Forgiveness and restoration

Easter 3 – 2010

John 21:1-19

Marian Free

In the name of God who in Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is never withdrawn. Amen.

At the end of chapter 20 in John we read: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.” These words seem to indicate that the gospel has reached its conclusion. There are many scholars who believe that the original gospel ended at this point. This view is supported by other evidence which is found in chapter 21 For example, the use of language is different in this last chapter, the wrong number of resurrection appearances is recorded. Chapter 21 provides the only mention of the sons of Zebedee in the gospel.

At the same time, the chapter contains characteristics which are consistent with the authorship of the first twenty chapters. Most notable of these is the author’s use of a variety of terms to express the same thing. For example, three different Greek words are used for “fish”, Simon is asked to “tend” or “feed” “Jesus’ sheep” or his “lambs”. Much has been made of Jesus’ use of two different words for “love” – “agaph” (agape) and “filoV” (philos), however there is little significance in the language other than the author’s wish to avoid repetition. Also consistent with the author of John’s gospel is the refusal to name the Beloved Disciple.

Not only is it difficult to determine whether or not the chapter belongs to the gospel, but there are also a number of puzzles in it to which we may never have an answer. For example: Where does Jesus get the fish which he is cooking? Why is the exact number – 153 – of fish mentioned? Perhaps most puzzling is why the disciples – who not only have seen the risen Jesus, but who have received the Holy Spirit and been commissioned for ministry – return to their previous way of life?

Whether or not chapter is original to the gospel it does contain many elements of the Jesus’ tradition and is beautifully crafted with allusions to events in the rest of the gospel for example the bread and fish of the account of the feeding of the five thousand. Further more, it helps the readers to understand Peter’s rehabilitation.

The chapter consists of five parts. First of all the author sets the scene – seven disciples are by the Sea of Tiberias. Next comes a short account of a miraculous catch of fish (a miracle with which we are familiar from other gospels). This section includes the recognition of Jesus. When the boat reaches shore Jesus invites the disciples to share a meal. Finally, after the meal Jesus has a conversation with Simon which leads to a revelation about the Beloved Disciple.

 Within the story are a number of allusions to earlier parts of the gospel which round out the account. Peter’s enthusiastic response to the Beloved Disciple’s recognition of Jesus is reminiscent of his racing into the tomb when the other disciple had simply looked in. The miraculous catch and the precise number of fish reminds the reader that the disciples elsewhere have been called to fish for people.

However it is the reference to the charcoal fire which is most evocative. Fresh in the minds of the readers is Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus – while he was warming himself at a charcoal fire. There is no mention here of the past, but the charcoal fire and Jesus’ threefold question and commissioning brings it clearly to mind. Here in the final section of the story and indeed of the gospel, the author makes us witnesses to Simon’s restoration and his re-commissioning as the future shepherd of Jesus’ sheep.

There is no confession, no act of repentance on Peter’s part and there is no remonstrance or offer of absolution on the part of Jesus. Jesus simply seeks to be assured that Peter loves him (Jesus) more than he loves the other disciples. Then, without any demand but that of love, Jesus re-instates Peter as the one who will take his place as the shepherd of the sheep.

From a human perspective, this is an extraordinary thing for Jesus to do. We know that when Jesus needed Simon the most, Simon turned his back. He demonstrated that when the going gets tough, he gets going. He publicly let Jesus down, made out that he didn’t even know him and abandoned Jesus to his fate. It would not be unreasonable for Jesus to express disappointment or disapproval. In fact, we would not be in the least surprised if Jesus were angry with Simon. We might think that Jesus would ask for an explanation of Simon’s behaviour, but the past is not even mentioned. On the other hand, it is only reasonable to expect an articulation of shame and guilt from Peter or a request for forgiveness, yet neither are forthcoming. Without having to do anything except affirm his love, Peter is restored not only as Jesus’ friend, but as the leader of the community which will be formed in Jesus’ name.

Simon’s behaviour is equally extraordinary. Instead of skulking guiltily behind the other disciples – filled with guilt and shame, as soon as he knows it is Jesus on the shore Simon leaps into the water to be the first to reach him. It is as if nothing had happened between them. Somehow Simon knew what Judas did not – that Jesus’ love for him was unconditional, that it would survive his betrayal. Simon didn’t need to take his own life in despair, because he knew that despite his abandonment of Jesus and Jesus’ disappointment, Jesus would not abandon him.

This does not mean that he gets off scot free. He has let Jesus down and Jesus needs to be sure that he will not fail him again. So Jesus seeks an assurance of Simon’s love. Three times he asks him: “Do you love me?” Three times Simon has to respond that yes he does. Only then is Jesus satisfied that Simon is ready to submit himself completely to the will of God and to go wherever that call may lead him, even if that means death. Simon has learnt, through his failures what it is that is most important to him. 

In this lifetime, we will let God down and we will let ourselves down, but we can learn from Peter that God’s love is never withdrawn and that if we trust in that love and learn from our failures, not only will we be fully restored, but as we submit ourselves completely to God’s love, we will find that God will use even us for good.


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