Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Third Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter.

The Third Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 21:1-19

Last week, our Gospel reading finished 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)

Reading these words, it very much sounds as if the Gospel has come to an end and that this is St John’s conclusion to it. It comes, then, as a bit of a surprise that immediately following these words, St John writes:

‘After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.’ (John 21:1)

Many scholars are so surprised that the Gospel, having seemingly come to an end, instead continues in this way that they have suggested that originally the Gospel did end at the close of chapter 20. They argue that what we now know as chapter 21 was added later. This is, however, just speculation, as there is no hard evidence that the Gospel ever ended other than how it does in the form in which we now have it. Every manuscript of the Gospel we have has the Gospel as it is in the New Testament.

The best way, then, of understanding chapter 21 is as an Epilogue. As I explain every Christmas when we read the opening verses of St John’s Gospel, the Gospel begins with what is commonly known as the Prologue (John 1:1-18). In the Prologue, St John introduces the person that the Gospel is going to be about. The Epilogue, for its part, not only concludes the Gospel, it also looks forward to how Jesus’ work is going to be continued after he has ascended to the Father. It also ties up some loose ends, not least by describing what happened to St Peter and by revealing (sort of!) the identity of the Beloved Disciple.

The Epilogue records an appearance of the Risen Christ to some of the disciples, this time not in Jerusalem but in Galilee. St John writes of this appearance:

‘This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.’ (John 21:14)

This again causes problems for some commentators. In chapter 20, St John has described how the Risen Jesus has appeared first to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), then secondly to the disciples without Thomas (John 20:19-23), and thirdly, a week later, to the disciples with Thomas (John 20:24-29). This appearance in chapter 21 appears, they say, to make four appearances of Jesus to the disciples.

This is a good illustration of how commentators are affected by what they want the text to say as opposed to what it actually does say. As I said last week, in the sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, Mary Magdalene is never called a disciple in the Gospels. In fact, during Jesus’ appearance to her, Jesus gives her a message to take to the disciples (John 20:17-18). This means that St John describes two appearances of Jesus to the disciples in chapter 20. This one in chapter 21 is, as St John writes, the third. It goes against our prejudices today to think that only men are called disciples, but we should at least begin trying to understand the passage by being honest about what the text says – and what it does not.

In this appearance, Jesus appears to seven disciples. It is an interesting list:
  • Simon Peter, who denied Jesus
  • Thomas, who wouldn’t believe without seeing
  • Nathanael, who doubted that anything good could come out of Nazareth (John 2:46). We are also given the surprising information that Nathanael himself came from Cana of Galilee near Nazareth where the wedding took place at the start of Jesus’ ministry.
  • the sons of Zebedee, who are referred to here for the first time in this Gospel. From the other Gospels we know their names are James and John.
  • and two others, whose names we are not told
These disciples have left Jerusalem and gone back to Galilee. Peter decides to go fishing and the others say they will go with him. This reminds us that, although the disciples say they have left all to follow Jesus (Luke 18:28), it does not mean that they have abandoned everything altogether. They clearly still have a boat to go fishing in!

Being fishermen, they go out fishing at night. They are not successful, however, and they are making their way back to the shore when a stranger calls from the shore asking them if they have caught any fish. When they reply that they haven’t the stranger tells them to cast their nets to the right of the boat and they will find some. They have nothing to lose and so do so. The catch is a big one, and the Beloved Disciple realizes it is the Lord. Hearing this, Peter doesn’t wait a moment longer and jumps into the sea to get to Jesus. The rest of the disciples come the remaining 100 yards in the boat, dragging the net to the shore.

When they get to the shore, they see a charcoal fire with fish already laid on it and bread. Jesus tells them to fetch some of the fish they have caught, and Peter hauls the net to the shore. We are told that there were 153 fish. The fish are safely brought ashore without the nets getting torn, Jesus says to them:

‘Come and have a meal.’ (John 21:12)

St John writes:

‘Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.' (John 21:12)

This reminds us of what Jesus had said in the Upper Room on the night of his arrest. Jesus told them that on the day when they see him again, they will ask nothing of him (John 16:23). This is not, however, going to be a relaxed breakfast. The presence of a charcoal fire makes that clear. The last time there was a charcoal fire in the Gospel, Peter was warming himself around it and denying Jesus three times (John 18:18). Why does Jesus invite them to a Meal? Why are there 153 fish? What’s going on? The meal over, they are going to find out.

They may not ask Jesus anything, but Jesus has something he wants to ask Peter. Jesus asks Peter whether Peter loves him ‘more than these’. Jesus calls Peter, ‘Simon, son of John’. This is how he was known before he met Jesus and Jesus gave him the name Peter (John 1:42). Peter before the crucifixion had been bold in professing his loyalty to Jesus. In St Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples that they will all desert him, Peter says:

‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ (Mark 14:29)

Instead, although the others may have fled from Jesus, Peter actually denied him. So, does Peter now think he loves Jesus more than these other disciples? Peter does not answer that question. He replies simply that Jesus knows Peter loves him. There is a hard-earned humility to Peter’s answer. Jesus commands him to ‘feed his lambs’. Jesus, however, isn’t finished with Peter yet. He asks Peter a second time whether Peter loves him. Peter again replies that Jesus knows that he loves him. Jesus commands him to ‘tend his sheep’. Jesus then asks Peter a third time whether he loves Jesus. This time Peter is hurt. Jesus seems to doubt him. This time Peter replies that as Jesus knows all things, he must know Peter loves him. Jesus commands him to feed his sheep.

At the Last Supper, Jesus had answered Peter’s question about where Jesus was going by saying:

‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.’ (John 13:36)

Peter had replied:

‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ (John 13:37)

Jesus answered him:

‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.’ (John 13:38)

The words translated here, ‘Very truly …’ are literally, ‘Amen, amen …’. Jesus uses this expression whenever he wants to stress the seriousness of what he is about to say. It is used 25 times in St John’s Gospel. Jesus, having used it when he says Peter will deny him, now uses it again to begin what he wants to say to Peter having questioned him three times.

Jesus’ questioning has been a painful process for Peter to go through, but there is a different sort of pain in store for him in the future. Jesus tells him that as a young man, Peter has been free to make his own decisions and choices, when he grows old, however, his freedom will be taken from him, and he will be forced to do things against his will.

Jesus uses the phrase, ‘you will stretch out your hands’. St John writes that Jesus is indicating the sort of death Peter will die. Church tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero in the mid-sixties. It hurt Peter spiritually and emotionally being asked by Jesus whether Peter loved him; now loving Jesus is going to hurt him physically. At the Last Supper, Peter said he would lay down his life for Jesus and didn’t. In the future, he will. Peter had asked to be allowed to follow Jesus, and Jesus had promised that one day he would. Jesus now confirms his promise. There are just two more words needed. Jesus says to Peter, ‘Follow me’. Jesus renews his call to Peter to be a disciple, a call which will involve Peter in laying down his life. But first, Simon, son of John, can become Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his Church. Jesus, with the two words, ‘Follow me’, completes Peter’s restoration.

There are a couple of different metaphors at work in this passage. Early on in his time with them, Jesus had told the disciples that if they followed him, he would make them ‘fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17). The miraculous catch of fish they have just made symbolizes the work they are going to do for Jesus in bringing people to faith. By listening to Jesus and casting the net where he tells them, they can be sure that they will bring their catch to the shore without the net breaking. None will be lost. Once they have brought people to faith and they become part of the community of faith, Peter’s role will be that of a shepherd. Jesus himself is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep (John 10:14) and Peter is to look after Jesus’ sheep for him.

After Jesus says to Peter, ‘Follow me’, Peter turns and sees the Beloved Disciple following them. Peter, now he has been restored, his call renewed, his future told, wants to know what Jesus has planned for the Beloved Disciple. Peter has one more lesson to learn. Jesus says that if he wants the Beloved Disciple to live until he returns that is nothing to do with Peter. Jesus repeats his call to Peter, ‘You follow me!’ Peter is not to worry about anyone else; he is to concentrate on following Jesus.

St John closes his Gospel by telling us that because Jesus said that if he wanted the Beloved Disciple to live until he returned that was nothing to do with Peter, the rumour spread among the believers that the beloved Disciple was not going to die. The seven who were there when Jesus said this must have talked about what happened for the rumour to start. St John, however, clarifies that this was not what Jesus actually said. Jesus was speaking hypothetically to make the point that Peter’s focus needed to be on following him. Peter was not to worry about what Jesus’ plan was for anyone else.

The author then pulls a literary rabbit from the hat and announces that it is the Beloved Disciple himself who has been telling the story of Jesus and has written it down. The author of the Gospel is the Beloved Disciple. These closing verses of the Gospel don’t have the impact on us they should have because we are already in the know about the Gospel. The Beloved Disciple by revealing himself as the author of the Gospel wants to assure his readers that they can trust what they have heard or read because it is someone who has been a witness to all that has been described who has written it. His testimony is true (John 21:24). The Beloved Disciple hasn’t written down all that Jesus did; that would be impossible. What he has written, however, can be trusted.

Throughout my sermons on the Gospel, I have referred to the author as St John. This may seem obvious, as it is, after all, called St John’s Gospel. Traditionally, the St John in question has been identified as St John the Apostle. Nowadays, however, many scholars don’t think the Beloved Disciple was St John the Apostle and there are many arguments over who it might have been instead. Personally, I do think the Beloved Disciple and, therefore the author of the Gospel, was St John the Apostle, but that is a sermon or study for another day. For now, I want to ask what all this has to say to us.

1. Come and eat a meal

Our translations have, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ This is a perfectly legitimate translation, but it does mean that we may miss an important connection. Jesus invites the disciples to a meal he himself has prepared for them of bread and fish. Jesus has fed people with bread and fish before, and St John has described it in some detail in chapter six of the Gospel (John 6:1-15).

After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus went on to make this meal up the mountain the basis for his teaching about how he is the bread of life and of the importance of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:22-59). At the time, this had proved too much for many of his disciples and they had abandoned him.

These seven disciples here with him on the shore on of the Sea of Tiberias are his closest disciples, who stayed with him when the others left. They had been at the Last Meal Jesus had had with his disciples before his death. This Meal, he explained, is where he gives his body and his blood, which they are to eat and drink in remembrance of him. Now here in Galilee Jesus eats a meal with them by the sea one final time before leaving them.

The Meal Jesus gave them before he died will, after he has returned to his Father, become the focus of their meetings together. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this Meal, what we call the Eucharist, as the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324). Sadly, even many Roman Catholics don’t see it this way. The pandemic has exposed how lightly most believers take it.

In saying this, I do not want to make anyone feel bad. I do want, however, to encourage us to reflect on what our recent experience during the pandemic has revealed about our attitude to something that was so important to our Lord himself. The pandemic has shown that, for many churchgoers, the Eucharist is something of an optional extra and something that they can easily live without.

For example, here at Christ Church during the suspension of church services, we continued to offer the reserved sacrament on a Sunday. Some people came faithfully to receive it, but many did not. It was not that those who did not come were worried about the virus and catching covid, as they were still shopping in the malls, going out to eat at restaurants, and travelling on the MTR. These were all places where they were much more at risk of catching the virus than they would be in church. It was simply that they did not take receiving the sacrament seriously enough to make the effort to come to church.

Jesus will tell Peter to ‘feed his lambs’, to ‘tend his sheep’, and to ‘feed his sheep’. Feeding Jesus’ sheep is about a lot more than making sure believers come together to receive holy communion, but it is not less. Jesus thought that giving us this Meal was of such importance that it was the last thing he did before his death. St John closes his Gospel by describing a meal that reminds us of what Jesus said about feeding on him. We all need to start taking our spiritual diet more seriously!

Nutritionists disagree and argue over the precise details of our physical diets, but they all agree on the importance and need for a good balanced diet for our physical health. In the same way, we need spiritual food and Jesus has given us himself as food. We feed on him by believing in him and by hearing and keeping his word. We also feed on him in the Meal he gave us. We may not fully understand what is happening at the Eucharist, and we may even disagree with one another over various details concerning it, but Jesus gave it, the disciples continued it, and we should not neglect it.

The disciples are given the task of fishing for people, a task that is symbolized by the miraculous catch of the 153 fish. The Church’s responsibility is to continue this task and to bring the people of God to Jesus, who is waiting for them. Those who are brought to Jesus need feeding, and our task is not only to bring people to Jesus, but to feed them once we have.

It is the Church’s responsibility to feed Jesus’ sheep, but we each need to do our part and take our need for a good spiritual diet seriously. We need to feed on Jesus, and that includes availing ourselves of what he offers in the Meal he gave us. We each need to reflect on whether we take receiving what Christ offers us in the Meal he gave us as seriously as he did.

2. Do you love me?

St John stresses the importance of believing in Jesus. Perhaps the most famous verse in the Gospel is John 3:16. St John writes:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

In the ending to chapter 20, St John tells us that the reason he wrote his Gospel was so that we may believe in Jesus and in believing may have life in his name (John 20:30-31). However, it is interesting that when Jesus begins the process of restoring Peter, he asks Peter not whether Peter believes in him, but whether Peter loves him. This is the key question not only for Peter but for us. So put your own name there and let Jesus ask you, ‘X, do you love me?’

In my sermons on St John’s Gospel, I have tried to stress how being a follower of Jesus is all about relationship. What we believe is important. We won’t have a good relationship with someone we think bad things about. How we live and what we do also matters. We won’t have a good relationship with someone if we constantly do things that they don’t like and which make them unhappy. But we can think someone is a truly marvellous person and what we do can be what they like and approve of without it meaning that we love them. It is our love for them that gives significance to what we think and do. So, do we love Jesus?

St Catherine of Siena, whose feast day it was last Friday, certainly did love Jesus. St Catherine in her writing describes how we are all drowning in the river of sin. She sees Jesus as a bridge God has provided to enable us to get to safety. St Catherine describes three different stages in our relationship with Jesus the bridge. The first is as we come to Jesus. Perhaps we have come to Jesus for safety and out of fear of drowning. We want to escape from what was destroying us. The second stage is as we enjoy and experience all the benefits that Jesus gives. We move to loving Jesus because of all that he does for us and gives us. The third stage, however, is when we come to love Jesus for himself and enjoy our union with him. We love him now not for what he gives us, but for who he is and what he means to us.

This can all sound very unreal and even sentimental. As Peter was to discover it is very real and not at all sentimental. For Peter, loving Jesus was going to mean dying for Jesus. It does not mean that for everyone. It did not mean it for the Beloved Disciple. It does mean for us all, however, having more regard for Jesus than we have for ourselves.

God’s will for our lives is not primarily for us to be happy, but for us to be holy. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews compares the way God deals with us with the way parents discipline their children. He writes:

‘For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.’ (Hebrews 12:

God wants us to share his holiness and to make us more Christ-like. This can be frightening, as the things we enjoy and want for ourselves, while not necessarily wrong in themselves, may not be the best way for God’s purpose for us to be achieved.

We naturally pray for what we want and for what makes us happy. God wants us to pray for what he wants and for what makes us holy. Sometimes being happy and holy will coincide, but often, by the very nature of things, they won’t, and when they don’t, holiness must come before happiness. One who loves, however, can ultimately only find lasting happiness in the presence of the one they love.

The week past in the church’s calendar we remembered the poet, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). In my sermon on chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2020, the chapter where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, I quoted her poem, ‘None other Lamb; none other name’. Appropriately, her poem also captures what I am saying today:

'None other Lamb; none other name,
none other hope in heaven or earth or sea,
none other hiding-place from guilt and shame,
none beside Thee.

My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
only my heart's desire cries out in me,
by the deep thunder of its want and woe,
cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art life, though I be dead,
love's fire Thou art, however cold I be:
nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
nor Home, but Thee.'

Again, Jesus asks us, ‘Do you love me?’

3. Follow me

Peter was both a strong and brave person. I have tried to put to rest the impression we have of him as someone who was weak, unpredictable, and unreliable. Jesus chose him and named him the ‘rock’. There was a reason for that. Peter did love Jesus and was committed to him.

However, for all the reasons we looked at on Maundy Thursday this year, it went wrong for Peter as a follower of Christ. Things do go wrong in the life of discipleship. We do trip over and fall as we seek to follow Christ. The example of Peter provides hope for those who fall. It’s not that the fall doesn’t matter. Peter’s fall did matter, but Peter wanted back.

When Peter hears from the women that the tomb is empty, he can’t wait to get there to see what has happened and he is the first ashore when the disciples realize it is the Lord. Peter hasn’t stopped believing, but he does have to go through the process of restoration, and that process, as Peter discovers, can be painful: ‘Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ The charcoal fire that is burning there as a reminder of his fall and failure couldn’t have made it any easier for him either.

Perhaps like Peter we too have fallen. The fall can take many different forms. We may have committed serious sin, so serious that we wonder whether we can ever be forgiven. We may, however, have simply got distracted, so we have stopped following Jesus or have found ourselves diverted into following after other things, even legitimate things. Having stopped following Jesus or having begun to follow after other things, we worry that there may be no way back or we may even have doubts about whether Jesus will have us back.

For all who have fallen there is always hope. The question Jesus asks those who know they have fallen and who want to get back up is, ‘Do you love me?’ And if we can answer like Peter, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you’, then whether we have fallen into sin or simply into other things, Jesus renews his call to us. He says simply, ‘Follow me.’ And in those two words are the forgiveness and the invitation we need to begin again following Jesus.

If, however, we are to avoid falling again, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus, and that means not turning to see what is going on with others who are following Jesus. Peter turned and seeing the Beloved Disciple following them wanted to know what Jesus’ plan for him was.

We do look at others and compare ourselves to them. We do this in the everyday business of life, but we also do it spiritually as well. Sometimes we feel quite pleased when we compare ourselves to others. We see ourselves as better than they are. But often, we don’t come off well in the comparison. Others can seem more holy, more committed, or more devout than we are. It is easy to get depressed and disillusioned. We think we will never be as good as they are, as faithful, or as spiritual. Whether we are better or worse than others, Jesus says the same, ‘What is that to you? You follow me!’

Other times, we look at others out of jealousy or a desire to compete with them and to do better than them. It leads us to boast of our achievements and our gifts. They are not as good as we are, but still Jesus says the same, ‘What is that to you? You follow me!’

Jesus relates to each one of us as individuals. When Jesus calls out to the disciples in the boat, he calls them ‘children’. As children of God, we are all part of God’s family, the Church. While God does indeed have a plan for his family as a whole, within that family we each have our own relationship with Jesus, who is the head of the family. My relationship with Christ is different to yours and the plan God has for me is not the same as the plan he has for you. Comparisons are invidious. My call is to follow Christ and to do what he asks of me; your call is to follow Christ and to do whatever he asks of you.

St Peter did follow Jesus and in the book of Acts we see him leading both Jews and Gentiles to Christ. He fell, but Christ restored him, and he went on to be the rock that our Lord knew he would be. The Beloved Disciple also followed Christ and produced a Gospel that witnessed to him and through it he continues to witness to Jesus today.

Jesus says to us what he said to both St Peter and the Beloved Disciple, ‘Follow me.’

May we follow Jesus as they did.


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