Love in Action: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 3
1) This is week three of the seven weeks of Eastertide, and the last story of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers. The season’s four remaining weeks explore Jesus’ teachings about faith and intimacy with God.
2) John 21 is sometimes called an “epilogue” to John’s gospel, since the concluding verses of John 20 feel so much like an ending to the story. In that earlier chapter, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the tomb, and then twice to the disciples in a house in Jerusalem, showing them his wounds, giving them the Holy Spirit, and commissioning them out into the world to proclaim, forgive, and heal: As God has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).
3) As we explored last week, John is organized around seven astounding “signs,” the first of which is the water-into-abundant-wine during the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). The “epilogue” of John 21 returns to this theme of abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity, and like bookends, these two signs of plenty evoke the essence of the Gospel: a new era of bountiful love and mercy, of “grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
1) Just as Mary mistook the risen Jesus for the gardener, here, too, the disciples don’t recognize him at first. The story suggests his voice is somehow different: he calls to them twice from the beach, and they respond and follow his advice without realizing who he is; only the astounding catch of fish prompts the beloved disciple to recognize him. Likewise, John includes a cryptic line during the breakfast: “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord” (John 21:12). But if they were so sure it was him, why would it even occur to them to “dare” to ask who he is? The verse only makes sense if the risen Jesus looks significantly different than the Jesus they’re accustomed to. And yet, different as he may appear, he’s nevertheless recognized by his companions over a breakfast of bread and fish - recalling, perhaps, the bread and fish that fed a crowd of five thousand (John 6:1-14). As we explored last week, for John, resurrection doesn’t equal resuscitation; Jesus is back, but he’s in something of a different form.
2) What’s most startling about this story, however, is that - notwithstanding the fact that in the previous scene (John 20:21-22) Jesus has just commissioned the disciples as apostles (from the Greek apostolos, “person sent forth”) - here we find Peter, Thomas, James, John, and two other disciples back fishing on the Sea of Galilee (called by its other name, “Tiberias”), as though they’ve simply returned to their old lives. Did they lose their nerve? Or are they confused and unsure about where to begin, and so retreat to the place they know best, to get their bearings?
3) Or rather, are they ashamed at how badly they botched things when it mattered most? They all deserted Jesus in the end, one dishonorable way or another - but Peter, of course, is the deserter in chief. After defiantly vowing he would never deny Jesus, and then doing exactly that three times, his shame must have been bone-deep (John 13:36-38; 18:15-27). And paradoxically, Jesus’ resurrection likely made it even worse, both because it highlighted Peter’s lack of faith and because it brought him face to face with the person he abandoned. Sure, Jesus initially greets the disciples in Jerusalem with “Peace be with you” - but Peter’s humiliation, no doubt, was indelible. Perhaps that’s what sent him home, head down, to more familiar shores.
4) And so the risen Jesus pursues them, from Jerusalem to Galilee. I knew I’d find you here, back to your old habits, empty hopes and empty nets. You’re worried you’ve let me down, that you’ve been disqualified - but on the contrary, you’re the ones I’ve chosen. Do you really think I didn’t know your weaknesses when I called you? I knew you better than you knew yourselves, and I called you and taught you and sent you, and now I send you again. Stop thinking in terms of scarcity, of limitations, of what you can’t do! I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly - so think in terms of bounty, of opportunities, of what you CAN do (John 10:10). Look at all these fish, for God’s sake, filling the net to overflowing! Take courage, and go!
5) Three times, Peter denied Jesus. And three times, Jesus now asks him to profess his love. The way Peter answers is almost unbearably poignant: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” - but of course Peter is shamefully aware that what Jesus “knows” is that Peter is foolish and weak, a denier and deserter (John 21:15). And this knowledge makes all the more striking Jesus’ crisp and clear directive: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). If you love me, make that love tangible: go and care for those I love. I am the Good Shepherd, and now I’m taking my leave. You, the one who denied and deserted me, you are the one I choose, the one I want to feed my flock in my place.
6) This is one of Jesus’ signature moves, and we see it in Acts as well as in John. Just as he took one of the worst things in the world (the Roman cross) and turned it into one of the best (the Tree of Life), so now he recruits the worst disciple in the world (the denier and deserter-in-chief) to be a cornerstone of the church! And as a champion for this new movement, Jesus chooses Saul - a notorious persecutor of the movement! Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?... (Acts 9:4).
1) This is the Eastertide good news of the Gospel: God is turning the world upside down - or rather, turning our upside-down world right-side-up! For the hinge of redemption, the dreadful cross and tomb; for a shepherd, a denier and deserter; and for a champion, a murderous persecutor. The upshot of these mind-boggling reversals is twofold: first, they evoke the inclusive embrace of God’s love in action, for if God can redeem the worst in creation, surely God intends to redeem all of creation. And second, they evoke the radical character of God’s redemptive mercy, and thereby act as a check against Christian judgmentalism - against others and against ourselves. For if the Roman cross, Peter, and Saul are within the ambit of God’s loving mission, we dare place no one - including us! - outside it.
2) This news is simultaneously consoling (You are included!) and challenging (Feed my sheep!). Last week we explored three kinds of Easter doubt, and in this story we encounter the possibility of a fourth: faced with our own shortcomings, we suspect we are disqualified, or unqualified, or in any case incapable of contributing to the movement. We drift back to our old lives in Galilee. Or perhaps we sense the power of new life, the promise of the risen Jesus, even the helpful contributions we might make - but we’re afraid. Being a disciple is one thing, following along beside the good rabbi; but being an apostle is another, “sent forth” into the unknown. And so we draw back. We retreat to Galilee. We return to what we know, letting down and pulling up the old empty nets...
3) But Jesus will not let us go. Though we may waver, Jesus continues to believe. God knows our shortcomings - and calls and sends us anyway. God knows our fears, and nevertheless looks us in the eye and says (three times!), Feed my sheep. Put your love for me into action. For you are made in the image of the God of Love-in-Action. This is the life you are made for!
4) Thus the central drama of Jesus’ interaction with Peter - and by extension with the whole group of disciples - is fundamentally about Peter resisting his commission, and Jesus inspiring him to accept it. Like Moses at the burning bush, by withdrawing to Galilee Peter is effectively saying, I’m not up to this. I’ve failed you; I’m not the disciple you deserve. I’m too afraid… But Jesus is having none of it: This isn’t about your failure or your fears. Do you love me? Then feed my sheep! Stop dwelling on what you did or didn’t do in the past, or even what you can or cannot do in the future. Stop focusing on your limits, and focus on your love. Do you love me? (Peter replies, Well, of course I love you, you know that - ) Then feed my sheep! It’s that simple. Step up and get to work. I’ve sent you, and I know whom I’m sending. I believe in you. Now, go! Of course Peter has his limits; but if his love for Jesus is genuine, it must become love-in-action, even if such love will involve difficulties on the path ahead. Peter’s reluctance here is why Jesus asks him the question three times, pushing him to realize this fundamental point, to focus on his love, take courage, and act: Follow me (John 21:19).
5) Finally, this call - toward living lives of love-in-action - is what all the “signs and wonders” in John are for in the first place: to draw our attention, to open our hearts and minds to God’s right-side-upping of the world, and to inspire us to play our part in this dawning era of abundant grace. Even the signs and wonders themselves are too many to count! In one of the most charming final sentences in scripture, John ends this way: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).