Third Sunday after Easter: John 21:1-19
Bible scholars tell us that John Chapter 21 is an appendix, added either by the Evangelist or by one of his disciples. Jesus died, he was buried and he rose again and appeared to his disciples. The Resurrection is central to belief in Jesus, Son of God.
John 21:1-19 is another narrative of Jesus appearing to some of his closest friends after his Resurrection. This time it took place on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, a spot well-known to Jesus and his disciples, a place redolent with memories for them. This was another very early-morning appearance, when the world was just beginning to stir, but the story had its birth the night before, when Peter voiced his decision to go fishing. The other disciples present, volunteered to join him.
Some of these disciples were professional fishermen, this was their livelihood. A number of fishermen fish at night in order to get a sale for their catch early the next day. They were still terrified, but they depended on the darkness of night to screen them from the eyes of those who were perhaps lying in wait for close friends of Jesus. Their belief in the Resurrection was still rather weak, for they had not yet received the Spirit. After all, the Resurrection was just too good to be true. We, too, struggle with the whole idea of the possibility of a Resurrection, but we have to keep saying, I do believe, Lord, help my unbelief.
John tells us that although they fished all night, they caught not one fish. How very discouraging. They must have been so distressed and dejected at the waste of a night’s work with the resulting loss of earnings.
Then, just after daybreak, there was Jesus on the shore, but they were blind to his identity, he was a ‘stranger’ to them. Their worry and anxiety must have been compounded by the trauma they had experienced in the last few days. I think that their having seen the risen Jesus twice, and the empty tomb, did not completely dispel their guilt and fear. Just think, that when he called out to them, they were unable to recognize his voice – its distinctive quality and timbre- in spite of their three years of close companionship – what a mega-daze enveloped them!
What about us? What reason or excuse do we offer, when we fail to recognize the presence of Christ in ourselves in poor people, in women, in the voiceless, in those of a different religious tradition, in those with a different sexual orientation or in those of a different skin colour and hair texture, or creation?
When the ‘stranger’ spoke to them, he used the familiar term he had used in their days together, ‘children’ he said. The Jerusalem Bible uses the term ‘friends” – How beautiful and welcoming to be addressed as ‘friend’. He called out, had they any food (NKJV), had they caught anything to eat (New Amer. Bible). Had they any fish? (RSV). Have you caught anything, friends? (Jerusalem Bible). The question assured them that he was neither a ghost nor a figment of their imagination – he was a real physical being – a hungry ‘stranger’.
What amazed me in the narrative was the dexterity with which they obeyed the stranger when he suggested that they cast their net to starboard for they had caught nothing. They did not argue with the ‘stranger’ as they had done with Jesus on a previous occasion – ‘we have worked all night and have caught nothing’.
Perhaps puzzlement at the empty tomb and then his sudden appearances and disappearances had so bewildered the disciples that it played havoc with their senses and minds. Resurrection is so astonishing, so shocking, so beyond human ken and experience, so beyond our wildest of wild dreams, that we can sympathize with those poor, tired disciples in their confusion and weak faith.
Do not despair at your own unbelief, take courage, the disciples who had been so close to Jesus, had walked this road of weak faith before you. Faith is a gift; we have to ask for it.
When they had cast the net, Jesus did something with which they were familiar; he worked a miracle for them. The net was so filled with fish, that it was near breaking but did not break, they could not haul the net in.
It was at this point – a familiar happening – that John recognized the ‘stranger’ on the beach, to be Jesus. He was the first to believe in the Resurrection at the empty bomb and here again he was the first to recognize Jesus and to believe in the Resurrection.
He was so excited that he called out to Peter, ‘It is the Lord’. Peter on hearing that the ‘stranger’ was Jesus, grabbed his outer coat, jumped into the water and swam to shore. I find his action inexplicable. Why put on another garment which would impede swimming? Perhaps he did this out of deference to Jesus, maybe he was beside himself, and maybe he acted impetuously just. Do we also try to cover up when we approach the One who knows it all?
The other disciples, meanwhile, brought the boat to shore. To their amazement, they saw that there was already a fish-braai (barbecue) in progress, and there was bread. Where did these come from? It was a scene so full of love and peace. It was like a mother who had lovingly prepared something for her children, or like the loved one who had prepared something really nice for the beloved. The mother-image reminds one of Jesus admonishing Jerusalem in Luke 13:34 ‘How often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’.
Did all this generosity of the catch conjure up for the disciples the feeding of the five thousand and the changing of water into wine at Cana? – Gallons of wine! And helped them towards belief in the Resurrection?
We are often so unready, so unseeing and unrealizing of God’s perpetual unbounded generosity, especially when we allow life’s batterings to overwhelm us. We forget that there is no Easter, no Resurrection without the Crucifixion, and that for every Crucifixion there is an Easter, no matter how long we wait for it.
While they were enjoying their fish-breakfast with Jesus, all the memories of Jesus’ miracles of generosity and mercy must have come flooding in on them. His action in serving them had overtones of his action at the Last Supper. ‘He took bread and gave it to them and the same with the fish’. The fish in early Christian times was a strong Christian symbol. Jesus was trying to help their faith in his resurrection, grow stronger in them.
After the meal, Jesus tested Peter – put him on the spot by challenging his love for him, in the presence of the others. We are not sure whether Jesus meant (1) Did Peter love him more that he loved his fellow disciples or (2) Did Peter love him more than the other disciples loved Jesus or (3) Did Peter love him more that he loved his fishing. In any case each time Peter said yes, he did love Jesus, but when Jesus asked him for the third time, Peter was hurt and I’d say annoyed. Perhaps it was that the number ‘three’ brought back to Peter the fact that he had denied Jesus three times, and he really wanted to forget this. When Peter assured Jesus that he loved him, Jesus did not say spend more time in prayer or in the synagogue. No, Jesus was consistent – Love of God and love of neighbour – No, he commissioned Peter to feed his lambs and his sheep – Jesus’ lambs, Jesus’ sheep. He commissioned Peter to be Shepherd of his whole flock. He commissioned him to be a missionary pastor. He commissions each of us too to feed his lambs and his flock. This passage ends with Jesus preparing Peter for martyrdom and his final words to Peter and to all of us ‘follow me’. What a commission to fulfill.
Sr Martine Pillay OP