Commentary on John 21:1-19
Killing worms did not sound fun.
In fact it sounded down right cruel. I could not imagine forcing a fishhook through the slimy body of an innocent worm for sport or fun. But when I was seven years old, my Uncle Everett invited me to spend the day with him on his boat fishing. I had never gone fishing before and loved my uncle, so the invitation was accepted. But before we left he made sure I was ready for the day — I had to put the worms on the hook. I was appalled. I was scared my soul was in jeopardy or whatever a seven-year-old thinks about an endangered soul. So Uncle Everett asked, “Can you do it, kid?”
Evidently I wanted to go in the boat and spend time with him more than I was concerned with my soul. So I said yes. And off we went.
The first 30 minutes was exciting. I got to help gas and drive the boat and I learned about my uncle’s saucy speech habits. Then we started fishing and I was tasked with baiting the hook. And then it got exceptionally boring. We had to wait long periods for bites and several times we failed to land our catch.
I learned that day that fishing is not my thing. There is a lot of preparation, waiting, and disappointment in fishing. And this is exactly where we enter this text — in a moment of frustration for these fishermen. They have been fishing all night to no avail. They are tired and disappointed. They just want to go home.
Fishing – A Resurrection Appearance Story
This chapter of John is likely an addendum written by another, but the questions of its origin should not keep us from the richness of the images. In a story very similar to one in the Gospel of Luke (5: 1-11 which was a call story), Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together fishing in the Sea of Galilee (John 21:2). They have returned to their previous vocation and head back to shore with empty nets after some time fishing.
And there stands Jesus. His call to them is to go back out and try again and he gives them instructions as to the next step. He tells them to put the nets out on the right side of the boat. And they follow his instructions (verse 4-6). While the Lucan story is rightly called a commissioning story, this appearance to the disciples is the third (fourth if counting Mary Magdalene, who was not a disciple officially) resurrection appearance story in John. In this setting we experience a recommissioning of sorts.
The amazing thing to me is that the disciples did not know who he was at first but they went back out. Was it their desperation for a catch, a love of task, a desire for success, a sense of the specialness of the man calling them to return to their task, or something else? Whatever it was, they ventured back out and found huge success. Their nets were overflowing. They catch 153 fish (verse 11). Why that number? Many have guessed but it may simply imply all of the community of believers. The number for most simply implies that many were caught.
They have breakfast with the man they now recognize as Jesus. It is a Eucharistic event despite the lack of wine and that no Eucharistic celebration consisted of fish previously. And it is at this meal that they receive a recommissioning from the Lord. They are reminded who they are and what they were originally called to be. They are challenged to get back in the boat and try again — in more ways than one.
A student of mine was told by his supervising pastor, while out knocking on doors during an evangelism campaign, “Mike, you look like a man knocking on doors, hoping and praying no one answers the door.” That’s how many of us act at times when Jesus calls us to be disciples and to cast our nets again and again for the catch Jesus calls us to attempt. The disciples did as Jesus suggested, while we say, “Please let no one be home” or “Oh wow, I hope no one asks me about my faith.”
Following the call of Jesus means putting your nets back into the sea even though you are tired and had no success, it means knocking on another door even though you are hoping against hope that no one answers.
This is the kind of text that allows for some creative discussions of what church and ministry might look like if we dropped our nets on the other side and if we really followed Jesus. But you need to be attuned to your particular community to be true to what this call might look like lived out in your context.
Three Questions for Peter
The second part of this passage is related to Peter and his relationship to Jesus. Peter is mentioned first as one of the disciples on the shore in the earlier part of this pericope. This now allows for a conversation of great importance. Earlier, Peter denied Jesus three times (18:17, 25-27). And in this exchange, Jesus reinstates Peter into the fold by asking him three times to take care of his sheep (verse 15-17). Peter’s importance is being reinforced and his death foretold (verse 19).
As this exchange occurs, the other disciples, who had been so present in the fishing scene, disappear. This happens because the church, without Jesus physically present, needed Peter as the rock Jesus intended him to be. The call to “feed my sheep” — to love and lead Jesus’ followers — is an important moment for next step in the church to come (verse 15-17).
Preaching familiar texts like these can bring such amazingly creative possibilities. Embrace the reality of the fishermen doing something that might seem absurd to others and one who denied the Lord to become the rock that leads a church.