Gospel:  John 21:1-19


The Catch, the Meal, and the Commitment


What are you planning for vacation this summer?


It's almost vacation time! Time to indulge hobbies, time to share leisurely meal, time to renew relationships. For some, half the fun is planning the vacation. For others, half the fun is being with others on vacation. No matter. It's a time to escape the mundane, high-pressured existence to find a sense of self.


After the resurrection, Peter and his companions left the pressure of Jerusalem for their quiet roots in Galilee. There, doing what they did best, they encountered the Lord. In symbols that would paint the way they evangelized.


In this touching post-resurrectional narrative, the echoes of three gospel scenes weave together: the great catch of fish in the call of Simon Peter, the feed of the multitude with bread and fish, Peter's denial.


Literal Translation


1 After these (events), JESUS showed himself again to (HIS) disciples on the Sea of Tiberius, He showed (himself ) in this way. 2 (They) were together, Simon Peter, Thomas [called the 'Twin'], Nathaniel [the one from Cana in Galilee], the (sons) of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, "I am going (out) to fish." They said to him, "We are also going (to fish) with you." They went, got into the boat, and catch nothing during that night. 4 When it was already dawn, JESUS stood on the shore. The disciples, however, had not known that it was JESUS. 5 JESUS said to them, "Young friends, do you not have something to eat?" They answered HIM, "No!" 6 HE said to them, "Throw the net over the right side of the boat. You will find (fish)." They threw (the net) in and were no longer strong (enough) to haul (it in) because of the mass of fish. 7 Then, that disciple who loved JESUS said to Peter, "It is the LORD!" Simon Peter, hearing it was the Lord, tucked in his outer garment [for he was lightly clothed (as he fished)] and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples in the small boat came (to the shore), for they were dragging the net of fish, not far from land but just one hundred yards.


21:4 Why didn't the disciples know it was Jesus? The appearance of Jesus (and the recognition of his presence) belongs to divine initiative. It is not in the power of people to recognize the presence and activity of God. Such a recognition depends upon grace.


21:5 "Young friends" is literally "Children" (as in "small boys"). To an adult male, this might be considered a putdown. However, in John's first letter, the neutral term "Children" (can be male or female) is used 12 times as a term of endearment for Christians. While the connection of the author of John's gospel with the author of 1 John might be in dispute, the term was used in the early Christian communities.


21:7 "tucked in his outer garment [for he was lightly clothed (as he fished)] " is literally "belted his outer garment [for he was naked]." The text indicates Peter fished naked, then threw a belt around an out garment before he jumped into the water. The context, however, makes this interpretation suspect. Peter, like his contemporaries, wore clothing in layers, more in the cold evening, fewer in the hot day. Most likely, as Peter and his companions fished throughout the cold night, he would have been clothed with the maximum number of layers to retain heat. As the dawn broke and the temperature rose, Peter took off his outer garment to remain comfortable. (The term "naked" can also be translated "lightly clothed" or "clothed in undergarments.") When Peter prepared to jump in the water, he tied or tucked the outer garment in to keep it from getting wet. The verse indicated Peter dressed to meet the Lord.


Unlike the other resurrection stories found in the Gospels, this appearance took place in Galilee, at the so-called "Sea of Galilee" (which actually was a lake). In this story it is known as the "Sea of Tiberias" named in honor of the Emperor [1]. There are seven disciples in the story: Peter (the leader), the sons of Zebedee (James and John), Nathaniel (an early disciple who Jesus chose in John 1:45-50), Thomas (the doubter), and two others [2]. For Jews, the number seven represented fullness, so there was a "fullness" of the community present.


According to good business practice, Peter went fishing with the others at night. But they did not catch anything [3]. Reminiscent of Jesus' call to Peter at the beginning of his Galilean ministry, Jesus greeted the community at dawn and ordered them to cast their nets over the side. Such a great number of fish were caught, they had to be dragged to the shore [4-8].


Like much of John, these few sentences were packed with symbolism. The boat was an old symbol for the church; fishing at night represented a failing missionary effort. It must have felt like the night Jesus was dead in the tomb. But with the dawn, the Risen Lord was present, and with him came the great number of new Christians (represented by the great number of fish). According to some early Christian writers, the number of fish (153 in verse 11) represented all the known species in the world at the time; these fish represented all the peoples of the world, where the missionary effort should go (see Matt. 13:47-50). With the great catch, the Lord was recognized.


9 As they went onto the land, they saw a charcoal fire lying (there), small fish cooking on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, "Bring (some) out of the small fish you caught now." 11 Simon Peter went up and hauled the net onto the land, full of large fish, 153 (different ones). Being such (a large number), the net did not split open. 12 JESUS said to them, "Come, eat (breakfast with me)." Knowing it was the LORD, none of the disciples was bold enough to ask him, "Who are YOU?" 13 JESUS came, took the bread, and gave it to them. (HE did) likewise (with) the small fish. 14 This was already the third (time) JESUS, having been raised from the dead, showed (himself) to his disciples.


Bringing the catch with them, Peter and the disciples joined Jesus for breakfast of bread and fish [9-13]. A breakfast meal with the Risen Lord should have been Eucharist (bread and wine) but a meal of bread and fish was part of the early Christian tradition. The multiplication of the loaves and the fish (Matt. 14:15-21 & 15:32-38, Mark 6:35-44 & 8:1-8, Luke 9:12-17, and John 5:6-13), the appearance of the Risen Lord eating fish as a proof of the resurrection (Luke 24:41-43) and early Christian art in the catacombs (images of Jesus sharing bread and fish with his followers) were powerful witnesses to this tradition.


What did the meal mean to the early Christian community? As you read above, the fish represented new believers; the meal then represented the initiation of Christians, as they were incorporated into Christ and the community (represented by Christ and the community eating the fish). The image was Eucharist in reverse; instead of the believer consuming Christ in the Eucharist, the new believer is consumed by Christ. The inclusion of new believers into the Body of Christ (i.e., the community) brought new life (just as eating fish brought strength and nourishment to the body). The image of the bread and fish pointed out the close connection between Eucharist (bread) and baptism (fish). Scholars speculate that the Church leadership had a meal of fish and bread to celebrate the initiation of new Christians into the community.


Why don't we celebrate this meal today? In the ancient society, fish could be kept only for a limited time and traded only over a limited distance. When the disciples left the area of Galilee (where fish was a food staple) and moved into the Mediterranean world of the Roman empire, the meal could only be celebrated in the coastal areas. As the Church grew to inland areas, fish was not readily available. So the tradition quickly died out.


15 When they had ate the meal, JESUS said to Simon Peter, "Simon, (son) of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to HIM, "Lord, you know I love you." HE said to him, "Graze my lambs." 16 HE said to him a second time, "Simon, (son) of John, (do) you love me?" He said to HIM, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." HE said to him, "Shepherd my sheep." 17 HE said to him a third time, "Simon, (son) of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because HE said to him for a third time, "Do you love me?" He said to HIM, "Lord, you know everything. You know I love you." JESUS said to him, "Graze my sheep. 18 Amen, Amen, I say to you. When you were young, you belted yourself and walked around where you wanted. But, when you grow older, you will stretch out your hands; another will belt you and will bring you where you do not want (to be)." 19 HE said this signifying in what kind of death he will glorify God. Saying this, HE said him, "Follow me."


21:15-17 John used different wording to drive home the same point. Jesus asked for loving devotion ("agape" in 21:15-16) and companionship ("phileo" in 21:17). Peter retorted, insisting Jesus knew of his commitment ("phileo" in all three verses). Jesus responded with "grazing" the lambs in 21:15, "shepherding" the sheep in 21:16, and "grazing" the sheep in 21:17. Because the images are so close and the language in John is so loose, the words for love are synonymous, as well as the activity of the shepherd.


21:18 "you belted yourself and walked around where you wanted" Belting one's outer garment was the final step to prepare for the day's activities outside the home. The phrase referred to self initiative and independent mobility. It is a sly reference to 21:7 when Peter "belted himself" and swam to see the Lord.


21:18-19 Jesus used a proverb to indicate the death of Peter. According to tradition, Peter was martyred. Whether the description used in the proverb literally or figuratively referred to the way Peter died (upside down on a cross in the Caesar's circus yard in the Vatican) is a matter of dispute. However, command to love and to follow Jesus that acted as bookends to this proverb made it clear that Peter was to act as Jesus and follow Jesus on the road that led to death (and to resurrection).


The balance of the reading redressed Peter's denial of Jesus before his death. The Risen Lord asked Peter three times about his devotion; three times Peter professed his love for the Lord; three times, Christ instructed Peter to feed the followers [15-17]. Confirming Peter's choice, Jesus used an old proverb as a prophecy for Peter's death; when he was young, he was free, but now he has made his choice, he must live with the consequences of that choice [18-19]. Like Peter, a Christian's life of faith and service leads to death (to the world) and a new life (in Christ and his community).


No matter whether the believer is new or old, a pew sitter or a leader, the call of Christ is the same: "Follow me." Following Christ means evangelization and life in the community. Are we, like Peter, spreading the net for new believers and professing a true love for our Savior? Or are we on the sidelines watching others doing the work of the Church?


As you plan for your vacation this summer, remember the story of Peter and his friends. The way they spent their time, the way they celebrated their friendship (and devotion to the Lord), and the way they renewed their friendship spoke volumes about the level of their discipleship. Fishing, breakfast, and "discussions" may form a wonderful vacation. With the Lord, they can form unforgettable experiences that change us forever.


Begin to plan your vacation with prayer and plans to include the Lord on your journeys.