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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Falling Back—John 21:1-19 (Robert Williamson)

The disciples’ failure to find their desired results when they returned to fishing following the resurrection of Christ resonates with the experience of many who are drawn back to old patterns of life after a personal encounter with Christ. Their struggle to recognize the risen Jesus challenges us to form communities within which Christ’s presence will be apparent to people in a similar state of uncertainty.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon 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. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He 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. 7 That 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. 8 But 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. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So 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. 12 Jesus 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. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When 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.” 16 A 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.” 17 He 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. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

In my worshiping community, which focuses on providing a place of hospitality especially for people living on the streets, this week’s lectionary passage from the Gospel of John has a particular resonance. In it the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time. At the time of his first appearance (John 20:19-23), the disciples had been huddled together in a house with the doors locked because they were afraid that those who had killed Jesus might kill them as well. In his second appearance (John 20:24-29), Jesus appeared again to the disciples who were still in the house, this time to show himself to Thomas, the only disciple who had not yet encountered the resurrected Christ.

In this week’s text, Jesus appears to the disciples yet a third time, but significantly this time they are no longer fearfully hiding in the house. Rather, they are on the lake fishing. It is not clear precisely why the disciples are fishing. Simon Peter simply says, “I am going fishing” (21:3), and six of the other disciples declare that they are coming along with him. The image of the disciples fishing may remind us of the call story of the disciples, in which Jesus finds the disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee and tells them that they will now no longer be fishermen but “fishers of people.” In fact John does not tell us that story of the call of the disciples, which is found in various versions only in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:18-20; Mark 1:16-18; Luke 5:1-11; cf. John 1:35-42). Nonetheless, the tradition that the disciples were fishermen runs so deep in the tradition that John likely had it in mind.

For the readers in my community, many of whom have struggled significantly with addictions or have found themselves in prison, the disciples’ return to fishing reminds them of their own attempts to return to their “old lives” after a period of time following Jesus. Like the disciples huddled together in the house, members of my community find themselves afraid of the future and uncertain how to move forward. Often, the temptation is to move backward, to a life that was once familiar to them—old places, old people, old habits, old addictions—old fishing grounds.

But when the fearful disciples try to return to their former lives, they find that their old patterns no longer work. Despite being on the boat and fishing throughout the night, John tells us, the disciples had “caught nothing.” Their old patterns no longer work for them, and they finish a long night tired and emptyhanded. It is an image not only of failure but also of scarcity. If they can catch nothing, how will the disciples feed themselves? How will they make a future for themselves? So, too, members of my community often find that their old patterns are no longer adequate for a sustainable life. Yet the pull toward the familiar is strong for us, just as it was for the disciples.

It is at this point in John’s narrative that Jesus appears, telling them to “cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish]” (21:6). While it may be tempting to riff interpretively on the dual meaning of the English word “right” as meaning both “not left” and “wrong,” the wordplay does not hold in Greek and distracts us from the miraculous nature of Jesus’s intervention into the disciples’ fishing expedition. It is not that the disciples are bad fishermen (it is difficult to imagine that they had not even tried the other side of the boat) but rather that Jesus has miraculously provided fish for them. According to John, the failed patterns of the old life are transformed by the miraculous presence of the risen Jesus, in whose presence the fruitless toil of the long night yields to nets overflowing with abundance. It is the presence of the risen Christ that makes the difference.

Yet the story also introduces a critical complication into the narrative, which is that the disciples seem to find it nearly impossible to recognize Jesus when they encounter him in the world. This theme appears repeatedly in the Gospels. Probably the most famous instance is Luke’s story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The two walk and talk with Jesus throughout the day, but they recognize him only when he joins them to break bread together (Luke 24:30-31). But John also seems concerned with the question of the disciples recognizing the risen Jesus. Mary Magdalene, the first to encounter Jesus after his resurrection, does not at first recognize him (John 20:11-18). As she stands outside the tomb weeping, she sees and even speaks to Jesus, but mistakes him for the gardener. It is only when Jesus speaks her name, “Mary,” that she understands who he is (20:16).

In our text, too, the disciples at first fail to recognize Jesus. Only when Jesus multiplies the fish do the disciples begin to understand who he is. This detail is important, as it reminds us of the earlier times that Jesus has procured fish for hungry people, notably in the story of Jesus feeding of the 5,000, which occurs in all of the Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). Jesus’s capacity to feed the hungry is fundamental to his identity, not only in his earthly ministry but also in his resurrected existence. The connection is so clear that John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) immediately recognizes him. “It is the Lord!” he shouts. Peter, too, recognizes him, leaping into the water and swimming to meet him.

Yet the other disciples continue to struggle with recognizing Jesus. When they finally row to shore, Jesus has started a campfire and is already cooking some fish of his own, along with some bread. But Jesus does not simply feed them with food that he himself has brought, instead turning the gathering into a community meal. “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught,” he tells them. Together they make a meal for one another, of bread and fish, those that Jesus brought and those that the disciples caught. We imagine them together forming a little community of abundance as the toil-filled night yielding to the morning’s dawn. It is in that moment that the rest of the disciples recognize him (21:12).

For those who live on the streets, and for all of us in danger falling back into old, fearful patterns of life, recognizing the risen Christ is an urgent task. Yet if even his own closest disciples struggle to recognize him, how much more so must our faith communities offer unmistakable signs of Christ’s presence for those who are yet struggling in the night. Offering words of comfort to those, like Mary, who grieve by the tombs of their loved ones. Holding out possibilities of new life to those trapped fearfully in the failed patterns of the past .Sharing what we have with those in need, even if it is only a few fish and some bread, and inviting others to do the same. The disciples recognize Christ when he creates communities of abundance in the midst of scarcity. Our task is to do the same.

Robert Williamson Jr. is Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. (USA) and the pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, which provides a place of welcome especially for those living on the streets.

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