It’s my favorite story in the Bible.
On the surface, it’s a lovely, endearing episode in the post-Resurrection life of Jesus: he makes breakfast on the beach for his tired and bewildered disciples. Push a little bit deeper, though, and we see that it paints a picture of the paradoxes inherent in the Christian experience.
Who is Jesus? Who are we? What does he reveal? How do we respond?
It’s kind of strange that John 21 should be one of my favorite chapters in all of the Bible. My training and work have taught me to appreciate precedent, and clarity, and form criticism, and historical context – I like to know why things were written down and where they fit – and we don’t know much about this chapter. It seems to have been added on as a kind of last-minute appendix by a writer or editor.
After all, the preceding Chapter 20 of the gospel sounds like its conclusion, right? “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But [the foregoing] are written 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.” Done, the end, we’re finished, we understand, right?
And then Chapter 21 begins -- “After these things, Jesus showed himself anew” – and we’re off again. Someone, writing or editing this book, decided that there was something else we need to know about, and we get a chapter that includes all the elements characteristic of the gospel of John: signs, discourse, and narrative. We have a striking sign of God’s presence and project: the empty nets, suddenly weighted down with fish, so many fish that it seems impossible that the nets won’t break, but they are in fact hauled safely to shore. We have an instructive discourse in the last half of the chapter, those well-known words of Jesus in which he tells Peter to care for his sheep. And we have the narrative at the beginning of the chapter – and that’s what we’re going to focus on tonight.
The strange and lovely narrative featuring the sudden and unexpected appearance of Jesus on the shore, the recognition of the impossible by the disciple whom Jesus loved,the impulsive – as always – response made by Simon Peter, and the meal of bread and fish cooked over the fire by the One who is always preparing and serving meals for those whom he loves.
I think that one of the reasons I love this story so much has to do with memory. For many years, our family vacationed each winter at St. Augustine Beach, Florida. When the children were small and out on that wide, wide expanse of beach very early in the morning – VERY early in the morning – we would often witness small fishing boats coming in at low tide and spreading their nets across the sand. It was exciting for the kids, as the nets were usually filled with various forms of marine life that they could toss back into the sea – rays and blowfish and tiny hammerhead sharks and other creatures not sought after by local dining establishments – and there was lots of noise and action as the gulls and pelicans swooped in.
The children who swarmed with delight across the beach probably didn’t see what an adult might have: the reality of the lives of the fishermen – long nights, hard work, little recompense. Having observed those boats and watched those tired men makes it easy for me to imagine the disciples, demoralized and hungry after a failed night back at work after having followed an apparently failed messiah for three years.
And then – there he is.
The Greek word on which this passage hinges is phanaro – the verb reveal, show, make known.. Jesus reveals himself to the disciples – for a third time. And each time is both very dramatic – and deeply human.
Twice he appears in the upper room, in which the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearful of the repercussions likely to be visited upon them for having been followers of the crucified insurrectionist. The first time he suddenly stands among them; the second, he returns for Thomas, who missed the initial appearance and refuses to believe anything he hasn’t seen for himself. It seems that he just appears – as he does on the beach.
These appearances tell us two paradoxical things about Jesus. They reveal two things about Jesus. One is that he has moved into a life beyond space and time as we know it. One of my seminary professors explains – as much as anyone can explain – this mystery as one that we might understand in terms of dimensions.
We ourselves experience four dimensions, three of space and one of time but: imagine that we experience only two dimensions of space, length and width, despite the fact that three exist. Imagine that you are a flat piece of paper, just two dimensions of existence. Now, a finger, a three dimensional object, is waving in the space above you – space also being three-dimensional. You have no idea that it’s there until the tip of the finger comes to rest upon you, the piece of paper, and you experience its presence as a flat object touching your own flatness. Then – the hand is raised and the finger vanishes – to where, you have no idea, even though it may be still there, in the air just above you.
There are thee dimensions to space, but you – we -- are cognizant of only two of them. So it is with us and Jesus – there are dimensions of which we are aware, but he now lives in others of which we are not – and so when he appears in a room or on the beach, it seems that he has just arrived out of nowhere. He reveals his divinity in his capacity to transcend what we have come to accept as basic to existence, time and space as we know them to be.
The second thing about the Jesus reflected, revealed, in these appearances is that, despite the transformation of Resurrection, he still responds to his friends in a deeply human way. He talks with them, shows them his wounds – lets Thomas touch them – and now he makes them breakfast. He doesn’t just reveal himself as if by magic – now he’s gone, now he’s here! – he reveals himself as he always has, as a human companion, marked by the physical scars of suffering, longing to be known and understood, eager to offer a meal, wanting to serve and inspire service in return.
And what about the other two characters upon whom we’re focusing?
The disciple whom Jesus loves responds to Jesus with a simple statement of recognition. “It is the Lord.” He doesn’t move; he doesn’t urge the others to row faster. He simply becomes aware, deeply and completely aware of the compelling presence on the beach, and communicates that gift of recognition to Peter. Peter, on the other hand, responds with decisiveness and action – or, one might say, with impulsivity and abandonment of caution. He’s so excited that he leaps into the water and wades ashore, boat and companions and fish forgotten.
And which of them are we? The contemplative disciple, or the energetic one? I suppose that most of us lean one way or the other -- but as a community of faith we need to hone both approaches. We recognize that some of us have singular strengths only way or the other, and that some of us are profoundly well-balanced individuals, and that some of us are in flux. There is much to see- and savor – and communicate – is the response of the Beloved Disciple the preferable one? But there’s so much to do that perhaps Peter has the right idea: Get moving! A little water won’t hurt you.
Truthfully, both – both the contemplative and the active – are essential responses to the presence of Jesus.
When I was doing my summer CPE chaplaincy, I met a woman one afternoon who had just received a devastating diagnosis of a stage four cancer that would end her life within a matter or months or, more likely, weeks. She was processing information so rapidly that she made my head spin -- talking about her husband and adult children, how they would respond to her death, the dreamed-of daughters-in-law and grandchildren whom she would never see. She was not, however, thinking about things to do. She was planning ways to be. In fact, she was already be-ing the woman she was going to be for the very short rest of her life: aware of and able to articulate God’s goodness in the gifts she had received, and hopeful that God would remain present to her family and friends. There was a lot of the Beloved Disciple in her, sitting in the boat and saying, “It is the Lord.” Saying it to me, the chaplain who was supposed to be there to help her. Reminding me of the importance of recognizing and naming the presence of God.
That same summer, I met another woman who was waiting for a kidney and liver transplant. She wasn’t on one of my regular floors; I encountered her one evening when I was on call for the entire hospital. We hit if off, and so I kept an eye on her progress – she was, from the standpoint of outward appearance, in reasonably good shape when I met her, and then she was in very critical shape when I stopped by immediately after her transplant surgery. And then one afternoon a week or so later I went up to her room and there she was, in jeans and a t-shirt, looking the picture of health and packing up her things to move next door to the hotel where transplant patients are monitored for a couple of weeks before they go home. The transformation was dazzling. “I’m going to start a support group when I get home,” she announced cheerfully. “I have a list of people to call and I’m going to get going as soon as I can. There’s a lot I can do to help people going through something like this.” A Peter kind of person, for sure.
Now, it’s not as if either of these women were all one or the other. They were both articulate and take-charge women of deep faith – I can easily imagine the woman about to lose her life sitting in her kitchen making lists of things for her family to take care of after she was gone, and I can easily imagine the support group founder deep in prayer and attentive to God’s presence as she began planning her next steps. Meyers-Briggs aside, we aren’t limited to one set of expressions of faith or one way of interacting with others.
As ministers and elders, all of us eager to serve God in and with our churches, we are invited to respond as both – to become attuned to God’s presence with us, and to act in response to God’s invitation to us. I think that we Presbyterians tend to emphasize the latter – although not always! A couple of months ago, Forest Hill hosted four Interfaith Hospitality Network families for a week. My own part was extremely small – I signed up for an overnight at the church – but as a result I was on the mailing list for the thank-you email that our coordinators wrote. What was most amazing were the emails that followed, from various volunteers, reflecting upon what it had meant to them to spend time caring for our guests. There was no question that the examples of both Peter and the Beloved Disciple had been followed. Folks had jumped into the water – maybe not as hastily as Peter, but they had prepared meals and played games with children and overseen meals and bedtimes. And then they had sat down at their computers and said, “We have recognized the Lord, revealed in those whom we have served.”
Jesus, both divine and human, reaches toward us with a presence that is beyond space and time and yet stands on the beach, issuing instructions for our labors and baking bread and fish to strengthen our bodies. He calls us to be the people we were created to be, knowing that the church, the world, needs us all, those of us whose task is to point to him and say, “It is the Lord” and those of us whose work it is to dash forward and act.
He seeks the response of both a Beloved Disciple –see, recognize appreciate, savor – and a Peter – jump, do, make, feed, heal, teach.
Are you sometimes one and sometimes the other?
Jesus Christ waits for you.
Are you almost entirely one or the other?
Jesus Christ calls to you.
Are you sometimes unsure, half in the boat and half out, seeing through eyes blurred by water and afraid of drowning?
Jesus Christ seeks you out.
Whoever you are, Jesus reveals a gracious God to you. Jesus wants you to recognize and to savor and to respond to his presence. He wants to replenish and nourish you; most of all he wants to affirm that you are loved.
You are sought after, you are cared for, and you are loved.
Thanks be to God.