‘Let’s fish’: Reflections on John 21

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By the time we reach John 21, we’ve read about how the risen Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, and how he showed up before the disciples (well, sans Thomas). John told of Jesus’ second appearance to the disciples; this time Thomas was around. These later two appearances happen as the disciples were hiding out behind locked doors in fear of Jewish leadership (Jn. 20:19).

John 20 reads like a conclusion to the gospel. John even offers his purpose in writing the whole book: “that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name (20:31).” In case anyone was wondering what John’s ulterior motive in writing the book was, he laid it out plainly. No guessing games needed here.

But, it’s not the end of the book. John has one more story to share. John 21 isn’t the start of a story about Peter. It is the end of John’s gospel. This is the last story of Jesus and the disciples that John chooses to tell. It’s the wrap-up. It’s the final point John makes before closing out his book.

John emphasizes that there are way more stories about Jesus than he told — more than enough to fill many a book. And yet, he chose this story to be the last. What is his point here?

I wonder if chapter 21 teaches us how we know we are living out our belief in Jesus as Messiah. How do people live in light of Jesus being Messiah? What does that mean for everyday life?

Let’s look deeper at the disciples in John 21.

Since Jesus’ appearance, the disciples have moved out from behind locked doors. Simon announces, “I’m going fishing.” And, like a herd of sheep, other disciples go with him. Why not?

Jesus is alive, but he kept disappearing. Jesus is resurrected, and they’ve received the Holy Spirit. But, there still seems to be a question: what are the disciples supposed to do with themselves now? What are they supposed to do with this faith they possess?

And let’s be honest: that’s a question for us as well.

What do we do with this belief that Jesus is Messiah? It’s not just about thinking right ideas.

Turning back toward the disciples, Peter’s response is, “Let’s fish.” And at face value, there’s nothing wrong with fishing. But, I have to wonder about the purpose of fishing. Returning to the paths they walked before Jesus? Back to life as it was, perhaps?

They fish all night, and they have nothing to show for it. Grinding work with nary a fish to reward the effort. They’re tired.

The sun pokes up on the horizon, and a man calls to them from the shore. The disciples don’t recognize him yet, and the stranger starts chatting. “How’s the fishing?”

Not good. Duh! Empty boat. The guy suggests they toss the net on the right side of the boat. Like they hadn’t tried that before?

But, the disciples take him up on the suggestion! They listen and heed the command. Over the side go the nets. Voila! The nets fill up with so many fish, making it nearly impossible to haul in the catch.

Reeling from the shock of so many fish, suddenly the disciple who Jesus loved recognized Jesus. He pointed out to Peter that the man was Jesus.

And Peter’s exuberant response kills me. I burst out laughing the first time I read John 21 on the lectionary website. There’s Peter, apparently fishing naked. The New Living Translation throws in explanation; the tunic came off for fishing work. The NRSV leaves no explanation or commentary here.

Immediately after hearing Jesus was on the shore, Peter threw on his tunic, jumped in the water and hightails it to land. All the while leaving the rest of the disciples to deal with the full fishnet and the boat. “Peace out, peeps.”

I can’t help but wonder if the others were thinking something like this. Thank you, eager beaver Peter. You rushed off to see Jesus and left us to clean up after you. You’re not the only one happy to see Jesus. You brought us out here fishing, then left us with the responsibility of the fish and the boat while you swam off to see Jesus. 

Everyone made it to shore, and Peter pitched in eventually as Jesus asked the disciples to bring over some of the fish. And thank you, John, for the detail of the disciples catching 153 fish. Not 150, but 153? Did we need to get another three reference in here?

Around a charcoal fire, Jesus fed the disciples breakfast.

Jesus, their triumphant and risen Lord, served them the bread and the fish.

Jesus nurtured the tired and hungry men. After they’d been uselessly spinning their wheels, Jesus was compassionate to them. He even helped them fill up their nets, so that the evening was not a waste.

Here John points out that this is the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after being raised from the dead (21:14).

And where was the last time we saw an emphasis on the number three? Back in chapter 18 as Peter tried to warm himself around a different charcoal fire while he denied knowing Jesus. Three times. Like Jesus predicted (Jn. 14:36-38).

With that aside, John shifts the focus from the group of disciples to Peter. This is the first time John notes a direct interaction with Peter and Jesus since Peter’s denial. The other Jesus encounters don’t feature Peter in any prominent dialogue.

Not once or twice, but three times, Jesus asked Peter variations of the same question: “Do you love me?”

And Peter responds with increasing hurt, “Yes, Lord. You know I love you.” Maybe as Jesus kept asking, Peter started wondering about whether Jesus had forgiven him for the denials. Maybe, even with all his exuberance about seeing Jesus, Peter still carried guilt about his failure. Maybe he felt his denials made him unqualified for what Jesus asked him to do.

Some folks will go into the Greek here because the word choices for love are interesting, but I’m not inclined to do that this time around. Google “phileo” and “agape” if you’re curious.

I’m choosing not to go there because that conversation shifts the focus away from Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer. Regardless of whether Peter’s feelings were love, like or part of a competition to see which disciple loves Jesus most, Jesus asked him to take care of his sheep.

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Fondness for Jesus means concern for the sheep whom Jesus loves. Jesus equates love for him with love for others.

If you love me Peter, if you care for me at all Peter, then tend my lambs. If you still think you love me more than others do, then take care of those whom I love.

Regardless of the unworthiness and inadequacies we might feel, if we love Jesus, if we really call him our Messiah, then we’re called to love others as Jesus does.

If there’s any competition about who’s the biggest Jesus freak out there, it’s won not by loud declarations to or about Jesus, but by the way we care for others.

And that sounds rosy and simple. Warm fuzzies. Love Jesus. Love people.

But, Jesus upped the ante. Love people as I have loved them. Even if this comes at great cost to yourself. Oh, even if you don’t like that part, follow me anyway (21:19-22).

There’s no promise of fortune or longevity or physical comfort. For Paul in Acts 9 and Peter in John 21, following Jesus will lead to eventual suffering.

But, still an invitation to imitate Jesus has been issued. To see his path of love and service as worth the eventual cost.

Back to the earlier question, what do we do with our lives in light of the resurrected Jesus?

We’re invited to love others as he did. To love not just those who love us — but loving those who frighten us, those who hate us, those who have nothing to offer us, those who don’t benefit our self-interest, those who have not a single kind word for us. To walk with those who are weary and wounded by the troubles of this life. To trust that love is stronger than fear and Jesus is stronger than death. And to accept that those actions may come with a hefty price tag.

Oh, Jesus. That’s a hard road if I’m honest.

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