The boys have gone fishing, which in this case, I suppose has grounds for criticism. When we were with them last week, we shared a pretty profound experience of the risen Lord with them. They were hiding, remember? They were afraid for their lives, and perhaps legitimately so. The crucifixion and death of Jesus had been a very public event in Jerusalem. And when the leader of an insurrection is rounded up and put to death, it only seems reasonable that his followers should also be rounded up and put to death. All of human history has shown us that the followers of insurrectionists can often cause more disruption over time because they carry the memory of their former leader in their hearts. Let us hope that this is always true of the followers of Jesus.
And so when Jesus appeared to his disciples as they were hidden away there in the upper room, his first gift to them was peace. This was peace that banished their fears and settled their souls. And then, after having breathed on them, Jesus commissioned them and empowered them to carry on the work of his ministry. And followers of Jesus have continued to carry on that ministry for more than 20 centuries now, in memory of and in honor of our Lord.
But as of our passage this morning, those commissioned and empowered disciples have departed the city of Jerusalem, and they’ve gone back home to Galilee. And they’ve gone fishing. This is something that they probably have not done for about three years, now. I don’t know why they have done this so soon after being so miraculously commissioned; I don’t know why they’re not out preaching the good news of salvation; I don’t know why they’re not out casting out demons and healing the sick; I don’t know why they’re not out practicing the power of forgiveness, so recently imputed to them; I only know that which keeps me from doing these things.
And so they are fishing, but not catching. This has happened to them before. In fact, it was just about three years ago that it happened. Someday I hope to fully understand why the disciples’ intimate, three year internship with Jesus is sandwiched between two nights of fishing, but not catching. It might just, or only have to do with beginnings and endings. But I’m not totally comfortable with that, because I’m convinced that we attempt to live our lives, or to order our lives too frequently around what we call beginnings and endings. We like a start date and we like an end date. We like a begun moment and we like and ended moment. I like to do crossword puzzles. Difficult ones. And I start with nothing, just a blank grid, and a pile of diversionary clues intended to confuse. But I work at it, and eventually I get to the point where I can say, there! I’ve done it. It is finished. But with God, there is neither beginning nor ending. God is eternal. In both directions if that helps. But God is also always doing something new. Newness is one of God’s character traits. And that character trait of newness is powerfully evident in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is always doing something new, something creative, and it frequently gets him into deep trouble, especially with those whose purpose in life seems to be the preservation of all things old.
And so, at what we are most comfortable calling the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus got himself down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee one morning, and he encountered some fishermen who had been out all night, fishing, without success. And reluctantly, at Jesus’ urging, they did something a little different, something a little new, and the unsuccessful night became a tremendously successful morning. But ironically, and quite unexpectedly, that was the day that those fishermen went out of business. It was the day that they became followers of Jesus, in spite of the new fishing technique that they had just learned, and in spite of the tremendous possibilities for their business that might have emerged. Just think! With Jesus on board their boat, they might very well have become exceedingly wealthy! But instead of them catching Jesus, Jesus caught them.
And now, as Yogi Berra would say, it is deja vu all over again. The circumstances are eerily similar. Fishermen in a boat. Out all night with nothing to show for it. Jesus, on the shore, offering fishing advice; complete failure turned into a stunning success.
But what is this? Is it a beginning, or is it an ending? When the defeated disciples get within earshot of Jesus, he calls out to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” That’s pretty profound! It is obvious that Jesus is clearly reminding his defeated disciples of their prior calling into the ministry, but is he criticizing them for not being about the business of their calling? Jesus is certainly being a little sarcastic, there’s no denying that, but he’s certainly not berating them for this supposed lapse. In fact, he rewards them in the same way that he did when he first called them to become his followers.
Part of me wants to believe that this event is Jesus’ way of gently re-confirming his disciple’s calling. It is an object lesson that teaches the disciples that they truly are the people that they have been called to be. But it is a gentle reconfirmation, because it involves affirming who they once were, and who they are now being challenged to become. Yes, they once were fishermen, and yes, that is a noble trade, as most are, but even though they were once noble fishermen, they were also once without Christ in their lives, as were every single one of us.
And so this is neither a beginning nor an ending, but rather something new. They got their commission, and the power of the Holy Spirit to do ministry in chapter 20. Jesus said to them then, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus is saying to his disciples and to us, it is time. Let’s do ministry together. Let’s get the ball rolling. Let’s be serious about serving God.
But there on the shore, there is also a bit of personal business that needs tending to. One of the disciples there is about to receive a special commissioning. It has already been hinted at in Matthew’s Gospel, but now it needs to be re-confirmed. But before that can happen, some work of forgiveness and restoration needs to take place. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah…and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not prevail against it.”
But now, all of that is no longer possible. It cannot happen. As things now stand, Peter is no longer a follower of Jesus. And so he cannot be the rock upon which Christ builds his church. Peter has excluded himself from the company of the disciples by three times denying any knowledge of Jesus with adamant oaths and curses. And when he did that, he lost his famous nick-name. He is not Cephas the rock. He is Simon, once again.
And so after breakfast, Jesus invites Simon to take a walk with him. And he asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” And three times, with slight variation, Jesus asks the same question. But the real question being asked, all three times, is this: Simon, son of John, person who has renounced all association with me; person who has denied being my disciple; person who has claimed to never have known me, do you love me?
Did Jesus need to hear Simon confess his love all three times? No, Simon was telling the truth in all three responses. But Simon needed to hear his own voice in his confession of love for Jesus and from his own lips. Three times he needed to hear his own words say, Jesus, I love you, just as he had three times previously heard his words say, Jesus, I never knew you. And here, Jesus is lovingly giving Simon the opportunity to do so. This is a new thing. Peter took himself willingly out of the company of the disciples, and now Jesus is willingly bringing him back into that company, and lovingly re-instating him.
Each time Simon responds with his confession of love, Jesus recommissions him with the care of God’s sheep. “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep”, all say, Simon, forgiven Simon; Peter on whom I will build my church, carry on my work. Teach the word, heal the sick, care for the lonely, welcome the hurting and the lost. Carry on the ministry of my kingdom in this world. And then in a glorious act of complete and total restoration, Jesus smiles, welcomes him into the company of the disciples, and says “Follow me.” Think about that. And think about it because Jesus has done everything for us that he did for Simon, son of John.