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John’s Gospel is, for all intents and purposes, over already. Last week, we heard the author tie the whole thing up with a nice bow, “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.” We were told to look and listen for other stories. We were told why this book was written. We were offered the means to gain eternal life. The End. Or maybe not. Our Gospel lesson this morning somehow comes after the greatest story ever told is over. Chapter 21 serves as something of an epilogue. It is very clearly a story “added to the end of the book that serves to comment on what has [already] happened.” Scholars have spilled all manner of ink trying to decide who actually wrote John 21. They’ve argued over why it is included when it is so obviously an addition. They’ve dug into the nuances of the original Greek to seek any number of answers to questions about why it matters that there were exactly 153 fish in the miraculous catch.
It is a puzzling story, to be sure, but if we take as our basic assumption that the purpose of this chapter is to “comment on what has already happened,” then we might begin to get a richer understanding of why it has been passed down for nearly two thousand years. See, what has happened, at least how it gets told in John’s Gospel is that the eternal Word of God entered time and space and moved into the neighborhood of our common humanity in order to show us what eternal life looks like. Through signs and teachings, through relationship building and intentional discipleship, Jesus developed a significant and devoted following that ultimately put enough fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, that he was killed as a revolutionary, but in so doing, by lifting Jesus up on the cross, they lifted Jesus up upon his throne to reign as King of kings. In God’s great victory, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, breathed new life into his disciples, and sent them out as apostles to follow in his footsteps by loving, teaching, and discipling the nations.
So, that’s what happened. As the epilogue on that story, we find the disciples back where Jesus had initially found many of them, in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Just like before, they’ve fished all night, and caught nothing. Likely, this all serves as a metaphor for the early stages of their new ministry. Jesus gave them all the tools they needed for success, but it takes time to learn new things. There is no doubt in my mind that Peter had tried to perform some miracle and failed. Philip had tried to preach the good news and got all tangled up in his words. Thomas has tried to make a rational argument for the resurrection of Jesus, and got lost in his own logic web. They had been fishing for people on their own for a little while and thus far, had caught nothing.
Back on shore, a football field away, Jesus appears and calls out to them. “Hey y’all try the other side.” It’s interesting that shortly after this, John tells us that Jesus already had fish cooking over a charcoal fire. He could have called out and said, “breakfast is ready,” but having completed his work on earth, Jesus’ last mission is that of an encourager, an empowerer, a cheerleader. Give a person a fish and they eat for a day… yada yada yada. As the nets came up from the right side of the boat, the catch was so big they couldn’t even begin to haul it in. This seems to again be a good metaphor for what happens when we try to do ministry on our own. We get a good idea, we gather a group of interested people, we start to work on it, and we see no fruit because we forgot to invite God along for the ride. Jesus had promised that he would not leave his disciples abandoned. The Holy Spirit would come and serve as their advocate and guide. The Spirit would help them find the mission of their ministry, but it seems as though they couldn’t wait. Rather, they seem to have been dead set on doing it their way. John 21 reminds us that it is only when we listen for the Spirit, look for Jesus, and follow the will of the Father that our own good works will be met with success.
Back to what had already happened. Holy Week started with Jesus and his disciples getting into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors. As I said back then, the act of eating together was a symbol of relationship, an act of true intimacy. Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup. They didn’t pass the broken bread around. They weren’t supposed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus. Yet, in the kingdom Jesus’ came to proclaim, those food laws weren’t as important as the community he was sent to establish. Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love. When Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast, it becomes an opportunity for reconciliation for them all. While Peter seems to be the focus of the story, and he might have needed reconciliation the most, none of the disciples except for the one whom Jesus loved were anywhere near Jesus when he was crucified. By sharing breakfast with them, breaking biscuits and picking from the same freshly caught fish, Jesus showed the remaining disciples that they were loved, forgiven, and restored to right relationship. John 21 reminds us that it is in something as simple as the sharing of a meal that we can be reconciled to God and one another.
As breakfast was wrapping up, Jesus took a moment to have a special conversation with Peter. As the spokesman of the group for three years, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and the rock upon whom the community would be built, Jesus knew that Peter likely needed a little extra dose of forgiveness and encouragement after what had happened. Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus meant it would be helpful if maybe Jesus offered Peter a three-fold moment of redemption. “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my lambs.” “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Tend my sheep.” “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.” Having been fully reconciled to Jesus over breakfast, what this becomes for Peter is something of an ordination into the next phase of his ministry. This three-fold invitation to service seems to serve as Peter’s anointing for ministry. As baptized followers of Jesus, we too are reconciled into the Kingdom of God. Through water, the Holy Spirit, and in our tradition, a good smear of chrism across our foreheads, every baptized follower of Jesus has been anointed for ministry, and specially gifted to serve. Just like Peter, all of us have fallen short from time to time, but thankfully, God is in the forgiveness business.
As an epilogue, John 21 helps us see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might mean for us as modern-day followers. We learn that faithful ministry starts with listening for the call of God. Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work of reconciliation, we are nourished routinely at this table and then we are sent forth, out into the world, as anointed ministers of Christ, to help bring about the restoration of all of humanity to God and to each other. It isn’t work that we can do on our own or even as a faithful community apart from God, but with God’s help, success has already been secured for all who have come to believe and through believing, have found their way to the resurrection life. Amen.