His Story, Our Story
When I was in seminary I had this realization that if all one had and knew was this one and last chapter of the Fourth Gospel that would be enough to tell pretty much the whole story of Jesus. The details of this final episode remind one of so many other dimensions of the good news of Jesus Christ.
For instance, after a difficult week in Jerusalem, and a fearful one at that, seven of the disciples decide to go fishing – which takes us back to the beginning of the story. We are told it is daybreak – that is light is coming into the world after a week of darkness. In his light his disciples can complete their work. One of the seven, Nathanael, is mentioned for the first time since chapter one when he is told, after Jesus recognizes him immediately, that he will see “greater things than these” – a theme that repeats itself later in John when he promises that we as disciples of Jesus will do “greater things” than he did, setting the bar for discipleship rather high indeed. At least four of them were fishermen to begin with, and it was while they were fixing their nets that Jesus called them to join him in a mission of love to the world – the whole world.
While their efforts were not being rewarded, someone appears on the shore. The reader knows it is Jesus; they do not. Often throughout the four gospels, and most especially in Mark, the disciples are depicted often as not really knowing who Jesus is, when outsiders who are blind, demon possessed, Samaritans, tax collectors and what-not recognize immediately who this is. Yet, his appearance on the shore serves to remind us that Jesus’ presence is still with us, his beloved community of love.
This stranger on the beach, astonishingly, knows that they are catching no fish. Which in the longer arc of the gospel proclamation can be seen as a good thing since they are meant to be “fishing for people.” Nevertheless, this stranger tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat “and you will find some.” Boy do they ever! So many fish are in the net that “they were not able to haul it in!” One thing about Jesus is that wherever he goes, whatever he does, abundance seems to follow: feeding 5,000 with few resources, turning 180 gallons of water into wine (good wine at that!), dismissing “legions of demons. Jesus always provides abundantly for those in need. We and the disciples have seen such abundance before.
Suddenly an unnamed disciple “whom Jesus loved” cries out, “It is the Lord.” After long consideration of all the possibilities – John the evangelist, Peter, the Samaritan Woman to name just three – I have come to the conclusion that anyone who reads, hears or lives out of this story is the “beloved disciple.” That is, the beloved disciple is you and me.
My favorite part of the story comes next: Peter is so excited that he puts his clothes on and THEN jumps in the water to swim to shore. He who refused to let Jesus wash his feet. A reminder as well of the baptism of John in the River Jordan. The others follow in a more conventional manner by boat, hauling the net full of fish with them.
Once on shore there he is, now sitting at a charcoal fire with fish already on it, and bread. Peter had denied Jesus three times while standing by a charcoal fire warming his hands. Jesus fed the 5,000 with bread and fish. There is evidence that in the early church there were bread and fish Eucharists. Jesus invites them to bring some of their fish to join with his saying, “Come and have breakfast!” Always the host, Jesus welcomes all to his table, to his meal, to his party. It may seem unnecessary to bring more fish, but this aligns the work of the disciples with the work of Jesus. This time their work consists of “drawing in” the net.” The word “draw” or “haul” had been used back in chapter 6 (“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father…”) and chapter 12 (“And I, when lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”).
By now, we are told, they know who it is, but no one says a word. Perhaps a reminder that post-crucifixion and post-resurrection it was dangerous to be a disciple of Jesus in the Roman Empire.
Or, perhaps a reminder of the sort of humble “fear of the Lord” being in the presence of the Almighty demands at all times and in all places – the kind of humility one wishes more Christians would display today. Then “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish” – the third allusion to the Feeding of the 5,000 and, notes the editor, the third time he appeared to the disciples “after he was raised from the dead.”
Three. Three is a magic number. Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity you get three as a magic number: The past, the present and the future, Faith, Hope and Charity, the Heart, the Brain and the Body all give you three….Yes, it’s a magic number.
And so the Jesus of breakfast on the beach asks Peter, a stand-in for you and me beloved disciples that we are, three times, “Do you love me?” That is the question for us all. And how are we to show this love of Jesus? “Feed my lambs….Tend my sheep….Feed my sheep…,” And oh yes, in your spare time, “Follow me.”
Which fits the epilogue: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down the world itself could not hold the books that would be written.” Because if we, like Peter and the other disciples align our work with his, the ongoing work of his life is written in ours.
So that’s my take on chapter 21: if you could remember only one chapter of all the gospels, this is the one to remember. It contains all the essential elements of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. With just this one episode we have all we need to know about Jesus without reading books, watching movies and all the rest.
With just this one episode we have all we need to do “greater things than he did,” and write all those books with the story of his life in ours, our life in his – so many stories that the world itself cannot even begin to hold them! Amen.