Easter 3C 2019

John 21:1-19

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


I have told you this story before but want to tell it again in light of today’s Gospel reading.  It is the story of how I once got lost as a kid. 

We were at a church camp called Camp Ahistadi near Damascus. We were in the meadow down by the creek which flows beyond through the wooded mountainside. It was a parish retreat, I think so I was with my entire family and most of my church family.  We were finishing up our day and were playing one last game.  It may have been tag, or our more elaborate favorite, fox and hounds, or some new game, I don’t remember which, but there was a “get ready, get set, go” called and a group of about 12 children took off running scattered into the woods.

It was a sparse grove of tall hardwoods that seemed to have spilled out of a thicker forest beyond.  I took the lead ahead of my two best friends.  We were strategizing and giggling as we ran.  I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, probably trying to beat the boys to whatever the goal was, when it happened.

I stopped cold and realized that dusk is much darker in the woods than in the meadow I had just run from.  I was suddenly afraid to go on and turned to tell my friends but they were gone.  It was as if they had vanished into thin air.  I guess they found the ball, or whatever the goal of the game was or the game had ended, and they had returned to the meadow.  But I was left behind.  I could see no one.  In fact, I was very much alone in the dark woods.  I could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed miles away.  I stood there frozen, aware only of my panting breath and the touch of a cool evening breeze from the creek nearby. I was suddenly afraid and suddenly very aware of the dangers of the woods.

All I had to do was follow those voices back to our camp where my mother would hug me and my father would carry me to the car.  All I had to do was follow the still laughing voices of my siblings and friends.  And I did.

But for that brief moment, I was lost.  And I knew it.  And I realized how easy it would be to get lost for good and not have such an easy way finding home.

Today’s Gospel lesson is packed full of wonderful images of the resurrection of our Lord.

This part of the story takes place about two weeks after the resurrection and so two weeks since the first two appearances of the risen Lord, according to John. The disciples are gathered by the Sea of Tiberias, another name for the Sea of Galilee. Simon Peter decides to go fishing and the rest of them follow him.  They fish all night and catch nothing. Then Jesus suddenly is there but they don’t recognize him. Imagine, some stranger is standing on the shore a football field distance away and starts giving them fishing tips!  “Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’” I figure they’d have been shouting to each other at that distance, “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.”

Then one of them recognizes Jesus and Peter puts on clothes because he had been naked.  I guess nude fishing was hip in those days! So Peter puts on clothes and then jumps in the water. And while the rest of the disciples row the boat full of fish ashore, Peter swims this football field length of the way to the shore.

This all sounds crazy!  How bizarre Peter’s behavior is here! But I suppose that is the way excited people act. Peter swam because he was in a hurry to get to see Jesus.

But let’s back up a bit and look again at this narrative.

Why did Peter decide to go fishing on this particular night? Perhaps this was his way of regaining some normalcy after a week of horror. Just two weeks prior, the same night Jesus washed their feet, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Then later that same night, Jesus was arrested and then worse Jesus was crucified later that week.

Then, as we have been remembering these weeks of Easter time, there was an empty tomb.  Peter ran to that tomb and saw the lack of a body in it, saw it with his own eyes. And then the resurrected Lord started showing up in random places like in that locked room where they had hidden themselves for fear of also getting crucified.

Peter would have seen him in that room twice - once when Thomas wasn’t around and a week after than when Thomas was there.

One scholar attempted to put together a time line of the resurrection appearances of Jesus and got bogged down in the fact that each gospeler tells it differently.  So, the story of Emmaus, for example, when just a couple of them encounter Jesus and don’t recognize him at first, when he sits at table with them and celebrates the Eucharist, which is when their eyes are opened and they recognize Him in the breaking of the bread, this story is only in Luke’s gospel.

Post resurrection appearances in John, however, are more curious. The first was when Jesus appeared to Mary in the Garden (John 20:11-16). The second was when the disciples were in the locked room, later that same day, when Thomas was missing, and when Thomas returned, a week later was the third. Now another week has gone by and here Jesus is again.  Suddenly.  At dawn.

I’m left wondering what seeing Jesus on the beach that morning might have been like, especially for Peter.  Peter, who had denied him three times now sees him in person a third time and gets the chance to pledge his love to Jesus, three times.  “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” Three times.

When I got lost at Camp Ahistadi as a child I experienced the fear and pain of being isolated from the community, if for only one moment.  I knew for that moment what permanent isolation might feel like.  It occurred to me how much I needed my family and my community and the experience caused me to appreciate them even more.

When Peter denied Jesus three times he wept bitterly.  It is not until now in the story that we hear again from Peter.  In fact the only mention of Peter between his denial and weeping until this swimming to shore fully clothed moment was the part about him running to the empty tomb when he heard about it from the women on Easter.  But he didn’t speak then.  He just looked at the absence of Jesus and then he went home.

Peter must have been at the other two appearances of the risen Lord but maybe he didn’t get a chance to ask for forgiveness for having denied him three times.  I imagine that Peter, after another week has gone by is grieving and is feeling the pain of remorse, the shame of his denial.  I imagine he was feeling lost, and isolated from his community because of his shame.

So he decided to do what he knew best.  Fishing.  And his community joined him.  They all went fishing.  At night.  They were lost and grieving and confused and not sure what to do next so they did what was most comfortable for them, these fishermen.  They went back to fishing for fish.  They seemed to have forgotten how to fish for people.

Some scholars suggest that the decision of the disciples to go fishing at this point in the story indicates that they gave up on continuing to follow Jesus because they were thinking the death of Jesus was the end of the story.  If that is true, they must have doubted their first two encounters with the risen Lord.  Or, maybe it takes three encounters with a resurrected Jesus for it to finally sink in.

The Gospel of John begins and ends with the disciples following Jesus.  The first words that Jesus speaks in John’s unique version of the story are these:  Jesus’ first words are, “What are you looking for?” These are the same words Jesus spoke to Mary in the garden at his first appearance after the resurrection.  The other disciples went home after they saw the empty tomb. But Mary went back for one more look, she alone saw the angels and was there alone with these angels whom she mistook as gardeners and then Jesus appeared, whom she also mistook for a gardener, but he said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?”  (John 1:38b-42)

So the first words Jesus said were “What are you looking for?” “Come and see,” and then he changed the name of Simon to Peter at their very first encounter.  The next thing he said, on the next day, was “Follow me.”  The last thing he said, at the Ascension was “Follow me.”

My point is this.  Peter was transformed in his relationship with Jesus. When he first encountered our Lord his name was changed and so was his heart.  Immediately. But then he struggled throughout the next three years of following Jesus.  He muddled things and made mistakes and stumbled along.  But he kept following.

Until this dark night of his soul when he decided to go back to fishing.  When he was left with shame and isolation.

The disciples were grieving and hurting and then Jesus showed up and said, essentially, let’s have some breakfast.

How wonderful.

How stunning a way to appear, as the cook, the servant, the one who invites us to rest and eat and enjoy the breaking dawn.

The night is over. The abundance of the second attempt to bring in fish has proven their doubt silly.  Jesus showed them where to fish - on the “right” side.  And that is when they remembered they were called to fish for people. 

And Peter was transformed.  And he became the leader he was called to be.  He was never the same after that. From that day forward he was fearless and clear minded and open to the workings of the Holy Spirit who spoke and acted through him to preach and heal and spread the Word.

We too can be so transformed.  But we must meet the risen Lord at the feast first. And it might take three times. But where we feast, at this altar, that is where our doubt and grief and shame can be left behind like it was left behind on that beach that day for Peter, And we, like Peter, will find our way.  We will find the abundance of God’s gifts in our labor and in our hearts and we will know how to follow Him.