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John 21.1-19
3rd Sunday of Easter - Year C

Other texts:


A major issue that commentaries address with this chapter is its origins. It is generally thought that this chapter is an addition to the Gospel of John. Brown (John, The Anchor Bible) devotes 65 pages to chapter 21. I will try to be shorter than that.

An approach I've taken in sermons is to see this chapter as an epilogue to the gospel. An epilogue is added to complete some lines or thoughts left unfinished in the main story. (Whether or not the epilogue was added by "John" or a later writer can be left for the scholars to debate.) In this sense, chapter 21 answers the question: "After one has confessed before the resurrected Jesus, 'My Lord and my God,' then what?"

The answer given in our text is that we are to be fishermen (vv. 1-14) and we are to be shepherds (vv. 15-19). The first image refers to the church's evangelical mission to reach out to all people. The second refers to the growth and nurture within the Christian community.

Our text has a number of connections with other scripture passages:

In Luke 5:1-11, there is an account of a miraculous catch of fish in the conjunction with the calling of Peter, James, and John. Jesus tells Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

In Luke 24:1-11, the risen Jesus appears to two men and they are unable to recognize him until he breaks bread with them. Even though, in John, the disciples had seen the risen Jesus twice before, they do not seem to fully recognize him in our text until he invites them to eat with him.

In John 6:1-15, Jesus feeds five thousand people with some bread and fish. That word for fish (opsarion) occurs only five times in the Bible: John 6:9 & 11; and John 21:9, 10, & 13. Also, the word "Tiberias" only occurs in these two stories in the Bible (6:1, 23; 21:1).

I will look at each of the scenes in our text and offer a few comments.

THE FISHING SCENE PART 1: THE DISCIPLES' FUTILE FISHING (vv. 1-3)

The reference to the "Sea of Tiberias" connects these events to those of the feeding of the 5000 (6:1, 23). As I noted above, these are the only two places in the Bible where this word occurs. It is both the name of a city in Galilee and of the Sea of Tiberias = Sea of Galilee on which the city lies.

Craig Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) writes about these two events:

Jesus, the host, is the primary actor, and the similarity of his actions on these two occasions shows that he continues to provide for people after the resurrection just as he did before his passion. If other portions of the Gospel speak of the way Jesus' relationship to the disciples changed after Easter from physical presence to the abiding presence of the Spirit, the appearance beside the sea stresses the continuity in the relationship. [p. 119]

Matthew (28:7, 10, 16) and Mark (16:7) indicate that the risen Jesus would appear to the disciples in Galilee.

Although John uses "the twelve" (6:67, 70, 71; 20:24), he only refers to seven disciples in our text. One of the "other disciples" is, presumably, "the disciple whom Jesus loved".

Why has Simon Peter gone back to his old job of fishing? If he had seen the risen Jesus twice before, if he had received the commission "as the Father has sent me, so I send you" (20:21), what's he doing back in the boat?

The verb for "to fish" (halieuo) is found only here in the NT. The related noun (halieus) is used of the fishermen and their commission to be "fishing" for people (Mt 4:18, 19; Mk 1:16, 17; cf. Lk 5:2).

An intriguing verb is used at the end of v. 3 and in v. 10: piazo. Most literally this word means "to seize." Every other time it is used in John, it refers to the "arrest" of Jesus (7:30, 32, 44; 8:20; 10:39; 11:57). (It is not used in the other gospels and occurs only four other times in the NT.)

THE FISHING SCENE PART 2: THE DISCIPLES' MIRACULOUS CATCH (vv. 4-8)

In v. 6 when Jesus (unknown to the disciples) tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, he says, "You will find" (heurisko). This word was used at the beginning of John. Andrew finds Peter (1:41). Jesus finds Philip (1:43). Philip finds Nathanael (1:45). Is there an intended connection between the "finding" of the first disciples and "finding" fish?

Also in v. 6 is the word helko is used. Previously in John this referred to the Father drawing people to Jesus (6:44) and Jesus drawing all people to himself (12:32). Now, after the resurrection, it is the disciples who are responsible for doing the drawing or hauling (21:6, 11). However, when the disciples seek to haul in fish on their own, they catch nothing. When they act in response to Jesus' command, their catch is almost more than they can handle.

Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) writes about Jesus' "drawing" through his disciples:

The risen Jesus remains the source of the action. Without Jesus the disciples were no more able to catch fish than people can produce faith in themselves or anyone else. But in response to Jesus' directives, the disciples were able to bring an enormous catch of fish to Jesus, anticipating that through them Jesus would make good his word to draw people to himself. [p. 119]

In a footnote, Koester writes: "Okure has rightly stressed that from a Johannine perspective, the missionary is Jesus; the disciples are the means through which he carries out his work (The Johannine Approach to Mission, 219-26)."

I found various ways of understanding Peter's "nakedness" and the putting on of clothes. It doesn't seem to make much sense to put on clothing if one is going to jump in a lake. Extra clothing would impede the swimming.

Brown (John, The Anchor Bible) suggests a more logical picture of Peter being clad only in his fisherman's smock (ependytes) -- without the normal undergarments -- thus being "poorly dressed" rather than "naked" -- both are meanings of gymnos, Peter "tucks it into" his cincture (a more literal meaning diazonnymi than "put on"), so that he can swim more easily and dives into the water. [p. 1072]

THE MEAL SCENE: THE DISCIPLES BACK ON LAND (vv. 9-13)

Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) introduces these final verses:

The second part of the passage discloses the character of the mission of Jesus by dealing with the respective roles of the two disciples who were specially mentioned in the miracle story: Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Peter's leadership role was clear in the first part of the passage. He was the one who decided to go fishing and who brought the net to shore, which suggests that he would play a leading role in Jesus' missionary work. The story of the great catch also showed that Peter's role cannot be understood apart from that of Jesus. Given only Peter's initiative, the work of the disciples proved fruitless; the fish were caught and brought to shore in response to Jesus' directives. When the imagery shifts to shepherding in the latter part of the chapter, Peter's leadership position is reaffirmed. He was commissioned to tend the flock, but as its keeper rather than its owner. Jesus told him to feed "my lambs" and to tend "my sheep." [pp. 120-121]

I think that this image presents the struggle for our congregations -- acting on our own initiatives or responding to Jesus' word. The actions of fishing throughout the night and throwing out the nets early in the morning at the stranger's command from the shore, were very similar. When is bringing people into the church our own work and when is it fulfilling Jesus' command? How do we know the difference?

Another point I've suggested from this text is that the 153 large fish didn't just jump into the boat or swim to the shore. The miraculous catch of fish took a lot of work by the disciples -- and it seems that it required a "group effort" to haul the great catch into the boat and then onto the shore. No one disciple could have done it alone. As congregations, we can't expect to just advertise in the yellow pages and local papers, open our doors tell God, "Fill it up." The miraculous catch took a lot of work from a lot of people.

I think that Augustine summed it up best when he declared that the number 153 is a great mystery. There are numerous possible interpretations presented in commentaries. It may be that 153 was the actually number of fish that were caught. Symbolically, I think that it refers to the universality of our Christian mission. God's wants all people, all nations in the Church.

Even with all these large fish, "the net is not torn" (schizo). This verb is also used of soldiers not tearing Jesus' robe (19:24). The related noun, schisma, is always used in John to refer to divisions among the people (7:43; 9:16; 10:19). Can the Church be composed of 153 different types of people and not break into divisions? What about 153 different views on issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, biblical interpretation, etc., and not break into factions? Are there any requirements for being "in the net" and being "out of the net"?

This image also presents a dilemma for me. On one hand, I know that God desires inclusivity in the Church. On the other hand, I also know that congregations who try to reach everybody, usually reach no one. It seems to me, from fishermen I have known, that to be successful at fishing means deciding on what kind of fish they want to catch and then picking their bait or lure accordingly. In addition, they bring the proper rod and reel for their intended "victims". They know what temperature their type of fish likes in the lake and set the depth of their bait at that level. The more details and characteristics about the fish the fishermen want to catch, the better they can plan to catch that particular fish -- and the more likely they are to catch it.

Does this analogy apply to "catching" people? If we concentrate on catching only one or two types of "fish", are we really responding to Jesus' call to haul in all 153 types that he provides? Does the image of using "bait and lure" to attract fish (or people) to a capturing hook distort the image in this text where the fish are hauled ashore in a net? There is no bait. There is no choice to bite or not to bite by the fish. They are captured, in essence, against their will! And then hauled to their deaths! Is that what evangelism is like? Could this relate to the different views I mentioned above? Whatever one's view, being captured by Jesus' net means death to that view.

This text also raises the issue of "if it works, does it come from God?" In the miracle, the work of fishing that didn't come from God brought in nothing. However, I don't want to make "success" or "numbers" the only criteria of being faithful to Jesus' call. Effective and efficient do not necessarily equate to faithfulness, but neither does floating aimlessly in the boat waiting for the fish to jump in.

PARENTHETICAL OBSERVATION (vv. 14)

In John, Jesus appeared to Mary at the tomb, the disciples without Thomas in the locked room, the disciples with Thomas in the locked room, and here at the shore. This is the fourth appearance of Jesus after rising from death. It is likely that the appearance to Mary is omitted in the counting scheme. Perhaps she wasn't considered a "disciple."

THREE QUESTIONS TO PETER (vv. 15-17)

The first question poses a question: Who or what are the "these" that Peter is to love Jesus more than?

Three possibilities -- all, I think, are preachable:

  1. Love me more than these things -- his boats, nets, occupation

  2. Love me more than you love these other people.

  3. Love me more than these others love me.

As it is, Peter ignores the comparative when he answers Jesus.

It is to be noted that two different words are used for "love" in Jesus' questions and Peter's answers.

Jesus: agapas me ("Do you love me?")
    Peter: philo se ("I love you.")
Jesus: agapas me ("Do you love me?")
    Peter: philo se ("I love you.")
Jesus: phileis me ("Do you love me?")
    Peter: philo se ("I love you.")

While there can be differences in meanings of these two words, they can also be synonymous. O'Day (John, The New Interpreters Bible) indicates how these words are used as synonyms throughout the gospel with no difference in meaning.

For example, both verbs are used to speak of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (agapao, 13:23; phileo, 20:2); God's love of Jesus (agapao, 10:17; phileo, 5:20); God's love for the disciples (agapao, 14:23; phileo, 16:27); and the disciples' love of Jesus (agapao, 14:23; phileo, 16:27). There is no reason, therefore, to ascribe gradations of meaning to their usage here (as the NIV does). The Evangelist's propensity for synonyms is also evident in the variation "lambs" / "sheep" and "feed" / "tend." [p. 860]

In addition, Brown notes that Peter answers the first two questions with an unequivocal "Yes" -- or nai which can be translated, "Yes, indeed" or "Most certainly." I would expect that if a great difference in meaning was intended between agapao and phileo, Peter's answers would have been, "No, but I am your friend."

The thrice repeated question and answer is commonly interpreted as symbolically undoing the thrice repeated denial of Jesus. One interpretation of Peter's "hurt" after the third question, is that it reminded him of his three denials.

These questions and answers also dissolve any distinctions between loving Jesus and serving others. For Peter, loving Jesus means caring for Jesus' sheep.

An issue that faces pastors is how to divide our time between being shepherds -- tending and feeding the flock Jesus (and the Church) has placed under our care; and being fishermen -- "catching" and "hauling" in all types of "fish" at Jesus' command. If Peter is our example, he was not directly involved with the original catch of fish from the boat. He was busy swimming to Jesus. However, he does participate in hauling the fish to the shore.

INDICATION OF PETER'S DEATH (vv. 18-19)

A number of direct opposites are found in v. 18:

There may be allusions to a crucifixion -- stretch out hands and being fastened. In general, this verse contrasts the freedom of Peter's youth with the captivity that makes his old age and death.

I wonder as I write that whether that is also a distinction between young (mission) churches and old (established) churches. Does becoming old and established also bring with it captivity? Captivity to traditions? Captivity to past successes? In contrast, mission congregations are focused on their future -- what they will become.

Jesus said in 10:11: "I am the good shepherd [poimen]. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."

Although Jesus never refers to Peter as a shepherd [poimen], he does tell him "to shepherd" [poimaino] his sheep." Like the "good shepherd" of ch. 10, Jesus indicates that Peter will die.

In the upper room, Jesus had this conversation with Peter:

Simon Peter said to [Jesus], "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward. Peter said to him, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times. [13:36-38 NRSV]

Jesus tells Peter at the end of our text, "Follow me." (All of the "follows" are akoloutheo in Greek.) What Jesus tells Peter he cannot do earlier, he now tells him to do. Following Jesus -- for Peter -- means death. Peter's response, "Yes, I love you," involves the commitment of his entire life.

CONCLUDING QUOTES

I like this quote by O'Day (John, New Interpreters Bible). Her comments extend beyond our text where she compares the fates ahead for Peter and for the beloved disciple. One's faithfulness to Jesus will result in martyrdom; the other's will not.

One the one hand, it is very easy in the contemporary North American church to soften Jesus' call to lay down one's life in love, to see it as a figure of speech or an ideal far removed from the day-to-day realities of struggles of the life of faith. But the history of the church is full of people who knew that Jesus' words were real, who answered the call to love Jesus and one another fully with their lives. Nor is such love a relic of the church's past. Love that knows no limits, including the limit of one's own life, also shapes the discipleship of the contemporary church. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Oscar Romero are the most obvious and well-known examples of love that knew no limits, but when one pays careful attention, one regularly notices stories of Christians disciples who gave their lives in love: nuns and priests who have stayed at their ministries in Central America and war-torn Eastern Europe, knowing that it will cost their lives; doctors and nurses in hospitals and health-care facilities in impoverished and embattled countries around the world who will not leave those for whom they care; martyrs of religious persecution across the globe. It is crucial that contemporary Christians remember this form of discipleship.

On the other hand, it is easy to minimize all forms of discipleship that do not involve laying down one's life. What, one is tempted to think, is the significance of my struggle to live the love of Jesus in my small ways when compared to those who lay their lives on the line daily? What is the worth of my witness when weighed against the witness of someone's death? The words about the beloved disciple in vv. 20-24 insist that his love for Jesus not to be devalued because his witness took the form of reporting traditions about Jesus and not martyrdom.

Perhaps the story of John 21:1-14 provides the key to working through this ecclesial dilemma. The stories of John 21 begin, not with Peter's call to martyrdom or the praise of the beloved disciple's witness, but with a story of Jesus' gracious gifts. Jesus gave gifts to all of the disciples in the boat: Peter, the martyr; the beloved disciple, the witness; Thomas and Nathanael, who wanted to see to believe (1:47-50; 20:24-29); to the sons of Zebedee and the unnamed disciples, about whom the Gospel records nothing except that they are disciples. For all of these people, whose discipleship would take varied forms, Jesus provided a miraculous catch of fish and hosted breakfast on the beach. Those who will give up their lives in love, those who struggle daily in what may seem the smallest places to bear witness to Jesus' love -- all receive Jesus' gifts. The discipleship of the believing community, John 21 suggests, begins with the affirmation and celebration of the gifts of God in Jesus; the embodiment of that graciousness in the life of faith provides the measure of faithful discipleship. [p. 865]

Finally, this quote from Mark Allan Powell in Loving Jesus asks a question similar to our text and presents a very concrete example of giving up part of our lives for Jesus.

I remember being at an outdoor rock festival, and there was a young man with pink hair and multiple body piercing waving his hands above his head and singing of his love for Jesus. I talked to him afterward. "I love Jesus so much," he said to me. "Jesus is my life, man, my whole life!" I asked him what church he was from, and he looked at me, puzzled. "No, man, I don't really do church, you know. It's Jesus, that's what it's about. Just Jesus."

... A professor by the name of Diane Jacobson ... [lists], in David Letterman fashion, the Top Ten reasons why Christianity as opposed to just Jesus is unattractive to people in their teens and twenties. The Number One reason, she says, is ... "It's boring!" But why is that an issue now? I'm not sure that church has suddenly become significantly more boring than it used to be. I suspect, rather, that in an entertainment-saturated environment, for something to be boring is regarded as a much more serious offense than was once the case. ...

I remember talking to another Christian rock fan down in Austin, Texas. He was a Jesus freak, just like I used to be and still want to be, and I envied him. He was just living in the joy of the Lord, reading his Bible every day and praying to Jesus and speaking in tongues and playing Christian rock on his stereo. When I asked him abut church, he didn't write it off, but he did say that he hadn't been able to find a congregation where he felt like he fit in. "The church where I'm a member," he said, "it's like something out of an old back-and-white TV show. You know, Ozzie and Harriett or Leave It To Beaver. Everybody dresses up in suits, and they play this music that doesn't sound like anything on the radio and the preacher talks about things that have nothing to do with my life, and, I don't know, it's just ... boring!" So, he said, he didn't go. I asked him about finding a different church, but he didn't know about denominations and didn't really want to get into all the different doctrines and stuff, so he just didn't go anywhere. "Maybe when I'm older, I'll get more out of it," he said. "Or maybe the church will, you know, lighten up or something."

Well, this time, I did give advice. I don't know if it was good advice or not, but I thought about it overnight and then I got back to him:

"Do you love Jesus?" I asked.

"Yes, I do. I love him with all my heart."

"Would you die for him?"

"Yes, I would."

"You would die for him, but you won't be bored for him?"

And so I said, this is what I think the Lord wants you to do: I think that Jesus wants you to get out of bed every Sunday morning and go to the Ozzie and Harriet church and just sit there for one hour, being bored. Do it for him. Call it "bearing your cross" if you like. Just do it. (pp. 128-130)


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com