May 1st 2022 Homily on John 21:1-19 by Pastor Galen Zook
In John 21, Jesus’s disciples are trying to figure out what it looks like to live without Jesus physically present in their lives. Jesus had risen, and had shown himself to all them. They knew he was alive. But things were different now. Jesus was no longer walking and talking with them on a daily basis. Instead he was appearing to them at various times, but they never knew when to expect him to show up. And he had been talking about how he would soon ascend into heaven and leave his Holy Spirit with them to lead and guide and direct them.
I imagine they spent hours arguing back and forth about what all of that meant. And finally Peter got tired of talking, and said, “I’m going to go fishing!” That was what was familiar to Peter – it’s what he had spent his time doing before he met Christ. And given the way he had messed up big-time when Jesus had been arrested and was on trial, Peter didn’t know if he would ever be able to continue with the mission that Jesus had called him to – that of being a missionary, or a witness. You see, when Jesus was arrested, Peter had misunderstood what his role was supposed to be. He was prepared to fight for Jesus, and had even tried to attack the guard who came to arrest Jesus.
But Jesus had told him that wasn’t what he was supposed to do – that Jesus was going to let him get arrested. Peter had followed at a distance as Jesus was arrested and taken away. But when people asked him if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, he had totally denied that he even knew him. Denied that he knew his own friend, and teacher! As I said, he messed up big-time.
So now, he’s out there fishing, but he can’t catch anything. And that had to have been frustrating for Peter. But then someone appears on the seashore (Peter and the other disciples don’t realize it’s Jesus) and he calls out to them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. And I’m sure Peter is thinking, yeah right, like that’s going to make a difference! But sure enough, they catch a boatload of fish. And that’s when Peter realized it was Jesus who was standing on the seashore calling out to them.
Peter and the other disciples haul the fish in – 153 to be exact, and when they get to shore, Jesus is, ironically, sitting next to a campfire cooking fish. (Jesus, sure does have a sense of humor!) He tells them to bring some of the fish they had just caught – presumably to add to the meal, and then they have breakfast on the beach. With Jesus. Who had been dead, but is now risen. Peter’s friend and teacher, who he had denied that he even knew just a few weeks ago. Awkward! And then, even more awkward, Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him.
Now, this story brings up several questions. What was the significance of there being 153 fish? And why does Jesus ask Peter basically the same question 3 times in a row?
And we’ll get to those questions. But first, I want to tell you about my colleague Donna, who also tried to live her life for a while without Jesus. And how it was questions that eventually brought her back to faith.
My colleague Donna was a medical doctor who became a seminary professor. She refers to herself as a “Doc-Doc” since she’s both a medical doctor and she has a doctorate in ministry.
But for 10 years of her life Donna was an agnostic. Meaning that for ten years of her life she didn’t attend church, and she was not convinced of the existence of God.
Donna had grown up going to church, she had been baptized and confirmed and had attended Sunday School. Growing up she was always a kind and affectionate person. And she loved Jesus. As an only child she spent a lot of time by herself, but she never really felt alone, because she always felt the presence of God in her life. She would swing on the swingset in her backyard and she would literally breathe her prayers, just saying the name Jesus over and over while she was swinging. When she felt the wind rustling her hair as she swung back and forth, she imagined that it was God playing with her hair.
As a teenager she dreamed of being a medical doctor. Not a nurse – she insisted to her parents – a doctor! And sure enough, she worked incredibly hard in school, and went off to college (the first girl in her family of Italian immigrants to do so), and then eventually to medical school, and her internship, then residency.
It was while she was in residency that she began working in a children’s hospital. And that’s also when the doubts began to creep in. Seeing children who were struggling with terminal illnesses, or who had been hurt or abused on a day-in and day-out basis, eventually made her doubt the existence of God. How could a good and loving God allow so much pain and suffering to happen?
It challenged her theology, because she always thought that good people were rewarded for being good. But here she was seeing innocent children suffer, for no fault of their own. She began to feel less motivated to go to church, her church attendance dwindling to only a couple times a month, then less than once a month, then just Christmas and Easter, and then not at all.
“I just don’t get anything from church anymore,” Donna told her mother. “It’s just a waste of time for me to go.” Her father asked her why she was fighting against God. “I’m not,” Donna said. “I don’t even know if God exists.”
It wasn’t that she had grown to love God any less, or that she didn’t like Jesus anymore. It’s just that she didn’t know how to rationalize the pain and suffering that she saw every day with the God of love and compassion that she used to believe in. She wondered how in God’s sovereignty all of this could happen.
During the course of those 10 years, friends and family tried to convince her to come back to the church. Her mom stayed awake at night praying for her to return. But Donna just couldn’t bring herself to worship or believe in a God who seemed to idly stand by watching as the children she worked with on a daily basis suffered.
Throughout all of this, Donna remained a devoted pediatrician. She loved the children that she worked with. She was a wonderful doctor, she just didn’t believe in God. Interestingly enough. It was the children who brought her back to God. Or more particularly, it was their questions.
To this day, Donna doesn’t know why this happened, but it felt like every child under her care who had questions related to God or faith would direct their questions towards her. They would ask her, “Dr. Donna, why is God allowing this to happen to me?” “Why hasn’t God healed me?” “Doesn’t God love me?” Even when Donna was in a room full of other doctors, for some reason the children would always direct their questions to her.
And Donna didn’t know what to say. She knew the children deserved an answer. She didn’t want to lie to them, but she couldn’t tell them that she didn’t even believe in God, or know if God was real. Eventually the questions, and the faith of these children and their parents forced her to re-explore her faith. Also, a coworker tricked her into going to church with her one day. She told her they were going to the movies, but instead she took her to church! (I wouldn’t recommend that strategy, but it worked in this case!) Donna began to take another look at the story of Jesus of his suffering and of his love for each and everyone of us. And somehow, slowly, Donna’s faith slowly began to be restored over time.
It looked different than it had before. It was a faith that was more mature and complex and nuanced. She was in no ways ignorant of the reality of suffering and injustice in the world, but she learned to hold these things in tension with her faith in God, recognizing that Jesus sees, and that Jesus cares, and that Jesus is present with us in our suffering.
Breakfast on the Beach with Jesus
I have to wonder if Peter’s denial of Jesus wasn’t in many ways a rejection of suffering. That when Peter said he didn’t know Jesus, that it was because he couldn’t get his mind around a Messiah who would willingly experience suffering rather than vanquish all of his foes. Peter loved Jesus so much that he was prepared to fight for him. But he couldn’t stand it to see Jesus suffer. He couldn’t fathom why Jesus would submit to being arrested, beaten, and eventually put to death. It was all just too much for Peter to handle. And so he had gone through a period of denial that he even knew Jesus.
But now here they are sitting on the seashore. Jesus has made breakfast for Peter and the other disciples, and Jesus is asking Peter questions. And with Peter, as in the case of my colleague Donna, it was questions that brought Peter back. Questions that drew him back in. Questions that were really invitations to Peter recommit his life into the service of Jesus – and even be willing to suffer and die for Jesus. Questions that were also invitations to help the little ones – to feed Jesus’s flock.
Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him, giving Peter an opportunity to make up for the 3 times he had denied Jesus. Jesus was drawing Peter back in, gently reminding Peter of their relationship, of how much he cared about him, and how Peter was called to be a witness for Jesus. Jesus’s statement that Peter should feed and tend to Jesus’s sheep is a reminder that Peter would play a very significant role in the early church, and indeed the other apostles looked to Peter for wisdom, guidance, and direction as he was led by the Holy Spirit.
Oh, and the significance of 153? Well, one early church theologian suggested that 153 was a reference to all of the different kinds of fish known in the world at that time – a foreshadowing of Peter’s role in preaching the Gospel to all nations!
We are Witnesses
Jesus had a significant for my colleague Donna to play as well. Eventually as her faith was restored, she decided to take a class of theology. She wanted to learn how to better answer the questions that the children were posing to her. She wanted to be the best medical doctor that she could be, caring for her patients body, mind and soul.
She decided to keep taking classes, eventually earning her master’s degree in theology and then going on for a doctorate in ministry. Now she serves as the associate Dean at the seminary where I work throughout the week. But she hasn’t given up medicine. Now, she runs a program called CONNECT, which helps medical doctors and church leaders and members connect faith, health, and medicine. And she chairs the oversight committee for the Johns Hopkins Board of Chaplains, assisting others in caring for patients who have questions about God and spirituality.
Donna became a witness, just as Peter became a witness. And their stories remind us that no matter how many times we’ve messed up, no matter even if we’ve gon through periods of denial, or rejection of our faith, that God can use each and every one of us to be a witness.
Their stories should also give us hope for family members, friends, and loved ones who have stopped going to church or who are experiencing questions about their faith. Who knows, it might even be their questions that will bring them back! At the very least, we see in the stories of Peter and Dr. Donna that God can show up in surprising ways and surprising places, and draw us back to himself.
So may we never give up hope, may we never stop praying and seeking God, and may we too become witnesses of the love and tender mercy of our God, who forgives and restores. Amen.