weeks before their wedding.
He runs for Congress and loses.
He applies to work for the U.S. Land Office and is turned down.
He runs for the US Senate and is defeated twice within two years.
He ends up marrying a woman who turns out to be certifiably insane.
His favorite son dies of typhoid at age 11.
He is ridiculed his entire life.
Finally, he dies of a gunshot wound to the head at age 56.
Maybe you too have heard of him. His name is Abraham Lincoln.
Jesus always used failure, as a moment to correct not condemn. Think of Peter—the Transformation/Tabernacle debacle, trying to walk on water, the overzealous proclamations, the resort to violence at Gethsemane, and finally those three denials.
Today instead of criticism, we hear only instruction — Throw your net on the right side of the boat . . . The disciples do and they are successful to the point of realizing a miraculous bounty. In this gospel, Jesus provides abundantly time and time again. At this point, Disciple John, of course, with his deep reservoir of belief, hope, and faith, sees the truth and recognizes Jesus. Disciple Peter, of course, quickly takes action, throws on some clothes, jumps in the water, and swims ashore. Always impulsive and a doer, Peter acts.
Which are you? Are you a John or a Peter? One might be reminded of Cervantes magnificent novel Don Quixote (that man of La Mancha), Alonso Quixano and his down-to-earth page Sancho Panza. One a dreamer and a believer. The other a doer and a builder. Jesus uses both.
Maybe you are more one or the other or perhaps you are some of both. But whichever you are, to God you are not a failure.
The Difficulty of Handing Forgiveness
Now the scene moves to the shore where a charcoal fire burns. Uh-oh, where have we last seen one of those – the courtyard of the High Priest? Somebody is in for it now! Guess who?
Jesus, ever the servant, has already prepared breakfast for his disciples. Bring me some of the fish you have caught. Peter, the doer, immediately jumps back into the sea and singlehandedly hauls the catch ashore, 153 of them, all large fish. But note, Jesus already has his own fish, brings his own bread, and makes his own fire. He does not need to depend or rely on others to accomplish his purpose. Jesus is the master, he is in charge, and he is the head. We are his hands and feet. We serve him. We bring the catch to him. We are here to help him out if we so choose.
And now John arrives at the most important part of this chapter. Jesus calls Peter aside. Imagine Peter’s real frame of mind — all his overzealous actions, his loud but empty proclamations and the shame of his betrayals. Does he doubt his fidelity, his capacity to serve Jesus, his ability to provide leadership and perhaps, even his capability to perform ministry?
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? No “you’re my Rock” or “now I’ll call you Peter” –Jesus calls him by the first name Jesus knew him. Jesus does not ask for an apology nor a confession nor does he berate, belittle, or belabor Peter for his failures. Jesus does seek to heal a broken relationship and he does this through a profession of love. Three times a profession of love.
What is “these” in “more than these?” Think about all the things at this beach scene and what they represent – not just these other disciples. The boats and nets, chosen careers, friends, family and meal fellowship, the warmth of the fire, the beauty of the dawn, the serenity of the waters, the safety of the shore – these are all things of this life. Do you love me more than the things of this life? How would we answer if Jesus asked you or me that same fundamental question?
Yes Lord you know I love you. Feed my lambs. And friends, in John’s Gospel there is always much more meaning beyond and behind what is said than appears on the surface. This is not just about tossing some alfalfa hay around.
Take care of the vulnerable of my flock. Take care of my lambs.
For every ten ewes, there will always be one or two orphan lambs. Bottle-feed them, cuddle them, and blanket them for warmth. Train them in how to drink water and transition them from a delicious diet of milk to a drier diet of hay. Talk to them, and listen to them, exercise and play with them. Form a sense of bonding with them. Otherwise, they will die.
We show our love for Jesus by caring for the unprotected among his flock.
Simon, son of John, do you love me? Simon is your love so reliable that I can entrust my sheep to you? Yes Lord, you know I love you. Take care of my sheep.
Take care of my lambs, as they grow older. Seek to recover them when they are lost. Protect and watch over them. Nurse them when they are ill. Assist them as they lamb and in other times of difficulty. Dose them with sheep dip to kill fleas and ticks. Shear them of their hot, heavy woolen coats before summer’s heat.
We show our love for Jesus by caring for all of his flock.
Simon, son of John, do you love me? How deeply sincere is your love? Pater hurt, Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you. Feed my sheep.
There is much more to shepherding than meeting physical needs. There is relationship building in finding abundant pastures together and in discovering peaceful waters together and in being herded along the right path together and in standing in the darkest hours and deepest valleys together, and in letting each other know that together we will never abandon one another and finally, in loving one other as Jesus loves each of us together.
We show our love for Jesus by continuing, ever continuing, to care for his flock in all the ways we think Jesus would – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Peter is now forgiven, but, not with Jesus mouthing just a simple “okay it’s alright,” nor a “don’t worry about it,” nor a “forget about it.” Forgiveness is by grace, but Jesus goes beyond forgiveness and offers an opportunity to express gratitude. That offer is made and is accepted. And Jesus, who knows all, tells Peter that yes, Peter may have dressed himself up as he liked and gone where he chose in his youth; but, when he is older he will be dressed in manacles, taken where he does not wish to go, and fastened to a cross. Peter accepts that offer. Peter will remain faithful to Jesus until the day he dies. He loves Jesus and his gratitude leads him into greater sacrifice and service.
FOLLOW ME! Emphatic and Universal. To Peter, to Us, and to all Creation.
So, my friends, if you or I ever feel in life that we have let God down so badly, so sinned, so gone wrong, that all is hopeless, let us remember the eyewitness account of John 21:
Jesus wants to find that love for him that he knows is still there.
Jesus wants to give us, again and again, the opportunity to express that love.
Jesus wants to heal all the hurt and shame and failure we feel.
Jesus wants to give us new work, meaningful work, holy work to do in his name.
Jesus will never ask more of you. Jesus will never ask less of you. But, what opportunities Jesus will offer you, are his alone to propose.
And further, my friends, if we ever feel like everything we do is a failure, when we feel lost in darkness, when we’re aching, cold, hungry and wet, when it seems no one cares, and when it seems we’ve let everybody down –let us pause and wait and watch for the dawn and look for a lone figure standing on a beach. Let us pay very careful attention to what he says, do whatever he tells us. Let us say that we love him even though he already knows it, and then rise up as we are able and follow him. Amen.
From the mountains to the valleys, from that beach to this table Jesus is with us.