Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

Yes, But There's a Catch...

John 21:1-19 (or 15-19)


After these things Jesus showed himself[1] again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias;[2] and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee,[3] and two others of his disciples.
3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”[4] They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught[5] nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.[6] 5 Jesus said to them, “Children,[7] you have no fish,[8] have you?”
They answered him, “No.”
6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find[9] some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul[10] it in because there were so many fish.
7 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,[11] for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 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.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire[12] there, with fish[13] on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them;[14] and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 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. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.[15] 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 

Jesus and Peter[16]
 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love[17] me more than these?”[18]
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love[19] you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 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.” 17 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. 18 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,[20] 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.”[21]


Sermon Draft

First, I should say that this story comes at an odd place. If you have been reading along with all of the resurrection stories, you know that the show is over, the deed is done, Jesus is resurrected, and the book is closed. In the last verses of the preceding chapter, John shuts down the story describing the ending and the purpose of the book:
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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.

And as soon as he gets that done, this chapter starts as though nothing had happened. It’s clearly an add-on chapter, but scholars disagree on just what it is and where it came from. Some believe that it was added by later writers who wanted to give Peter a second chance (the three questions at the end may parallel the three denials of Jesus). Others think that it is to explain why it was that the Disciple whom Jesus Loved” died sooner than Jesus said he should (John 21:20-23). All of those and others are possible. But these theories don’t exclude the possibilities that the manuscript was revisited later by “John” or the Johannine community. There are so many links between this passage and the rest of the gospel, that it is difficult to believe that it was just an addition by an unrelated party distantly later. I’m going to treat it as though it is an authentic piece by John, the original (more or less), author, with a discrepancy here and there that I will note in the narrative.  
The traditional interpretation of this story focused on the idea that Peter’s fishing net was being thrown out to the whole world so that all people can be brought into the “net” of Jesus Christ. That’s not a bad interpretation of this very complex, symbol-laden story. Jerome said that the number 135 (the number of fish that they caught when the net came back) was the total of known species of fish in his day (probably not true, but a really great idea). Someone else computed that if you total all of the numbers between 1 and 7 you get 135 (to which one might reply that the guy who figured that out needs to get a life). Stoffregan, in the translation notes above, intends something similar when he talks about the word “find,” and the way that it was used early in the Gospel John. “Andrew finds Peter (1:41). Jesus finds Philip (1:43). Philip finds Nathanael (1:45).” And then he asks, “Is there an intended connection between the “finding” of the first disciples and “finding” fish?” His point is, that if fish are symbolic of the global receivers of the new kingdom, then this is a possibility.
But I don’t want to preach that sermon, because I’ve done that before. There are too many other themes in this passage, and John lends itself to symbolic digging. Here’s the story

Scene one: In the Boat

You could say that this is about people at work (after all, Peter worked at the job of fishing, it wasn’t a weekend sport). He said after the resurrection was over, “Well, I’m going back to work.” And his old work crew said, “We’re going with you.” And there they went.

But while they were hard at work—and notice that all of it was in darkness—they produce nothing. They keep casting their nets on the left side of the boat and they keep getting nothing. They repeat it all night long, but then at the edge of light and darkness (both are very symbolic for John) they see a shadowy figure (they don’t yet know that it is Jesus) standing on the shore cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling, “You guys catching anything?” perhaps more accurately he was (symbolically) saying, “Are you getting anywhere?” They say no, they say, “we’ve been doing this again and again and we are still in darkness. We’re not getting anywhere.” So he says, “Try something different. Throw the net out on the other side for a while (where the fish are) and see what happens.” Someone says, why didn’t we think of that? They do so and suddenly they start catching fish.

(You might use here the old story of the drunk who lost his keys. A policeman found him over by a lamp post, yards away from his car looking around on the ground. He says, what are you doing. The drunk says, looking for my keys. The policeman says, “but your car is way over there. Why are you over here looking for them?” The guy says, well, the light is better over here…” Sometimes we try to get things done in the wrong places because it’s more comfortable there or the light is better or we’re more used to it. Not because it is the best place to look.)

The point is that there are people in the world who are trapped in situations that never end; they keep trying to find meaning and purpose and signification in life, but they do it by doing the same thing time and time again. They are in a rut. Sometimes (not often enough) they (we) look up in the darkness that surrounds them and they see Jesus at the edge of light and dark, calling to them and saying throw the net somewhere else, try something else. And sometimes they do so and when they do their lives are changed. Then I give examples of people who have done that. The stock broker who moved to Honduras. The couple who were bored with retirement so they joined the peace corps. The guy who lost his job and decided to volunteer at Vinfen, the education center for developmentally disabled adults. He later got a job there and became one of the counselors. His whole life was turned around.

It’s also possible to think of this story in terms of churches. How many churches, even in this very town who tried to do the same thing again and again and again and yet continued to slowly die until they finally had to close up. Remember the old line by albert Einstein, that the definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Churches can be very guilty of that. Continually trying to get something new and wonderful to happen by doing the same worship, the same mission, the same programming, year after year, generation after generation, even while the wants needs and wishes of the people in the world keeps changing year after year, generation after year.

Scene two: On the beach

Notice a couple of things about this breakfast they had early that morning on the beach.
It was a little awkward. The Beloved Disciple shouts out, “it’s the Lord,” Peter, who was originally naked on the boat, oddly puts his clothes back on and then jumps into the water to swim ashore. (There are a number of theories that make his move sound a little smarter, such as bad and misleading Greek—actually he had clothes on, but just wrapped them up better, etc., but I’m going with stupid.) Then when they all get there things look a little awkward. With all of the drama about getting there, there’s Jesus just cooking breakfast on a charcoal grill and Peter is soaking wet. Remember those popular wife tee shirts of a few years ago that they sold at tourist beaches, saying, “I’m with Stupid” and an arrow pointing to the left? I think Jesus should have been wearing one of those when he was walking to Jerusalem with Peter.
Note that this whole scene occurs after Jesus has already visited the disciples twice, but they still seem a little lost.

First, what did he serve? Loaves and fishes? When was the last time that Jesus served a meal with loaves and fishes? It was, of course, up on a mountain back in Chapter six, where he fed five thousand hungry poor and hungry people from the rural poverty stricken regions of Palestine. And by the way, the feeding stories may be the most important miracle in the gospels. It is the only miracle mentioned in all four of them and two of the gospels cite it twice. It was very important. So, here at the very end of the Bible, with this wrap up, summary, culmination, marching papers, Jesus brings them back to the time of the feeding.

One more thing, notice what he says when he feeds them the loaves and fishes: it says he took the bread, blessed it, and gave it to them. Recognize that? Yes, it is similar to words he used in the feeding story, and it is similar to words he used in the communion as well. When Jesus gathered his disciples for the last supper, he began the sharing of the meal with words that he had first used on the mountain feeding hungry people (something we should remind ourselves of more often when we do it), and now when he gives Peter and the disciples their final instructions and final challenge, he returns once again to the words of the feeding of the five thousand. This is what you should do: you should feed people. This is what it is: it is Eucharist. When you as an individual dedicate your life to the care and support of other people you are doing exactly what God through Jesus is calling you to do. And when we as a church dedicate our little fellowship to the care and support of others in the name of Jesus, we are doing the same. We are doing what God calls us to do, and with any luck taking up the challenge to care for the poor, the weak, the ill, the oppressed of the world will mean that we will have to do it by throwing our nets somewhere where they have never gone before.

Now after this there are a few other mysterious and deeply symbolic little twists and turns in the story. Some have to do with that mysterious and unnamed person known only as “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” But there’s one more that intrigues me that I want to share with you. That’s the three fold question to Peter asking, “Do you love me.” One of the symbolic elements in this one is that probably Jesus is asking the question three times to match the fact that during the night of the trial of Jesus Peter denied Jesus three times. And here, perhaps, Jesus is giving Peter the chance to vindicate himself by re-asking the question of his loving Jesus three times.

Scene three: Jesus and Peter

I could end the sermon there, but just like John, I have one more thing to say.

There’s another part of that that is also interesting. Until the end, when Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him, he is using the Greek word for love, “agapao.” But whenever Peter answers him back with something like, “Lord you know I love you,” he is using the Greek word, “philio.” That may not mean too much to you. Both are translated as “love,” but they have a slightly different meaning. Agapao is passionate love. Philio is friendship love. It’s where we get the name of the city, “Philadelphia,” which means “the City of Brotherly Love” (a name I suspect it has not always lived up to). Agapao is sometimes romantic love, but it is larger than that. It is extreme love, it is active love, action oriented, deliberate, assertive love. Passionate. Philio is friendship. It’s more passive, general, philosophical. Jesus is saying do you have the acts and passion of love and Peter is responding, saying, sure, I have the calm attitude of friendship love. They are both fine, but they are not the same. Jesus wants us to do the acts of caring for the poor and hurt in the world and he wants us to actually do it, not just care about them. Peter is being slightly more hesitant and saying, yes, I’ll just kind of sort of care about them. There’s nothing wrong with the form of Love that Peter wants to have—and in fact, eventually Jesus uses that word too—but it’s just slightly incomplete. It doesn’t fulfill the totality of the challenge that God wants to give us.

I touched a bit on the story of Jesus talking to Peter on the shore and noted that part of the difficulty of the passage is that Jesus is using agape, and Peter is answering with philio. Agape means unconditional love and phileo is friendship. “Do you love me?” from Jesus is answered with “Yes, Lord, you know that I like you.” 

That may be part of why Jesus keeps repeating it.

If you truly love me, then go feed my sheep. That’s what it means to love Jesus, not to sit on your butt and listen to sermons.

So, that’s the end of the story. The book finally ends. That’s the last thing Jesus does in the last chapter of the last Gospel. If there’s more to the story, if the story is to continue, it will have to be because people who are stuck in ruts of doing the same thing over and over again hear the words of the mysterious guy on the beach and throw their nets somewhere else. Change their lives and start anew. If the story is to be a happy ending, it’s because we, you and I, heard those words and tried to live our lives in a different way. 

[1] “Showed himself” (φανερόω, phaneroun). To cause to become visible, to manifest oneself, to make appear, cause to be seen. In each of these, the common thread is that it is made to happen by the actor, not someone (or something) else. It’s one of John’s favorite words. Cf. 2:11, 7:4, 17:6, where it is in the active voice. Comp. 1:31, 3:21, 9:3, 21:14; 1 John 1:2, 2:19, 28, 3:2, 5, 8, 4:9. The only other gospel to use it is Mark (4:22; [16:12, 14) and there it is in the passive voice.
[2]Sea of Tiberias.” Also Sea of Galilee. There are only two references to Tiberias in the NT, once here and once in the story of the feeding of the five thousand in ch. 6. See below for other parallels with that chapter. Note that Matthew only describes an appearance in Galilee, Luke and Mark only in Jerusalem. John gives a little bit of both.  
[3] The word “sons” is actually missing in the Greek text. A precise translation would be “those of Zebedee.”
[4] “Going fishing.” It is true that Peter was previously a fisherman by profession and it is probably true historically that after the resurrection he went back to his trade. However, many interpreters believe that the inclusion of the term here by John is meant symbolically to refer to the evangelistic task of the church. According to Brian Stoffregan, “The verb for "to fish" (halieuo) is found only here in the NT. The related noun (halieus) is used of the fishermen and their commission to be "fishing" for people (Mt 4:18, 19; Mk 1:16, 17; cf. Lk 5:2).” (, accessed April, 13, 2013.)
[5] “Caught” (πιάζω, piazo). See also v. 10. To catch, apprehend, lay hands on. Is there some symbolism here linking the catching of fish and the apprehending of Jesus? Stoffregan suggests there might be. “Most literally this word means ‘to seize.’ Every other time it is used in John, it refers to the ‘arrest’ of Jesus (7:30, 32, 44; 8:20; 10:39; 11:57).” (, accessed April, 13, 2013.) It is used six times in this gospel, never in the others, and only four times in the rest of the NT.
[6] Mary did not recognize Jesus on Easter until he called her name (20:16). On the Emmaus road, the disciples' "eyes were kept from recognizing him" until "he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 24:13, 30).
[7] “Children” (παιδίον, paidia). It’s an overly familiar term, implying a close prior relationship. “One would not ordinarily call fishermen children without expecting a hostile response” ( “Perhaps a mere term of friendly address (paidia); not the affectionate term used 13:33 (“Little children [teknia], I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’” Paidia also occurs 1 John 2:14, 18; teknia occurs 1 John 2:1, 12, 28, 3:7, 18, 4:4, 5:21.”(A. Plummer, The Gospel According to St John, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902), p. 369.)
[8]“Fish.” (προσφάγιον, prosphagion). Most translations (though not the KJV) translate this as “fish,” because what else would they be fishing for? But it’s actually any meat eaten (usually) with bread. Strong’s, therefore, calls it a “relish.
[9] “Find” (heurisko). Stoffregan says, “This word was used at the beginning of John. Andrew finds Peter (1:41). Jesus finds Philip (1:43). Philip finds Nathanael (1:45). Is there an intended connection between the "finding" of the first disciples and "finding" fish?” If fish are symbolic of the global receivers of the new kingdom, then this is a possibility.

[10] “Haul” (ἑλκύω, helkuo). Also to draw or pull. Texts for Preaching (Year C), notes that “the Greek word translated here as ‘haul in’ (21:6, 11) appears twice earlier in the Gospel to denote the divine movement in ‘drawing’ people to Jesus and to the community of salvation (6:44; 12:32)” (p. 293).
[11]Clothes” (ἐπενδύτης, ependutes). A wrap, or outer garment, sometimes translated as an “upper garment” (NET, NIV). The KJV calls it a “fisher’s coat.” It seems odd that Peter would clothe himself before jumping into the water. Brown notes that: (1) Peter would not have been completely naked, but only lightly clad; (2) "the verb diazonnynaican mean to put on clothes, but more proy itperl means to tuck them up and tie them in with a cincture so that one can have freedom of movement to do something." (3) Peter most likely just tucks his fisherman's smock into his cincture before jumping into the water (Brown, 1072).

] “Charcoal fire” (ἀνθρακιά, anthrakia). A bed of burning coals. “Fire of coals,” KJV. Compare with John 18:18, “ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
[13] “Fish” Opsarion, the word for fish, occurs only five times in the entire Bible, three times here (21:9, 10, & 13) and twice during the feeding story (John 6:9 & 11). Another possible intentional link with the feeding and the Eucharistic elements within it.
[14] People have tried to find some meaning in this unusual number. It is the sum of the numbers 1 through 17, which is the sum of 7 and 10. Either arrangement could signify completeness. It seems unlikely, however, that the author would select such an obscure numerical symbol without explaining it. It seems more likely that this is simply a report of numerical fact. Commentators tend to agree that the large number of fish represents the people of the earth; the net represents the church; and the untorn net demonstrates that the church is intended to hold many and diverse people (Brown, 1074-1076; Krentz and Vogel, 29-32; Barclay, 329-330). (
[15]Took the bread and gave it to them.” The language follows Eucharistic wording and the wording in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11). Also note that in the feeding story, the elements were also bread and fish, and that there was as much as anyone wanted.

[16] "Feed my lambs…. Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep" (vv. 14-17). Jesus is the Good Shepherd (10:11). Disciples who want to demonstrate their love for Jesus can do so by loving other disciples (13:14-15, 34; 14:15, 21, 23-24, 15:12-14; 1 John 4:11-12, 19-21). In his first two questions, Jesus uses the word agapas (love). In the third question, he uses the word phileis (love). Peter responds three times with the word philo (love). Twice Jesus uses the word boske (feed), and once he uses poimaine ( be a shepherd to). Twice he uses probata (sheep), and once he uses arnia (lambs). Commentators tend to agree that these variations just represent diversity in language rather significant differences in meaning. (
[17] “Love” (ἀγαπάω, agapao). To treat affectionately or kindly, to welcome, show signs of love, to be fond of doing acts of love. See below on Peter’s response using a different Greek word for “love.”
[18] Do you love me more than these? According to the Greek, this could also be rendered, “Do you love me more than these others love me?” or “Do you love me more than you do these others?” or “Do you love me more than these things?” (i.e., the fish, the boat, and all things related to the fishing occupation). Jesus repeats the question and the command three times. Peter denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest (18:17, 25, 27), and now Jesus is offering him three chances to redeem himself.
[19] “Love” (φιλέω, philéō). To be a friend, to be fond of someone, have affection for someone as a matter of sentiment or feeling. Agapao is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety. The two are related, but the former is mainly of the heart and the latter of the head. Many scholars believe that it is a difference without a significance, but IF there is a meaning behind Jesus using one word and Peter using another, then it appears that Jesus was speaking about a passionate, intentional, active love and Peter was misunderstanding Jesus’ point and responding with a more passive, general, philosophical love; acts of love, vs. attitude of love


[20] "stretch out your hands" sounds like crucifixion. Eusebius reports that Peter was crucified upside down (Smith, 397).
[21] "Follow me" (v. 19b). According to the Synoptics, this is the same invitation that he gave Peter when they first met (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17). The previous discussion of following Jesus in John’s gospel was "Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward" (13:36). Peter was crestfallen on that occasion. Jesus' invitation now, "Follow me," constitutes a vote of confidence in Peter's newfound steadfastness and maturity.