“After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples.” John 21:1
For all intents and purposes, Easter is over. Not only is it not Easter anymore, it’s not even the Sunday after Easter, when the glow from the early morning encounter of the empty tomb is still lingering. Easter break is over and kids are back to school. Adults are back to work. The Easter egg that Grandpa hid especially well and then forgot where it was when total eggs found didn’t quite add up to total eggs hidden, is out of sight and out of mind. Maybe someone will find it in July if it starts to smell bad enough in the summer heat.
But the church does a tricky thing to us, declaring the entire time between Easter morning and Pentecost Sunday, May 19, to be included in the season of Easter. All seven weeks of it. Resurrection will not go away easily.
The passage from John 21 appears to be something of an appendix to John’s telling of the gospel. Jesus has been crucified, is risen, appears to Mary, then the male disciples as they huddle behind locked doors. Then he appears again to finish up business, this time with Thomas in the room, absent for the first appearance, unable to take his friends’ word for it. John chapter 20 ends this way: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Start the music and roll the credits, the show is over.
Because of this apparent ending, and because of some stylistic differences in John 21, scholars have conjectured that this additional chapter actually is an appendix, added by someone in John’s community as a way of filling out the “what next?” question that naturally arises from reading the gospel. What happened to the disciples? What about Peter? Thomas? What about that disciple whom Jesus loved? What about us? Well, we’re glad you asked. They’re all present in chapter 21, after the Easter light has faded, going back to work, back to fishing.
“After these things, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples.”
Pondering the significance of an appendix, out of curiosity, I looked up the appendix of the human body. The last I’d heard, it was kind of by definition not significant. Whatever meaning it may have served in the past, it is now – an appendix – not needed. Something that, if you’re lucky, never does anything to affect your health. I had apparently missed the news that in 2007 a team at Duke University proposed that the appendix serves as a haven for good bacteria. They hang out there, and are available to repopulate the rest of the digestive track if an illness flushes out the good bacteria there. Still not necessary for survival, but potentially an aid for health. I’m in no position to judge whether this is really the case, but I like its potential connection to the function of John 21. A kind of back up appendage prepared to infuse new health and life into the discipleship community if something goes wrong.
Part of the passage speaks pretty directly to something that had gone wrong. It starts in verse 15 and goes like this: “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.” Verse 19 then ends with Jesus saying those two simple but life-altering words, “Follow me.”
This exchange has long been identified in the church as Jesus’ way of responding to Peter’s three times denial of him at his time of trial. When Jesus was at his most vulnerable, under trial about to be crucified, Peter had hung just close enough to the scene to be involved, but just far enough away to be safe. Three times he had been asked by someone near him: “Surely, you are one of this man’s disciples, are you not?” and three times Peter had denied it, compensating for the untruth, by saying No with a little more force each time. Now Jesus, perhaps with a knowing smile on his face, engages Peter with another triplet. “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, lord, you know that I love you.” Then, feed my sheep. Three times Do you love me, three time Yes, each time a little more emphatic, three times, Feed my sheep, tend my lambs. After failing the test at the time of trial, Jesus injects forgiveness, love, grace, duty to a call, and a nice touch of symmetry, back into the system. Good bacteria to bring the body back to health.
One of the unique aspects of the first part of this passage from John – the large catch of fish – is that it contains a story which occurs in a different chronological location in the other gospels. This, in itself, is actually not all that unique. It’s fairly common. Mark was almost certainly the first of the gospels to be written, drawing from written and oral traditions to create a gospel – a declaration of good news. Matthew and Luke both have Mark in hand when they write their gospels, drawing from other sources as well to declare good news to their own communities.
So while Mark has the disciples arguing about which one of them was to be the greatest as they are on the road to Jerusalem, Luke has this conversation happening while they are at table together, during the last supper within Jerusalem, just after Jesus has offered them the bread and wine as his body and blood. While Mark has Jesus entering Simon Peter’s home and healing his mother-in-law at the very beginning of his ministry, still in chapter one, seemingly only days after Peter was called to be a disciple, Matthew places this healing in chapter 8, after Jesus has done a preaching tour throughout Galilee, which includes the lengthy Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7. John is even less restricted in his gospel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to agree that the cleansing of the temple by Jesus after he entered Jerusalem on the donkey served as the last straw for the authorities, speeding his arrest, trial, and execution, which happened later that same week. But John puts the cleansing of the temple in chapter 2, one of Jesus’ first public acts of ministry.
This may seem like shaky historiography to us. At what time did these things actually happen? Who all was there and who wasn’t there, and who said what to whom when?
A couple weeks ago I caught a bit of an episode of This American Life on NPR. The segment included a man telling a detailed story about a time when he and his wife had a chance encounter with Jackie Onassis on the street. He remembered what everyone was wearing, the gestures and facial expressions of people involved. The only glitch to his story was that his wife swears he wasn’t there. She had told the story so many times, that he had come to remember it as if he were there. He has it as one of his most vivid memories, but has come to accept that perhaps he may not have been there. If you’ve ever listened to This American Life, you know that they can make a fascinating story out of something so basic as this. What is the relationship between experience, story, memory, and meaning? (The episode can be found HERE, and, it turns out, did run on Easter afternoon)
I’m pretty sure we were listening to that while our family was driving up I-75 on our way to Bellefontaine for Easter afternoon, but who’s to say for sure? The fact that I couldn’t locate this episode when I searched the archives online makes me wonder. However my wife remembers it is almost certainly right. I think this goes to prove that women should have written the gospels!
People in the first century had a much more fluid understanding of memory than we tend to. The biblical writers are concerned not just with the biographical, historical details, but with the meaning of these events which they have witnessed.
John 21 is another example of this, but what makes it unique, and especially tantalizing, is that it is telling of an experience the disciples have with Jesus that occurs after the resurrection which Luke tells as occurring before the resurrection. And not just before the resurrection, but at the beginning of the gospel. This story by the lake of Tiberius, the sea of Galilee, is a story of call. In Luke it is the very first call the disciples receive, when they encounter Jesus for the first time. In John it is their final call.
In Luke, chapter 5, Jesus is standing by the lake, teaching the people, with the crowd pressing in on him. He gets into a boat of one of the local fisherman, gives his teaching, and then says to the owner of the boat, a guy by the name of Simon Peter, to put out into deeper water and to let down his nets. Peter points out to this strange teacher that they’ve been fishing all night and have caught nothing. But he does as the teacher says, lets down his nets, and catches so many that his nets begin to tear and he has to signal for his buddies to come over to help him out, the haul too great for one boat. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Luke then says, in 5:11 “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” It’s a story of how the not-yet disciples become followers of Jesus. When they first heard the call. Luke still has 19 more chapters about the disciples’ journey with Jesus.
In John some of the details are different, but the story has the same basic outline. The disciples are going about their normal everyday work but fail to catch any fish. Jesus appears to them, this time the resurrected Christ, and tells them to put their nets on the other side. They have a huge catch – 153! – and recognize that something special, extraordinary, is happening. This time rather than leaving all the fish behind, Jesus invites them to breakfast on the beach, cooking up some of the fish and having a meal together.
It’s possible this experience happened twice, but it’s a tough argument. If it did, it seems like the kind of thing that would be so noteworthy and so literarily satisfying, that at least one of the gospel writers would have narrated this as happening at the beginning and the end. But that’s not the case. Luke has it at the beginning, Matthew and Mark have snippets of it toward the middle, and John has it at the end. And not just the end, but something of an appendix. The story that happens after the story. The one that clarifies and brings to greater resolution the rest of the story – which points to what happens afterwards, sets a trajectory that continues beyond the author’s narration. After the resurrection.
A few years ago I remember Keith Lehman preaching on this passage and asking the question to the effect: How do you tell a true fish story? What makes a story true? What makes it real, what gives it integrity? How do you fit the pieces together to get a whole?
If you’ve done much reflecting on your own faith journey, your own story of call, you know these are slippery questions, but the right questions to be asking.
When did you hear the call? When did you set out to be a follower of Jesus, and when did you actually become one? When did Jesus appear to you? Was it in your parents’ house, the church of your childhood? Was it at your baptism, when you felt the waters come over you? Was it when you had come into your adulthood, seen your faith slip out from underneath your feet, then had it given back to you in the form of pure love and grace and mystery, beyond explanation? Was it through the story told by another person that you have come to remember as your own?
When did you become a disciple? Was it at the beginning? Will it be at the end? When you were married? When you were divorced? When you had your first child and saw the light? When you lost your first child and saw the darkness? Or was it “After these things,” when Jesus showed himself again? Or in some yet to be appendix of life up to now? Some kind of far off shore, hoped for but not yet reached when you will hear that crystal clear call from the mouth of the master: “Follow me.”
When did it happen? When will it happen? How many times do we have to hear it before it’s real? Cast your nets on the other side. Follow me. Now you will fish for people. If you love me, feed my sheep.