Feeding God's Sheep (John 21:1-25)

Surprise! We’re not through with the Gospel of John. After what appears to be a grand finale of the Beloved Disciple’s testimony to his Beloved Master’s career, death, and resurrection in John 20, there is still more. Did we need John 21 at all? Or is it, as some scholars have suggested, a later addition to the Fourth Gospel from another hand? An appendix that can bear being removed?

To say the least, the earliest copies we have of John include this chapter. There is no evidence whatever that it ever circulated without it. But if a first-blush reading of this Gospel has the twenty-first chapter appearing a bit anticlimactic, a closer look makes me think otherwise.

John could have ended his story with the resurrection of Jesus and the successive Sunday appearances to Mary Magdalene and the apostles. He is risen! And he has breathed out his Holy Spirit on his disciples. What more is there to say? “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 Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). So should we not say “Amen!” and be done?

There is a major loose end to tie up, and it is not incidental to the story. And that part of the story both tells and exhibits how the ministry of Christ is to be carried on in the post-Pentecost world of John’s readers through forgiveness and ministry.

Beside a Charcoal Fire

Since at least eight days have elapsed since the resurrection, we are getting very near the time of Jesus’ ascension. Within no more than a month from this event beside the Sea of Tiberias (a.k.a. Sea of Galilee or Gennesaret, cf. 6:1), he will return to the Father. Matthew (28:7,10) and Mark (16:6) tell of a command to the disciples for a rendezvous in Galilee; John simply tells about it and calls it “the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (21:14). The operative term here must be “to the disciples” – meaning the apostles as an identifiable body – as opposed to specific individuals and other groups. He met them on resurrection day with Thomas absent, the following Sunday with Thomas present, and here with seven of their group.

Galilee, of course, had been home base for the public ministry of Jesus. Meeting there would get them away from the hubbub and tension of Jerusalem. I don’t think we need to read anything sinister into the decision to go fishing. Some suggest Peter and the others had become so disillusioned with the Jesus Project that they went back to their old profession. After those two dramatic Sundays? I don’t think so. Peter and his colleagues were in Galilee on order from Jesus and waiting for him. There was no better thing to do while waiting than to do what he knew best. So the man who appears to be the natural leader of the group said, “I am going fishing.” They said, “We will go with you.”

It had been a bad night for them. Maybe the novice fishermen in the group kept scaring the fish away. Maybe nobody really had his heart in fishing, and it was more a way to kill time and relieve tension than to catch anything. At any rate, things more important than fishing started to happen early the following morning.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 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. 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. 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 (21:4-8).
Peter, Andrew, James, and John had had a similar experience with Jesus on this same lake something over three years earlier. They were given their initial call to follow Jesus and told they would henceforth “be catching people” after a long night of fishing was followed by an amazing catch when Jesus told Peter where to cast his nets (Luke 5:1-10). John must have put the two events together immediately. Nobody had recognized the voice that had called to them, but he told Peter, “It is the Lord!” True to his impetuous ways, Peter couldn’t wait to drag the net to shore. He grabbed up his tunic, tucked it into his belt, and dove into the water.

When he and his buddies huddled with Jesus that morning, what is the picture you have in your mind of the scene? Was it quiet and reverent? Was it somber? Were the men frightened and waiting for some cue from Jesus? Perhaps. But is it impossible to visualize a boisterous, happy seaside gathering? A dripping-wet Peter hugging Jesus? The other men rowing furiously, running up, and piling on? My guess is that anyone within two miles could have heard them! They must have forgotten all about the fish, for Jesus had to send them back to get some to cook with the bread and fish he had already started.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 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. 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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish (21:9-13).
I doubt there is any significance beyond the obvious to the fact that John remembers how many fish were in the net. Sounds like a bunch of guys having a good time to me. Sounds like they got caught up in counting – almost as a joke that became an incredibly impressive number as they continued. “How many you think we have here, Nathanael?” “Man, I don’t know – seven, eight, nine, ten . . . And you guys count some too!” “Can you believe this!” And if there was anybody who said “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world!” don’t you suspect that would have been Thomas?

Whether somber or boisterous as they started their time together, I dare to imagine that somebody eventually noticed that Peter was standing close to the charcoal fire to dry off. As he first shook water from his limbs and later opened out the folds of his tunic to the warm air, he may have stared down at the fire and embers. He may have remembered the last time he and Jesus were together – with a charcoal fire between them. Let me remind you of that cool night: “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves [in the courtyard of the high priest]. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself” (John 18:18). It was beside that fire that Peter denied knowing Jesus.

Maybe Peter fell quiet then, as the others continued to eat, talk, and greet Jesus. Maybe only Jesus noticed it. Maybe Peter was thinking he didn’t really belong there, didn’t really deserve to be there.

Love Me? Love Mine!

At any rate, sometime after they had eaten their fill, Jesus initiated a conversation with Simon Peter.

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.” 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.” 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. 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me” (21:15-19).
When Jesus calls you to his table – even if there is no literal “table” present – to eat with him, he is signaling his acceptance of you. When he eats with you, he is inviting you to follow him. But in light of his three disgraceful denials a couple of weeks before, how could Peter believe that for himself? So Jesus pressed him to make a threefold affirmation of love that morning beside the Sea of Tiberias. Yes, there are two different verbs for “love” in the conversation – and two different nouns for “lamb/sheep” and two different verbs for “tend/feed.” Maybe there is something to the distinctions some want to make with these terms. But maybe not. (The original conversation likely took place in Aramaic rather than Greek, and this play on words probably wouldn’t have worked in that language.)

Could Jesus have been forcing Peter’s hand? Not to hurt him but to heal him? Not to punish him but to liberate him? From my own experience and that of countless others, I have come to believe we human beings never get free of a painful past by burying it. Abuse suffered or grief endured or harm inflicted stays with you unless and until you face it, name it, bring it to God, and allow him to heal it.

There are some people I would like to take to the Sea of Galilee. I would like to stand there with them, read John 21 with them, and weep with them. I would like to see them open themselves to the healing presence of God in a place so symbolic. I think of a man who had not stepped foot into a worship place since he was last there for his baby’s funeral; she died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). I think of another who is in jail this morning; he doesn’t know what will become of his life, his marriage, his future – but he knows his career in church ministry is surely finished. I think of a woman who was abused sexually within her own family years ago; she is adamant that there is no connection with that and the anger, distrust, and estrangement filling her life. I wish I could take an alcoholic I know who is drowning more in shame than in his bottle; but the bottle is going to be his death, if he does not get unburdened of a load too heavy for him to carry.

Please, please notice that Jesus didn’t tell Peter that things might get better somewhere down the line if he took his punishment like a man, lived in spiritual depression for a while, and then – over the remainder of his lifetime – “made up for” his sorry failure by working hard for him. Jesus wanted him to know all was forgiven. Already. Fully. And he wanted Peter to follow him.

“Follow me,” Jesus said to Peter. This language is supposed to take us back to John 13:36-38. It was supposed to let Peter know that Jesus believed in him! When Jesus told his apostles less than three weeks previously that he was going away, Peter had said, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus knew what was ahead. He knew Peter wasn’t ready for it. He knew he wouldn’t be able to follow down the path of suffering and death he was about to walk. Now, however, things had changed. The resurrection had changed everything for Peter, John, and the rest of us. And some – like Peter who was later crucified himself – are called to follow him in just that way as martyrs.

Far more of us will be called to follow him not into martyrdom but out of pain, grief, and shame or through poverty, sickness, and limitations.

The challenge Jesus gives us is the same he gave Peter. Let me paraphrase and broaden his words: “If you really do love me, your task is to love the people I love. Love the church. Feed my sheep. Protect the unity of my body. I’ll know you love me by the way I see you investing your time, your money, your very life in serving one another.”

Conclusion

A few will be martyrs. A percentage will be pastors, teachers, and leaders for the body. All are called and commissioned to glorify God by following the Son of God faithfully in our various life situations.

Oh, by the way. Peter dared ask if John would have to face the same severe fate that had just been predicted for himself. “Lord, what about him?” he wanted to know (21:20-21). And Jesus’ answer? Paraphrasing again, he said, “Peter, what’s it to you? Why not let me take care of John? Your accountability is for Peter, not John.” Paraphrase aside now, here are his words in the text: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (21:22).

I think about what Neil has just experienced in Afghanistan and wonder if I could have endured it. I visit with Mark and Melanie and wonder if my wife and I could show such dignity and faith. Or perhaps I look at someone who has a situation better favored than mine and envy him and think I could be better and do more if only I had his advantage. But God brings me out of my musings to say, “Follow me!” My own life has its special challenges that some of you understand, and there is no one whose crisis or opportunity God has called me to come to grips with except the one on the path where he has put me.

We pray for one another. To the degree possible, we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). In the final analysis, each of us bears his or her own burden – with the assurance of God that we can follow Christ through all things (Gal. 6:5; cf. 1 Cor. 10:13).

Christ has breathed out his Holy Spirit on all of us. In whatever place life has placed you, that is the place to bear fruit and give God glory! The resurrection power of the Holy Spirit inhabits all those who will heed the call of Jesus, “Follow me!” As one writer said, “It is the devil’s business to keep Christians mourning and weeping with pity beside the cross instead of demonstrating that Jesus Christ is risen, indeed.”

He’s alive. He has things to do in this world today. And you are invited to be part of his divine purpose through the church – preserving unity, tending lambs, feeding sheep. Jut listen, and you will hear him calling you. “Follow me!”
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[1] John 21:24-25 appears to be a note from a hand other than John’s. Clement of Alexandria says John produced this Gospel only at the urging of his fellow shepherds and many disciples at Ephesus. The “we” of v.24 may be a note of authentication from the elders of that church.
[2] And this statement to Peter sparked a “rumor” in the early church that John would still be alive when Jesus returned for his bride. I take some comfort that, from the beginning, people have hung on the words of Jesus with such literalism that they have been able to read into them things never intended to be part of his statements!
[3] A.W. Tozer in Renewed Day by Day (Vol. 2). Cited in Christianity Today, Vol.38, no.4.



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