The last chapter in the last of the four Gospels, the Gospel of John, is the final statement in the narratives of Jesus’ walk among us here on earth. And so, as such, we can imagine that it has much to tell as we voyage forth into the world, leaving behind the physical presence of Jesus, just as a child ventures forth from home, eagerly heading to school on their own for the first time.
John is unique among the four Gospels. It was written a few decades after the others and has a great deal of material not shared with the other three. And unlike the so-called Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, John is very much focused on the future of the community of believers.
John 21 focuses on our role as believers living and working in the world: Are we to be active or passive agents of the Body of Christ? How will Christ be present in us in this role? How will our own strength and faith be sustained as we do so?
The scene is set a short time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The disciples have returned home to Galilee.
In considering this passage, I am struck by how there is at first no mention of faith or of Jesus. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael and the others seem to have abandoned the ministry and all they learned. They’ve come home and returned to the livelihoods they used to know… Peter says “I am going fishing” and the others follow; and so, after a long and frustrating night, dawn breaks. They see a man standing on the beach, but don’t know who he is. He calls to them: “My Sons, you haven’t caught any fish, have you?” And they reply, “No.”
… How did he know?
This man tells them to throw their net out on the starboard side of the boat, and it is filled to overflowing with fish. Only then does Peter recognize who the man is, and they all rush to shore to find that Jesus has already lit a fire, and is cooking bread and fish for them. He then asks them to contribute some of the fish they’d caught to the meal.
This echoes the earlier passage in John chapter 6 where Jesus feeds the 5,000. In that passage, which also takes place on the shores of Galilee, Jesus blessed the bread and fish, and multiplied it abundantly. The disciples stumble through the whole story, resisting the plan every step of the way and not really believing what was happening until it could no longer be denied. They didn’t even help distribute the food, Jesus did. They just stood there and witnessed it all – I imagine with some very dumbfounded looks on their faces.
And even earlier, in the second chapter of John, we have another passage that foreshadows these two later narratives, the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana, the story of Jesus’ first miracle, where he came to a wedding with his disciples. It is the first time they are seen together as a group. As the story unfolds, the disciples are entirely absent: Jesus is notified of the crisis, orders the helpers to fill the stone pots and changes the water into wine entirely on his own – Given that the hosts had run out of wine, I’m guessing that by that point the disciples had a good reason for being oblivious to what was going on!
In all three stories, water is involved. In all three stories we see a time of communal meal or celebration, and in all three stories the disciples are present.
There is also an interesting progression here. In the first story, the Disciples are an anonymous presence among the wedding party guests, only briefly mentioned and – like the rest of them – probably unaware of what Jesus is doing, let alone interested in finding out.
In the second story, they are among a large crowd, all of whom are focused on the teaching and miracles of Jesus, but they barely stand out from the crowd, being doubtful witnesses to what is going on, and completely passive even once they see the miracle occur.
And in chapter 21, John places us on the edge of the water again, this time the disciples aren’t anonymous, and aren’t standing around looking silly, nor are they doubting and passive witnesses in a crowd seeking miracles and hope.
But they still have one last revelation to experience: they begin by shoving off into the dark on a fishing expedition. They do it entirely in their own strength, and Christ is nowhere to be found. They try to go back to what they once were, and fail. They are no longer cut out to be fishermen.
As we already discussed, in the morning, and still on that same shore, they see Jesus, but don’t yet recognize him. And, as in the first two passages, Jesus once again brings forth a miraculous bounty, but this time – unlike before – doesn’t lift a finger to do anything with it or to distribute it to others. It is up to the disciples to recognize his hand at work, claim the harvest, bring it ashore, and share it as the Lord asks them to do.
But what has changed is that they are no longer awkward bystanders, they no longer doubt; they no longer stand by when the bounty is set before others, and they’ve now learned they can’t go back to what they were before. They have learned to listen for the voice of their Lord: the challenge placed before them in this passage is not a matter of faith, but one of perception: of learning to perceive and acknowledge Jesus’ presence and Lordship in what they are doing, and of enacting what they are being called to do. They succeed, and the result is that they share the meal with him – the bounty is for them, and is shared with the one who loves them more than life itself. He whom they in turn are learning to love with equal intensity, and learning to find in unexpected places.
And so, I think, this passage is a lesson for us all. We aren’t called to be passive in our faith, but to be active, to look for Christ’s presence at all times, for it is always there. We are to employ our hands in the service of the Body of Christ, for it is then that we will enjoy the fullness of all he has set before us. Christianity is not just a faith of introspection and meditation, it is also a faith of service and action, of making a difference.
And it is this aspect of our faith that is close to the heart of the UCC’s Congregational tradition – the idea that we are a community of believers, all members of the Body of Christ, equal before the Lord, loving and supporting each other and ministering to each other, working together to further the Kingdom of God here on earth. We don’t believe that we are called to stand by and let God do all the work. We believe we are called to be more than passively faithful, we are called to action. We are called to serve the Body of Christ as the disciples did, so long ago.
In answering that call, we are not just ministering to the body of Christ, we are also ministering to ourselves. And so I invite you to do as the disciples did, consider serving the body of Christ in some way. It might be something simple, like occasionally ushering or serving coffee, or serving perhaps serving meals to the poor. It could be a bit more involved, like serving as Lay Leader some Sunday, teaching a couple of times in Sunday School, or even (gasp) sitting on a committee!
But, whatever it is, it should be something that we are confident the Lord is calling us to try. And this move into service is one we must initiate, we may be called, as the disciples were called by Jesus as he stood on the shore, but nothing will happen unless we respond.
Once you find out what your particular call is, I think you’ll agree with me that such calls are always a bit outside our comfort zone, forcing us to grow a bit. Just as in these passages, where the disciples are encouraged to grow in their ministry, one step at a time. The same is asked of us: we aren’t called to do that which we are already good at, or skilled in; but to try new things, to explore new stretches of the path we have been called to follow, and so to grow in our faith as we help our fellow Christians and human beings to grow in theirs.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).