Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/UNAMoUTpfK8.
Easter 3C 2016
Well, this is another one of the weeks with an embarrassment of riches in the passages. This morning I will only talk about the John passage because it is a deep and fascinating text, but I regret that the others will go unmentioned.
John is such a complex book and this ending has been suggested to be an addition, not part of the original. I think that it is part of the original text, or if an addition, it is a very skilful one, as it picks up themes from earlier in the book in order to talk about discipleship.
The whole narrative recalls the call of the disciples in chapter one of the book. Significant is the mention of Nathaniel, whom if you recall, Jesus describes as a true Israelite in that call story. This is the only other mention of Nathaniel and I am certain that he is mentioned to remind us of the very beginning of the gospel.
The place mentioned here is also significant as it is the Sea of Tiberius, also called the Sea of Galilee where all the early action takes place, and then Nathaniel is specifically mentioned as coming from Cana. Now, we have just heard the story of the wedding at Cana, with its superabundance of wine, in the context of a wedding celebrated here at SMiV, and now we have a story of a superabundance of fish, told in great detail. It seems that there are two themes here running parallel, that of God’s generosity and that of discipleship.
The disciples gather together. In purely human terms you can imagine that sense of not being sure what to do next- they were at a loose end. Peter, still the leader even after his fall from grace, suggests a fishing trip, back to their shared work life and they go out in the boat. They fish all night but catch nothing. It must have been frustrating, surely?
But just as the night is passing, and the light is breaking, Jesus stood on the beach. Now this is again significant, isn’t it? With the coming of the light the story is transformed. Jesus, it is clear in John’s gospel, is not always immediately recognizable in his post resurrection form. I think what this says to us is that we may need to use the light of discernment to see what is going on. Jesus calls out to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” What an interesting question. First, Jesus refers to them as children. In the upper room he tells them that he no longer calls them servants but now calls them friends. Here he is taking them back to infancy, perhaps to start again with them, or perhaps as a sign of love- I don’t really know. And the question about fish recalls another bit of narrative. Fascinatingly, it is not in the Gospel of John but is reported in Luke Chapter Five. The disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing and Jesus tells them to let down the nets again and they catch so many fish the boats almost sink. It is on that occasion that Jesus tells them that he will make them ‘fishers of men’. As is common in John’s gospel the placement of the story differs from the synoptics in order to make a slightly different point. Here, Jesus tells them to try the other side of the boat. They are looking in the wrong place. But when they do as Jesus has suggested they catch so many fish they have trouble hauling them in.
Now comes a really interesting detail for which I have not been able to find a reason- so if you have a theory please share it with me. The disciple that Jesus loved recognises Jesus and says, “It is the Lord!” And Peter, impetuous as always, who has been naked in the boat, puts ON his clothes and jumps into the sea. This makes no sense and I am sure it is significant but what it means alludes me! The other disciples, much more sensibly bring the boat in to shore dragging the net full of fish. When they get there, they find Jesus has made a fire and is going to feed them but he asks them for some of their fish. Now this has a number of resonances as well. The only other charcoal fire that is mentioned is the fire around which Peter denies Jesus, so that sets the scene for the next little bit reflecting Peter’s denial of Jesus. The other deeply significant thing is that in John’s Gospel, when the feeding of the five thousand is recorded it is Jesus himself that feeds the crowd, so here there is a change- we have Jesus feeding them with fish and bread, but now they are asked to participate. This points to the next phase of discipleship, when they will be asked, like Peter, to feed Jesus’ lambs. This meal in some ways, takes the place of the meal that they shared in the upper room, but it is breakfast at the start of something, instead of supper at the end. It does however, echo the institution narratives that you find in the synoptic gospels. He takes the bread and gives it to them and does the same it tells us with the fish. Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they recognized him in the breaking of the bread, just as it says in Luke 24.
Then comes the very moving part when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and Peter replies three times that he does. It is commonly read as being a threefold affirmation to match the threefold denial and I am sure that that is true. Particularly given the rare comment about Peter’s emotions, he feels hurt that Jesus keeps asking him, but Jesus obviously has a reason. The thing that we mustn’t miss is that Jesus is not just restoring Peter’s relationship with him, which he is, he is also calling him again to discipleship. There has been much made of the fact that Peter, specifically, is called to feed Jesus sheep and the Roman Catholics have taken this passage with another to prove that Peter is the first Pope. I think that it is a more general call than that. Peter is the one who spectacularly failed, but the others also deserted Jesus. This restitution is for them all, I think. The point is that if Jesus can freely forgive Peter, who hasn’t even asked for forgiveness, and in a way that enables him to affirm three times just as he denied three times, it gives the same message to the other disciples as well. Peter is called to feed the lambs, tend the sheep and feed the sheep, subtle differences, which again I am not fully understanding. The other subtle thing here that the commentators argue about is the fact that two different words for love are used, agape and philio, which we understand as God’s love and love of brother. Unfortunately the scholars cannot agree whether the words were interchangeable or significantly different so it seems dangerous to make a complex argument based on the usage. Jesus’ point is clear, however, if you love him, then your duty is to care for his people.
Then we have the strange bit about how Peter’s life will pan out, which suggests that he will suffer and die a death that also glorifies God, just as Jesus did. Perhaps the significance of this is that we will also suffer when we follow Jesus.
This passage, right at the end of the gospel reiterates the call to discipleship. Kindly, Jesus shows us that even the greatest of failures does not stop us from being part of his plan. He uses even the most fragile and broken of us in his purposes, and sometimes the weakest are called to the biggest things. There is also this teaching about abundance. God will fill our nets with such a weight of fish that we cannot pull them in, and yet our nets will not break. That being said, it may be that we need to throw them over the other side of the boat. God’s blessing is poured out, like the wine at Cana, like the 153 fish that are given for the breakfast meal in the kingdom.
After Easter, Jesus’ death and resurrection, the new light shines and we can begin anew to serve our God in discipleship, and we and others will be blessed abundantly in the outpouring of God’s love.