Preacher: The Reverend Kate Wesch
Scripture: John 21:1–19
Today’s sermon is all about this rich gospel story. We’re going to dive in and really examine all of the symbolism, character development, and nuance happening in this vivid scene on the Sea of Tiberias. But especially pay attention to Simon Peter because he is a character who teaches us a great deal.
These post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have always captured my imagination, from Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the man whom she thought to be the gardener outside to the tomb, to Jesus behind locked doors appearing to the frightened disciples, saying “Peace be with you,” and now this beachside appearance over breakfast.
But let’s start at the beginning of today’s story with the disciples who have left Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and returned to the place from which they had come. They are back home on the banks of the Sea of Tiberias, what we know as the Sea of Galilee, doing what they know best: fishing.
Seven of the disciples are there in the calm, serene hill country surrounding the lake. It must be nighttime or long before dawn and Simon Peter suggests they go fishing. They all pile into a boat together, but catch nothing. Just after daybreak, they see a man standing on the beach, but they don’t recognize him. The man says, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” “No,” they answer.
Just the way he addresses them, “children,” is intimate and tender. He tells them to cast the net again and this time, the net is filled with fish, so many fish they couldn’t even haul in the net.
It’s at this point that Lazarus, the disciple whom Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Peter heard that it was the Lord, he jumped off the boat and into the sea.
If you were distracted by the passing detail of a naked Peter stopping to put ON his clothes before jumping in the water, don’t worry. Apparently this was common practice for first-century fishermen to leave their clothes off since they frequently jumped in and out of the water to deal with the net. Peter was just doing what was normal.
So, when Lazarus sees the man on the shore and proclaims, “It is the Lord!” and Peter realizes it is Jesus, he puts on his clothes, jumps in, and swims to Jesus. This impromptu swim also evokes baptismal imagery of being immersed in water and reemerging somehow new, somehow changed, transformed before Christ.
Throughout the gospel, Peter has been impulsive, impetuous even, just as he is here, and I will give you two other examples. Remember the foot washing from the last supper? Jesus got up from the Passover meal to wash the disciples’ feet, and Peter said, “No, you will never wash my feet.” Jesus calmly replied, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter, with his mercurial mood immediately swings wildly to the other side, then insisting that Jesus wash not only his feet, but his hands and head too, thus completely missing the point.
The second example is from the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was being arrested. The High Priest’s slave was there with the police to arrest Jesus, and Jesus is prepared to go with them after praying all night. Peter, however, impetuous as ever, draws his sword and cuts off Malchus the slave’s ear. Jesus simply tells Peter to put away his sword and goes peacefully into police custody.
I bring up these stories as a testimony to Peter’s character, to shed light on his impulsive behavior in these final moments with the risen Christ, because Peter is human just like you and me. So what? Maybe he stops to put his clothes on before jumping in the water and swimming as fast as he humanely can to get to Jesus.
The six other disciples guide the boat and the overflowing net full of fish the last 100 yards until they reach the shore. Once they arrive, they see Jesus and Peter tending a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. The brisk morning air, a charcoal fire on the beach, bread and fish cooking over the embers as they warm themselves by the flames. There is only one other place in all of scripture in which a charcoal fire appears, and that is just a few chapters earlier in John’s gospel. Peter was warming himself beside that fire too, but the situation was entirely different.
The first charcoal fire took place outside the High Priest’s courtyard after Jesus had been arrested. The High Priest was interrogating Jesus while Peter waited outside the gate along with a guard, some slaves, and the police. The woman guarding the gate asks Peter if he is a disciple of Jesus, and he denies it. Interesting that the next time a charcoal fire appears, Jesus has died and has risen. Jesus is standing before Peter, and they are about to have breakfast together.
Jesus tells the disciples to join him and to bring some of the fish they have just caught. Peter, full of transformed strength and vigor from his baptismal swim, runs out into the water and drags the whole net ashore, bursting with fish, yet miraculously the net was not torn. Doesn’t this remind you of Jesus’ tunic not so very long ago, the tunic he was wearing at his death, seamless, woven in one piece from the top, and never torn?
The charcoal fires, the tunic, and the net, these interlocking pieces are intentional, and they weave the story together.
Next, Jesus invites them, “Come and have breakfast.” It is at this point that every single one of them knows for sure, without a doubt, that this is Jesus. This is the third time that Jesus has appeared to the disciples after being raised from the dead, and in this gospel account, it is the last. The text says, “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” This is the Eucharist. This is breaking bread. This is Jesus one last time reminding the disciples that it isn’t about forgetting and just going back to fishing in the Sea of Tiberias. This is Jesus showing the disciples they are called to something bigger, they are to remember him when they break bread—whether it’s the Passover meal in Jerusalem, or standing around a charcoal fire on the beach eating breakfast. They are to remember their Lord. I’m willing to bet they never forgot this meal. Otherwise, would we be here doing this?
Last week, Diana shared a really powerful image from her prayer life of God as a safety net at a time in her life when she didn’t know what to do. Diana said that in her prayers she imagined flying off the trapeze and flinging herself into a net that was God. And it helped. That image stuck with me this week as I was praying and considering Peter’s fishing net that didn’t tear, like Jesus’ tunic, seamless, woven in one piece from the top.
For Peter, Jesus was his safety net, always there to catch him as he impetuously and impulsively flung himself off one trapeze after another. And Jesus patiently remained that net, never giving up, ever present to catch Peter in the net, to bear him up one more time. Jesus called him Peter “the rock” when things were going well and always “Simon, son of John” when he meant business, but Jesus was always there—Peter’s net that would not tear.
This scene, this gospel, ends with a dialogue between Jesus and Peter right there around that charcoal fire, in which Jesus asks Peter the same question three times. He keeps asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter keeps responding, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
What is this? The commissioning of Peter’s pastoral ministry as he goes forth to build up the church? Maybe. Something complex and having to do with the types of love as expressed in the usage of different Greek words? Probably. But I think it’s simpler than that. This three-time affirmation of love is a rebuilding and restoration of Peter’s three-time denial that occurred around that first charcoal fire when Jesus was under arrest before his death.
Here, the risen Christ, once again meaning business and calling his dear disciple “Simon, son of John,” is repairing the relationship, reestablishing the bond that Peter may believe was broken by his denial. Jesus is still Peter’s safety net and won’t ever let him go, and Jesus does the same for each and every one of us.
I imagine we all have a bit of Peter in us, and some of “Simon, son of John” in us—the impulsive, impetuous, mercurial, deeply human side of us that’s a little slow on the pick-up, denies our faith at times, makes mistakes and grows, and most importantly, like Simon Peter, we all have the incredible ability to fail, be saved by Jesus’ net, and to be utterly transformed on the other side.