Ironically, at the end of John’s Gospel, we’re right back at the very beginning. Easter Day has come and gone, Jesus is alive, and has appeared to his disciples on at least two occasions, but the disciples have not yet figured out what to do with themselves. Seven of them, at least, have gone back home to Galilee. And I get it. I think I understand it. In the last month of their troubled lives they have experienced an extreme roller coaster ride of emotions, and they’re completely exhausted both physically and emotionally. They’re done in, they’re pooped out and they’re probably very confused.
This previous month for them began with a glorious emotional high. They were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. And as they neared the city, Jesus got himself on to a donkey, and he rode into the city like a victorious reigning and ruling monarch. It was wonderful. People were celebrating all around, shouting praises to God, and singing the glories of heaven, and the hearts of the disciples were stirred with hopeful anticipation. Perhaps now, finally, and at last, Jesus would fully reveal himself as the long awaited and fervently prayed for Messiah. Perhaps now the glory of Israel would be restored, and the promises of God would be fulfilled. You know, its always exciting to be a part of something that God is doing. And the disciples believed with all of their hearts that they were on the very edge of the most glorious thing that God would ever do, and to be a part of that must have been absolutely, unimaginably awesome and wonderful to the disciples. It must have felt really great. I’ll bet the goose bumps never left them as they made their way into the city of Jerusalem, it was that cool.
But, less than a week later, as Jesus hung suffering and dying on a cross of shame, those hopes, and that excitement and anticipation evaporated quickly and suddenly into thin air, and the disciples were plunged into the deep agony of despair and loss and grief. Jesus, whom they loved, Jesus to whom they had given three years of their lives, was dead. Do you suppose there was anger there? Do you suppose there was even a sense of betrayal? Only those of us who have experienced the death of a dear loved one can identify with the raging range of emotions that death conjures up.
But then, three days later, there was a rumor that Jesus was alive! Mary Magdalene had seen him! And spoken with him! And that night, as the disciples cowered in fear in the upper room where they had celebrated Passover with Jesus, Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you,” and they were overwhelmed with joy, suddenly dragged out and hauled up out of the darkness and the despair that had so powerfully gripped them.
But a week went by before they saw him again, and now, not knowing quite what to do, some of the disciples have gone home. And that makes sense. Home is what they know, home is the place where they can experience a little bit of normalcy. Home is where they can begin to sort out their troubling emotions. It’s trite, but it’s true: there’s no place like home. home is safe, and it’s comforting.
And so they’re home, and they’re hanging around together, still stunned, still unsure, and Simon Peter gets up and says, “I am going fishing.” And the others say, “We will go with you.” There’s normalcy in that, they were fishermen before they met Jesus, they know the trade, and for appearance’s sake, let’s call this a fresh start for the disciples. Let’s call it a chance for the disciples to get their lives back in order, with something that’s familiar. Let’s get them back on the job.
Jesus, of course, has something else in mind for them. He too, intends a fresh start for them, he too, intends for them to get back on the job, but it isn’t fishing that he has in mind. Jesus intends to reclaim them as his disciples.
And so Jesus meets them in exactly the same place that he first called them to be disciples. He meets them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus meets them once again, at the very place where their relationship began three years ago. And the way in which he meets them is so ironic, that it borders on the hilarious. When Jesus first called them to be his disciples, three years ago, they had been out fishing all night, and they had caught nothing. Three years ago, Jesus helped them to pull in a huge catch of fish, and they were so humbled and so amazed that they left their nets and became Jesus’ disciples. And today, its time for them to leave their nets again, and get back to the business of being Jesus’ disciples.
Once again, they’ve been out all night fishing, and they’ve caught nothing. There’s a pattern here. And Jesus is standing there on the shore, but the distance between Jesus on the shore and the disciples in the boat is too great for them to recognize him. And so he shouts out to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” That’s not a question, it’s a statement. It’ a statement that says, you’re not where you belong, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re trying to live your lives apart from being my disciples, and it’s not working.
And hopefully, we know by now that it doesn’t work. If Jesus has called us to be his disciples, then we had better be his disciples. We had better be his obedient and faithful followers, otherwise, everything that we attempt, everything that we set our minds to do apart from him will lead to frustration and failure and loss.
It is, however, always Jesus’ intent to reclaim us. Our reclamation is his business, just as it was his business with his original disciples.
And so to reclaim his original disciples, Jesus recreates the miracle that first called them to follow him. Jesus says to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.” And the catch of fish was so huge that they could barely haul it in. I am absolutely positive that none of this was lost on the disciples. They realized, beyond a shadow of a doubt that their calling to be Jesus’ followers was being renewed.
This morning, if we know that we’re not where we’re supposed to be, if we know that we’re not doing what we ought to be doing, and nothing in our lives seems to be working out, I would encourage us to go back to the place where we first met Jesus, to the place where the miracle of our calling made so much sense to us. If we go back, Jesus will already be there, waiting for us, with loving and open arms, ready and willing and intending to reclaim us.
There is one disciple though, with whom Jesus has much unfinished business. There is one disciple who especially needs to be reclaimed, and forgiven, and restored.
While it is true that all of the disciples abandoned Jesus, and none remained faithful, Simon Peter went the extra step and three times denied ever having known Jesus, or ever having had any association with Jesus. And he was very emphatic in his denials, cursing and ranting and raving.
However we may feel for Peter and the precarious situation that he was in, Peter still made it abundantly clear that he was not, and never had been a disciple of Jesus. His words, even though they were motivated by fear, excluded him from the company of the disciples. He became the undisciple. But even though he is the undisciple, Jesus intends to reclaim him.
And so Jesus meets Simon Peter in a fresh, brand new way, as if they were only just getting to know each other. Jesus addresses Peter as if he had never been one of his disciples, because really, that’s where Peter is at, on account of his denials.
And so Jesus doesn’t call Simon Peter by the nick-name that Jesus gave him, he calls him Simon son of John. And that’s because Peter isn’t Peter, he isn’t the “Rock,” he’s just Simon son of John.
And three times in rapid succession, Jesus asks him “Simon son of John, do you love me?” And three times in response, Simon son of John replies, “Yes, Lord I love you. And three times, Jesus invites Simon son of John back into the company of the disciples. For each of Peter’s denials, there is an invitation to return, an invitation to follow and an invitation to do the work of the ministry. The undisciple has become the redisciple. And the undisciple who became the redisciple once again became the rock on which the solid foundation of the Christian church is based.
Peter never again wavered in his faith and commitment to his Lord. We owe a debt of gratitude to this man as an example of steadfast loyalty and service to Jesus Christ.
But what we gain most from him, perhaps, is the true lesson that we cannot stray so far that we cannot be reclaimed, we cannot deny so adamantly that we cannot be forgiven and restored, and that we cannot even go so far as to exclude ourselves from the company of the disciples without having Jesus ready to meet us again, even if it is as if it is for the first time. The undisciple can always become the redisciple.
But the most important lesson that we can learn from Peter’s experience is that we are always called to live lives of faithfulness and obedience, that we are called to be where we are supposed to be. This is the lesson that Peter learned well. Peter’s life from this point on, was lived for the glory of God. It is very likely that Peter died by being crucified, just as Jesus was. This passage seems to hint at that.
Even though Jesus’ words are a bit cryptic when he tells Peter that when he is old, “You will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go,” John, as he writes his Gospel, seems to indicate that Jesus was talking about Peter’s death. Stretching out one’s hands is certainly analogous to crucifixion.
But more importantly, John says, Jesus “Said this to indicate the kind of death by which we would glorify God.
The life of a faithful disciple of Jesus brings glory to God. But the death of someone who is loyal to Jesus brings glory to God even more powerfully, and more wonderfully. The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (Psalm 116:15).
This is so, because in our deaths, we join Jesus in his, and in joining Jesus in his, we add glory to his resurrection, which then becomes our resurrection. That’s something to proclaim.