By: David D. McDonald
Texts: Psalm 93
John 21: 1-19
April 19, 2020
NRSV Psalm 93:1-5
1The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
2your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
3The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
4More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the LORD!
5Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O LORD, for evermore.
NRSV John 21:1-19
1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon 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.
4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." 6He 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. 7That 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. 8But 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.
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11So 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. 12Jesus 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. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When 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." 16A 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." 17He 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. 18Very 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."
Paul Eldridge notes that if one reads the morning paper and compares what is written about the dead in the obituary columns and compare it with what is written about the living on the front page, it is logical to conclude that, “…the only hope for the world is in resurrecting the dead and burying the living.”
Some of us, like Peter, would like to get in a little more fishing before this dreaded Coronavirus attacks and possibly kills us.
Some people fish for fun. Some people fish for a living. Some people fish to find themselves. Some people fish to lose themselves. President Herbert Hoover, in a little book he published on fishing wrote:
"As further proof that fishing is the Fountain of Youth, I may also cite that many a President of the United States has sought the Fountain of Youth by fishing.... Also, fishing reduces the ego in Presidents and former Presidents, for at fishing most men are not equal to boys."
Perhaps, that is why Jesus addressed this band of disciples as paidia , a Greek word which means, kids - boys. They needed to become children to fish well. They needed to fish to become well. - to heal their grief and have the scales dropped from their eyes. To be disciples, they must become like little children - excited, active, trying and trying again, not frustrated with failure, in love with the world.
Peter went fishing and the disciples with him. They went back to what they knew. They went back to the old and the familiar. They went back to what had paid the bills and put bread on the table - and fish. To look at this scene on the beach is to see disciples frustrated with the world in which they lived. They were frustrated that their beloved friend had been killed. They were frustrated that their community cared little about a kinder, gentler, world. They were frustrated that religion was killing people rather than saving them. Spring weather, as we witnessed this week can be some of the most dangerous of the year. So, it seems reasonable that the disciples were frustrated that even Mother Nature had turned harsh and cruel. It was the spring of the year and fishing should be at its best and they caught nothing. They had worked and worked for nothing. The image of Jesus on the beach with a fire made and fish cooked is an image that brings to mind the providence of God. Jesus came to them with food. He knew their weariness; he knew the heart break of their souls. He came to feed them physically and spiritually. We would do well to never lose that image of Christ feeding the disciples and then calling them to discipleship and service. For John the Gospel writer, the image of Jesus at the beach is not an image of Jesus on vacation. It is an image of service. Just as he had washed the feet of the disciples in the upper room and eaten supper with them, serving the disciples as his guests; so Jesus appeared after the resurrection in the same way - serving the disciples breakfast and calling them to be His disciples and servants in the world. As Presbyterians we are heavily involved in programs such as Pennies for Hunger and the development of Gleaning Ministries and Food Banks because we are following the example of Jesus who provides for the physical needs of people. To save a soul is also to save a body. Presbyterians are involved in medical missions in Kinshasha and Haiti because we believe that is what Jesus would do. Certainly these are most important images.
They are not the only images in John; however. Some of these images are symbolic and have many different sides. John's Gospel is a masterpiece of writing for the soul and a feast for the intellect. For example, consider the fact that John reports that there were 153 fish caught in the net - a large catch? It is a large number so it could mean that it was just a large catch. On the other hand, Jerome, the great scholar of the early church and the translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, points out that there are 153 different species of fish indigenous to the sea of Galilee in ancient Palestine. With that in mind John could be saying that Jesus was catching all kinds of people. That is, the disciples were to go with the gospel to men and women of every nation and every race. Jesus fixes breakfast using whatever fish they bring him.
Others point out that a little research into the use of the word fisherman in the Old Testament reveals some interesting images that may shed light on John's usage. Although it has been popular to focus on books such as Ezekiel and Daniel as harbingers of judgment and the end of time they actually tell us a great deal about living in our time. For example, in Ezekiel 47:9 are found these words:
"And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of many kinds, like the fish of the great sea..."
Scholars are quick to point out that Engedi was the site of the cave where King David hid from the forces of King Saul and so this passage may suggest that the disciples are hiding out from their Roman persecutors. Moreover, Eneglaim is the temple site and as those who are familiar with Hebrew numerology are quick to point out; the addition of the numbers assigned to the letters of the Hebrew word, Eneglaim, tally to 153. Thus, they claim there is a connection between this image of Jesus with a large catch of fish and the temple. Jesus claimed that the temple would be destroyed and in three days raised. So, they conclude that this is John's way of talking about Jesus as the fulfillment of his word. What Jesus spoke has come to pass. He was crucified and raised on the third day. That was not the end – it was a new beginning where the specter of death did not have the last trump card – Jesus did.
Even Mathematicians can have fun with this image. The sum of the integers from 1 to 17 is 153. Therefore the party at the beach must have numbered 17. The disciples must have invited a few friends to join them. A good breakfast does that. An alternate suggestion from the mathematicians is to note that if you have 153 dots they can be formed into the three straight lines of an equilateral triangle - suggesting the Trinity.
As fascinating as all these ideas are - and stimulating to the mind - it is perhaps more helpful to focus on the remaining text without adding a lot of other assumptions or presumptions. Certainly the initial image is that of Jesus as host on the beach to which I have already addressed some thought. The second image comes from the exchange of conversation between Jesus and Peter. Breakfast is finished and the story tells us that Jesus addresses Peter saying:
"Simon son of John do you love me more than these?"
It is a puzzling question and not easily answered. Is Jesus asking Peter if he loves him more than all these flopping fish?" If so, the passage has to do with priorities. Peter needs to get things straight. He is a disciple and no longer a fisherman. Jesus does not want his apostles chasing after fortune. Jesus intends for his disciples to devote themselves to the care of souls. To see the passage in this way is to raise the issue of stewardship. Is Peter a good steward of his time? Is this what Jesus wants Peter to do - fish?
On the other hand, Jesus may be looking or motioning towards the disciples as he says by implication: "Do you think you love me more than these disciples love me?" In this case, the question is rhetorical. Peter is to set aside his notion of being first if he is to be the rock upon which the kingdom is built. These other disciples love the Lord, too! So, it is imperative for Peter to see the genuine love which is all around him. He cannot love himself more than others. Love will keep them together. Love of Christ had kept them together in the past, in the days of his crucifixion. Love will keep them together in the days of their tribulations and persecutions that are surely coming.
Still others point out that in asking this question Jesus could be saying, "Do you love my companionship more than the companionship of these disciples?" If so, Jesus would be chiding Peter for socializing and taking off on a fishing trip when the kingdom's work was to be done. Who could blame the apostles? Fishing just might sound like more fun than associating with lepers and tax collectors. One could end up dead that way. Yet, the denial of self is certainly an important and integral part of the message of Jesus.
At this point it is helpful to try and glimpse this scene from the vantage of Peter. As Jesus presents the question the first time, he affirms his love for the Lord:
"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
The response of Jesus is simply: "Tend my sheep."
Peter would probably have left the matter there except that Jesus asks him a second time, "Do you love me?" Peter, perhaps thinking that Jesus' hearing is a little faulty after being in the tomb replies again:
"Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."
Jesus puts a little age on his lambs and calls them the full grown, big, stinking creatures that they become. Shepherds need to become use to the smell of the barnyard. People are sinners and the disciples will need to distract themselves from the stench of sin. Hence, Jesus says.
"Tend my sheep."
Peter does not seem to make a great deal of this. He certainly does not comment upon any distinctions between lambs and sheep. Again, we would expect that Peter would have been content to let the matter drop if Jesus had not posed the question a third time:
"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
Peter's feelings were hurt. He could not forget the significance of the third question. He had denied Christ three times before he was crucified. Peter's response was not one of self defense but simple acknowledgement of Jesus' Messiahship:
"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."
What is in focus in this image is the relationship between a perfect God and an imperfect humanity. I have always admired Peter. He sins boldly. When he is wrong - everyone sees and knows it. He has to change his perspective on things. He is repentant in the best sense of the word. He turns from sin and embraces grace. He loves Christ even though his actions scare him silly. He loves Christ even though he chooses to die on the cross rather than call on legions of angels to fight his battle for him. F.W. Robertson has said:
"To love God is to love his character." (Daily Strength for Daily Needs, p. 118)
How do you recognize God’s love? Can we develop some recognition software that would positively identify God and carry out his commands like the new voice recognition technology in modern cars that allows us to dial phone numbers and make calls by our voices? As brilliant as our engineers and scientists are, could we not develop some visual recognition technology that would quickly identify God like the technology that allowed the navy seals to identify Osama bin Laden?
Maybe God is really in hiding and just wants us to keep looking, continually searching till we find Him. Hide and seek is a great game with children and I have enjoyed it with my children and grandchildren, but there are times I find myself musing: “God, I know you are here so, please, please, please step out of the shadows so I can see you clearly!”
In such moments I am apt to recollect this conversation between Peter and Jesus. The way Peter will recognize Jesus is through the eyes of love. He will become other-centered, rather then self-centered. He will become the servant of others so they will join him in serving Christ. He will fix breakfast on foreign shores so others will join him by a place at the fire pit. He will feed even as he has been fed. Jesus will be recognized in his service to others. He came to the beach so they could make a positive identification and feel the warmth and depth of the Lord’s forgiveness:
Joe Torre had been a catcher and a broadcast announcer, for the St. Louis Cardinals. Shortly after he was named manager, according to the Pittsburgh Press, New York Yankees' announcer Phil Rizzuto suggested that managing could be done better from high above the baseball field — from the level of the broadcasting booth.
Torre replied, "Upstairs, you can't look in their eyes."
Meaning, of course, that from a distance it is hard to judge who is ready to play. In Jesus Christ, God chose to come down on the field and look into the eyes of his disciples. He recognizes His disciples in every age and in every circumstance.
So, let us go and serve the Lord, finding Jesus in our service to others. Gaze into the eyes of others and discover that we are all made in the image of God. Amen! & Amen!