John 21:1-19 “Redemption Places
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 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 after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to 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 there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish 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, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared 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.” 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. 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.”
This story is a "coda" story in the Gospels. John's gospeloriginally ended at the end of chapter 20 and this story was added later. Theologian Diana Butler Bass says it reminds her of the final Harry Potter book. You get the end and then you get "19 Years Later," a second ending. Biblical scholars believe the book of John was written just before the year 100 AD and this ending was added a decade or two afterward. Maybe even later. As strange as that sounds to our ears in a time when published manuscripts remain unchanged, it was not all uncommon in the time oral traditions and general illiteracy. The story was written down slowly, the Holy Spirit at work in that process.
But why two endings? What's the deal here? I think it is because Eastertide—this of resurrection celebration—is far more complicated than celebration alone. The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have generally “shiny” depictions of the post-resurrection time. Jesus is alive and the disciples rejoice! But John’s gospel isn’t quite so straightforward. There is rejoicing but there’s also ambivalence and sadness; unmet expectations and disappointment. I think this a story of loss and hope. Of holding on in bad circumstances. Of the endurance of love over despair. Perhaps John’s post-resurrection story mirrors our own—great joy at new life, at new chapters, at new beginnings. And yet for others, talk of resurrection feels like salt on the wound after the death of a loved one or community member. Maybe for you it is both at the same time. It feels so unfair that death and pain would be so near during Easter. Yet I think that is precisely what the disciples were feeling.
You see, between the years 66-136, Rome and the Jews were at war. The holy Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem had been laid waste by the ruthless Roman army. At that point in time, Christianity was more a less a Jewish sect. No one thought of it as a separate religion yet—not even the ones writing these stories. They were Jews, who believed their rabbi was indeed the promised Jewish messiah. It would take decades, and the slow inclusion of the Gentiles which the New Testament describes, until they were seen as a different religion. So when the Romans turned to vicious persecution of the Jews in Palestine, theological differences were given no consideration. This persecution was brutal, and it had a profound psychological impact on the emerging Christian movement.
You see, the first Christians thought Jesus was going to return quickly. They thought it would happen within a generation or so of his ascension, which is why they didn’t bother to write things down at first. It never occurred to them that there would be any need to pass the faith down to distant generations. But then Jesus didn't come back. The disciples and early followers began to die and soon, there would be no eyewitnesses left. So not only did Jesus fail to return and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, but things got worse and worse for his followers. They expected triumph but wound up in a bitter fight with their Jewish siblings as the Romans pressed in on both sides.
In the background of war and death, hope of resurrection faded. You can almost feel the despair in many 2nd century writings, like the books of 1 and 2 Peter. It is in the setting unexpected death and loss that this addition to John's gospel is written. There's no "glow" of resurrection here. It opens with the disciples who don't really know what to do with themselves. Even the sea they fish on is called by its Imperial Roman name—no longer the sea of Galilee, but now the Sea of Tiberias. They hardly know who or where they are.
So, what do the disciples do? What do these eyewitnesses to the resurrection and the greatest expression of God’s love do? They go back to their old lives. They go back to the patterns and lives they lived before they knew ever Jesus. They back to fish.
Their friend is dead, or maybe alive, they don’t seem quite sure, and their dreams are dead with him, so they return to the only thing they know. But now, they are bad at it. They fish all night and come up with nothing. Empty nets. The dark, the cold. The text says that they had stripped down to nakedness. It’s a picture of complete despair. Perhaps the same thing those early Christian followers were feeling. So, what happens next?
Jesus shows up on the beach at dawn. At first, they don't recognize him, but they follow a stranger’s advice anyway. Perhaps they were so discouraged at failing at the one thing they were supposed to know how to do that they were willing to try anything. They wind up catching a big haul of fish after he tells them to lower their nets, and a couple of them realize it is him!
The text goes out of its way to describe the fish because they are a very big deal. You see, back then, rich people ate fresh fish. Rich people treasured large fish. The text specifically says that they caught many large fish. They have reaped the riches of the lake. It seems that Jesus is reminding them that his is a vision of abundance and provision, not scarcity and fear. And yet he doesn't say sell the fish and get rich. He says, "Let's eat! Breakfast time!" This time, there is no Judas to sarcastically wonder if the profits could have been better served as money for poor. This time, the disciples are learning that lavish abundance is at the heart of who God is.
But again, the text goes out of its way to include another odd detail. Jesus is not only sitting by fire; he’s sitting by a charcoal fire. There is only one other time in the whole Bible that a charcoal fire is mentioned and when words occur infrequently in scripture, that’s a cue for us to pay close attention. As it turns out, the only other time that the New Testament writers reference a charcoal fire is a few chapters earlier in John 18, just after Jesus’ arrest. Only this time, it’s Peter who is warming himself by the coals and three times that night, he denies ever knowing Christ. The charcoal fire is the place of Peter’s deepest, darkest shame. It’s the place he never wanted to return to, let alone with Jesus. Peter must have wanted to stay far away from anything that could remind him of his shame; to hide that story from everyone, even from himself.
And yet, it is at the place of his deepest shame that the Risen Christ chooses to meet him. I had a professor in seminary who always used to tell us, “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Peter’s denial of Christ could have been a dark secret that Peter let fester like an untreated wound, but Jesus doesn’t give him that. Instead, he meets him at the very place of his shame, as if to say, “even this place can be redeemed.” It’s a reminder that there is no one, no place beyond God’s redemption. The charcoal fire that once was a reminder of the place of Peter’s worst failure now has become the reminder of when he sat face to face with the risen Christ.
It is after the disciples’ dark night of confusion and despair, after Peter’s betrayal and failure, that Jesus invites them to a feast, where they eat the big fish. They eat the fish that should have been eaten by the elite, by people like Herod and Pilate and Caesar. They are poor and in despair, but Jesus feeds them as if they are the most important people in the world. This is not a meal cobbled together from supermarket rejects or day-old baked goods. It’s a thanksgiving feast that is a clear contrast the imperial feast of Caesar’s court where large fish would have been a gourmet course. An imperial feast would end with people declaring their loyalty to Caesar, based on fear of violence and death. Because if Caesar invited you to dinner, you owed him everything. You owed him an infinite debt of gratitude, one that could only be repaid by giving your whole life to the Empire. No exception, no choice.
But that's not what happens with Jesus. He feeds his friends with no strings attached. God’s love does not demand our loyalty. It invites something different. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Caesar would never do that. Caesar asked: "Do you fear me?" "Do you obey me?" "Do you worship me?" But love? Love cannot be coerced. Love cannot be mandatory. Love cannot be forced. Love cannot be any of things that Caesar demands.
Jesus asks again, "Do you love me?" and Peter says, of course I do. And then, a third time he asks using a different Greek word for love, as if to say, "Peter, do you cherish me?" And this time Peter is hurt because why would Jesus need to ask him again? Does Jesus not believe him? But still he answers again, you know that I love you. At this charcoal fire, these three questions, Peter answers correctly. Jesus of Nazareth? Yes, I know him. I love him more than these.
An imperial feast was a feast of fear, but a Jesus feast is a feast of love and it is one that can take place even at the edge of the sea of despair. Jesus’ feast is not far removed from pain, from helplessness, from shame; it is right in the midst of it. There on that beach the humble, ordinary disciples are exalted by love. They dine like kings, without threat or fear. They eat without expectation of repayment or ownership. They eat because they are loved and cherished by God. This is what they will "fish" for the rest of their lives. They will set God's thanksgiving feast at tables that include people they could have never imagined.
The empire seems to have won. Death is strong. They are at a loss as to what resurrection means. So rather than tell, Christ shows us. This is what it means: breakfast at the edge of the sea. Broken places made whole. Shameful memories not erased but transformed. And feasting like the richest people in the world who are free from violence.
People of God, there will be a feast without fear. Because there already has been. It isn't just the future of the world, but it is the past. It already happened. Jesus held his banquet on the beach and with it, sadness, shame, and fear ebbed away with the tide of being cherished. Of being loved. Of forgiveness and restoration. The thanksgiving feast comes in with the dawn. Even after the deepest darkness of empire's death grip. In the wake of the new day, after feeding and sharing oaths of love, Jesus says again, "Follow me."
Follow this way. This is the way to the gracious feast. The feast of true victory, the feast that has already begun. Follow me. You are invited. Sit. Eat. And that is what Christians say both in the face of death and in the joy of new mornings.
Sit and eat. Partake of God's endless abundance. The table has seats for those gone before, those sitting on the beach even now, and all those yet to be born.
Come and feast. Love and cherish one another.
Make sure all are fed.