(Read John 21:2-3)
Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two more of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said, 'I'm going fishing.' They replied, 'We'll come with you.' They went out and got into the boat but caught nothing that night.
Despite their great adventure, they are back where it all began, in Galilee.
Somehow though, home looks different now. They have spent several incredible years with Jesus. They have seen what the miracle of love can do to a body and soul. They have found a friend in Jesus unlike any they have ever known before. They have walked through the last horrible week of his life in Jerusalem, watching helplessly as nails pierced his flesh. And most remarkably, they have seen the risen Jesus come into their midst.
But time has passed and nothing more has happened. Easter has come and gone and now back at a familiar Galilean beach, their high hopes give way to nervous minds tiring with each moment. Watching boats pass by and seeing fishers get their trim in line while casting them a look of pity, Peter can stand it no longer. He heads for an empty boat and the security of the life he once knew.
The other disciples follow right behind. As the distance between land and sea grows wider, you can imagine the freedom and relief they feel. But as John tells this Easter story, this is a trip at sea that is rife with more than the usual danger. Will the disciples get caught up in their old lives again, fall back to their old ways and attitudes and assumptions? Will they turn their backs on the great adventure of following Jesus for a more familiar life, a life seemingly more secure? As they move out from the beach will they decide, “We have dreamed our dream and it was only that”?
In the classic old Nevil Shute novel, On the Beach, the final world war has come. The world is lifeless, except for Australia, where fatal radioactive particles move closer each day. Shute reveals several relationships that develop over those last days. The selfless love given by Dwight and Moira is particularly impressive. As the radioactivity hits their town, Dwight goes back to his ship to die, and Moira sits in her car looking out to sea. Each one has a pill to take that will end their life before the radiation sickness gets too severe.
Shute ends his novel this way: “She took the cork out of the bottle. It was ten past ten. She said earnestly, `Dwight, if you’re on your way already, wait for me’. Then she put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them with a mouthful of brandy, sitting behind the wheel of her big car.”
The disciples head out to sea, not knowing what has become of their leader, wondering about the post-death encounter with Jesus. They are pulled and tempted by the familiar smells and feeling of the fresh sea breeze and are dangerously close to leaving their calling behind. In T.S. Eliot’s, The Hollow Men, we hear an echo of the disciples’ dilemma. Eliot writes, “In this last of meeting places-we grope together-and avoid speech-Gathered on this beach of the tumid river-This is the way the world ends-This is the way the world ends-Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Such are Eliot’s and Shute’s sentiments, but not John’s. Listen to how John continues his story:
[Read John 21:4-14]
When it was already light, there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus called out, 'Haven't caught anything, friends?' And when they answered, 'No,' he said, 'Throw the net out to starboard and you'll find something.' So, they threw the net out and could not haul it in because of the quantity of fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord.' At these words, 'It is the Lord,' Simon Peter tied his outer garment round him (for he had nothing on) and jumped into the water. The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net with the fish; they were only about a hundred yards from land. As soon as they came ashore they saw that there was some bread there and a charcoal fire with fish cooking on it. Jesus said, 'Bring some of the fish you have just caught.' Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and in spite of there being so many the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, 'Come and have breakfast.' None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, 'Who are you?' They knew quite well it was the Lord. Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish.
“When it was already light, there stood Jesus on the shore.” John refuses to end his beach story in dystopic desperation. John, the beloved disciple, sees that this is no stranger, but it is the Lord and tells Peter. Peter, stripped down for fishing, puts on some clothes and dives into the water, as impetuous now as always. Just hours before he led a hopeless band of believers back to the sea, back to their old way of life, and now, at the sight of the risen Jesus standing on the beach, he dives into the water leaving them all behind.
Once again, Peter is the patron saint of fickle faith, one minute ready to give up and return to the good ole days and the next minute ready to wave his hands in praise. Somehow, Jesus always seems to appear to Peter in his moment of greatest need.
You would think that Jesus would be finished with Peter, given his poor performance the night that Jesus was arrested. This Gospel has an altogether different story to tell.
[Read John 21:15-17]
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." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt 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.
“Do you love me more than these?” Listen to the words between the words, “Peter, once I called you and you responded, left all you had, all you knew, and followed me. But you are back at your old life again. Do the old ties tug hard at your heart? Are they pulling you away from me? Or do you love me more than these? You must decide between your old life and your new life. You must decide today in this most familiar setting. Peter, you are in danger of deserting me again and that is why I am here.”
The answer Peter gives comes too easily, too quickly, too impetuously. He has slipped away from Jesus before. So, the risen Jesus asks him a second time and then a third time. But the third time is too much for Peter. He knows he has failed his friend too often; he also knows, though he cannot prove it and much rises to mock the claim, that he loves his Lord through and in spite of everything. Can’t you hear Peter cry in desperation, “You know all things; you must know that I love you”?
At the end of the day, when you and I are the most honest with ourselves and with God, what more can any of us plead?
Keep listening because the breakfast conversation is not yet over.
[Read John 21:18-19]
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."
What remarkable words. Jesus sees Peter not as a miserable failure but as a treasured friend, a friend whom he chooses to forgive despite his blemishes, a friend who can yet learn the fine art of Christian love and can teach that art to others. He promises Peter a life of service and sacrifice and an unenviable death, and yet a life with far more meaning and purpose than Peter will ever find by returning to the all-too-familiar life at sea.
Some scholars say this drama on the beach never happened or did not happen as John tells it. What I am sure of is that it does happen whenever the Spirit of the risen Jesus finds you and me heading back to our old ways, our old attitudes, and our old assumptions. It happens when God sees beyond our fickleness and fear, soothes our weary and scarred souls and stirs us to unimaginable acts of tender mercy and forgiving love.
May the risen Jesus find you and me in the most unexpected moments in the coming week and may he continue to find us until we finally find our way home.