The past few chapters of John have been pretty rough on Peter. In chapter 20, Peter is one of those who run to the tomb to see it empty, and then, presumably, he is present with the others when Jesus appears, though he is not the focus of either of these stories. I tend to picture Peter as off to the side, scratching his head in amazement and wonder.
The last time we focused our attention strictly on Peter, things were pretty bleak for him. In fact, the narrative focus on Peter as he three times denies knowing Christ in chapter 18 serves to contrast our story this morning. Not only does Jesus ask Peter three questions reflecting the three times he is asked about knowing Jesus, but the setting of the story, if not a direct parallel, is evocative of the courtyard where Peter denies knowing Jesus. The charcoal fire, while serving to warm those gathered in chapter 18, now serves to cook a meal of fish for Jesus and his disciples, a meal that is meant to draw our minds to the Eucharist.
So we left Peter in a pretty dismal place, and before chapter 21, he had not been redeemed. Without chapter 21, John’s readers would be left wondering what became of him, questioning if he was- or even could be– restored to the community.
Chapter 21 is an addition to John’s gospel, “almost certainly a later addition, written in the Johannine tradition, but not in the hand of John” (Hoch). In fact, if we look back at the last verses of chapter 20, it seems like John had really wrapped up his story and was ready to move on to new projects!
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Seems like a pretty concise ending, doesn’t it? So when John 21 begins, “After these things Jesus showed himself again…” we find ourselves a little jolted, pulled right back into the action, almost as if it is an afterward or postscript to wrap up a couple of loose details, most notably, Peter’s seemingly unfinished story.
Peter is one of my favorite characters in the gospels particularly because he is so complex. Here he is, called to follow Jesus, trying really hard to understand everything he is seeing and hearing, astonished at what he is shown, yet still so entrenched in old ways of thinking that it is difficult for him to fully embrace the Jesus vision. His spirit crushing denial is one of the hardest things in scripture to witness, at once devastating, tragic, and unbelievably sad. We find ourselves, as readers, willing Peter to find his courage and loudly proclaim his love and devotion to Jesus, only to quietly shiver with Peter, unable to be warmed by the heat of a charcoal fire.
And then Peter announces that he is going fishing.
I love fishing! From the time I could hold a pole, I’ve been an angler. Of course, I don’t pretend to be great; a few years ago on a fishing trip with my Dad, brother, and sister, I got out-fished by said little sister, and trust me, that’s really an ego check, especially when it was her first time on the water!
One of our families’ favorite movies is A River Runs Through It, about a Presbyterian minister and his sons and their love of fly-fishing. The movie has many great lines, one of which my family holds as gospel: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman” (Maclean).
Fishing, and fly-fishing in particular, is a calming and meditative experience. If you are able to get past the frustration, the tangled lines, the hooks in your fingers, and the inevitable unintentional dunk, you can find a time of peace and centeredness. For me, the repetitive action of casting, the flow of the stream around my legs, the quietness of an early morning all tie together into a familiarity with God.
Norman Maclean, who wrote the book A River Runs Through It, puts it perfectly: “As a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a damn mess. And that only by picking up God’s rhythms, were we able to regain power and beauty. To him, all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation come by Grace. And Grace comes by art. And art does not come easy.”
So I completely understand Peter’s desire to go fishing. He figured the fish would be biting, he needed to get away from everything, even if just for an afternoon. Further, Peter, like many of the other disciples, were fishermen by trade. It was the life they grew up with, and by exercising those old muscles again, maybe Peter figured he would be able to recapture a lost part of himself. Besides, a man’s gotta eat!
We can sometimes read this story as Jesus forgiving or absolving Peter of his denial. But “Peter needs no justification. He needs no forgiveness” (Lewis). If we read very closely, we realize that Peter was not denying who Jesus was. He never denies Jesus is the Messiah- of course he is never asked, but that is beside the point.
Karoline Lewis points out that “In John, [Peter’s] denial is not of Jesus but of his own identity, his own discipleship. The conversation between Jesus and Peter has nothing to do with a re-instatement of Peter, forgiveness of Peter, a ‘there, there, Peter’ but is John’s version of ‘take up your cross’ if you will. Peter needs another invitation, an invitation to participate in and make the abundance happen. Why? Because ‘come and see’ in John is to be the presence of Jesus when Jesus is gone… The promise for Peter, and for Paul [in Acts chapter 9], and for us? Grace beyond our imagination. Grace beyond our calculation. Grace even beyond our scriptural determination” (Lewis).
If in chapter 18 Peter finds himself denying relationship with Christ, here in chapter 21, Peter finds himself drawn back into that same relationship, through no action of his own. That is the amazing thing about grace: it leads to abundance beyond our comprehension. For Peter and the other disciples, that abundance is represented by one hundred fifty-three large fish.
For Peter, abundance is represented by Jesus’ charge to “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… [and] feed my sheep.”
This morning, we are asked: what is grace pointing us toward? When we recognize the risen Christ, our “lack is transformed to abundance… despair is moved to hope… abandonment is replaced with the restoration of relationship” (Lewis). Perhaps God’s grace is moving us toward a new understanding of how to be the church in the world; maybe it is a renewal of the call to lift up the least of these.
Whatever grace is pointing us to, it is Jesus standing on the shore, calling out to us, telling us where to cast our nets and when we listen, the haul will be enormous. Amen.
Hoch, Robert. “Commentary on John 21:1-19.” John 21:1-19 Commentary. Luther Seminary, 4 Apr. 2016. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.
Lewis, Karoline. “Resurrection Is Abundance.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 3 Apr. 2016. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.
Maclean, Norman. A River Runs through It, and Other Stories. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1976. Print.