Easter 3 • John 21:1–14 (15–19) • April 10, 2016
By Leopoldo A. Sánchez M.
Becoming a Disciple
Two striking contrasts appear in this Easter account of the third appearance or revelation of the risen Jesus to his disciples (vv. 1–14). Each contrast represents a transition in the story from lack to abundance, from not knowing Jesus to belief in him. At the center, Jesus appears as the one who, by his speaking, brings about this transition and change in the lives of those who listen to and heed his words. Peter remains a representative disciple figure in the passage, even though seven disciples are also mentioned. The extended passage (including vv. 15–19) illuminates how Peter himself undergoes a transition from an unfaithful disciple who does not know Jesus (cf. Peter’s denial in Jn 18:15–18, 25–27) to a restored disciple who finally hears his call to feed the sheep and follow him.
From Lack to Abundance
Simon Peter gets ready to go out fishing, and the disciples who are with him decide to join him in what turns out to be a failed venture (v. 3: “they caught nothing”). Then Jesus appears to them by the Sea of Tiberias, tells them to “cast the net” and lack turns into abundance, since “now they were not able to haul it [i.e., the net] in, because of the quantity of the fish” (vv. 8–9). An empty net turns into a “net full of fish” for the disciples to drag ashore (v. 8). Peter hauled a net “full of large fish” (v. 11). At first, we see a bleak picture of these fishermen, failing to supply their need in spite of their best efforts. It is a picture of life without Jesus. When Jesus enters the scene, and his disciples heed his voice (v. 6), we see these fishermen overwhelmed with God’s abundant supply. Their nets are filled with food. Jesus makes all the difference.
From Not Knowing Jesus to Belief in Him
When Jesus stood on the shore by the Sea, the writer notes that “the disciples did not know that it was Jesus” (v. 4). To use a Johannine turn of phrase: The disciples are in the dark, and they have yet to see the light! (cf. 1:9–13). After Jesus speaks to them (v. 5: “. . . do you have any fish?”) and they obey his word (v. 6: “Cast the net . . .”), thereby seeing Jesus’s promise come to fulfillment in the amazing catch, the apostle John recognized Jesus and tells Peter about it (v. 7: “It is the Lord!”). The light came on in their minds, as it were, and they now knew Jesus—a picture of belief in the Son, in whom there is abundant life. When the big catch was about to be pulled ashore, Jesus speaks to the disciples again, telling them to bring some of the fish and invites them to have a breakfast with him (vv. 10, 12a). By then, the rest of the disciples figured out who they were dealing with, so that “none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord” (v. 12b). Here we see a transition from disciples who lack knowledge concerning Jesus to their acknowledgment of him as Lord.
Signs of Life
What to make of these contrasts? In John’s broader narrative, the text invites us to see in the sea a sign in God’s creation that evokes life in the Spirit. Such life directs us to listen to the words of the Son, which are “Spirit and life,” so that believing in him we might have eternal life in his name (cf. Jnh 6:40, 63; 20:31). In John’s symbolic Gospel, lack of fish in the sea becomes a sign of a life without Jesus (a sign of death, as it were), and the abundance of fish becomes a sign in creation of the overwhelming fullness of life in the Son who through his glorification unto death gives us his Spirit (cf. 1:33, 7:37–39, 19:30). Another sign of such life in the Spirit, the life of faith in the Son, is having breakfast with Jesus, which gives us an image of fellowship with him (21:12–15). This picture of fellowship and friendship reflects the Johannine church, the community of disciples that gathers around Jesus to confess him as Lord and listen to his life-giving words.
Restoring a Disciple
As the life of Peter reveals, being a disciple of Jesus is tough business. Earlier in the gospel, after the bread of life discourse, Peter stands as a model of the disciple who puts his belief in the Son, when others turned their backs on him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal like” (6:68). Later on, Simon Peter, who had promised to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (13:36–38), denied him three times as Jesus had foretold, stating that he was not a disciple of Jesus (18:15–18, 25–27). But then, we see in the appointed text how Jesus transforms this Peter from a disciple who cannot follow and does not know Jesus to one who confesses him as Lord and receives his word to “feed my lambs/sheep” (21:15–17) and accompanying invitation to be his disciple yet again (v. 19b: “Follow me,” cf. v. 22) even unto death (vv. 18–19a). In Johannine language, by hearing the Son’s words and believing in him, Peter has indeed “passed from death to life” (cf. 5:24). A wonderful image of restoration, which depicts in Johannine terms the Christian life of daily repentance.
The Journey of a Disciple
The preacher can bring hearers into the story by depicting what the journey of a disciple of Jesus looks like. It begins with Jesus’s call to follow him, or, to use another Johannine picture, to be “born of water and the Spirit” (3:5). It is a journey of faith, a life defined by belief in the Son, and thus by listening to his words of life—especially, as these are written for us in Scripture (20:31). It is also a difficult and perilous journey, where one may grow weary in the face of the attacks of the world against one’s belief in the Son, and even be tempted here and there to deny knowing him as Lord and listening to him (cf. 16:33a: “you will be scattered . . . and will leave me alone”). Yet in the midst of attacks (v. 33b: “In the world you will have tribulation”), and in spite of their shortcomings, the Lord continues to gather unfaithful disciples like Peter (and yes, us!) around himself for fellowship and the hearing of his word. The Lord does not leave us “orphans,” but sends us the Paraclete to dwell in us in order to defend us from attacks against our faith in the Son (cf. 14:18) by reminding us of his words (14:26). When we lack faith, the Lord comes to us, supplies our need, and restores us to fellowship with him. By his Holy Spirit, the Lord also sends his disciples into the world so that others may see and believe in him (cf. 20:21–31). For Peter, this means feeding the sheep. The preacher may paint a picture for the congregation of what such testimony about the Son might mean today for Jesus’s disciples.