St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19
A careful review of the end of John 20 raises a number of questions about the authenticity of John 21. John 20 recounts the resurrection, Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb, and Jesus’ appearance to her. Mary returned and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (Vs. 18; NRSV). Thus, she was the first to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus then appeared to the disciples and showed them his wounds; as Thomas was not there, he would not believe unless he were to see the wounds.
A week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is present, and Jesus offers him the opportunity to touch the wounds. Thomas confesses, “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28; NRSV). Jesus then asked him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20.29; NRSV). The chapter ends with these words, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.30-31; NRSV).
That ending sounds definitive, like it is the end of the gospel, yet chapter 21 begins as follows: “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way” (Vs. 1; NRSV). We then have the story of some of the disciples following Peter’s lead and going fishing. Jesus appears on the seashore with a charcoal fire, fish, and bread. Jesus invites them to breakfast, and proceeds to ask Peter three times if he loved him. This chapter ends as follows: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21.24-25; NRSV).
Most scholars now hold that chapter 21 was later appended to the Gospel of John. Although written in the Johannine spirit, it is not written in the Johannine hand. Careful computerized analysis reveals the use of words not found in the Gospel of John proper. So why would someone wish to append this material? A couple of reasons come to mind.
First, the first ending leaves us with some unanswered questions. What about Peter? What happened after he betrayed Jesus three times? What became of him? The story is unfinished.
Second, the material appended may have been, in part, an attempt to address the heresy of Docetism which denied Christ’s physical body or natural body and held that Christ only had an apparent body. The account of eating fish and bread over a charcoal fire testify to the real nature of Christ’s body.
Suffice it to say, we do not know who appended chapter 21 or for exactly what reasons. Does that mean we should totally discredit its content? Not necessarily, for we cannot say with any certainty that it is fictional or factual. It may reflect historical accounts or oral tradition which is grounded in historical events. Few would deny its content rings true to human experience.
When we find ourselves in new circumstances, in unmapped territory or uncharted waters, and face adversity, we typically revert to earlier, more comfortable, behaviors. When I worked in human resources, I witnessed this on several occasions. Production line supervisors were often selected from the union ranks. When uncertainty and pressure cropped up in their supervisory role, they would invariably revert to their comfort zone and jump in with physical labor in an effort to solve the problem and would thus be subjected to grievance procedures.
We see this in Peter’s behavior. He has recently betrayed Jesus and is fraught with guilt and post-resurrection uncertainty. He’s is hanging out with some of the other disciples; they were all probably wondering what they were going to do next. Is this the end of things? Do our lives go back to normal? Peter says, “I am going fishing” and the others say, we will go with you. Now, speaking from personal experience, it is always good to go fishing in the face of uncertainty, or for that matter mot anytime. That is not to say that every time I go fishing, I am faced with uncertainty! Nonetheless, fishing helps to clear one’s mind; it provides an atmosphere for quiet reflection. As the story tells us, they fished all night and caught nothing! I have also shared that experience! They probably had in mind a good catch, only to be disappointed.
Then this stranger appears on the seashore; he is seated next to a charcoal fire going and is cooking fish and baking bread. He calls out, “Hey lads, you have no fish, have you?” Here we have encounter a rare instance where fisherman did not lie; they answered, “No.” So Jesus told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. Upon doing so, they caught so many fish the net was in danger of breaking. The disciple whom Jesus loved (John) told Peter it was the Lord. Peter who had stripped for work, put some clothes on, jumped overboard, and went ashore.
Jesus invites them to have breakfast; he breaks the fish and the bread and gives it to them. After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” “These” is a bit ambiguous – it likely refers to the other disciples, but it may also allude to these things of the world, to fishing and earning a living. Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks this question three times which grieved Peter, but it also gave him the opportunity to affirm his love for Jesus for each of his three betrayals. And Jesus gives Peter a series of commands: “Feed my lambs;” “Tend my sheep;” “Feed My sheep.”
Then Jesus revealed something significant about Peter’s future: “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.)” (John 21.18-19a; NRSV).
How would we respond if Jesus were to ask us “Do you love me more than these?” Do we love him more than we love our work, our possessions, our family, our friends? Are we ready to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep?
When Jesus told Peter, “Follow me,” Peter looked at John and asked what about him? Jesus essentially told him that John was not his worry, and again commanded Peter, “Follow me.” We are so like Peter. When Jesus calls us, we would often refer Jesus to someone else: “Now wait a minute, Jesus. I think John or Mary is better equipped for that task.” Remember how Moses recommended Aaron!? But as Jesus reminds us, they are not our worry; we can’t use them as a smoke-screen. Jesus reiterates the command, “Follow me!” Only then do we come to know peace.