John 21:1-19 Sent Forth Susan J. Barnes
April 10, 2016 St. John’s, Minneapolis
1 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.”
Have you ever come to the end of a book or a film and been left wondering what happened next? Matthew and Luke don’t do that: they take Jesus’ life right through to the Ascension. The two other gospels stop short. Mark ends very abruptly at the empty tomb. John concludes firmly after Jesus’ appearance to Thomas with these words: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book…”
What happened next? Enter today’s text: an epilogue to John. It was written later, but soon enough that it’s included in the earliest accounts and manuscripts. We can get all snooty and dismissive about apocryphal material. But that would be a shame. This text is faithful to the spirit of the original. The author used a great story that hadn’t been included to tie up loose ends, to let the reader know how the disciples got launched for ministry. The result is beautiful and tender. It speaks movingly to me. I love it.
To recap, Peter and the others who were Galilean fishermen have gone home and returned to their trade. They don’t recognize the Risen Christ on the shore until he directs them to an abundant harvest of fish. Meanwhile, he prepares a breakfast of fish and bread for them. After they have eaten, he reaches out to Peter.
The miraculous catch of fish IS a great story–from Luke. There, you recall, the disciples are ashore after a fruitless night of fishing. Jesus gets into Simon Peter’s boat and directs him to go out again and cast the nets in a certain place. They catch so many fish that the nets begin to break and the boat to sink. Jesus tells Peter not to worry. Now he will be fishing for people.
In this version, Jesus is again calling the men to leave their home, and to leave their trade for another, greater life. The nets hold firm, but the huge catch isn’t needed. Jesus has already got fish on the fire when the disciples come ashore with their haul. The message, again: Not to worry. God will feed you. God will provide.
The disciples apparently needed this reassurance. But Peter needed much more. Peter needed forgiveness. That is the most important loose end in the whole Passion narrative for me. Peter had denied Jesus in the hour of his judgment and condemnation–not once, not twice, but three times. Then Jesus died. The Risen Christ had appeared and spoken to Mary Magdalene when she was alone. But all of the other appearances were to the disciples as a group. Only in this account does Peter get to speak personally with the one whom he had denied.
Can you imagine the guilt, the shame that Peter felt? The enormous burden that he was carrying?
Every one of us has fallen short. Every one here has let down someone we love or revere. I certainly have. We make mistakes–most often, like Peter did, out of fear. We not only betray one another, we betray ourselves, our own deep beliefs about who we are, how we want to live.
Having done that, we may lose heart, lose our sense of identity and purpose. We may shut down altogether, even fall into depression and withdraw from life. That could be why Peter returned to the Galilee, to fishing. Bereft, without direction, he fell back on what he knew best.
But God had other plans for Peter. Peter needed special care: to be reclaimed, revived, and sent back out to fulfill his destiny in mission.
“People make mistakes, fathers, mothers,” Sondheim’s lyric from Into the Woods. “Honor their mistakes, everybody makes, one another’s terrible mistakes…”
Everybody makes mistakes. Why is it so hard to admit mine or yours? To say “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”? Owning up to our failures is something we must teach our children. We have to model it for them–and for one another.
Hank MIllon did that for me. He was the Dean of the study center at the National Gallery of Art. When we met I was interviewing for a doctoral fellowship. There was a lot at stake. Hank contradicted my research in the interview. Panicked inside, I replied respectfully. Two days later, I got a hand-written note from him. It began, “As so often happens, I was wrong…”. I got the fellowship. Later I worked for Hank. Often he would say, “I was wrong.” Or “we were wrong”. I was in my thirties! He taught me the freedom of admitting when I messed up.
We don’t know how Peter felt about his denial. Had he faced the depth of his shame and remorse? Where could he begin to make amends? But Jesus reached out to him, with God’s forgiveness and healing.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “Do you LOVE me?” The Risen Christ would not let Peter go until he had affirmed his love and his loyalty thrice–once for each time he had denied Jesus.
Peter repented: he changed his heart and mind; he changed direction. Freed, reengaged, he followed Jesus’ call. He left those shores to tend the sheep of the early church–first back in Jerusalem, then in Rome, where he would follow Jesus in death, as well.
The Risen Christ made that transformation possible: patiently, firmly, lovingly creating and holding the space for repentance to occur. He set Peter back on course.
True repentance and forgiveness change things. If it’s a small matter, they can simply clear the air. If it’s more serious, they may clear the decks, create a new start–both for the one who has fallen short and the one who was wronged.
Forgiveness can bring about a resurrection in this life–as it did for Peter.
The Risen Christ calls us to repent and to forgive–to fess up for our own wrongdoings and to forgive others as God has forgiven us. Forgiveness is a process. It is complex. It may take years. Every situation is unique. There is no template, no cookie cutter.
One of my favorite things in the 9 o’clock liturgy is the absolution: “God forgives you. Forgive yourself. Forgive one another.” Forgive yourself. Accept God’s forgiveness, receive God’s unconditional love and grow into it. Let God’s love empower you to forgive other people. And to move on!
Like any other practice, seeking and granting forgiveness get easier–more natural–with time. How freeing it is to lay down the burdens of remorse and resentment!
We are like Peter: with unconditional love, God in Christ accepts us, forgives us, frees us and sends us forth. We are not called to remain in our safe little harbors but to take God’s love into the world.
Be assured: God’s love will greet us there. Many of us have had that experience on mission trips: to the Gulf Coast, to Haiti, to Guatemala. But we don’t have to go far away to share God’s love. We can do that right here.
Seek and we shall find. Last week, John Bellaimey noted the courage of the first apostles as evangelists–sharing the good news of God’s love when it was a capital offense!
Let us be more courageous about sharing gratitude for the feeling of God’s love and presence in our lives: at social events, at work–hey, maybe even at home! I don’t mean proselytizing, trying to convert. But when the moment is right, let us share our own beliefs (and doubts) being respectful of all faiths–and of none.
I’m pretty sure we won’t get beaten or imprisoned as the apostles did. We might feel a bit uncomfortable. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We might learn more about our own faith in the sharing. We might discover a deeper kinship with others, nurtured by the Holy Spirit. She’s just waiting for the chance!
You might also find someone who has been looking for a loving church community. If so, you know what to do. Invite them to St. John’s. Or bring them! All are welcome. God has work for us!