On the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary pitches me one of my favorite texts: John 21:1-19.
As is often the case, the choice of this particular text for this particular day of the Church year is mysterious.
Year C is, in general, focused on Luke’s Gospel, with occasional forays into John. Strangely, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter there is a text from Luke in both Year A and Year B — but not in Year C.
My best guess? Year C already gave us Luke’s very different “miraculous draught of fishes” on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany. That was the scene of Peter’s original calling. Now we hear John’s version of the miraculous catch, where Jesus renews Peter’s calling. It presents these scenes as bookends of Jesus’ earthly ministry and, more to the point, Peter’s calling.
There is a whole lot going on in this text, with great to chew on every step of the way. Overall it is in two sections:
- 21:1-14, The disciples go fishing
- 21:15-19, Jesus talks with Peter
The Disciples Go Fishing
There are many great moments in the story of the miraculous catch of fish. They all merit a slow and meditative exploration. I’ll only touch on a few.
First we see seven disciples, at least five of them Apostles, killing time by the seashore. Three of those mentioned used to fish for a living. Maybe their current lack of direction was leading them to think about the good old days.
The resurrection was exciting, but inscrutable. What did it really mean? The Christians would come to increasing levels of clarity about that in the weeks, years, and centuries to come, but it would always be mysterious.
The resurrection was also unpredictable. Sure, Jesus had appeared alive a couple of times, but would he come again? Would he stay and lead the mission? Were they supposed to get some direction from on high? Or should they try to just figure it out on their own?
Well, it appears they’d wandered all the way down to Peter’s old boat. You might think he would have sold it, or put it up in dry dock. But no. There it was, tied up by the shore where he’d left it three years ago.
Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’
They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’
They went out and got into the boat…” (John 21:3 NRSV)
When you are feeling washed up, abandoned, without direction, that’s what it’s like. You wander your way back to your old life — for good or ill.
They fish all night, and catch nothing. Nada. Zippo. Ix-nay on the ish-fay.
So much for the old life. Peter, James, and John must have assumed they could always go back to fishing. Now they couldn’t even do that.
Talk about depressing…
The moment I love most in this story is when John tells Peter that the guy shouting from the beach is Jesus.
Peter is the perfect picture of a guy pulled in multiple directions.
- Peter’s been working naked all night (no comment) so he throws his clothes on.
- But Jesus is waiting on the beach and Peter has to get to him, so he jumps in the water.
Maybe all of that was culturally appropriate, but I usually take off most of my clothes to go swimming.
All kinds of weighty stuff happened as soon as Jesus showed up.
First Jesus called from the shore — close enough to be heard but far enough away to be unrecognizable in the dim light of dawn — and told them to cast their nets one more time, but on the opposite side.
Memory flash for Peter, James, and John.
Hey, didn’t this happen before?
says John. James pipes in,
Yeah, back in Luke 5 I think. Wasn’t that when Jesus first called you to follow him?
That’s right. Man, we pulled in a lot of fish that day.
Nathaniel, in whom there is no guile says,
I know, right? And then you just left the whole catch on the beach.
They cast the nets while they chat. Then comes trouble:
Um, Peter? I think we have a problem.
The net’s so full we can’t pull it in,
Wow, deja vu all over again.
Then the text picks up the conversation:
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!'”(John 21:7 NRSV)
That’s when Peter jumped in and swam to shore, leaving his friends to fight the good fight with the fish.
Eventually Peter came back to help.
They were totally amazed. So many fish, but the old net held up after three years of disuse.
There were so many fish they had to count them. It’s like when you got a photo with the 10 pounder you pulled in when you were 12. John wanted to remembered the exact number: 153 large fish.
That number is so very specific. It totally feels symbolic. Many preacherly hours have been spent pondering what the significance might be of exactly 153 fish in the disciples’ net.
Augustine (as quoted in the second volume on John in the remarkable Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) had a heyday pondering the point.
It turns out 153 is a pretty amazing number.
Why do we care, O Augustine?
Because 17, the final number of that sequence, is 10+7!
But why do we care about that?
Because there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Spirit! (By ancient interpretation of Isaiah 11:2-3. No quibbling please.)
No that’s not it.
Actually though, Augustine has a whole lot more to say, based on the properties of 50 x 3 + 3.
Very symbolic stuff:
- 50: The Spirit came to empower mission on Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection.
- 3: The Trinity. Duh.
Numerology is often playful, sometimes inspiring, and rarely decisive.
The most interesting view I’ve found is from that venerable source St. Wikipedia. There, without noting a source, someone points our attention to 2 Chronicles 2:17-18.
When Solomon built God’s temple, 153 thousand gentiles were employed in the project. (Actually there were 153,600, but Jesus rounded it down.)
So maybe the number points us to the fact that the Apostles will soon, at Jesus’ direction, cast their nets among the gentiles — it’s all about the mission.
Three questions, one calling
The part of the passage I most love, though, is Jesus’ conversation with Peter.
- Three times Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him.
- Three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus.
- Three times Jesus reaffirms Peter’s calling to tend Jesus’ flock.
It is often taken as making up for Peter’s three denials the night of Jesus’ trial.
What I love, though, is hidden in English translations. The words for love make all the difference.
This passage uses two of them:
- “Philea,” which is the love found in friendship — “Philadelphia” as “City of Brotherly Love”
- “Agape,” which is the kind of unconditional love one has toward God and which God has for us.
Scholars will sometimes warn you not to belabor the differences between these words. You can find passages where they are pretty interchangeable.
John 21:15-17 is not one of those passages.
Here’s how the dialogue goes if you note the differences in the Greek vocabulary:
15 … Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love-me-as-you-should-love God more than these?”
He said to him,
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love-you-as-a-friend.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 A second time he said to him,
“Simon son of John, do you love-me-as-you-should-love God?”
He said to him,
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love-you-as-a-friend.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
17 He said to him the third time,
“Simon son of John, do you love-me-as-a-friend?”
Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time,
“Do you love-me-as-a-friend?”
And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything;
you know that I love-you-as-a-friend.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
So when you see the vocabulary used, you see that Jesus is bringing Peter to his knees in honesty.
- Peter you’ve been so boastful, but do you love me with the right kind of love, and more than everybody else?
- Fine, you don’t love more than others, but do you really have the right kind of love?
- Honestly, do you even love me as a friend? (I mean look at how you denied me!)
The lovely thing is that while Jesus is bringing Peter to rock bottom honesty, he’s constantly reaffirming Peter’s calling. Every single time, even when Peter is waffling and deceiving himself, Jesus is still calling him.
In the end, Jesus accepts exactly the kind of love Peter is able to honestly offer. It’s something to work with. Peter will grow. He’ll learn to love. Meanwhile he has a calling.
That’s true for you and me too.
- We may not love more than anybody else.
- We may bring the wrong kind of love to Jesus.
- We may have been pretty rotten friends to our Lord.
But Jesus accepts the love we are able to offer. He’ll work with us. And he will work through us.
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