Sermon for Easter III 2019 on John 21.1-19

John 21.1-19

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.
4 Just 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 lake. 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.

9 When 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 and 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.

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.’ 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.’

As the curtain goes up on today’s Gospel story, we are presented with a scene we don’t quite expect in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection. Peter and the other disciples have met the risen Jesus, but this scene is one of despondency rather than triumph. Peter has pretty much given up and gone back to the old job, fishing. And so have several of the other disciples. And if you look at who those other disciples are, they are almost to a man the first disciples called at the beginning of the story: Simon Peter, Nathaniel (the friend of Simon’s brother, Andrew) and their old partners in the fishing business, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It’s as though the intervening three years haven’t happened. We’re back at the beginning of the story, back where we were before any of this began.

Why? Why, when they have just witnessed the most extraordinary event in history, has nothing changed?

Well, that question alone would be enough to fill an entire evening’s Bible study with interesting ideas, but perhaps the most significant answer is that Jesus’s victory has, at this moment, made the disciples feel all the more keenly their failure. They all ran away and deserted him, they all ceased to believe in him, they decided that his claim to be the Messiah was false after all. And now, when Jesus’ defeat has turned into victory, they look pretty stupid. They’ve walked out on him, no doubt said some unfortunate things behind his back, and now he’s back. It’s pretty awkward!

And on top of that, they’ve realised that Jesus didn’t need them anyway. They spent three years preparing for that moment when they would propel him to the throne of Israel. Now, he’s proven himself the Messiah without the least bit of help from them. He never needed them at all. They’ve been made to look pretty stupid, treacherous and rather useless. And, worst of all, that status has just been perpetuated for all eternity because Jesus is now alive and king for ever, so they will be humiliated for ever. Look at it that way and you can understand why they might feel pretty despondent at this moment, why they might just slope back to the old life as though the Jesus episode was just an embarrassing mistake.

And for a while it doesn’t get any better. Here they are, professional fishermen, on their home patch and they fish all night (the time when you catch fish in the Sea of Galilee) and they’ve caught nothing. You can imagine Peter’s mood at that moment: “I can’t even do this anymore!”

And how does Jesus respond? He gives them fish. He mirrors the episode in Luke’s Gospel when he called them in the first place. “Cast your nets over the other side and you’ll find abundant fish for you”. And that is just the start of the remarkable chain of events by which Jesus turns them around.

They get to shore and find that Jesus already has some fish, already on the barbecue. Yet again, it seems, Jesus didn’t need them. But he does say to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” Jesus didn’t need them, but he does involve them. And they do have a lot of fish here – 153 of them to be precise (there was clearly an actuary among them who could think of nothing better to do at this moment than to count the fish!) They could, of course, just be satisfied with a good catch, but I wonder if already this is bringing back Jesus’s little parable: “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind”. Maybe that’s why the fish they’ve caught matter to Jesus as much as those he already had. Maybe this is a parable of what it means to be no longer fishers of fish, but fishers for people.

And Jesus feeds them – bread and barbecued fish on the beach at dawn. I bet that began to make them feel better.

Yes, he could have done all this without them, but he went out of his way to involve them and take them seriously. He came to meet them in their despondency. He gave them success in their venture. He used what they produced and gave them a glimpse of a different way of looking at things. He cheered them up, gave them a little treat and put them back on their feet. In actions, more than words, he spoke to them in the depths of their despair and began to make sense of things for them.

And then comes the punchline. He takes Peter aside and addresses the elephant in the room: his betrayal. Three times he asks Peter if he loves him. Peter doesn’t immediately understand what’s going on. In fact he gets frustrated at the third time: “we’ve been through this Jesus! You know I love you.” But somewhere deep down, this connects. Peter denied Jesus three times. And he has been restored three times to his ministry. So Jesus’s resurrection is not the perpetuation of the disciples’ failure. It is the complete wiping out of failure and the start of a whole new way of life. Everything has changed: no longer a fisher of fish, but a fisher of people.

And what is true for Peter is true for us all. The resurrection of Jesus is not just a spectacle that we’re supposed to marvel at and then go back to our old lives. It gives us an unexpected ministry. Unexpected because, on one level, God doesn’t need us. He can save the world without us. But on another level, the whole plan was to involve us, to redeem all our weakness and failures, even our betrayal and use them to reel in the whole world.

On Good Friday I spoke of my own experience standing in the excavated courtyard of the High Priest’s house in Jerusalem, the very place where Peter’s denial had taken place. And I suddenly came face to face with my own betrayal of Jesus – and as some of you know, there was an incident many years ago when I betrayed him very badly. And, like Peter, I ran away and wept. I took refuge in the empty basilica above the excavations and as I looked up in despair I saw, in the centre of the dome, an image of Jesus with his arms held out in welcome. His gesture seemed to say:
“It’s okay. Don’t you see? It was never dependent on you getting it right in the first place. It’s not you who solves it all. It’s all me. And I have done everything necessary. That’s what it’s all about. It’s okay. Now, feed my sheep.”
Our failure is, in fact, exactly what Jesus needs for this ministry that the resurrection gives us. It is a ministry of mission. He doesn’t need us to be worthy to save the world. He’s already dealt with that. Instead, he wants to redeem our failures and use that redemptive power to redeem others. We see it in what Jesus says to Peter: “feed my sheep.” It’s a characteristic change of metaphor, from fish to sheep. But this is surely a reference to the lost sheep that Jesus keeps talking about: us. You, Peter, are the perfect person to feed the lost sheep, because you’ve been lost yourself.

And surely that is true of us too. We’re not worthy to save the world, but we don’t need to be. Jesus has already got that covered. But we are weak, we have failed, we have made mistakes. We’ve experienced Jesus’s forgiveness and know him to be alive. We love him and that is all he needs for us to go out and help other lost sheep, or to haul in a net full of fish of every kind for his kingdom.
Because in the end, Jesus’s kingdom is not for the worthy, it is for the lost, the poor and the broken. So we are the ideal courtiers, the best possible advertisement for Jesus’s kingdom and its power to redeem. “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. And follow me.”

Preached: Crosby Ravensworth, Bolton 5 May 2019