Return to life

John 21:1-19 (Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30)

The disciples are finally out of the locked room in which they’ve been hiding.  It took two appearances by the risen Lord (they were still there after Thomas returned, so one appearance by Jesus seems not to have been enough!).  Now, in Chapter 21, the disciples are back in Galilee; back where it all began. There’s no denying that there is comfort to be found in familiar surroundings.  And Peter takes that familiarity one step farther, by declaring, “I’m going fishing” (21:3); and off they all go.  Some scholars have opined that this passage suggests that the disciples have given up; that they’re not only home to catch their breath, but have fully reverted to their old, pre-Jesus life and livelihood.  I’m not so sure.  The disciples may be slowly experiencing their own “resurrection” in stages: find the courage to leave the locked room; go home to reconnect with loved ones; learn again what it means to be fishermen.  This is a return to the world, a return to life.
They’re fishing at night, when the catch is better, and the fish they land is fresh for the morning market.  At this point, Jesus calls to them from the shore using a lovely colloquialism which is often translated as children, but which is better translated as: “Jesus said to them, “lads/boys, you have no fish, have you?” (v. 5).  Following Jesus’ advice they cast their nets off the other side of the boat, and haul in an enormous number of fish.  In Luke’s version of this miracle, it is part of the call of the disciples and it leads to discipleship: here it leads to recognition.  “It is the Lord!” (v. 7). 
The meal that is shared on the shore may point to the heavenly banquet to come, or be a reflection of the Last Supper (often illustrated in the Early Church with the symbol of fish and bread).  Regardless, the disciples still seem a little confused or puzzled by the encounter with Jesus, so the scene is lacking in celebration – it’s all a wee bit subdued. 

Then comes Jesus’ exchange with Peter:

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” (John 21:15-17).

There is a play on words going on here, which is either meaningful or simply stylistic.  Jesus uses a Greek word for love that refers to the highest, most noble form of love (agapē) while Peter uses a word describing the love that exists between friends (philia).  So, the exchange might read:             Peter, do you love me?  Yes Lord, you know that I’m fond of you.             Peter, do you love me?  Yes Lord, you know that I’m fond of you.

            Peter, are you fond of me?  Lord, you know everything; you know that I’m fond of you.

Jesus calls Peter to a noble, reverential love; but brotherly love is all that Peter is capable of at that point.  That will change, for whatever the meaning behind Jesus’ subsequent words, the end result is the same:

Very truly, I tell you [Peter] 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” (21:18-19).

Peter’s martyrdom is the result of more than personal affection; it flows from agape.  As Peter feeds the lambs, tends the sheep, feeds the little lambs (a literal translation of verses 15-17) he discovers what true love is.