It was really encouraging when I discovered that, for most of this year, you have been learning from the gospel of John, as this is also where we have been preaching from in Baljaffray. Although I believe you have been in John 14 to 16, whereas we worked our way through chapters 1 to 13. So it seemed fitting that today I should take as my text this great passage from the end of John’s gospel when Jesus meets his disciples on the beach after his resurrection.
John’s gospel, as I’m sure you’re aware, always seems to be working on multiple levels at once as he tries to communicate his key truth - that Jesus is the Son of God, the very image of the invisible God - that wonderful quotation from Colossians that is on your noticeboard outside.
So whenever we open a passage from John, as we are today, we need to be looking at it through multiple lenses - not just what happens on the surface, but what meaning is John hinting at through the location - John uses geography more than any other gospel - his references to Jewish history, festivals and religious practice, symbols taken from Scripture, his use of numbers, and so on.
He often tells stories in ways that show great contrast - for instance the differences between the story of Nicodemus in John 3, a respectable Jewish man who comes by night to ask questions and leaves confused, and the Samaritan Woman in John 4, a foreign woman of ill-repute who meets Jesus by day, but becomes the first to proclaim the good news. Or we could consider the contrast between the man born physically blind and the spiritually blind Pharisees in John 9.
As we dig into John 21, we can immediately see some of these things at play.
Firstly, the story is located on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias - or the sea of Galilee as we’re probably more used to calling it. This might not seem significant at first, but if I told you that the sea only gets mentioned in 2 chapters of John, then maybe it might seem to be more important. The other passage - John 6 - contains 2 miraculous occurrences. The feeding of the 5000 which is then closely followed by Jesus walking on the water of the sea itself.
So - we’re at the Sea of Tiberias. In verse 2, John lists the names of some of the disciples who were, we read, together. But if you count the names listed, you’ll find that it is seven of the disciples who decide to go fishing and 7 is an important number for John: there are 7 “signs” that Jesus performs, 7 “I Am” statements that Jesus makes, and so on.
Actually, I suspect it’s less that seven disciples decide to go fishing, and more than one does and the rest follow. After all that has happened in Jerusalem over the Passover festival, in that tumult of emotion, Peter - ever the impulsive, but still a natural leader - says “I’m going fishing” and away they go. I wonder at this point whether or not the others know that Peter had denied Jesus 3 times, just as Jesus had predicted. I often wonder whether or not Peter had recognised the betrayal of Judas, or instead had thought that he himself was the traitor. Either way, there can be little doubt that the events of Easter would still be playing on Peter’s mind at this time.
And there are other memories that may have been in Peter’s mind that morning. Many of us will recognise this story as a parallel of the first calling of Peter that we find in Luke’s gospel, and there is definitely some merit in reading these two stories together:
Both stories involve a miraculous catch of fish. Both stories involve Peter in some form of confession and calling. Both stories end with Jesus telling the disciples to follow him. There are also some interesting distinctions - in Luke Jesus is in the boat, in John on the shore. In Luke the nets are breaking, but in John the nets are miraculously saved. In Luke, Peter falls to his knees once the catch is secure; in John he abandons the fish and the boat to run to Jesus.
But alongside this parallel to Peter’s first calling in Luke, there is another important echo here that is much closer to hand, as the events involving Peter in John 21 are markedly similar to the events involving Mary Magdalene in John 20. Both take place at dawn. In both stories neither Mary nor Peter initially recognise Jesus. And, much like Mary, I believe that, by heading back out onto the sea for fish, Peter was looking for Jesus in the wrong place. It is important that we hear some of these echoes here, particularly because I believe that John is deliberately drawing our attention to them, but also because these are not just stories, but Peter’s memories. These echoes, and other echoes from the life of Peter, help us understand the effect that this event would have been having in the mind of Peter, for it is Peter that this passage is focused on.
I’ve lost count of the number of films and TV series which contain a character whose story arc includes deep regret over their last words or actions to a beloved friend or relative before they die. The person who had an argument with their parent, or failed to arrive home to meet their spouse on time. And I’m sure that, whilst it’s become something of a cliche in the movies, it’s also a very real pain for many people.
Peter must have felt something like this - perhaps even worse - for John’s gospel records 3 interactions between Jesus and Peter in the last hours of Jesus’ life, and none of them would be pleasant recollections for him.
In the first, Jesus is washing the feet of the disciples. He comes around to Peter, who says “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus replies “If I don’t, then you’re nothing to do with me.” Peter then jumps in with both feet, as it were, “Wash all of me, then.” “Peter - you really don’t understand, do you?”
A short while later, in the second conversation, Peter declares that he would lay down his life for Jesus, but Jesus replies by telling Peter that he will deny him 3 times.
Finally, the guards come to arrest Jesus, and Peter - perhaps thinking he might make good on his previous declaration - leaps forward to attack with his sword. But, again, Jesus rebukes Peter - “Put it away Peter!”
Three painful memories for Peter, but they pale into insignificance compared to the memory that must be in the foreground of Peter’s mind as they bob on the water that night. The memory where Peter fulfills Jesus’ prophecy, and denies Him 3 times.
A weight of guilt and shame and grief.
And then Jesus is alive! What incredible joy. What unimaginable wonder! But, for Peter, how confusing?! What was his relationship with Jesus now? Does he still have a place amongst the disciples? What was he to do?
So he heads back out in the boat. Back to something familiar. Back to something that he knows that he can do. Back where things are simple and straightforward. But they catch nothing. And then the stranger on the shore - I bet the memories are beginning to fire again. The miraculous catch. The disciple whom Jesus loved recognises him first, but Peter, outrun to the tomb on Easter Sunday, will not be outrun this time. The nets, the fish, the boats - everything pales into insignificance compared to running to see Jesus. I wonder as he leapt into the water he was remembering that previous time in this place when Jesus had called him out onto the water?
But equally I wonder if his pace slowed as he reached the shore. As the smell of the charcoal fire reaches his nostrils. Our senses are so powerfully connected to our memories. Did the aroma of that fire call to Peter’s mind the charcoal fire he had sat around in the courtyard of the high priest, the very place where he had denied Jesus for the third time, and then the cock crowed. Dawn again.
So here we are. Another dawn. Another fire. Peter, elated that his friend is alive again, desperate to make amends - “Need some fish Jesus?, let me pull all 153 over” - but perhaps struggling to catch his eye because he is ashamed.
Breakfast over, they walk along the shore.
“Simon, son of John”. Did this sting, I wonder? Using his full name? Words that haven’t been spoken since the first chapter. Even more - not using the name “Peter”?
“Do you love me more than these?”
What a question to ask! Not merely, “Do you love me?” but “Do you love me more than these?” Are you still who you always were - still impulsive, still quick to act and talk? Has your failure dented your belief? “Yes, Lord, you know I love you”.
3 times, “Do you love me?”. And 3 times Jesus re-commissions Peter. He calls him once more into ministry. 3 times Jesus tells Peter that he is to look after Jesus’ sheep. Wiping away the memories. Healing the pain.
Whenever the memories of denial come flooding back - and I bet that they did for Peter - here is a memory that is just as powerful, just as connected. When the work of tending the flock became hard, this is the point of calling he can look back on.
This is no simple rebuilding of Peter’s emotional health, but a costly re-calling into Jesus’ own ministry.
And then, the kicker, “You were right Peter. You will give your life for me.” Remember - the last prophecy that Jesus had declared over Peter was that he would deny him three times. Now is the prophecy that John reminds us was to show by what kind of death Peter was to glorify God. Peter’s declaration of his faithfulness during the last supper was one of self-confidence; of bravado. Here on the other side, he’s all too aware that it was a sham; that he is bringing nothing to the table. And yet, despite all that has happened, Jesus commissions him again to be a witness even unto death. That through Jesus he might become all that he was not able to be himself.
Such a powerful story. And such an important one for us to learn from, because grace sits at the core of the gospel; repentance and forgiveness are so central, so vital to our lives as Christians, and to the message which we are called to share with the world. Repentance and forgiveness don’t sit as one-time events; the gospel is not restricted to that moment when we first make a commitment to Christ. Grace is not a glass of water we sip, but an ocean we swim in.
As we contemplate this passage, I want us to consider 5 things that Jesus said to Peter over the course of that morning, that I think are just as important and just as real to us on this morning 2000 years later.
It all starts with Jesus calling. I don’t know where you’re standing now, whether Jesus is far off, or near. But He is calling. He is calling you. Maybe, like Peter, you don’t recognise Him yet. Maybe in the early morning darkness, you can’t quite make the figure on the shore out. But he is there. He is calling. Calling you.
Perhaps, arriving at the shore, as your nostrils fill with the smell of charcoal, you too are reminded of your failings. Of the times when you weren’t able to follow through on your faith. When you did or said something you shouldn’t have. Or you stood back and kept quiet when you should have been bold. Even now, that slideshow of failure is playing back in your mind.
“Come and have breakfast” says Jesus to you. Because everything you need is already there. He doesn’t need you to bring anything. He doesn’t need you to be anything. He’s not fooled - as Peter says, he knows everything. Peter hauled to shore 153 fish, but Jesus already had fish on the fire, cooked to perfection, ready for eating.
“Come and have breakfast.”
It’s a call to fellowship, to friendship. There’s an intimacy about it too - let’s face it: most of us are not at our best at breakfast time! It’s the beginning of the day - a call to a new day, a new beginning, a fresh start. A call to share in what Jesus has prepared for you.
“Come and have breakfast.”
“Do you love me?” This is the question at the heart of the matter. This is a question that is a matter of the heart. It’s a question of the present, not the past or the future. Not “will you try harder”; not “are you sorry for the past.” “Do you love me?” What is your heart like?
So often throughout the life of Jesus, and, indeed, throughout the span of the Bible, people are confused about their hearts and their actions. The Pharisees were constantly trying to help people to obey the law by making everything so intricate and explicit so that you could know, at any specific time, whether or not what you were doing was against the law of God. The church, too, has spent much of its history trying to tell people how they must behave in order to please God.
But it’s all backwards. It’s backwards, firstly, because we have all failed to fulfil the law. No-one, other than Jesus, has ever succeeded. We all find ourselves wanting. The only way to be able to approach God is through Jesus, who paid the price for all our failures. And in doing so He offers us a new life - a new heart. And it is from that new heart that new actions flow.
Jesus’ question to us, therefore, is not “Have you been behaving yourself?” but “Do you love me?”
So - first the calling, then “Come and have breakfast”, then “Do you love me?” Fourthly, Jesus prophesies to Peter about his death. Whether or not Peter truly understood this is difficult to tell, but obviously John explains to us that this is what Jesus is referring to. Now - we’re not all called to martyrdom, but I think it’s important to understand that the Christian life to which we are all called is not one of only sunshine and roses.
Peter himself tells us this in his first letter - in chapter 4 verses 12 and 13 he says “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
Again and again throughout the New Testament we see and are told that the Christian life on this earth is not comfortable, or prosperous, or without danger or suffering. Quite the opposite. Indeed, according to tradition, John is the only one of the 11 remaining disciples who isn’t martyred for his faith. In fact, the word we translate as “witness” in the New Testament is the Greek word martyr.
That’s not to say that it’s all doom and gloom either. There is joy and laughter and adventure - it’s certainly not a life that I would give up for anything. And we have the firm promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us to comfort and strengthen and guide, even when we do endure what Paul calls “momentary afflictions.” But let us carefully consider the cost of the life that Jesus is calling us to.
Jesus’ final word to Peter in our passage is simple “Follow me.” Peter hadn’t blown it; he hadn’t lost his salvation, he hadn’t lost his chance at being the Rock that Jesus had called him to be. Far from it. He was only just beginning, as we know from all that is yet to happen in the book of Acts.
Neither have you blown it. Don’t give yourself too much credit. You’re not powerful enough to thwart the works of the almighty God. There is no sin so great that it cannot be forgiven. There is nothing you’ve done that can overpower the victory that Jesus won on the cross. Grace is far too amazing for that.
Follow me, says Jesus. Let’s go.