Scripture: John 21:1-17
Easter is over, back to business as usual, attendance is back to normal, all the excitement, all the anticipation, all the joy and celebration has died down and we move on with our lives. Did it make any difference? Were any lives changed? Was death overcome?
These are not new questions, of course. The church has been struggling with this issue for 2,000 years. For the early church, this was not an academic issue. If Easter did not make any significant difference in the lives of those earlier followers of the Jesus, then it was all for naught. Jesus’ teaching, life and even death would have no more meaning than any one else’s. Jesus would be nothing more than a blip on the screen of tragic lives crushed under the wheel of human progress. Why should anyone pay any attention to one more idealistic dreamer martyred by the realists? Even if this great teacher were somehow miraculously raised from the dead, what difference does that make for us? Or as I have heard John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg put it on many occasions, if Easter is no more than the resuscitation of a corpse, that might be good news for him and his loved ones back then, but how is it good news for us today? If Easter is nothing more than one big Sunday when everyone comes together, hear some great music and a few encouraging words that make us feel good and then we return to life as usual, why bother?
This is precisely the issue addressed by John 21. In fact, many scholars today will tell you that John 21 was added to the Gospel of John, perhaps by the same author, as a postscript to deal with questions like these asked by early Christians, especially in light of the fact that the Risen Jesus had not returned in the lifetime of the first disciples as some of them evidently believed would happen. Thus John, or maybe someone writing in John’s name, cites 3 ways the resurrection makes a difference to followers of Jesus. Followers who had given up waiting for Jesus’ return and for whom the excitement of Easter and the memories of Jesus were fading. As is often the case with inspired Biblical writers, however, the author does not do it by giving us a list of the 3 most important ways the resurrection matters, but rather, he does it by telling stories of the ways in which the risen Jesus made a difference in the lives of the first disciples. The interesting thing about these stories is that each call to mind other stories from the life of Jesus. They are, in effect, a reprise, a way of saying, OK, if you didn’t get it the first time, let’s try one more time.
The first story is a fishing story, not a fishy story, though it may read like one, but a fishing story. Peter and company are at a loss as what to do with Jesus gone, so they do the one thing they know, they go back to fishing. They fish all night but come up empty handed. Then someone calls to them from the shore. Have you any fish? No, they reply. Try the other side of the boat, the stranger suggests.
It is a silly suggestion, of course, but they are desperate enough they give it a try. Lo and behold, it works! Their nets are so full they cannot lift them into the boat. Does this story sound familiar to you? Remember the calling of the disciples? In that story, as told by Luke, Jesus has Peter take him on in his boat so he can speak to the crowds on the lakeshore. When he is done speaking, he tells Peter to cast out his net. Peter protests, We have been fishing all night…
It is virtually the same story except in John it occurs after the resurrection instead of at the start of Jesus’ ministry. By recalling this familiar story and recasting it here, John is trying to tell us that once you have encountered the risen Christ, you cannot go back to business as usual. Peter tries but the net comes up empty. Just because Easter Sunday is over doesn’t mean we can return to our familiar ways of doing things.
Casting their net on the other side of the boat the disciples quickly discovered that Easter had just begun. They would not be going back to their old way of doing things. Easter means a re-orientation to more than just the other side of the boat, it brings a whole new perspective.
Now there is a curious twist to the story. John tells us Peter was naked up to this point, he puts on his clothes and then jumps from the boat into the lake. Isn’t that backwards? Think about this for a moment. Do you think John means this literally, that Peter has a habit of fishing naked all night? Sounds like something you’d have to do to get into some elite fraternity. Fish naked, check, next challenge. Walk on water, hmmm. Good thing they used nets back then rather than hooks. Before we go any further down that road and your imaginations run wild, consider the other possibility: Might this be instead a metaphor for our spiritual nakedness before the Risen Lord? To continue after Easter as if nothing happened, nothing has changed, is to come away naked, empty handed, bankrupt.
When slave trader John Newton encountered the risen Christ on the high seas between the states and Africa, if he had continued in the slave trade business, do you think anyone would still remember his words, Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that save a wretch like me? How much credibility do you give to the Christian whose lifestyle is marked by a lack of values, who shows no interest in anyone’s welfare other than their own and has a total lack of honesty and integrity? I am not suggesting that as Christian people we must be pure and blameless, but only that if there is not some change in our life for the better, some sense of the presence of God, some awareness of a higher calling, then we have not yet taken the dive towards Christ, we are still drifting on that boat, naked, fishing the way we always have and coming up empty handed.
The second story is a meal story. We are familiar with meal stories too, aren’t we? Jesus feeding the crowds, eating with the tax collectors and sinners, dining with Mary and Martha, sharing a last meal with his disciples in an upper room. A remarkable number of the stories of Jesus occur around food. In this story, the disciples arrive on shore and there is Jesus with a nice charcoal fire going, breakfast all prepared. Did you notice the menu? A couple of loaves and fishes! Enough to feed a couple of hungry disciples or a hungry crowd of 5,000. We go from Jesus the miraculous fisherman to Jesus the fabulous cook. But that’s not the point either, is it?
Once again, John quite intentionally puts elements into the story to recall earlier events in the life of Jesus. In case you missed it the first time around, here it is again, the one who provides our sustenance, who is our sustenance, the bread of life who nourishes us. Without the risen Christ we are malnourished, with him we are well fed. Just as God provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus provides bread for our journey. Note, too, that when the disciples arrive on shore, the fish is already cooking. So where did the fish come from? Not from Peter’s net. You see, it is not what we catch that feeds us, it is what God provides. You need not ask, says John, you need not ask who gives you the nourishment to sustain you, it is the Risen Lord.
Lastly, we have a sheep story, and this, too, is familiar. The story of the 99 sheep and the one which is lost, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, the sheep without a shepherd, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. John the Baptist calls Jesus at the beginning of this gospel “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” comparing Jesus to the paschal lamb sacrificed at the beginning of Passover. But this sheep story is different, instead of recalling all these, it calls up something altogether different. Three times Jesus asks Peter a question, three times Peter replies.
Do you recall the last time Peter responds three times to the same question? On the night of Jesus’ arrest, right, when Peter is asked, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” This time, the questioner is Jesus himself and Peter is given 3 opportunities to redeem himself, one for each denial. Such is the way grace works.
This story not only redeems Peter, it also points to the nature of our mission, our calling. Jesus feeds the disciples, then tells Peter to feed his sheep. In Matthew, Jesus’ parting instructions are to Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. In John, Jesus simply says, Feed my sheep. i.e., Jesus says to us, I’ve shown you how to be a good shepherd, now go care for my flock. Those are pretty clear instructions, even though shepherding is not exactly a modern image, we get the basic idea. The only question is, who is Jesus’ flock?
In John 10, Jesus speaks of those who know the shepherd’s voice and therefore belong in the fold. Thus in the narrowest terms we might think of the flock as the followers of Jesus. But then Jesus goes on to say, I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also. which pretty much denies any exclusive claims we might make that God only hears the prayers of Christians or that we are the only ones saved by Jesus. In fact, when you look at Jesus’ ministry and those he helped, the poor and blind, the sick and lame, the Samaritan woman and the centurion’s slave, the tax collector in the tree and the thief on the cross–you realized that the flock of Jesus is determined less by confession and more by compassion. In other words, Jesus isn’t telling us to take care of just fellow Christians, but all who suffer, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Broader even yet is John 3:16, For God so loved the world, he gave his only son, in other words, the flock of God is all of humanity. So which is it–a) the followers of Jesus, b) the suffering of the world, c) or all humanity? Or is it d), all of the above?
One more possibility we have not considered that is bigger still and I think equally valid and necessary. This interpretation is suggested in the opening verses of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. This Word John tells us became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. From this perspective, the flock of Jesus is not only all of humanity, it is all of creation. And it makes perfect sense too. John opens his gospel with this grandiose view of the origins of the cosmos and then concludes, as does Genesis 1, with instructions on what we are to do, except that where Genesis says that we are to subdue the earth, Jesus says we are to care for it. This is the new commandment given to us, that we are to love one another, including the earth, as God loves all creation, including us.
Even if John did not intend such a reading of his gospel, surely in today’s world of climate change, acid rain, nuclear waste, deforestation, endangered species, and all the other changes humans are making to the created order, we urgently need such an interpretation. Just about every year we hear a report that last year was the warmest year on record. Scientist have been telling us that climate change could melt the ice caps and flood our coastal cities. The report this week is that the West Antarctic ice sheet, essentially a glacier bigger than Mexico, is melting faster than previously estimated and could raise oceans by as much as 5 feet within the century..
Listen to a partial list of the species we have lost just on this continent: California’s golden grizzly bear, passenger pigeons, the Florida wolf, the southern long-eared kit fox, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the badlands bighorn sheep, the Carolina parakeet, the Alaskan great sea cow, the Atlantic elk, the Eastern cougar, New England’s sea mink, the Labrador duck and the Oregon bison.
What will be the next species we lose? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, How many deaths will it take before we learn that too many species have died? Here is a quote you will never identify in a 100 years: Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our county has been blessed. Any guesses? Richard Nixon when he signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, an act that is responsible for the restoration of the wolf to Oregon and the condor to California but which continually is challenged by those who would prefer to use the nature solely for human benefit. Should we not include our cousins of the streams, the skies and the forests in the flock of Jesus?
I invite you, this Easter season, to think about Easter not only in terms of what it means for your life, but what it means for the life of the earth. Paul writes in Romans For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.
Peter discovered that morning on the lake that Easter means we cannot return to our old ways of fishing and living. If we continue to live as we always have, creation will continue its decay from human activity. Can we legitimately claim to follow the one who conquered death while we deny life to the natural world God placed in our care?
Easter means to seek new ways of living that are less destructive and that promote harmony with God’s world. Do we love Jesus? Do we? Standing on the shore of the lake full of life, Jesus pauses for a moment to take it all in: the nets overflowing with fish, the sea gulls squawking overhead, the antelope grazing on the hillside, the lilies of the field in the not too distant horizon, and he says to us, Feed my sheep.