Great narrators have a way of keeping the audience’s attention all the way to the end of the story, and gospel writer John is no exception. His carefully organized account of Jesus’ life and ministry left some loose ends. The great climax of the story is the resurrection, of course, and afterwards John breaks our suspense with satisfying details.

In chapter 21, John relates Jesus’ appearances to his disciples in various settings. Late in the day of his resurrection, he visited his closest associates to confirm what they had heard after finding his tomb empty. Thomas (the Twin) missed the meeting and, when told later of Jesus’ coming, would not believe it unless he saw the Lord with his own eyes. . . . a loose end left dangling for a week until Jesus came back to present himself to Thomas specifically.

In chapter 1, the disciples were curious about the new Teacher, who invited them to come and see what he did for a living. One by one, they responded to Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” Throughout his ministry, the twelve accompanied him on his preaching and healing mission. But now, after the resurrection, with Jesus out of their sight (most of the time), they are looking for something to do and decide to go back to fishing. The Man on the Beach calls out to them, gives them some fishing advice, and then invites them back to the shore for breakfast. Peter is already in the water, swimming the 100 yards to the beach, because it can only be the Lord who provides the miraculous catch of 153 fish! And what is Jesus serving? Bread and fish, just like on that day he fed five thousand people with five rolls and two sunfish. And very similar to the Last Supper. Another theme comes full circle.

But there was one more loose end to be tied up, and that had to do with Peter’s denial of Jesus during the night of the trials and scourging. Three times, Peter claimed to strangers that he did not know the Man being tried before Pilate. He was bitterly reminded of Jesus’ prediction of his denial when the cock crowed three times. Peter was not present for the crucifixion. He hid in the Upper Room in fear and confusion. He was paralyzed by what we now call an epic fail. Guilt. Shame. Disqualification.

The charcoal fire Jesus has ignited on the beach reminds Peter of the charcoal fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ home, where the trial was held. The site of Peter’s test is transported from courtyard to beach in an instant, and the Lord has some questions for the disgraced disciple.

15When 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.” 16A 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.” 17He 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.

Three times Peter is asked, Do you love me? And three times he says yes, erasing the record (so to speak) of his three denials. His hurt feelings indicate that Peter doesn’t yet perceive Jesus’ questioning as an offer of grace. In fact, Jesus is clearing the air with a particular purpose in mind, so that Peter can go into action to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep.”

At the heart of the gospel is forgiveness. The Lord gives second chances when we fail. He verifies our loyalty and commitment, and asks us, “Do you love me?” If our answer is “Yes,” then Jesus says, “Get to work on the job I have given you!”

If only we could do the same for each other. Despite the universal need for forgiveness and restoration—a fact that should induce empathy—we still have trouble forgiving and moving on with a person who has not lived up to our expectations. We are not sure we can trust a person’s expression of remorse and resolve. In the polarized climate of present-day America, the public shows little tolerance for mistakes or errors in its leaders. Business and political figures are forced out of office after one offense, with no time or opportunity to make something right. Neither the judged nor the judge in this case is perfect, and wisdom must prevail as we organize and govern ourselves. I wonder what difference it would make if we followed our Risen Lord’s example in the evaluation and support of our leaders. Can we discern their intentions, verify their loyalty and commitment to the good, and define what we expect of them? We should try!

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As we inch forward in John 21, I wanted to look at the developing story from the point of view of the Man on the Beach.

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So 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. 12Jesus 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. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Notice in all the post-resurrection appearances that Jesus initiates every interaction with his disciples: he appears in the Upper Room without an invitation, he “reveals himself” in Tiberius, he hangs out at the beach making breakfast and calls out to the fishermen. The guys are heading back to the old life, but Jesus beckons them to re-enter his story and to connect some dots in the plot. [John has brought a few loose threads into chapter 21, which we shall tie up in upcoming posts.] Once again, Jesus is calling them out of the old life and into something new.

What does Jesus say? “Children, you have no fish, have you?” (Jn 21:4). I have suggested that this was a gentle tease aimed at proud fishermen after a bad night. But Jesus is also bringing up a lesson he had demonstrated before. Could it be that he was initiating a review of a previous teachable moment? Hear the story as Luke tells it:

4When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 10:4-11)

Jesus commanded Simon Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets. The professional fisherman said, “Hey, we’ve been at it all night and caught nothing. But if you insist . . .” [Can’t you just hear the sarcasm?] Peter had failed in his area of expertise, coming up empty after a full night’s effort, but he did as the Lord commanded and put down the nets. This time, to his shock and awe, they filled to overflowing! [Is the story sounding familiar now? Is it possible that the Man on the Beach is dropping hints that today’s post-resurrection lesson is a review of that earlier one?]

In both Luke and John, Jesus performs a miracle to make the point that without him they can’t catch fish. Both accounts end with a spectacular haul of fish leading to a confession of faith. In both cases, a disciple is responding to Jesus’ demonstration of power over nature, which for a Jew is definitely “God” territory!

But Jesus turns the attention back to Peter by saying, “From now on you will be catching people,” or in the more familiar translation, “from now on you will be fishers of men.”

Ah, so do you think (as Dale Bruner does in his commentary The Gospel of John) that the post-resurrection beach party is an evangelism lesson? Here is what Jesus says to the disciples on the beach:

Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish] (Jn 21:6). Jesus is teaching them that if they follow his lead and go where he sends them, they will find people who want to know the Savior. Jesus is teaching us that there are still people out there in our world who want to know Jesus, and we may very well be the ones who introduce him to them! I was summoned to the hospital awhile back by a gentleman who’s health crisis had turned into a faith crisis. Raised by an atheistic mother, he had no faith. And yet, in the last five years of her life, his mother had professed faith in Jesus Christ, and her life was transformed. He wanted to know how he could learn more about what she believed.

Bring some of the fish that you have just caught (21:10). Jesus expects that the disciples—charged with going out to preach, teach, and baptize (Matthew 28:19f)—will gather to Jesus those who believe and want to be part of the fellowship. Jesus is the one who empowers the catch, but their participation in the process is essential within God’s plan. Jesus expects that we, too, have a contribution to make toward Kingdom fellowship. Whom are we bringing into the Lord’s presence?

Come and have breakfast (21:12). Jesus invites the people his disciples “catch” to have fellowship around the table where the Lord presides. The sacramental act of sharing a meal—bread and wine, or bread and fish, or maybe a hamburger and beer—as friends around Christ’s table is sacred. We should do it more often! For the last ten years I have worshiped and assisted in a church that celebrates communion every week, and now am in fellowship at a church that conducts communion monthly. My spirit is hungry for more of the sacred meal.

4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He 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. 7That 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. 8But 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. (John 21:4-8)

Yesterday’s post stopped the action in John’s post-resur- rection storytelling, in order to appreciate the fact that Jesus’ disciples found themselves wanting to get back to “real life.” So they set out fishing; bobbing on the Sea of Galilee they are in their comfort zone and earning a living. But these professionals are unable to catch any fish this night.

So, tired and discouraged, the fishermen see a figure on the beach. They don’t recognize him, but he calls out teasingly, “Bad night, huh? You caught nothing?” I’ve seen and heard fishermen josh each other like this; you have to have thick skin to withstand the humiliation of an empty net. But it is always wrapped in empathy, because every angler has been there.

The Man on the Beach calls out again with a suggestion to cast the net on the other side of the boat. I wonder what Peter and his crew were thinking: Gee, why didn’t we think of that? or Who does he think he is? or Really? You think moving the nets five feet is going to make a difference? Apparently the suggestion is accepted, as the disciples haul the net up and over to the other side without verbalizing any resentment or doubt. Immediately, the net fills with fish, and the catch is so heavy they can’t even lift it into the boat! At this moment, John recognizes the Man on the Beach as the One who had fed the five thousand souls with five loaves and two fish, as the One who had turned water into wine, as the One who was raised from the dead. “It’s the Lord!” Forget the fish! Eager Peter dives into the water in order to greet the Savior face to face.

This passage contains several gentle reminders of the surprises that await us from the Risen Christ.

  • Jesus is present, whether we recognize him or not. The mist may obscure our view, or our expectations may be low. In any case, Jesus is closer than we think! He can see what is happening and recognizes our struggles. He is not compelled to jump in to fix our messes or correct our techniques, but he is watching and is quietly available.

  • Jesus can do anything better than we can, despite our expertise. It is so important for us to appreciate how competent Jesus is. Dallas Willard says it best:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent. We cannot pray for his help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matters we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.
And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? (Divine Conspiracy, 94).

  • When Jesus does something, the result can be spectacular. I have had occasions of writer’s block, analysis paralysis, and obvious incompetence, but as long as I insist on doing a task myself without help, God actually steps back. But if I ask for help, Jesus enters in with aid, ideas, energy, and power. The outcome is significantly better than I could have expected on my own and therefore God must get the credit!

  • We (sometimes) recognize Jesus after the fact of his intervention, but forget to ask him for help beforehand. How many times a day do I muddle through an issue or problem without asking for God’s help? When I finally remember to pray, and God answers in some observable way, it is face-palm time. Why didn’t I ask earlier?

  • Sometimes, we can be casting our nets in the wrong direction, investing in a course of action that cannot bear fruit. Jesus wants to redirect our efforts to those that will be successful. We may have been praying for something that is not God’s will. We may have attempted a logical career path, but Jesus had something unusual in store for us. The fact is, in our fallible state, we do make mistakes. We’re not referring to moral error here, just plain mistakes. I mean, there was nothing wrong with the disciples fishing from one side of the boat. In this case, I think Jesus was having a little fun with them and wanted to teach them a lesson about his ability!

You and I may not need fishing lessons, but we do need life lessons. The Risen Christ is present, teaching us those lessons, inviting our trust in his abilities, and is ready to act for his glory and our benefit. Just a reminder: if Jesus had died and not risen again, nothing I have written here would be true. But Jesus is alive, hearing our prayers, helping us, teaching us, and loving us!

 

How Can Jesus Top That?

April 25, 2017

For fifty days following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ continued to interact with his disciples and appeared to hundreds of people. More detail is given in the gospel of John than in the synoptic gospels, so I am going to take a leisurely pace through the last chapter of the fourth gospel. I’m interested to know how our Teacher and Lord could possibly top his “performance” on Easter Sunday. What can disciples expect after such an amazing feat, Jesus’ mic drop moment of all time?

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon 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. [John 20:30–21:3]

The fourth gospel writer, putting pen to parchment a few decades after the other three had rendered their accounts, summarizes his purposes in verses 30-31. He first states that Jesus did lots of other things—miraculous demonstrations— that John has not included in his account. Mentioning this fact suggests that John had picked the best stories to share, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of what you have heard in people’s Christian testimonies, it is likely that Jesus has done even more to make himself known and present in a person’s life! Keep that in mind the next time you share your own testimony or hear how Jesus has made a difference. And that is not even taking into account all the secret and invisible blessings God is imparting without our knowledge. No one book can contain it all.

John then writes that the stories he related in his gospel account were included to convince his readers that Jesus is nothing short of Messiah, the Son of God. This is the lens through which one should read the entire book: how does an event or this particular episode demonstrate Jesus is divine and sent to us on the messianic mission of salvation? John would not be satisfied if your conclusion to his writing was that Jesus was a very good man, a great teacher, a rabble-rouser who spoke truth to power, or a particularly effective physician. Of course Jesus was all these things, but John’s message is, “But wait! There’s more!” Jesus wasn’t just anybody; Jesus was God’s Son who took on flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:14) in order to do what was necessary to save the world (Jn 3:16). Notice how John points us back to his book’s introduction: “See, here is what I wanted you to know, and I think I conveyed it convincingly.”

It might feel like chapter 20 is the end of the story. But John goes on to relay some natural encounters that might even seem a little common to be included at the conclusion of his book. After all the resurrection excitement, we see the disciples decide it’s time to get back to fishing. Peter leads the stampede to the boat, showing leadership even then. The fish of the Sea of Galilee are caught at night, so that evening they rig their boat and prepare their nets, and then row out to the perfect spot for a good catch. They are pros at this and have full expectation that their nets will fill. Alas, they catch nothing all night.

I’ve stopped the action at this moment just to give us a taste of what that felt like. I’m not sure they expected to catch fish every time they went out. (I know my husband has high hopes when he goes out in his kayak to fish, but there are too many variables for him to assume that he will catch anything.) Here they are, coming up empty after losing a full night’s sleep trying. I would not be happy about that outcome at all, so I expect these guys were pretty disappointed.

My thought, in light of this fruitless foray onto the lake, is that life after knowing the risen Christ is still going to carry disappointments. As “life goes on,” circumstances will be imperfect, even mundane, and success may be elusive. Believing and knowing Christ does not guarantee that struggles desist. It is important for us to modulate our expectations about what salvation accomplishes in our life. We may still have financial strains. We may still get sick. Our car might still break down. Those things happen to everyone, even Christians.

What does change, for sure, is our attitude toward the difficulties of life and discerning whether they have any meaning. It should also prod us to pray and ask God for help, rather than rely solely on our own expertise—these guys were professional fishermen, after all— and Jesus will intervene in this particular problem shortly. We’ll explore how and to what end tomorrow. For now, let us appreciate the fact that our having difficulties does not disprove or discredit our Savior’s accomplishments, teachings, resurrection, or power. This may seem like a tough sell, so we will keep exploring this theme through John’s eyes this week.