“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.” —John 21:11
In our sermon series, “Encounters with Jesus”, we’ve heard stories from John’s gospel of those who walked with Jesus, witnessed his signs, and came to believe. From these interactions, we too are to encounter Jesus.
Today, we will focus on a particular man who has been with Jesus from the beginning and now at the end. Jesus has been crucified, raised, appeared multiple times to the disciples, followed by closing statements that Jesus appeared more times and these are recorded so others may come to believe. Our lesson appears after this as the epilogue to John. Listen for what happens to Peter as I read John 21.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 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. 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.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’
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. 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 lake. 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.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish 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, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.’
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.’
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. …After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Dear God, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. So we gather in your sanctuary, some with faith and others who doubt. Speak to us of eternal things. Stir our hearts and souls to believe, so that in believing we may turn our lives to be witnesses of your love. Amen.
e was a fisherman, accustomed to hard labor—by the light of the moon on the nightshift or in the noonday sun. The skin on his neck was leathered as well as his faced lined from being exposed to the harsh weather his whole life. Hauling nets weighed down with fish or digging with long oars through deep waters gave him beefy, Popeye-like forearms. If he was not securing bait, he had tedious, mind-numbing work to mend nets, all for the fishing.
The man has worked his whole life for someone else. He worked alongside of others too, but always competing to find the better fishing spots and get the best price for his haul. It was the nature of the trade; some were friends all were competitors. Sound familiar?
Simon, son of John was his formal name. But, the only person who probably called him by the full name was his mother, when she was angry.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel we are told his brother, Andrew, introduced him to Jesus by telling him, “this is our savior”. Before he uttered a word, Simon received a new name, Caphes, or Peter, meaning “the rock”. But Simon Peter or Peter seems rather formal for this fisherman; let’s just call him Pete.
Since he had worked his whole life and for someone else and for little in return, he followed this man from Nazareth. Pete drank deeply of the “good” wine Jesus created from common water at a wedding in Cana. Then, he was one of 5,000 people fed with a few bread crusts and measly fishes that he would not have thought fit to serve. Pete could not explain these signs, but grew to believe in this guy from Nazareth who was saying all this abundance was from God. For the first time in his life, he was not just going through the motions of faith. Pete believed when he heard God cared about his life.
He should have known, good things don’t last long. Now threatened, the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of lying like one of those politicians, when he said, “I am the bread of heaven” that incited the crowds to follow him. When the leaders challenged him, in a circular and hard to follow way, Jesus told them if you believed, you were to eat his flesh and drink from his cup.
All the talk of losing your life and eating Jesus was more than most of the crowd could handle, they decided the party was over, and left. Maybe you know some fair weathered friends who are not reliable?
Except Pete. Maybe he was the sturdy, solid rock-type? When Jesus challenged him, “are you going too?” This man of few words said; “where can I go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68).” At that time, he stood firm. Besides, Jesus promised to give them life and life abundantly.
Just when you think Pete is going to be one of the heroes in this story, he blows it and blows it big.
One night they gathered in Jerusalem, in an upper room for a meal, the air thick with tension because they were all threatened, Jesus gave them a command; “love each other”. (Pete knew that love would not stop the soldiers.) Then Jesus stooped to the floor to wash everyone’s feet. It was crazy for Jesus to do what slaves usually did. Pete was not having anything to do with it; he wasn’t the kind of guy to get his feet washed. It was too intimate. Confused about what’s going on, he counters with “no, let me wash your feet”. Pete flailed around. He could not accept the tenderness and vulnerability from Jesus. Everyone sensed it, almost pitied him.
Maybe you have seen someone try to flex his muscles at just the wrong time? Or, remain guarded, or done so yourself, despite the safety of another’s love? None of the others loved him that night.
It gets worse. After Jesus tells them all of what will happen, that he will lay down his life for them, Pete interrupted, claiming he will follow him no matter what and that he, too, would lay down his life.
Knowing all of what will happen, Jesus crushed Pete by saying “no, not only will you turn your back literally, before daybreak, you will deny you know me three times”. Oh, that cut through him.
So later that night, maybe to win him back, when confronted with a mass of soldiers, in riot gear to arrest Jesus, instinctively, Pete’s blood boiled as he prepared to protect his own as he always had. Pete pulled his sword and sliced off the ear of one of the slaves. He was ready to fight for Jesus.
But, he lost the fight with Jesus who told him, to put away his sword, “this is not the way.” Against the embers of a fire in the deep of that night, Pete denied having any part of Jesus, three times. The obtuse and stubborn rock threw away everything and left.
Pete learned from the others, by a crucifixion designed for the lowest class criminals, Jesus was dead.
His shame was heavier than anything he had known. But which was worse, denying Jesus, or being foolish to have believed in him? Sleepless nights turned into a third morning, when one of the women, was frantic, saying the tomb was empty. Racing against another disciple and arguing with himself—Pete knew that stone could not have moved—and yet, maybe. He walked in the tomb, found the body was missing, and left again.
He had nowhere to go, so he hid with the others, not sure to believe what he saw and the women said. Pete said nothing for days. How can anyone understand an empty tomb?
A week later, with nail holes in his hands and the flesh of his side torn open, Jesus appeared. It was unbelievable, and yet, Pete remembered Jesus always asked them to believe God’s love was so great, God sent Jesus, and God’s love would raise Jesus. It was all true.
Despite years of traveling with Jesus and the others, he was not too popular for how he had behaved, so just a few were with him as they left Jerusalem to return to the sea.
One night, they launched the boat with nets and bait, but fished without luck. Calling it a night, as they rowed ashore, they saw a figure in the breaking dawn. This man’s voice sounded familiar, “what’d ya get?” With sheer exhaustion and frustration, “nothing” they replied. When the man told them to just toss their net to the other side, they did, landing a school of fish, so massive; it took all their strength.
On the beach, this man greeted them with a warm fire and breakfast. Of course, Pete knew it was Jesus and he had to face up to what he had done. How do you mend a relationship with someone you abandoned at a time he needed you most?
Christ knows his pain and speaks first, “do you love me?” Love was the one thing he had asked all along. Perhaps in a whisper, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” It felt good to say what was etched in his heart. Christ asked two more times, “do you love me,” reminding him of denying him in the garden, so much so, Pete was hurt. Besides, Pete was not used to saying “I love you” to anyone. But three times he did and three times Christ said, “feed my sheep” accepting him, loving him.
Who hasn’t denied and betrayed and disappointed? Who hasn’t at some point along the way failed to live up to the hopes and expectations of others or yourself? Who hasn’t failed to love and forgive and be generous and think of something and someone other than yourself? Large or small, terrible or trivial, you can carry that load around all your life until it wears you down, paralyzes you.
Whether you call it forgiveness or grace, Christ’s appearance gave Pete a new lease on life. And learning all Christ wanted was his love meant he did not need to carry the shame and guilt of his past life. In his gut, he finally grasped those words from Christ, “For God so loved the world, God sent a son, that all who believed will have life.”
Some folks wondered if he would use that experience to become the leader. But he didn’t. He knew others had a silver-tongued gift for preaching, and others the wanderlust for traveling far, still others could write. Each of the disciples had a trade or profession to continue.
Pete could work harder and longer than anyone else. He could fight, if necessary, to protect his own. He had been good at those when we worked for someone else, competing with everyone else. Now he set those ways aside. Seeing Christ meant even death cannot limit the life God created and he too could live like new.
Pete went back to fishing and tried it in a new way: he pledged his life to love. It was humbling and he was clumsy. But, he taught people how to fish together, how to eat together, how to forgive, and be forgiven. His work would point to the risen Christ. He was never elegant, only honest, and when he made mistakes, he started over again. His labor and his love honored the Messiah in ways only Pete could offer.
Every time he served simple meals and broke the bread, he remembered, and told the story about Jesus, not with sorrow, but joy. He invited others to know the risen Christ, so they would also believe, and let their lives be made new by this otherworldly, but very real grace.