Third Sunday of Easter
TEXT: John 21:1-19
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. (John 21:9-14)
In many of our churches, on this first Sunday in May, our attention will shift to the Communion table, as we remember Jesus’ last supper with his friends. Today, though, our gospel lesson tells us not about a “last supper,” but a “first breakfast”—Jesus’ first full meal with his disciples since his return from death.
The “last supper” and the “first breakfast”—two events that bookend the cross. An upper room, a gruesome hill, a Galilean beach; as someone has said, broken in each of these places is the bread of reconciliation.
Yes, there’s that word: reconciliation. By now—three weeks into Easter—I’m sure you all know that this is what the cross is all about: reconciliation. But it’s also what Jesus’ life was for—and what his resurrection proclaims.
In Christ, we are reconciled—made “at one” with God. In the man Jesus, God became one of us. He lived among us, walked with us, shared our human condition. In Christ, there is no more distance between divinity and humanity. No longer is the gap between heaven and earth measured in light years. And no longer insurmountable are the walls which separate us one from another.
In last week’s blog, you’ll remember, we heard about the risen Christ visiting his disciples, who were in hiding after Friday’s catastrophe. The women had already told the disciples that Jesus was alive again, but the men did not believe them. So the Lord appeared among them, somehow materializing inside a locked room, to vindicate the testimony of Mary and the others. Not only that, but Jesus made it clear that he still loved them—all of them. He did not blame them for what happened, and he did not want them to blame each other—or to doubt one another.
Today’s gospel reading continues this theme of reconciliation.
Peter announces he’s going fishing, and several of the other disciples join him. It’s interesting that at least some of them continue looking to Peter for leadership, given that Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times. But perhaps it has been easier for the others to forgive Peter than for Peter to forgive himself. We can only imagine the depth of his disappointment with himself, or the weight of his guilt and shame. Peter figures he has bombed out of the disciple business. And so, he’s decided to return to what he knows. After all, he feels most like himself aboard a fishing boat, wrestling the heavy nets throughout the frigid night. As day breaks, however, his efforts have proven fruitless. After many hours of fishing, the group has caught exactly zero fish.
Poor Peter. Not only is he a failed disciple, but now he’s a failed fisherman, too—and this is something he’s been good at his whole life.
Then the disciples notice a lone figure on the shore, and they see the smoke from a small fire. The stranger calls out to them and suggests something very odd. He shouts across the water, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat.”
What possible difference could that make? But, at this point, the disciples are willing to try anything. So they do it—and suddenly the net is crammed with fish—filled almost to bursting! Then one of them—“that disciple whom Jesus loved”—realizes that he has seen something like this before. On a hillside, with thousands of people, he watched Jesus multiply bread and fish until all of them were fed. So he turns to Peter and says, “It is the Lord!”
Upon hearing that, Peter jumps overboard and swims to shore. This time, it is Peter—not Thomas—who needs a closer look.
In fact, it is Jesus! And, after the others arrive with their bulging fishnet, he invites all of them to share breakfast, as though this was just a normal morning after a night of fishing. The disciples shoot looks of amazement at each other across the fire and half-wonder if this is real. And yet … they know it is.
Like I said, this story is the other bookend to the Last Supper. This “First Breakfast” changes the trajectory of the disciples’ lives. Now, they will move from confusion to purpose; from malaise to mission. Everything Jesus said to the disciples before his crucifixion—and in John’s gospel, he said a lot—is now coming to bear on these men.
But first, Jesus has some very specific business with Peter. It always bears repeating that Peter—in so many gospel stories—appears to be a stand-in for the rest of us. His enthusiasm, his awkwardness, his lack of understanding, his enormous love for Jesus … are not these just like our own? So when the gospel account focuses on Peter, we find ourselves drawn in.
Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, and—sadly—that prediction came true, three times. You all remember this. Waiting outside the high priest’s court while Jesus is being interrogated, Peter is repeatedly accosted by bystanders who ask him, “Weren’t you with Jesus?” And each time, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. But it gets even worse. At the cross, Peter is absent. Like almost all of the others, he went into hiding after Jesus was killed. He was neither courageous nor loyal.
Now, Jesus speaks to Peter directly: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asks him this three times—and, three times, Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Each time, Jesus says: “Then, take care of my sheep.”
Do you see what’s going on here? Peter is being given the opportunity to undo the damage. With three affirmations of his love, Peter cancels out his three denials. Then Jesus tells him what to do with that love: feed the flock. Tend the sheep.
Although the word “forgiveness” never appears in this story, it is obviously a crucial theme. Peter—impetuous, big-mouthed Peter—caved in to fear. He failed to acknowledge Jesus, and he failed to stick around for the bitter end. Now, the risen Lord reaches out to him. As much as Peter has believed in Jesus, Jesus believes in Peter even more. “Feed my sheep,” he says, as he invites Peter to start over.
In this seaside tale, we glimpse what reconciliation can look like—for all of us. We are forgiven. We are completely loved. We are trusted. And we are given a job to do. This is not just Peter’s story; it is our story, too. When fear holds us back, love calls us forward. When we feel like we have utterly failed, Jesus tells us to cast our nets on the other side of the boat.
I wonder: do you see yourself here? Are you like Peter? Are guilt, shame, and fear holding you back from the abundant life Jesus is offering? If you really believed that you were completely forgiven, completely loved, and completely free … would that alter the choices you make? About your work? Your money? Your relationships?
The reconciliation Jesus offers is like a healing salve that opens our eyes and allows us to view our own lives in the light of his resurrection. All at once, we can see clearly! We can see how we have made choices out of fear rather than love. Suddenly, we understand why we feel so guilty, so dissatisfied, so empty. The road ahead comes into view, leading away from the fears and sorrows and regrets that burden us.
Just as he called Peter, Jesus is calling us. He is calling us to do something. We are called not only to proclaim God’s love, known to us in Jesus, but also to act upon it. Because Christ is risen, God’s love has been set free in the world. Jesus is on the loose! And we are his hands and feet. We are his arms and legs, his eyes and ears. We are the ones who can make his love real. We can make his grace a tangible thing—here, in our town, on our beach, in this Year of Our Lord 2022.
Like Peter, we’re being called to change our perspectives and cast our nets where God’s love is abundant—and then to share a bountiful catch. There’s lots to go around. There’s plenty for everyone. Jesus invites us: “Come and have breakfast.”
In the bright light of Easter, we can see ourselves reconciled. There is no more room for fear and regret. There is a remedy for our guilt. Dear friends, we are forgiven. We are liberated. We are loved. Not only that, but … we have some sheep to feed!
Let’s get busy.