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 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.
The 21st chapter 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 returned to the homes and livelihoods they used to know… Peter says “I am going fishing” and the others follow. Then, 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’ve caught to the meal.
This echoes an earlier story in John chapter 6, where Jesus feeds the 5,000. In that passage, which also takes place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (or the Sea of Tiberius, as the same lake is also known), Jesus blesses the bread and fish, and multiplies it abundantly. The disciples stumble through that whole story, resisting the plan every step of the way and not really believing what is happening until it can 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, don’t forget that in that same chapter of John, the disciples ventured out onto the Sea of Galilee that evening. When the waters became rough and stormy, Jesus walked out to them and when he got there, the boat immediately reached their destination, delivering them from their fear and doubt.
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, 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 that story unfolds, the disciples are entirely absent: Jesus is notified of the crisis, orders servants 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 this point the disciples had a good reason for being oblivious to what is 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.
But, there is progression across all three: In the first story, the Disciples are an anonymous presence among the wedding party guests, only briefly mentioned and – like everyone else –unaware of what Jesus is doing, let alone interested in finding out.
In the second story, Jesus and his disciples are at a large gathering on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; not attending a party this time, but instead at a gathering focused on the teaching and miracles of Jesus. The disciples are anonymous here, too: barely differentiated from the crowd around them. They are doubtful witnesses to what is going on; completely passive even once they see the miracle occur.
And then, in chapter 21, John places us on the edge of that water again, this time the disciples aren’t anonymous, and aren’t standing around looking silly, nor are they doubting and passive witnesses, even though their initial efforts are fruitless.
And here, they still have one last revelation to experience: they begin by shoving off into the water, in the dark, on a fishing expedition. They do it entirely in their own strength, and Christ is nowhere to be found. John is piling up all sorts of metaphors here: darkness is emblematic of the unknown. And in John we find that water, especially the Sea of Galilee, is repeatedly portrayed – as we saw in John 6, as an unpredictable and often threatening presence: a metaphor for the nature of God, or of the unknown; or of the future – or all three.
And this time, Peter and the others try to go back to what they once were. They fail. They are no longer cut out to be fishermen.
As we already discussed, that next morning, and still on that same shore, they see Jesus, but don’t yet recognize him. Jesus tells them where to fish, builds the fire, and helps them prepare and distribute the meal. As in the first two passages, a miraculous bounty is experienced; but this time – unlike before – Jesus doesn’t lift a finger to do anything with it or to distribute it. It is up to the disciples to recognize his hand at work, reap the harvest on their own, bring it ashore, and partake.
What changes is that they are no longer awkward bystanders, they doubt for the last time; and no longer stand by when the bounty appears. They now know they can’t go back to what they were before. They have learned to listen for the voice of their Lord, and see God’s hand at work in their lives.
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 all who work alongside them; and is shared with the one who loves them more than life itself. They are finally accepting the intense love Christ has for them, and are learning to share it and return it with equal intensity. And, they are learning that Christ’s Love is to be found in unexpected places.
And so, 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 in people’s lives and in the world around us.
And it is this aspect of our faith that is at the heart of our identity as a congregation – 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 providing food and drinks at our times of Fellowship following service, or perhaps serving meals to the poor. It could be a bit more involved, like Leading Worship some Sunday, or teaching a couple of times in Sunday School, or even (gasp) becoming a member of one of the teams that make such a difference here and elsewhere in the name of Christ and of this Congregation!
But, whatever it is, we begin by trying something we believe the Lord is calling us to do. If we try and fail – oh well, the disciples failed – repeatedly. Like them, we learn through our failures: learn how to listen more carefully, how to deal with adversity, and how to persevere. Failure is always a valuable lesson in and of itself.
This move into service, of becoming an active member of the Body of Christ, is one we must initiate. We must take advantage of the opportunities that arise, it is not done for us. We may be called, as the disciples were called by Jesus as he stood on that shore, but nothing at all will happen unless we respond to that call.
Once we find out what our 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 enable our fellow Christians and human beings to grow in theirs.
The passage ends with Jesus asking Peter three times whether he loves Him. Each time, Peter says he does. And each time, Jesus responds by demanding action: “feed my sheep!” he says. Faith in Action is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, April 10, 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)