Follow Me – by Annemarie Woodward

St Mary’s, Hadlow

Easter 3: St John 21: 1-19

Sunday 10th April 2016

‘Follow Me’[1]

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’[2] (If so, then) ‘feed my lambs …. tend my sheep …. feed my sheep (and) follow me.’[3] Incredibly powerful words – set down here in the final chapter of what is often referred to as the ‘spiritual gospel,’ because the language is rich in metaphor and symbolism, imbued with subtle shades of meaning.

 

St John begins with the Prologue –‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’[4] and appears to come to a conclusion at the end of the twentieth chapter with the words ‘these (signs) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you have life in his name.’[5]

 

Many theologians and historians[6] hold that the 21st chapter of St John’s gospel is an Epilogue, an afterthought. At first glance, our reading this morning certainly doesn’t appear to fit neatly alongside the nuanced language we associate with St John, so this may well be a later addition,[7] written either just before or immediately after John’s death.[8]

 

But does it really matter? Setting aside questions of textual analysis and authorship, this is still the word of God. Surely the only thing we need to ask ourselves this morning is: what can we learn – how can these words strengthen our discipleship today?

Our reading this morning can be seen as a single narrative (the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples on the lakeshore by the Sea of Galilee), but the text contains two distinct elements: missionary (spreading the good news to all four corners of the earth, and gathering disciples into one, true church) and ecclesial (leadership and structure within the fledging church of Christ).[9]

 

In both, the spotlight falls on Peter[10] – but before we come to the vast haul of fish and the barbeque on the beach, we need to look at Peter’s journey in discipleship.

 

One of the first[11] disciples, Simon, son of John, left his family[12] behind to follow Jesus; straight away Jesus singled Simon out as a leader, calling him his ‘rock’: – ‘you are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).’[13] Charismatic, incredibly enthusiastic and occasionally volatile, Peter’s impetuosity has, at times, landed him in deep water – literally, when he tried to walk on the waves[14] – and metaphorically when, without a thought as to what might happen next, he attacked one of the high priest’s servants in the Garden of Gethsemane, cutting off his ear.

 

Throughout his discipleship Peter had a ‘need to know’ niggling away inside him. He was constantly asking questions,[15] looking for certainty, and there were times when he was convinced he’s found it: at Caesarea Philippi it was Peter who declared ‘You are the Messiah – the Son of the living God.’

 

Yet there were times when he went too far and had to be reined in: when Jesus told the disciples that He, their beloved Messiah, would be put to death in Jerusalem, Peter cried out: ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’[16] Jesus turned on him: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’[17]

 

Peter still had a great deal to learn.

 

In the Upper Room on the night before he died, Jesus told the disciples ‘I am with you only a little longer.’[18] Peter’s reply? ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’[19] It is at this point that Jesus said ‘before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’[20] Peter still couldn’t believe it: ‘even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,’[21] but that night, terrified, desperate and alone, he denied Christ three times: The cock crowed, and – deeply ashamed of his cowardice – Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly.’[22]

 

Early in the morning of Easter Day, when Mary Magdalene came to Peter (the rock) and John (the beloved disciple) saying ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him,’[23] it was Peter who rushed headlong to the empty tomb: he needed to see the grave clothes for himself, but even then he didn’t understand – it was John who saw and believed. No small wonder, then, with what we know of him, that on the two occasions when he came face to face with the risen Jesus in Jerusalem, Peter seems to have been uncharacteristically silent.[24]

 

In today’s gospel reading, seven disciples[25] – Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) and two unnamed disciples – are now gathered together on the shore by the Sea of Galilee,[26] mentally and emotionally exhausted. The glorious entry into Jerusalem and the Passover supper in the Upper Room, Judas’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane; Peter’s shameful, cowardly denials and the ultimate horror of Jesus’ crucifixion; the mystery of the empty tomb, the seemingly miraculous resurrection and then, unbelievably, coming face to face with the risen Christ – all in the space of a few days: how can they possibly process this whirlwind?

 

They can’t, so, what do they do? They go back to what they know.

They go fishing, pushing the boat out on to the lake and lowering the nets into the water, something they can do with their eyes closed. Fishing was familiar, safe, comforting.

Human nature doesn’t change: even now, in times of crisis, when we are faced with fear, uncertainty or loss, we take time out, reaching for what we know, for what feels safe.

 

In Galilee, that day, the disciples simply go fishing, but time and time again their nets come up empty. Then they hear a voice: ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?[27] Here is the risen Jesus, a shadowy figure on the shoreline. ‘Children[28] – not ‘Peace be with you’[29] but ‘children[30] – how well He knew them all.

 

Taking charge Jesus tells them to ‘cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.’[31] They obey Him, and as we heard just now their nets were soon overflowing with an abundance of fish[32] so great that it was impossible to drag it into the boat. Now, it is John who recognises the voice of Jesus, but it is Peter who – true to form – dives headlong into the water to swim to the shore.

 

Our gospel reading tells us that ‘when they had gone ashore they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it.’[33] Peter can only stare – the last time he stood by a charcoal fire, warming his hands, he had denied Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. Jesus allows him a moment’s grace; no confrontation – simply another command: ‘Bring some of the fish you have caught.’[34] Rushing down to the water’s edge, Peter singlehandedly hauls the vast catch up on to the beach. The net holds tight ‘full of large fish, a hundred and fifty three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.’[35]

 

And now, an invitation: ‘Come and have breakfast’[36]– let us break bread together – come, share this Eucharistic meal.[37] When Jesus takes the bread and breaks it, the disciples see that this is, indeed, the risen Christ, and we know that when the risen Lord appears, He does so with a purpose in mind. Today, His purpose is the re-commissioning of Simon, son of John, to Simon Peter, His rock.

For Peter, meeting the risen Jesus in this sharing of bread and fish means facing up to some fundamental questions. This is far greater than a simple calling: Jesus is taking Peter back to the beginning: ‘Simon, son of John, (not Simon Peter) do you love me more than these?’[38] ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’[39] (if so, then) ‘Feed my lambs.’[40] … ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me.’[41] ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’[42] (if so, then) ‘Tend my sheep’[43] …‘Simon, son of John, do you love me.’[44] ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’[45](if so, then) ‘Feed my sheep’.[46]

 

For Peter, this appearance of the risen Jesus is a revelation of infinite, divine grace. Despite all that has happened, this impetuous, loveable, charismatic and headstrong disciple is not rejected or cast aside; in grace, Jesus reaches out to him with love.   No longer proud, no longer arrogant, no longer self-willed, Peter responds with three humble, obedient and dependent declarations of love,[47] symbolically wiping away three anguished, fearful denials.

 

Their reconciliation could end here, but it doesn’t. For Peter ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’[48] Peter isn’t merely forgiven. He is powerfully drawn back into discipleship and, crucially, given meaningful work to do, because what Jesus is really saying is ‘if you love me, as you say you do, don’t just sit there: do something about it: ‘Follow me.’[49]

 

No room here for lingering doubt or lofty superiority, Peter will open himself, humbly, to abundant life; he will follow the risen Christ from fisherman to shepherd, to Keeper of the Keys; he will spread the good news of the risen Christ, feed and care for Christ’s burgeoning flock in love, in leadership, in life, and, as we heard in our gospel reading, ultimately in death.

 

So, what can we learn from today’s gospel reading? Although the miraculous haul of fish and the re-commissioning of Peter take centre stage, we should not forget the powerful image of the barbeque on the beach. In grace, Jesus sends Peter down to the shoreline: ‘bring some of the fish you have caught.’ In grace, Jesus takes their freshly-caught fish, adding them to the food He has already provided. By contributing, they are bringing something of themselves to this simple meal of bread and fish. In grace, with infinite forgiveness, Jesus is drawing his disciples back into fellowship, into sharing, into communion.

 

Follow me:’[50] powerful words: just as powerful today as they were that day on the shore by the Sea of Galilee, because we, too, are disciples of the risen Lord; we, too, have chosen to follow Him. We, too, try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but it’s not always easy. In fact, there are times when it is very hard. Time and again, like Peter, we will fail. We try to go it alone; we think we know best; self-will drowns out the still, small voice of God’s will, and we stumble and fall.

 

And this is the wonder of God’s infinite, divine grace: when we stumble and fall short, not only can we be forgiven, but we – like Peter – can be re-commissioned – to try again and to share what we have in Christ’s name.

 

Amen.

[1] John 21: 19

[2] John 21: 15, 16, 17

[3] John 21: 15, 16, 17, 19

[4] John 1: 1

[5] John 20: 31 These words have a strong affinity with Jesus’ final words to the disciples ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ [20:29]) and leave the reader with the distinct impression that the original gospel ended at this point. Such a conclusion would have been typical of contemporary literature both as a summing up of content, re-statement of purpose and final acknowledgement of the contribution made by the protagonist. Michael Mullins The Gospel of John – a Commentary [The Columbia Press 2003] page 412.

[6] In his book The Gospel According to St John the eminent historian and theologian C K Barratt states that ‘both the purpose of the gospel and the author’s theology are summed up in this verse (20: 31), citing the French author Loisy [le livre est fini, très bien fini.] p.575

[7] There are no known early texts of the gospel without chapter 21. [Mullins p.412]

[8] It has been argued that this addition, written after John’s death, specifically addressed the ‘urban myth’ that circulated among the early disciples that the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ [John] would not die before the Lord returned. Jesus did not say this. See John 21: 20-24

[9] Ecclesial, reflecting the story of the faith and inter-relationship of traditions and communities represented, and missionary in its emphasis on drawing together into the following of Christ of every kind of person (the vast haul of fish) and maintaining the unity of all (the untorn net). Mullins p.142

[10] Simon, son of John, came from the village of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee.   Simon was one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus from his first disciples.

[11] When he heard from his brother Andrew ‘we have found the Messiah.’ (John 1: 41) Simon left his home and family to follow Jesus.

[12] We know that Peter was married – all three Synoptic gospels recount how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at their home in Capernaum (Matthew 8: 14-17; Mark 1: 29-31; Luke 4: 38). St Paul also refers to Peter as a married man (1 Corinthians 9: 5)

[13] John 1: 42

[14] Matthew 14: 25-33

[15] Matthew 15:15; 18: 21; 19: 27;Luke 12:41

[16] Matthew 16: 22

[17] Matthew 16: 23

[18] John 13: 33

[19] John 13: 37

[20] Matthew 26: 34

[21] Matthew 26: 35

[22] Mathew 26: 75

[23] John 20: 2

[24] John 20: 19-23 and 26-29

[25] Seven disciples – echoing the perfect number of seven signs in John’s gospel [John 20: 31]

[26] St Matthew tells us that the risen Jesus first appeared to the disciples He told them ‘do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ [28:19]. St Mark concurs: 14:28 and 16:7.

[27] John 21: 5

[28] Ibid

[29] John 20: 19, 21, 27 On the first two occasions that Jesus had appeared to the disciples (locked indoors because they were afraid) in Jerusalem, He had greeted them as adults, with the words ‘Peace be with you’.

[30] John 21: 5

[31] John 21: 5-6 [In first century Galilee, fishermen often used a pointman (lookout) who stood on the shore. He could see, better than they, where the shoals were gathered – the waters of the Sea of Galilee were clear and unpolluted].

[32] The vast haul of fish echoes the feeding of the five thousand.

[33] John 21: 9

[34] John 21: 10

[35] John 21: 11 [Why does John give a specific number? Theologians offer different interpretations: the number of species of fish in the sea (known at that time); the number of recognised nations at that time; a wider interpretation could be all mankind cf Matthew 13: 47 “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind”.]

[36] John 21: 12

[37] In the early church the Eucharist meal was often bread and fish, rather than bread and wine (as evidenced by some of the earliest iconography pictures of fish and bread, not bread and cup. It has been argued that Paul, being Hellenistic, emphasised the bread and the cup as this would be in the Greek tradition.

[38] John 21: 15

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] John 21: 16

[42] Ibid

[43] Ibid

[44] John 21: 17

[45] Ibid

[46] Ibid

[47] In his first letter, written between 70 and 90 AD, Peter tells his followers that they must ‘clothe yourselves in humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ 1 Peter 5: 5

[48] Winston Churchill in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s Day Luncheon, The Mansion House, London. 10th November 1942.]

[49] John 21: 19

[50] Ibid

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