Our scripture today addresses a question that was a real live issue for Jesus’ followers – both then and, in a way, even now. The question is, what do you do after Easter?
Jesus was raised from the dead, and the disciples eventually saw him up close and personal, even Thomas. And it seems that this was supposed to be the close of John’s gospel. Chapter 20 ends with,
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.
That seems like the ending, but then there is another chapter. It’s like people were saying, “Tell us another story!” It’s like a concert when the performer leaves the stage and then comes back for an encore. John can’t help but add another story, or two.
Well let’s face it, endings are a lot harder than beginnings. Most people like to hold babies more than they do visit nursing homes. We like daybreak better than midnight, most of us. Hellos are easier than goodbyes, but we generally get one of each, a beginning and an ending, for the really important things in our lives. So, it’s hard to fault John for ending his gospel and then tacking on another chapter as a kind of epilogue. This story, he felt, was important. It was important because we all face that question of what to do after Easter.
After the resurrection, Jesus had appeared to his followers, to his closest friends, but then he was gone. And it was really hard to know what to do. It’s not like any of them had been in this situation before.
We don’t know exactly when this episode takes place, but it has been long enough that people are heading home. Folks are starting to go their separate ways. Seven of the disciples are together, back in Galilee. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”
What else would he do? He was a fisherman. This is what he did before leaving it behind to follow Jesus. So he and his friends get in the boat and head out on the lake. It was like old times – old times being the time before they knew Jesus.
For a lot of people, fishing is relaxing. It’s an enjoyable way to spend the day. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it is a stress reliever.
But if you are picturing Pater and John and Andrew and the others casting their line and just sitting back and swapping stories and maybe having a few cold ones, think again. They used nets. Heavy, smelly, prone to tearing, retied and repaired over and over. It was hard work. They did not fish for fun; this had been their livelihood. They were commercial fishermen.
They had been out all night and had nothing to show for it. They had not caught a thing, not even that first fish.
Then they hear a voice form the shore. “You don’t have any fish, do you?” Well, why don’t you just tell the whole world? Yell at the guys out in the boat, who have been at it for hours, “Hey, you haven’t caught anything, have you?”
Well, it was early in the morning. Maybe there wasn’t anybody else around. Although if it is like our neighborhood, there could have been a bunch of walkers and joggers out early in the morning – I can see them running and maybe riding their bikes on the path around the lake.
Well, Jesus calls to the disciples in the boat and they respond that no, they hadn’t caught anything. This guy on shore says, “Try the other side of the boat.” Having nothing to lose, they try it, and there is a phenomenal catch of fish, unlike anything they had ever seen. John yells, “It is the Lord!” In one of the weirder verse you’ll find in the Bible – and to be fair, there are a lot of really weird verses – Peter, upon realizing it is Jesus, put on his clothes, because he had been naked, and then jumps in the water and heads for the shore. I have no idea what that is about. He leaves the rest of them to struggle with the phenomenal catch of fish, and while Peter is swimming and running through the water, the others they manage to make it to shore – without jumping in.
It is a miracle that the nets don’t break. We are told that there are 153 fish, and not little bitty blue gill either, these were large fish. I don’t know that the 153 fish mean very much either, although there have been a few symbolic interpretations put forward. One early commentator claimed that there were 153 known species of fish in the sea, and this represented the notion that people from every nation are to be gathered together in the church.
Well, that’s nice, but I don’t know that too many people would read this story and get that from it. Maybe it just means it was a really big catch.
They struggle to get to shore with this incredible catch of fish, and Jesus is there. He already has fish cooking on the fire. He has breakfast waiting for them.
When we get together with friends, so often we share a meal. Meals are so prominent in the gospels - the Passover meal, the Feeding of the 5000, a meal at Mary and Martha’s house, the big wedding banquet at Cana, the meals with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the disciples had shared daily meals with Jesus.
The meal actually serves another purpose here. The last couple of week shad been completely surreal. Did it really happen? Was Jesus really alive? Was it just a spectre, just a ghost as it were? But here was Jesus, doing the most basic and down-to-earth things. Building a fire, eating fish. Jesus had appeared to the disciples on Sunday evening after the resurrection, and again the next week, when Thomas was with them. And now, here he is along the lake.
And after they had finished the meal, Jesus had some business to take care of with Peter. Three times, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Three times.
I wonder, why did Jesus ask Peter this question? Peter could have been asked about faith, or constancy, or fear, or boldness, or commitment, or leadership, or wisdom - there were any number of things that Jesus might have asked. But Jesus focuses in on one thing: Peter’s motivation, what is in his heart. Do you love me?
Jesus looks Peter in the eyes and asks, “Do you love me?”
The first time, Peter was perhaps surprised by the question. The second time, he may have been irritated that Jesus would ask again, and by the third time, it’s not hard to imagine Peter feeling hurt. Why did Jesus keep asking? It was embarrassing, humiliating. Three times, he asked Peter if he loved him. Three times, Peter says yes, and three times, Jesus comes back with, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” What is up with that?
Let’s go back to another detail in the story. Peter putting on clothes so that he can jump in the sea – I don’t know about that. Exactly 153 large fish – I’m not sure about that either. But there is another detail that at first sounds odd but is really helpful.
Jesus has a charcoal fire going, with fish and bread. A charcoal fire. Now, some of you kids may not know what a charcoal fire is. A few years ago, we had the students over to our house for a cookout. At the time, I had decided to give up on gas grills, and I was grilling burgers and brats on a charcoal grill. There was a student there who, honest to God, had never seen a charcoal grill. He thought it was awesome, very cool and very retro that you could cook like that. A charcoal fire! How cool! Who knew?
In the olden days, they didn’t have propane grills. Jesus was cooking over charcoal. Now, you could just cook over a wood fire, and if you had camels around, you could use camel dung for fuel, as people still do in parts of the world, but we are told specifically that this is a charcoal fire. What is significant about that?
There is exactly one other place in the New Testament where a charcoal fire is mentioned. In John chapter 18, after Jesus’ arrest, Peter follows Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard. It is cold, and people are standing around a fire to keep warm. We are told that it is a charcoal fire. Peter is there, near the fire. And a woman, actually a woman who was guarding the gate, which is interesting, asks Peter if he is one of Jesus’ disciples. And he denies it. Peter denies even knowing Jesus. He does this not once, not twice, but three times.
Now, Peter is at another charcoal fire. The charcoal fire is a kind of hyperlink between these two stories. And he is asked not once, not twice, but three times if he loves Jesus.
Peter is forgiven. Here he is undoing the three denials. He is given another chance. The slate is symbolically wiped clean. And in fact, all of the disciples are given another chance. They had worked all night with nothing to show for it, and Jesus says, “Try again.” They do, and with his help, they are wildly successful.
And you may notice that when they come to the shore, Jesus already has fish and bread on the fire, but he invites them to share some of the fish they had just caught. Jesus not only provides for them, but invites them – and us – to contribute what they have and who they are.
Jesus doesn’t simply forgive Peter, he commissions, or maybe re-commissions Peter for ministry by telling him to “feed my sheep.” Peter isn’t merely forgiven; he’s drawn back into the community and he is given meaningful work to do.
There is a connection between this scene and our life of faith. We are called, all of us, to share in the work and ministry of Jesus. Our baptism is a kind of commissioning to share in that work. But like the disciples, we so often fail. We so often fall short. We so often have a hard time living up to our best intentions.
But Jesus doesn’t just commission us, Jesus also forgives us when we fall short. And Jesus doesn’t just forgive us, but calls us to try again. And Jesus doesn’t just call us to try again, Jesus also invites us to share what we have and gives us meaningful work to do. Jesus asks all of us to contribute what we have so that together we might feed his sheep.
Who we are and what we do really matter. The gifts we have and the opportunities that present themselves to us are really important.
As parents, as friends, as employees, as volunteers, as citizens, as neighbors, as caregivers, Jesus says to all of us, “Feed my sheep. Look for opportunities to care for the people and the world that God loves so much.” Feed my sheep.
In 1981, in the midst of a distinguished career that included an Academy Award nomination for The Godfather, actor James Caan decided to take some time off. He took a six-year sabbatical from acting and the best part of it, he says, was coaching. Little League, T-ball, soccer. He began with his sons, but his passion soon became all-consuming, and he really cared about these kids he worked with.
“Don’t you miss the creative process of making movies?” he was often asked. Coaching kids was one of the most creative things he had ever done, he says.
One boy in particular still sticks in Caan’s memory, many years later: a nine-year-old named Josh, the son of a single mom. “He was a big kid,” Caan said, “and he just couldn’t hit the ball. You could see the kid’s head was down and he was ashamed.” Caan spent hours with the boy, working with him one-on-one on hitting.
Caan tells the story:
The next to last game of the year, Josh comes up to bat. The week before he had popped up to the pitcher with the bases loaded. He felt terrible. Anyway, he gets up, and he just creams the ball. I mean, he creams it. And the kid starts running toward first and down toward second. I’m on third, coaching third base, and he looks up at me – I’ll never forget it as long as I live - and there were tears in his eyes. He ran home, stopped just before the base, then jumped up in the air and landed with both feet on the plate. He put both fists in the air, and he looked up at God. The whole dugout cleared out to hug him.Caan continued, “Nothing replaces that. Nothing in the world. I mean, to literally change a kid. That was the best time of my life.”
“Feed my sheep.” You might think that this command of Jesus was just for Peter. Or just for missionaries, or preachers.
I don’t think so. I mean, we are talking here about a guy who put his clothes on so he could jump in the lake. This is not an exclusive commissioning; it is for all of us.
We are all called to serve. We are all called to share the Good News. Jesus says to us all, “Feed My Sheep.”
And here is the deal: we don’t always do that very well. We can fail spectacularly. But Jesus does not give up on us. Ever! Rather, he invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment. And then Jesus calls us to contribute what we have and go out from here to serve the people that God loves so much.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Amen.