For freedom, Christ has set us free

Easter 3C19
Gospel Commentary
for smart phones and tablets

5 May 2019


Gospel
John 21:1   After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 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, but that night they caught nothing.

John 21:4   Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

John 21:9   When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

John 21:15   When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Initial observations
There are two scenes here, with the first scene laying ground for the second one. For the ordinary reader, these stories come as a surprise after the apparent conclusion in John 20:30-31. Why the addition? It seems to have been written after the “death” of the major figure of this Gospel:

Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:22–23)

Until that moment, this Johannine community seems to have got along without a leadership structure and without a link to the “great” church, symbolised by Peter. The whole text functions as a kind of accord, whereby the Johannine community comes to recognise the role of Peter, through a reminder of his fundamental call and through his three-fold rehabilitation, significantly around a charcoal fire. Resurrection appearance narratives are highly symbolic in nature, usually reflecting critical issues at the time of writing.

Kind of writing
These scenes belong to a familiar pattern found in the resurrection appearance narratives in Matthew, Luke and John: the initiative of Jesus, non-recognition, recognition and then mission.

However, the first story closely resembles an expanded call story in Luke 5 (see next section).

Old Testament background

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. ... I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. (Ezek 34:15–16, 23–24)

New Testament foreground

(i) This text has some kind of link with a similar passage found in Luke 5:1-11, an expanded call story in that context.

(ii) There is also some kind of link with the establishment of the authority of Peter in the New Testament. Matthew alone has this passage, after the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi: And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matt 16:16–20)

(iii) “To draw” has a special usage in John’s Gospel: No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. (John 6:44) And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)

St Paul
While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:10–14)

Brief commentary

Verse 1 In the New Testament, this Gospel is the only one to use the name Tiberias for the Sea of Galilee, so we are still within the Johannine tradition. The other links are also to do with the sea and with an epiphany (cf. John 6:1, 23).
Verse 2 The list of names is highly unusual, because it expands the usual trio (Peter, James and John) to include characters with a noted role in this Gospel (Thomas and Nathanael, recalling the end and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry), as well as two unnamed figures.
Verse 3 This is a strange proposal, representing what? Hardly a desire to go back to his ordinary life. Rather, it is essential for the setting up of the story. “Night” is always special in John: the time of evil, the time of separation: “Night is coming when no one can work.” (John 9:4) Perhaps it represents the disorientation of the Johannine community after the death of the Beloved Disciple, as well as the need to rediscover the fundamentals of the call of Jesus, as they faced a new beginning.
Verse 4 Lack of recognition is part of these stories. Suddenly it is morning; on account of Jesus’ presence, night is over.
Verse 5 “Children” is the special address of the Johannine community to its members (see 1 John 2:14, 18, for the diminutive—little children—as here in John 21).
Verse 6 This is very close to Luke 5.
Verse 7 Peter still needs the prompting of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The characteristic impetuosity of Peter was widely remembered, leaving its mark even in later symbolic scenes.
Verse 8 The quick arrival resembles Jn 6:21.
Verse 9 Charcoal is an explicit evocation of the fire in John 18:18, where the same unusual word is used.
Verse 10 Meals were typical of the ministry of Jesus and are here evoked in a resurrection setting, as in the Emmaus story.
Verse 11 Notice the prominence of Peter—he alone, although seven people are present. The number of fish has given rise to very interesting speculation. There is a late claim in Jerome that one hundred and fifty three was the known number of species of fish at the time. That would fit with the symbolism of the catch—the Petrine ministry is universal or “catholic.”
Verse 12 Jesus is now the real host of the gathering and issues the invitation.
Verse 13 Explicit echo of John 6 and of the Lord’s Supper (even though that is not recounted in this Gospel).
Verse 14 The counting “stitches” this story into the previous ch. 20. It is an explicit editorial comment to make sure we know what the story is about.
Verse 15 The three-fold questioning is clearly an echo of the three-fold denial. The writer alternates the words for love (agapaō and phileō) but this seems to bear no special meaning. The full phrase “son of John” is found only in John 1:42, but insisted upon here. In the earlier text the name Cephas is given without any confession of faith, simply a future statement of greatness. Here in ch. 21, that promise is fulfilled.
Verse 16 Repeated with varied words.
Verse 17 Eventually, Peter is touched. An echo of John 16:20.
Verse 18 Written after the death of Peter. Cf. 15:8 and 12:26.
Verse 19 The very first call of Jesus in the Gospels is evoked. Even in advanced resurrection scenes, the core of that call remains at the heart of ministry.

Pointers for prayer

1. The disciples spend a fruitless night fishing and catching nothing. Things change dramatically when Jesus appears and invites them to try again. Remember those who came to you and encouraged you to try again when you felt discouraged. Perhaps on some of these occasions the results were beyond your expectations.
2. The story can serve as a reminder that sometimes we are wasting our time if we try to work on our own without the Lord’s help. When have you found that your work or life was more fruitful when you acknowledged that you needed God’s help and you spoke to God about your need?
3. Peter is given the chance to be fully reconciled with his Master after his denial during the Passion. Remember those who have given you an opportunity for reconciliation after you had hurt them or let them down. What was it like for you to be given this chance? To whom have you offered the possibility of reconciliation?

Prayer

God of life, in your risen Son, you reveal your abiding presence among us, and summon those reborn in baptism to lives of worship and service. Fill this assembly with reverence as we come before you in prayer. Grant us courage and zeal in bearing witness before the world to your Son, Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thought for the day

In our ordinary world, words such as compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation convey an essential, if difficult and at the same time joyful, human task. In our world of faith, we add other words, such as mercy and grace, which make us conscious of the free gift, unalloyed, with no conditions attached. Our role is not to “retain the sins of any” precisely so that they may know, at our hands, true forgiveness. In our Gospel, Peter is not reproached; rather he is set free. That is love, the only commandment.

Prayer

Lord Jesus, help us all to hear your invitation, “Do you love me?” and set our hearts free to practice forgiveness.