After Easter: “Do You Love Me?”

 

After Easter: “Do You Love Me?”
A Message on John 21:1-19

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 22, 2018
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 21:1-19 (NRSV)

 

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus and Peter
15 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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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. 18 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.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

 

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I find this scripture in the Gospel of John to be beautiful in so many ways.

 

Here’s the situation: It’s after Easter. Jesus has been crucified, died, and was buried. He rose from the dead, surprising everyone, and then started appearing to his followers in different locations and at different times.

 

So the disciples don’t really know what to do about all of this, so several of them go back to their occupations they had before they became disciples of Jesus Christ. They go back to fishing.

 

Fishing was an important economic resource at the time. The fish were salted and dried, which preserved them, and could then be transported and eaten later. Some were eaten fresh, of course, but as you can imagine fresh fish with no refrigeration available doesn’t travel very well.

 

Now how many disciples does it describe in the scripture we read today? Any guesses? There were seven. (Seven is an important number in the Bible.) The scripture says, “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin (of “Doubting Thomas” fame), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee (which would be James and John), and two others of his disciples (who are not named).”

 

So seven men are in one boat fishing. They are fishing at night, by the way.

 

How many of you have ever been night fishing? Raise your hands. I have, and I have to tell you I don’t like it. The main reason is that you can’t see. And I like to see.

 

Years ago Pam’s dad, James, had a boat and we were camping with them and fishing on Lake Leon out in Eastland County, west of Fort Worth. We went out one night crappie fishing and caught some nice fish. On our way back to the camp, though, we had to go through an area of submerged trees. James was driving the boat and going slow, but all of a sudden we felt the boat lifted up out of the water several inches and then it stopped.

 

We had wedged the boat up in three branches of a submerged tree and it was holding us fast. We were stuck.

 

We tried different things to get it unstuck but it didn’t work. Finally we put the trolling motor on high and we would start at the back of the boat, run quickly to the front, and then stop. Millimeter by millimeter, and after about an hour of doing this, we finally got it unstuck and were able to make it back to camp.

 

We had a spotlight and some flashlights with us but with them we still got into trouble in the dark.

 

I can’t imagine the disciples out at night, fishing in a leaky wooden boat, in a sea known for its sudden, unpredictable storms.

 

The scripture we read today calls it the Sea of Tiberias, but in the Bible it goes by several names: Sea of Galilee,  Sea of Kinneret, lake of Gennesaret, and sometimes just “the sea” or “the lake.” It’s not actually a sea as it has fresh water, not salt water, and it isn’t real huge, either, measuring about 13 miles long and 8.1 miles wide. By comparison, Lake Palestine is 18 miles long and 4 miles wide at its widest. So basically and shorter and wider Lake Palestine.

 

The lake is fed by the upper Jordan river, and the Jordan river also flows out of it as it makes its way south to the Dead Sea.

 

There are a lot of fish in the sea/lake. There are several different species but one is probably familiar to you today: tilapia. This fish is even called “Peter’s fish” in the area because of the scripture from the 17th chapter of Matthew where Jesus tells Peter to go and catch a fish and that he will find a coin in the fish’s mouth to be used to pay the temple tax.

 

Besides the tilapia, the lake contains “biny” fish, a predatory species which feeds on yet another species, sardines. Yes, like the sardines you get in a can at the grocery store. There are also catfish in the lake, but the clean/unclean laws in Leviticus classifies catfish as “unclean” (they don’t have both fins and scales) so they didn’t eat them.

 

More than likely the fish that filled the nets of the disciples was tilapia. It is the only fish in the lake that schools and moves to the shallows when the weather cools.

 

So the disciples have been out fishing for these tilapia all night long and haven’t caught a thing. Now we have to remember, these are professional fishermen, not amateurs. Before following Christ three of them in this group (and maybe four if Andrew is one of the unnamed disciples) made a living by fishing. And if you didn’t catch any fish, not only did you not get paid, you also might not eat.

 

They fish all night, and nothing. Nada. They got skunked.

 

So they are tired, frustrated, and maybe a little irritable as well.

 

Then someone on the shore points out the fact that they haven’t caught anything. Great. Pour salt in the wound, will ya. He then tells them to put out their nets on the right side of their boat.

 

Yeah, like that’s going to work. They had been fishing all night. All the long, dark, night. They fished and fished and fished and tried everything they knew to catch fish and had come up with nothing. What are the odds that putting out the nets one more time, on a specific side of the boat, would be any different.

 

But what did they have to lose? Maybe the stranger knew something they didn’t. So they tried it. And indeed there were fish here. Lots of fish. Big fish, completely filling up the net. There were so many fish, they couldn’t bring the net on board.

 

It’s at this point that “the disciple that Jesus loved,” who most people believe to be John, figures out that the person standing on the shore and giving fishing instructions is Jesus. Peter, every the impetuous one, puts on some clothes, jumps out of the boat, and swims to shore toward Jesus.

 

Now the question could be raised why Peter was fishing naked. Here’s my theory: if you don’t have many clothes, and you want the clothes you do have not to smell like fish, then it makes sense not to wear them while you are fishing. Also, it could have been a very warm time of year, so temperature could have come into play.

 

(Now y’all know that I love to fish. But I promise that no matter how stinky or hot it gets, I will not fish naked. I know that will give you great comfort and peace.)

 

It doesn’t say whether the other six disciples get mad at Peter for abandoning them at a critical moment when they are trying to get their catch to shore, but I wonder that. And I get to thinking that maybe it’s a Mary/Martha kind of moment, that while yes, the large number of fish was important, seeing Jesus was perhaps the greater of the two things.

 

There is so much symbolism in this passage of scripture. The fishermen who became disciples, whom Jesus called away from their nets and who he taught to fish for people, go back to fishing. It is while they are doing this that the resurrected Jesus appears.

 

The fish becomes a symbol of the early Christian church. It still is today. Jesus fed the thousands with a few fish and loaves of bread.

 

So back to the scripture. Jesus is cooking fish over a charcoal fire. Now this is easy to skip over, but I find it fascinating. What is charcoal? How is it made? It’s wood that is set on fire and then extinguished before the fire burns up all the wood. In a way that’s what happened to the disciples, right? They were set on fire when Jesus called them and they followed him, then his death on the cross seemingly extinguished their fire. They didn’t know what to do. And then the resurrected Jesus shows up and rekindles the fire in them and gives them their mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In other words, to fish for people. And what does Jesus have cooking over the charcoal fire? Fish, of course.

 

But perhaps the most beautiful example of symbolism in the passage comes with the interaction between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter what seems to be a repetitive question: “Do you love me?”

 

He does this three times. Why the repetition? It doesn’t seem to make sense?

 

But then we remember what Peter did after Jesus was arrested. Peter fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that Peter would deny him (Jesus) three times before the rooster crowed. And while at the time Peter vehemently argued that he would never deny Jesus, the fact is that he did. And how many times did he deny knowing him?

 

Three. Three times.

 

I am convinced that Jesus asked Peter “Do you love me?” three times as a way of offering forgiveness to Peter, once for each time he denied him. I think that’s why Peter’s response to being asked this a third time is different than the first two: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

 

I think this third time it suddenly hits Peter what is going on. And it probably knocks the spiritual wind out of him. And it probably was painful to realize that Jesus repeating the question three times was in response to Peter’s denying him three times.

 

But it doesn’t end there. It’s also interesting to note the responses Jesus gives to Peter each time Peter replies.

 

“Feed my lambs.”

“Tend my sheep.”

“Feed my sheep.”

 

“Feed my lambs.”

 

I find it to be descriptive of spiritual growth. Lambs are baby sheep. Their nourishment comes from milk. This reminds me of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”

 

This describes those new to the faith. They are not yet spiritually mature but will grow over time, becoming spiritually mature. Those who are spiritually mature are to help brothers and sisters in the faith to become spiritually mature.

 

“Tend my sheep.”

 

To me this describes someone who is past the infant stage. Adult sheep can tend for themselves in many ways, no longer needing to be fed milk. They feed by grazing and can do it by themselves, but they still need a shepherd to “tend” them, to watch out for them, and to lead them to green pastures and “beside the still waters.”

 

In the same way I think that Christians in this stage of spiritual growth are able to practice many of the spiritual disciplines by themselves (daily Bible reading, prayer, tithing, etc.) but still need someone more spiritually mature to “tend” them and encourage them.

 

“Feed my sheep.”

 

Here I think Jesus is referring to the spiritually mature followers, i.e. sheep. He is asking Peter to feed them, signifying the leadership role that Peter is to play in the early church. Also, we must remember one of the major purposes of adult sheep: to make more sheep! Peter, and we, are to feed spiritually mature believers with spiritual food (primarily the Word of God) so that they will then “produce fruit” and make lambs, other disciples of Jesus Christ.

 

So what can we learn from this scripture that we can apply to our lives today?

 

I think one is that for every time we mess up, God offers us forgiveness. Peter denied Jesus three times during a very critical time, and Jesus offers Peter forgiveness three times.

 

In conversations I have with unchurched people I often hear things like, “You don’t want me in church. I’ve done some really bad things in my past life that I’m not proud of.”

 

My response is that God’s church is the very place they need to be. They need to feel the Holy Spirit move in their lives to let them know that when we ask for forgiveness, God gives us that forgiveness. And if God can forgive us, then we can begin the process of forgiving ourselves.

 

As church members we need to make sure we are always welcoming to those carrying heavy burdens. We need to remember that the church is not a shrine for saints, but a hospital for sinners.

 

Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” His response was, “Yes.”

 

But we can also ask God, “Do you love me?” And God’s response is always, “Yes.”

 

“How much,” we often think.

 

“This much,” God replies. (Hold arms out wide.)

 

So my challenge to you this week is to remember just how much God loves us and how willing God is to forgive us–and all his children–of the times we deny him. Peter went on to do great things and to establish what we know as the church.

 

And we can, and should do the same. Let us as disciples of Jesus Christ fish for people.

 

But if you want me to go fish fishing at night, I’m probably gonna pass.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

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