“Children, you have no fish, have you?”
“After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore, yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to to them, “Cast the net on 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 of the quantity of the fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out 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, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to shown by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
– John chapter 21, verses 1-19 English Standard Version
There is a tradition in the Church that on July 19, 64 A.D., when a fire broke out in Rome and half the city was destroyed, that the Emperor Nero needed a scapegoat, and the Christians were it. According to the legend hundreds were killed, and that Peter was among them. The tradition is that at his own request he was crucified head downward because he did not consider himself to be worthy of dying in the same manner as his Lord. On a hot July morning an old man is hanging upside down on a cross in a Roman arena.
If, now, you will think back thirty years from that moment to a beach on a lake where Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples. On a terrible Friday two weeks before this, a Friday which, by a curious inversion, we call “Good” – that Friday with all of its shouting and commotion, its arrest and trial, its scourging and mocking, its treason and denial, is a thing of the past. All done. All over. Or is it? It’s true, Peter and the disciples had seen the Lord alive. Twice, in fact, according to John’s Gospel. But what did it all mean? What was the cash value of it? The disciples have no clear sense of what this means for their everyday lives. So what do they do? “I’m going fishing,” says Peter. “We’ll go with you,” say the rest. In other words, they continue with their mundane lives. Theycontinue to experience the world exactly as it had always been: loaded with the commotion of that Friday and all that made that commotion in the first place.
What’s even worse for the disciples as they go back into business as usual, is that they are also going back into the night to fish. “Night is a powerful symbol in John’s Gospel, as well as the Synoptics. Remember, Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night,” unenlightened about Jesus and the kingdom he brings. “Night” means being in the dark, unaware, clueless, ignorant about ourselves and the distorted human condition in which we live and work. In spiritual terms it means being in a state of denial of that condition, that is, of sin. That condition was powerfully exposed in the night Jesus was betrayed – exposed specifically in Peter, and implicitly in all of us. To deny the human condition is to deny Jesus and what he did on that night. It is, in fact, an expression of faithlessness.
Every once in a while a voice will cut through the darkness and the denial and expose the God-awful truth hidden by the night. It’s that voice from the shore which exposed with utter clarity the disciples’ business-as-usual existence. The voice speaks: “Children, you have no fish, have you?” That’s simple and direct. And the answer is undeniable: “No.” Denial, the last refuge of the hopeless, is now illusory. This is a moment of judgment – the futility, the fishlessness, the fruitlessness, the faithlessness of business as usual is exposed. And when that happens, it hurts. Jesus exposed it in the questions to Peter, and Peter felt hurt.
Now although the voice from the shore pierced the darkness, exposing the futility hidden in the night, nevertheless this was no ordinary voice of judgment. It is significant that the disciple whom Jesus loved heard something other than judgment in that voice. He tells Peter, “It is the Lord.” True, the Lord exposes the night with honesty. But he does so not to condemn but to save. In fact, on the shore Jesus was already cooking up a feast of blessing for them and for us. That breakfast of fish and bread is a sign of the real blessing he made for them and for us in his death and resurrection, namely, the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. In the night of his betrayal Jesus was not conquered by the night. On the contrary, he conquered the night and all that is hidden in it, especially the judgment of God upon the sinful world. His resurrection in the morning is his victory over the “fishless” night. The great catch of fish is a sign that blessing and salvation are under his command. Feeding his disciples that victory, that blessing, is why he now lives and how he now reigns. This feeding is the still-to-be finished business of the risen Lord.
The primary focus of this passage is attending to that unfinished business in Peter and all of us. Jesus wants us not to deny him, but to love him, to believe in him. That’s why Jesus addresses Peter’s darkness directly and persistently and in no uncertain terms. “Do you love me?” Will you receive me for whom I am, the one who takes away your sin , your judgment, your darkness, your denial, your death. Faith says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Faith is denial conquered. Faith is knowing Jesus Christ and what he cooked up for us in his death and resurrection.
Peter has now become one who loves the Lord. He believes. And he says so. He confesses. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The forgiven Peter is now freed to act on his love to the Lord. “Peter, feed my lambs; Peter, tend and feed my sheep.” There’s a tendency, I think, to make this directive exclusive, to spiritualize it. To pretend that this is taken care of by attending Sunday services, going to Sunday School, hearing a sermon.
Whatever the nature of our worldly deployment we disciples of light cannot just go back to business as usual. No matter where we find ourselves, in whatever vocation, occupation, situation we live as those who have been loved by our Lord, and who love him and so feed his sheep. That means care for the world and its people.
The feeding and tending is summed up in Jesus’ imperative word, “Follow me.” Again, too many Christians see this in religious terms. Follow him? Where? Follow him into a church building? He addressed the disciples as children. Is he saying, “Children, follow me by being good little boys and girls,” and so Christianity boils down to a way of keeping people in line?
No, follow him out of the building and into the nitty-gritty world, the world of conflict and war, the world of poverty and sickness and hunger. Following him means getting your hands dirty. It mean practicing what we preach. It means allowing the gospel to change us, to refocus our priorities, and it may hurt.
It hurt Peter to realize his denial was forgiven and that now he had to do something because of that forgiveness, that gospel. Thirty years later this old man remembered that night of denial and the look of his Lord that understood him and loved him forever. He remembered the power that drove him out into the night to come to this ridiculous position with the world upside down and tears of pain in his eyes. He had done well since that night and he knew at the dawn on the beach by the lake, that now there would be no more night and no more tears.