A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 14, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 21: 1-14
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
21 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.
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.
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. 
Passages like this one are why the Gospel of John is so cool. It's great because there is so much symbolism and connections. It's the most poetic of the Gospels, and therefore there is so much going on besides just recounting the events of Jesus' life. I remember when I was in seminary and we were studying the New Testament, we talked about the genre called Gospel. We looked at how do you describe what a gospel is. What are its identifying marks? Because you could say it is biography, but it's more; you could say it's history, but it's more; you could say that it is about moral teaching, but it's more; what you end up with is to all those questions the answer is yes. Really what a Gospel is, we discovered, and were taught, was that a Gospel is a sermon, it is a teaching, a proclamation of God's word, giving the events of the life of Jesus, but doing so in a way to not just relay events, but also to witness to those events, testifying their meaning, that Jesus is The Lord, and then to explain, and teach about what Jesus being Lord means at the same time. John's Gospel fits this description the most. From the poetic prologue, "in the beginning there was the word" all the way to its final line,
"24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 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. 
From the first to the last, John's Gospel is doing this, testifying to the fact that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the light, and that the light shines through in the darkness, despite anything, in the face of anything, against anything, there is nothing that can separate us from the light of Christ, not even ourselves, and we get reminded of that in this passage because this passage is more than just a simple reunion between the risen Jesus and his disciples. It is a story of forgiveness, redemption, and renewed mission. Let's take a look at the details here.
It starts with explaining that this is the third time that Jesus makes an appearance to the disciples. We've talked about them the last two weeks. The first is in the tomb, then later when Thomas becomes forever marked as the doubter, and then this one. It happens early in the morning, but we don't know how much time has passed from the last. It simply says this is the third time, it could have been weeks later. Look at what is going on, Peter decides that he is going fishing, and he asks the other listed disciples to join him, Thomas, Nathaniel, the Sons of Zebedee, and two others. So Peter is going fishing, makes sense after all he is a fisherman. At least he was, before all of this started, all of this. . .
Since that first day when Peter decided to follow he has been through so much. He's outspoken, he's the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, he walks on water but falters, but most of all, and still I'm sure fresh in his mind, he denies Jesus three times. And Jesus somehow knew he was, called him out about it, and of course Peter said, no way, there is no way I'll every deny you, but he did, and now here we are. I think it is significant that Peter is again fishing. It seems to me symbolic of him going back to his old life, doesn't it. I'm sure in feeling unworthy he needs something comfortable, and I think it will start just as that, a casual fishing trip, but then eventually he will forget, and move on. The comfort, the familiarity, he knows what to do when fishing, but he knows not what to do anymore, how could he falter, how could he deny, what does that make him? How is he at all worthy to call himself a disciple, and certainly not an apostle? What message is he fit to give? Certainly Jesus can't want him. . . right? So they go out fishing and they catch, of course, nothing.
This story should sound familiar, because the other three gospels include it as well, but all three of the other ones put this story, the pulling in of the full nets at the beginning of their gospel, at the beginning of Christ's mission, the original calling of the disciples, but John places it here, in his post resurrection play by play. There are two ways to think of this, and both of them are pretty cool. One could be that John puts it here because he knows that the story is familiar to the church community, that it is a great call story, and here the disciples are again being called, just as they had before by the Risen Christ, as if their whirlwind mission is about to commence, as it did before. The other, and slightly more cool possibility, okay not just slightly, it's really cool, is that Jesus does this twice, that Jesus called the disciples the first time by filling their nets with fish, and so does so again here. As if he is saying to Peter, "Peter I know, you denied me, I told you, you would I still call you. I still need you. I still want you to be my rock. I still want to build my church upon your shoulders. You may not know your worth, you may feel that you have none, that you have failed a test, but I don't work that way, I know your worth and I need you, so I say so again, follow me, I'll fill your net, and I will again make you a fisher of men." That is what this second full net seems to scream.
But here is where it's really cool. Look at what Peter does, because he is so very human. There is Peter in each one of us, the faith and the fear all bottled up inside us. So they catch nothing then they look back to shore. . .
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.
So Peter get's told that it is the Lord, so he puts on his clothes, and then jumps into the sea. hmmm. Wouldn't it make more sense, if you were thinking about going for a swim to take your clothes off and then jump in the water. But he does the opposite, and now if that wasn't strange enough, why was Peter naked in the first place? I cannot claim to be an expert about the fishing practices of first century Galilee, but I wouldn't think they would have fished naked. But you may say, well what if he was worried about getting his clothes wet, maybe he took them off to protect him from the stray splash up of those pesky waves around him, but if he was so concerned about his clothes, why would he put them on to jump in the water. Crazy, crazy, again like Alice in Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser. . . have we truly entered wonderland? This is not sane behavior.
So why is this here, why does he act this way, there is a parallel here, a human behavior parallel, and it is back as far as we can go, remember in the Garden of Eden, God comes to walk with Adam in the cool of the day, but Adam and Eve have sinned, and so they hide in shame for they can see their nakedness, and cannot stand in their naked sin before God. Is this the same for Peter? Cannot he face Jesus now having denied him, knowing the truth, understanding the resurrection? Is it all too much at this point? Can he not stand in the face of pure righteousness, because he has sinned? Is he still hiding? Are we?
Now the story never mentions any of this again. It doesn't mention Peter drying his clothes, or swimming to shore, looking at the ground embarrassed talking with Jesus. And Jesus doesn't bring it up, it is not mentioned again, at all. It is as if it never happened, it is as if it is not important, it is as if something is different in the human relationship with Jesus, it is as if Jesus understands where Peter is coming from, where humans are coming from, where we are coming from. No need for explanation, they simply eat breakfast, all the miracle fish, and some bread. And then Jesus confronts Peter.
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.” 
He doesn't bring up any of that craziness, he doesn't bring up the denial, he just get's down to business with Peter, asking do you love me, then feed my sheep, feed my lambs, and then finally, FOLLOW ME. Peter is called anew, as if nothing happened, forgiven, and still called. Around Christmas, talking about Mary's call, and it rings true again here for Peter, I had said, "to be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned." Forget the past Peter, follow me, my love is unconditional, so I am with you still and will be always, you are not abandoned, and therefore, you are still called. Peter, be about my business.
This forgiveness is how Jesus rolls, would it have been the same for Adam and Eve? If they had faced, instead of hiding, would all have been taken care of, forgiven? But remember the rest of their story, they do not own their guilt, they point fingers and blame each other. Peter doesn't necessarily own up to his issue, either, but though he flees, the relationship does get restored, is that the power of grace? Is that what happens, that no matter what we do, the relationship that Christ brings to us is there waiting with no strings, no explanations, just a mission to go and do, that the past and future far outweigh the past? To be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned. And again Christ seals the mission with the breaking of bread.
I don't know about you, but I need this message. I need this message because Christianity is difficult, the call is hard, and daily, hourly, weekly, I am tempted, I am threatened, I am filled with doubt, and so I deny. Just this week in my teaching I doubted my call. I believe certain things about the ability of my students, I have certain expectations, and often I am told by people around me that they cannot do it, they cannot meet my expectations and that I should change the way I teach, telling me it's not a big deal, but I feel very strongly that it is, but I faltered this week, I faltered because though I feel called to stand up for the truth, I succumbed to the pressure to forget that and go the easier way. Later in the week, up against the wall of tax season and pressure, and deadlines, and numbers, and frustration, I questioned is it all worth it? Oh my faltersome faith. But those things passed, and Jesus again filled my net. . .and just like he did for Peter it was real bread. It was tangible bread. The feeling alive you get when you are doing the right work, the right work at the right time, what you are born to do, and like manna from heaven, the bread of fulfilling life, real life, real bread fills you with strength and an undeniable feeling of what it means to be alive because you are doing what you are meant to be doing, and the other stuff has been forgiven, but more forgotten.
There was no question. I faltered, it happens, but that doesn't mean my call changes, it doesn't mean my mission changes. The world says, be consistent, you can't do it, it's too hard, you've already failed, alter what you see as your call to what you can accomplish. . . but there is Jesus still saying, do you love me? well feed my lambs. The mission doesn't change, because you falter, because you temporarily fail, I'm with you, know that, be of faith, as small as a mustard seed, see the light shining in the darkness, it is there though so many choose the darkness, many will, you may even choose the darkness at one point or another, that's fine, but come into the light, dust yourself off, and go back to work. And when I went back to work he gave me a taste of that real bread. . . my faith was restored, and I knew again what I was to do. May we all experience that feeling of grace, may we all get a taste of that real bread, for it is truth and it is life. May it be so!
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:1-14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:24-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:15-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.