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." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." He said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go." (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, "Follow me." (English Standard Version)
THE LAST WORD IS THE FIRST WORD
These post-resurrection appearances of Jesus must have been bewildering. Now you saw him - now you didn't! On the way to Emmaus they saw him, but they didn't - until he revealed himself in the "breaking of the bread." The disciples behind locked doors on two different occasions were busily occupied with their own conversation when suddenly he was there among them - until he was no longer with them - and the door had never opened or closed! He keeps coming unexpectedly and leaving equally unexpectedly - in unexpected places and times! How were they ever to know where he was -- where he was going to be - when they would see him and where they might meet him?
Like in today's text, for example! "After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the
Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way." It is fascinating to hear John say, "And he revealed himself in this way." He keeps revealing himself this way and that way, in this place and that place - but nobody knows when or where. It is just "in this way" that he now reveals himself!
It must have been something of this unpredictability about when and where they would see him that stood behind Peter's sudden announcement that he was going fishing. This laying around and doing nothing with no sense of direction or any sense of what to do was evidently getting to him. When Jesus was consistently there they could speak with him on a thousand and one topics - and he always seemed to be going here or there, doing this or that. But now the disciples had returned to Galilee to their "happy fishing grounds," the Sea of Galilee as they knew it by name. Things got boring - and perhaps they were getting a bit on the hungry side to boot. So "I am going fishing" brought a flock of others offering to go fishing with him.
It was a bad night for fishing, though. Nights were generally the best time to fish, but not this night. So they were coming in with nothing to show for their efforts. A man standing on the seashore would not particularly have "tipped them off," of course, but when he suggests where to fish one would think they may have heard echoes of another day when they had caught nothing. "Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch," Jesus had said in the earliest days before they became disciples. (Luke 5:4 ESV) That was when Jesus had "caught Peter" and made him into a disciple. "The deep" had not been a likely place to catch fish then, and after having fished all night on this night it must have seemed a bit futile to cast their nets so close to the shore at this time. Still, the stranger may have seen something they didn't see and they obeyed his command. It was not the order, however, that ultimately gave his identify away. It was when "they were not able to haul it [the net] in" that the disciple whom Jesus loved realized who this man was. The "now and then" Jesus had reappeared! "It is the Lord!" he exclaimed. And immediately Peter knew that he was right . . . even though after this up through breakfast "none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?' They knew it was the Lord." How strange it must have been . . . to know who he was . . . not to dare ask him if he was, indeed, who they knew him to be . . . sitting there eating breakfast at his invitation.
It is Peter's response to John's exclamation, however, that most catches one's attention. At that earlier draught of fishes long ago Peter had fallen down at Jesus' knees, saying "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." (Luke 5:8 ESV) Surely, if he had said that on the earlier occasion one would think he would re-double his efforts at distancing himself from the man he had betrayed so miserably on the night before Jesus' death. Would he not now say with still greater fervor, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord"? It is this expectation that makes this scene so remarkable. He dresses himself, for he had shed his clothing while fishing, and "threw himself into the sea," evidently rushing to see Jesus again, to speak with him once more, not as a sinner needing forgiveness but as a friend returned from a "far country." Would that John had told us of the exchange between Jesus and Peter when they came together on the shore. But alas, he did not. We can only guess. Our guess can be a fairly educated one, though, for Peter would not have so abruptly left his companions to get to Jesus had he not been assured that the words of Jesus spoken several times over in earlier confrontations not been still ringing in his ears: "Peace be with you."
What a blessed peace it must have been to drive Peter from that boat so pre-emptorally, leaving everyone else behind. It was as though nothing - absolutely nothing - was to keep him away from once again keeping company with this Jesus, betrayed and yet restoring the betrayer to grace, whom Peter loved with all his heart.
This is all hidden from our sight, however, as Jesus calmly asks them to contribute some of their catch to the fish he has broiling on the little fire there on the shore. (It was almost as though the "miracle" of the moment for them gathered there was that the net was not torn with such a large catch  - many guesses through the ages enlighten us very little about the significance of sitting around counting the fish or what the number might signify!) Is it not strange that John would specifically mention that the net was not torn? Is there something here about "catching men" (Luke 5:10b) and that there will never be so many as to fill heaven beyond its fullness? It is mere conjecture to speak thus, but one must think that John had reason - a reason only those of his time knew - to mention this detail!
At any rate, they brought their fish and had breakfast. Again, interestingly enough, John does not say that Jesus ate with them on this occasion (he did on another occasion), but rather that, reminiscent of that last supper although with different "elements," he is said to have taken the bread and given it to them as he did also with the fish. Again, is there a tantalizing reference to the Lord's Supper in a "backhand" kind of way? Once more, we do not know. But the text "plays" with us, suggesting, intimating, causing us to wonder, urging us to see what is not seen while never telling us exactly what the author sees or what Jesus meant to be seen!
The scene shifts abruptly to the three approaches Jesus made to Peter after breakfast. I, personally, would have relished knowing what Jesus said to Peter when he came up dripping wet from the sea, but John only tells us what Jesus said to him after things had settled down. Some make a great deal of the fact that two different Greek words are used in the three questions concerning whether Peter "loves" Jesus, but for a variety of reasons many commentators make little of this shifting vocabulary . . . or even the three "commands" Jesus gives after each affirmative answer from Peter: "Feed my lambs," "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep." (ESV) Whatever one wants to make of it, this much is clear: Jesus is "reinstating" Peter (if ever he had been dismissed in the first place) to his position as one of the disciples to whom the care of the church would soon be entrusted when these last words of Jesus would become the first words of the church.
The "grief" that Peter felt upon being asked for the third time whether he loved Jesus, however, can be understood on several levels, and it is worth our while to briefly consider them.
On the one hand he may simply have become exasperated that Jesus kept pressing the question to which Peter had so emphatically given an answer. It is more likely, however, that he recognized in the threefold question an echo of his threefold statements of betrayal and he felt that there were "barbs" in this echo of his betrayal. Yet that is not likely to have been the grounds for his grief, for Jesus was not likely to throw "barbs" at such a close associate. His initial response to this third inquiry may give the most likely clue: "Lord, you know everything . . . " At that evening of his betrayal Jesus had been fully cognizant of Peter's impending betrayal and had said as much. He knew Peter better than even Peter knew himself. Peter had insisted he would never, never, not ever do such a thing. But he did not know himself as well as Jesus knew him when he insisted that Peter would, indeed, betray him.
Now Peter was perhaps pleading that Jesus would search the deepest part of Peter's heart and life. "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Peter's "grief" was that the Lord, whose knowledge of Peter had so certainly been shown on that dreadful night, did not now see how deeply Peter's love for his Lord was. Or was Peter, perhaps, wondering if he still had "betrayal possibilities" residing within him and he was pleading with Jesus to save him from himself? We know none of this. We only conjecture. Certainly Peter, the betrayer, was saying that he had discovered something about himself that had been hard to face up to . . . but now that he had faced up to this "flaw" that had so demonically revealed itself to him on that awful night he was determined to move past any such moment again in the future, for his love for his Lord far exceeded his formerly betraying heart.
Could any one of us not resonate on any of these levels with Peter were Jesus to ask us for the third time, "Do you love me?" Ah, yes, there are many dimensions to this threefold inquiry of Jesus and to Peter's impatience with the oft-repeated question. He "was grieved." As we all would be, I am sure. Which leads us to recognize that this text is speaking forthrightly to . . . . . . . .
Have you found yourself in this text yet? John is not merely writing a story to catch our interest or to inform our curiosity. He has said this clearly just before our text when he wrote, "These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31 ESV) He is writing for us and for all who have gone before us and all who will come after us. He is turning our attention to the Christ, the Son of God. In order to see him clearly, however, we must also candidly and honestly see ourselves so that we will understand what it means to have life in his name by believing. This text has a setting within our own lives.
To begin with, does not Peter's "boredom" that led him to go fishing reverberate in our lives also? Oh, it may not be "boredom" in the sense that we have little or nothing to do, that we have time on our hands with little or nothing to do. Most of us have far more to do than we can find time for, in fact. The "boredom" of which I speak, however, is the sense of "treading water;" of "waiting for something to happen;" of the "hum-drumness of life" that on occasion weighs us down with a sense of meaninglessness; of "not knowing what to expect because we are not sure where we are going." Is simply paying the bills, caring for the children, doing our job and getting a paycheck, enjoying brief respites from our daily round of chores with a vacation here or there . . . is that what life is really all about? We find moments of great fulfillment in doing many or most of these things on occasion, but in the end, where is it all going? What is the point of it all? Are we just here to fill out a little space and time between birth and death? Do we not understand what the "Preacher" is saying in the opening verses of Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (ch 1:2, 3 ESV) Some translators use words like "emptiness" or "meaningless" or some other such words in place of "vanity" to describe the plight of humans on the earth. Do we not feel like this more often than we like to admit? And for all the "God-talk" in the church and by Christian people, where is God in all this anyway? At best he seems "real" only on a "now and then" basis. So while we wait around, "going fishing" is a way to just forget it all and do whatever we can to escape that fearsome question of what or who we are waiting for . . . and why?
Then, in unexpected ways and at unexpected places our lives take strange turns. They experience startling awarenesses raised by unanticipated twists of life. We see a shadowy figure on the shore. We do not always recognize him immediately, but we know that he takes on an unforeseen place in our lives. He bids us look at what we are doing differently, urges us to see what we had not seen before. "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some fish," he says. Surprising transformations of ordinary events begin to flick at our souls, and we find a breakfast awaiting us in the midst of our hunger. "Take, eat," he says. It is not a fish he offers, however. It is his own body and blood that was shed on the cross "for us." We dare not ask "Who are you?" for we know that it is the Lord who breaks in on our lives and turns them into an adventure of service to him. We plunge into the water as Peter did, remembering our baptism and the promises that came to us through those waters. We are never real sure what it will mean to live with this one whom we know but dare not ask who he is, but we sense that living with him will fill all that void that so surrounds our lives with meaningless vanity. Even if he leads us to a cross, it is better to go with him than to follow all the promises of the world that turn into such bleakness and futility.
Is it not surprising how many times and in what unexpected ways God "breaks into" our lives on the shore of our ordinary, everyday existence? It is as though he had never been away - just hidden from sight, as it were. He had been alongside us all along when we were either unaware or unconcerned - or, more probably, both! But, glory be to God, he simply will not leave us alone! He keeps "showing up" over and over again when and where we least expect to encounter him. He is relentlessly present in the shadows of our lives no matter how many locked doors we try to hide behind.
In this way we see precisely the point of the "here and there, now and then" appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. He whom they did not see was there always, just as he promised at his ascension. (Matthew 28:20) Not seeing him, they were being assured he was never absent. When and where he chose to reveal himself, he did so - and they were surprised. Until, in the book of Acts, we find an ever deepening awareness that he with whom they had walked and who had ascended into the heavens before their very eyes was now with them wherever they were. Unseen, but always present, he became the "power within them" by which they dared to place their lives on the line in behalf of him whose life had been laid on the line for them - and for us!
Therein lies the comfort for us in this text - he is never absent from us! Unseen, to be sure, but always there. He speaks to us in and through the word that was written to reveal God's constant working in and among his people. His death and resurrection enlivened the waters of our baptism, and we daily renew that moment when we sign ourselves by the cross, invoke the name of the Father, + Son and Holy Spirit in our daily prayers and in our weekly worship, and in many other ways. Bread and wine bring him again to our lips and he becomes deeply implanted in our daily living through the eating and drinking. We see the "shadowy figure of him who stood on the shore" in our text, and we know that the "shadowy figure" reveals the reality of him who stands there. The words of last week ring through the text of this week, "Peace be with you." Peace to all who call on his name!
"Feed my lambs . . . tend my sheep," Those are not words for pastors or church officials only. They are words for parents and teachers, workers in the lab and those who tend the ground to raise crops, those who sit at computers performing their work and those who nurse the sick and troubled . . . for all of God's people everywhere. God's lambs and sheep are everywhere, and our Lord calls us to "tend them, to feed them, to become his presence among and for them," feeding them with the word that we, ourselves, have heard: "Peace be with you." The one on the shore of their lives is the peace of God that they so earnestly long for.
THE TEXT AND US TOGETHER
None of this is to forget the closing words of our text where Peter is told that all of this will cost him his life. John notes that the words were specially designed to foresee Peter's eventual death as a martyr, crucified, according to tradition, upside down because he did not feel worthy of dying as his Master had died. He was given a task between the time recorded in our text and that time of his death, however. Yet it would never be just his task. It would always be the Master's task . . . the Master whom he loved and who knew him so well that he would entrust the task of taking the Gospel of grace to people everywhere. The Master, himself, would be with him at every step of the way, working through this man who loved him. On this path he would learn step by step, moment by moment, event by event that none of this was his own work. Peter would lose his life minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, month by month in service to his Lord. It would never be his again. It would always belong to the Lord.
Do you not see now how deeply this text touches down into our own lives? We are not our own any more than Peter's life belonged to him from that time on. God has claimed you in Jesus Christ as his very own child, and serving him is nothing less than losing your life. Yet in losing your life, you find a life that you could never have without him who calls you to lose it!
The word "martyr" simply means "witness," and it is to become a "martyr for Christ" that we are all called. Giving our very selves away, we know that one who is larger than our own life, the one in whom all life resides, in fact, is taking our moments and our days, our energies and our very existence, and filling all those mundane, daily "boring" moments with his presence. Now and then he stands on the shore and asks for some fish, but by and large we are unaware of him who frequents the shadows of our lives. He is never absent, though. Remember that. He is present, filling all the nooks and crannies of our lives with his presence, saying, as he did to Peter in our text, "Follow me."
Thus his last words become our first words . . . and the first words of the church of all ages!
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.