Easter 3: 10 April John 21:1-19
After what could easily serve as the ending to the gospel, and possibly once did, 20:30-31, John’s gospel begins afresh. It is as though there were stories that had to be told which had not been included. They are about the risen Jesus, but they are just as much and perhaps more about the leaders of the community.
The first story seems to be a variant of the miraculous catch of fish which accompanies Peter’s call in Luke 5. Here it is also about Peter’s call. One of the features of stories about the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection is that they nearly always end up with Jesus commissioning someone. Jesus appears for a purpose. The presence of Jesus is strongly linked with the sense of calling. Paul, too, found that the Christ appeared to him in order to set him on the path of apostleship (Gal 1:15-16). The sense of call merges with the sense of Christ’s presence - has anything changed, except that these stories are more dramatic?
The innocent miracle may be hiding much more below the surface. Might John have remembered Jesus’ words to Peter in Mark that he was to be a fisher of people? Harvests at sea or on land were symbolic of the promise of fruitful mission. Perhaps one day we will fathom the numerical symbolism of the fish - one fish for each interpretation, so far! The beach BBQ is not far from other meals in John’s community. Even if the elements do not match, hearers of John’s gospel would not have had to strain their imaginations to sense a connection with those meals which celebrated his risen presence in their time. That same community might have glowed with some pride that their beloved disciple was right there and had the wisdom to advise even Peter (21:7). Whoever he might have been in imagination or faintly real, the disciple whom Jesus loved represented them and their origins - indeed in some sense, they claimed, wrote their gospel (21:23-24).
Meeting the risen Jesus in the context of the meal meant facing fundamental questions. That, too, has not changed. But Peter’s story is larger than an account of calling. It is a recycling of denial into affirmation. Three times Peter had not loved Jesus more than all else (18:25-27). The potential leader became a figure of shame as the cock crowed. Jesus had brought Peter’s enthusiasm to follow him anywhere to ground with a prediction that he would surely follow him (unbeknown to Peter - to a cruel death), and before that fail him (13:36-38). Here the enthusiasm is back and again Peter is out of his depth. We might think of Matthew’s story of Peter’s failed attempt to follow Jesus on the water. John just has Peter back in deep water, confronted again with loyalty and love in a threesome with which the ancient world typically highlighted its key texts.
Resurrection celebrates the risenness of Jesus. The appearance to Peter celebrates divine grace. The world and the church (across its history) are littered with smashed lives and vessels ground beneath vengeful, judging feet. Thus far and no further: cross the line of shame and there is no way back; impossible, Hebrews tells us (6:4-6; 12:16-17); not to be prayed for, instructs 1 John 5:16. Not so the divine initiative at Easter. The veil of death is parted; through it a hand reaches out to a Peter, shamed and probably resigned to former routines. Wherever and however it happened, Peter was turned from death to life. The God who had not abandoned Christ in death would not abandon Peter in his. Against all odds and against the prevailing values which would later ascend to rule in much theology, God proposed love to Peter again. Almost irritated by the persistence of divine grace, Peter opens himself to life and leadership. Peter will feed the sheep. Peter will follow Jesus, as he had said. The makeshift swim suit of 21:8 has by 21:18 been replaced by the rags of death. Yes, he would follow, as once he declared he would and as Jesus challenges him to do in 21:19.
John’s community must know about Peter’s fate. Their hero, too, would die, though some had apparently expected the Lord’s return while he still lived (21:23). That needed correction. Peter doubtless represents the leadership of the established churches with which John’s communities had a close relationship but from whom they differed in a similar kind of way that their gospel differed from the others.
Peter is not disowned. Peter is legendary. His rehabilitation is a celebration of divine grace. He also symbolises leadership, the shepherd appointed by the true shepherd, to do as he did, to care for the sheep. There could be no arrogance here, no lofty superiority, no graceless dogmatism. Instead, a frail human person brought again to his feet, enriched with stories of Jesus, and brought to life and leadership by God’s generosity. Such is the image and the possibility.
Paul would remind us of more failings. James would need to move Peter sideways. Peter ends up looking very much like us and like us, kept needing grace and needing renewed encounters with the risen Lord. Grace needs its legends and this is one of the best with roots in history and root suckers which reach well into ours.
First Reading: Easter 3: 10 April
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
Epistle: Easter 3: 10 April Revelation 5:11-14