After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 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. 3 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.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 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. 7 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. 8 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.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 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. 12 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. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 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.” 16 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.” 17 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. 18 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
This chapter is almost certainly an addendum. The last verses of the last chapter seem to close the book—”Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe…” Then there is another whole chapter—most of which we have here. The disciples need to figure out what to do with themselves. What do you do after you’ve seen the risen Lord? As this narrative tells it, their first move was to return to what they knew. Peter says: “I am going fishing.” And the disciples simply replied: “We will go with you.” No matter how inspirational and transformative the last three years had been, they were returning to the familiar.
This a pattern of life that is familiar and ordinary. If you’ve ever been inspired by a speaker or a movement, you know that energy is difficult to sustain. We can be determined to be ecologically responsible, racially sensitive, and more mindful. We can cultivate fitness. We can be more meditative and live more gratefully but as often as not, we start to return to the routines we have known. Our motivation and our disciplines start to fade. Similarly, any of us who have experienced the loss of someone we love know the shock, then the eventual knowledge that there is a part of them that will always be with us and finally the return to ordinary life. We will not forget the death or the divorce. We will grieve. We will learn and we will remember. But we need to eat. We need to reestablish the routines of our lives. We return to what we know. The disciples experienced both inspiration and loss—and now they are fishing. They have returned to lives they knew before Jesus. I do not think of this as a value judgment upon the disciples’ faithfulness. I think of it as part of the ordinary struggle to balance and orient our lives.
Life is full of course corrections. When Jesus appears, he is mindful of their empty nets and redirects their efforts. What they were seeking was close at hand—as close as the other side of the boat. They just needed to reorient themselves. The story shifts from the frustration and fatigue of a fruitless night of fishing, to a story of needs met, abundance and welcome. It is reminiscent of Jesus’ promise—”I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” FYI We really don’t know if this association is one that John is implying or if it is a connection that we make apart from John’s intention. The same is true of those who connect this story with the disciples’ call in Luke in which they are told they will be “fishers of men”. (Both will preach but these conclusions may have more to do with our own interpretive lens than John’s point in telling the story.) That said, the faith claim that reliance upon God leads to life is unmistakable.
What I notice is the warmth of the story. Jesus is mindful of the disciples’ predicament. He speaks to them intimately, as a father to a child—“Children, you have no fish, have you?” Then he redirects their efforts and invites them to breakfast. On our own, we all too often spend large parts of our lives fishing on the wrong side of the boat. It is almost always helpful to have a loving outside perspective as a corrective to our own. Then, once again Jesus is present in the most ordinary of human activities—a shared meal. It is the ‘simple’ things that make all the difference. And, as is consistent with Jesus’ entire ministry, there is no coercion. The disciples could just as easily ignore Jesus’ suggestion. We have the same choices.
This brings us to Peter. Peter reminds me of my 7 year old grandson. Both are impetuous, intelligent, vying for attention, get out ahead of themselves and occasionally get into trouble—in which case, both will look you straight in the face and deny any involvement. My grandson was in virtual school at our home when there was a break in the class. His grandmother asked him if there were any assignments he was supposed to do during the break. He said no and off he went. He wanted to do what he wanted to do. After the break, when he logged back on, the teacher started asking the children about the assignment she had given. The same assignment that supposedly didn’t exist. Sometimes holding him accountable and loving him is a tough challenge.
I believe this is what happened with Peter. Peter repeatedly is trying to please his teacher. He wants to do the right thing. He wants to be noticed. When Jesus asks who do you say that I am, Peter is out front waving his hand saying: “I know, I know…You are the Messiah.” He gives the answer right but doesn’t know what he is talking about. At the transfiguration, Peter wants to commemorate the experience and build altars. He doesn’t grasp what is happening in the moment. At the last supper, Jesus tells the disciples they will be deserters. It is Peter who says No, even if I die with you I will not deny you. He makes promises he can’t keep. When in danger, his first move was to protect himself. We all seek to preserve and protect ourselves—especially when we feel threatened. It doesn’t get any more human than that.
Now on the beach, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” In fact he does it three times. He does not chastise Peter. Jesus does not hold Peter’s betrayal or his lying against him. Jesus redirects Peter to fish on the other side of the boat—-to a life for others—”feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” This is what it means to love the Lord. Jesus goes on to warn him that such service may well be dangerous. It will mean vulnerability and could well mean death—whether that means the radical dependency that old age often brings or the crucifixion that tradition suggests Peter endured. Jesus doesn’t ever say he believes Peter, Jesus simply says: “Follow me.” Ultimately actions speak louder than words. Jesus offers forgiveness and reconciliation. And he does so over breakfast. It is up to Peter to say yes. It is up to Peter to accept a life in which safety with God is a very different foundation than our scramble for security.
Jesus demonstrated to both the disciples and particularly to Peter that he wanted them to live grace filled lives where the direction of life was more important than the achievements and failings of life. Mindfulness, acceptance and love are what matter. Many things get in the way. Inspiration fades and we default to our own ways. The pain of vulnerability and loss sap our ability to engage others. And in Peter’s case, his own culpability could just as easily have led to defensiveness and continued denial. Peter knew he had failed. None of that deterred Jesus’ invitation. Jesus said, “follow me. You cannot claim to love me if you do not walk the path I have walked with you. Just as I am loving you now, you should seek to love others.” This kind of loving requires that we give up our need to prove ourselves, our need to be right and our self justifications. As human as all that is, we are fishing on the wrong side of the boat. We will have to turn toward God’s way. Walking the walk is our challenge and our call.
Unfortunately this gets messy in real life. It is an enormous challenge to give up our personal defenses. More often than not we will default to our old ways. And it is no easier when we try to deal with the social inequities of our world. We’ve spent the six weeks of Lent struggling with systemic racism. Hopefully we’ve been challenged and hopefully we’ve been inspired. Now the question that Jesus asks is: ”Will we walk the walk/” Will we return to our familiar places and familiar routines? Will we be overwhelmed and immobilized by the intractability of the problem? What will we do in the six months or six years after Easter? If we seek to follow him, We will have to resist the desire to label and limit each other. We will have to accept that our good intentions do not prevent us from doing harm. We will have to accept that others may not receive us and that others may distrust us. That path is difficult in our personal lives and it is difficult in our social lives. But it is possible. It often begins with the small acts of hospitality and kindness. It often begins with breakfast.
When we see how the risen Lord guided his ‘children’ and built a bridge to Peter, it is within us to acknowledge our own limitations and failing—and to accept that we are accepted. We call that faith.
Such grace creates in us our response ability (two words) and creates in us our responsibility to welcome, to tend and to feed. That is what it means to follow him. Let it be so.