This Sunday’s Gospel is remarkable in that although the apostles have seen the resurrected Jesus several times, they seem to be retreating into the past. Jesus must summon them—if you’ll pardon the expression—back to the future.
They were going to return to fishing, but the Lord calls them away and points them to the future, in which they go out to all the nations and summon them to saving faith.
This Gospel shows Jesus summoning the apostles back to their crucial call, one focused not in the past but in the future. Indeed, fellow believers, if this had not gone the right way, our faith might well have been in jeopardy. We are the future that Jesus sought to preserve. Our coming to the faith depended on Jesus successfully summoning Peter and the other apostles back to the future.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel in four stages.
I. Regrettable Reversal – At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
The Lord had called Peter and the others away from fishing (e.g., And he said to them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately, they left their nets and followed him (Mat 4:19)).
In today’s Gospel we see Peter going back to commercial fishing. This is not recreational fishing; the commercial nets are out. It is surprising that after having encountered Jesus risen from the dead on at least two occasions he’s going back to fishing! Some of this say that holding this view amounts to saying that Peter has lost his faith. But that need not be true. It is possible to struggle and find it hard to know what to do in the face of new experiences without losing your faith. We go back to the things from which we have been called away without turning away from the faith. Just as He did with the apostles in this Gospel, the Lord must stand on the shore of our baptismal waters and call us out of the past and back to the future, one of holiness and perfection. And this leads us to the next stage.
II. Redeeming Reminder – When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.
The Lord stands on the shore and does again for them what he had done some three years earlier, when He called them from fishing to evangelizing. He does not excoriate them; He does not call them fools or some other epithet. He calls out to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Rather than rebuking them, He asks them to assess the situation, to consider whether their course of action has yielded anything; they admit that they’ve caught nothing. Then he repeats what he said three years before, namely, that they should cast their nets for a catch.
John draws the obvious conclusion: “It is the Lord!” The Lord has given them a redeeming reminder. He does not rebuke them; he only reminds them. In effect, He says, “Come out of the past. Remember the future to which I have summoned you, a future of going forth to the nations and announcing the gospel for all to hear. Your life is not about fish; it is about humanity!”
What reminders has the Lord put in your life? How has He stood on the shore and called to you with some reminder? Perhaps it was a tattered old Bible or maybe a hymn that you heard. Perhaps it was your grandmother’s rosary beads stored away in a dresser drawer. Perhaps it was a funeral or a wedding.
In moments like these, the Lord stands on the shore of life and calls to you. He reminds you of your call and asks you to consider whether your present course is doing anything for you whatsoever; often it has not. Perhaps there is fleeting wealth or momentary popularity, but otherwise there is little else to show for it.
The Lord calls us back to the future, a future (and a present) oriented toward Heaven. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, rather than the earth below (Colossians 3:1).
III. Reorienting Repast – When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being 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?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a 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.”
Notice three basic elements through which the Lord reorients them. To reorient (re (again) + oriens (East)) literally means to turn someone back to the East, back toward the rising of the sun (Son), back toward the light and away from the darkness.
The fish are hauled in; their number is plentiful. The specific number, 153, has significance more for humanity than for fish. While much has been written on the significance of this number, the most likely explanation seems to be that this was the number of known nations at the time. Hence, that exactly 153 fish are caught seems to be the Lord’s way of saying that it’s not the fish but all humanity, all the nations. God can use even our backsliding, our sins, to call us away from them. Yes, He can use our sins as a teachable moment.
As Peter comes ashore, he sees a fire. Though the text is silent on this, surely it must have unnerved him, for here was a charcoal fire, the same sort of fire that was in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest, where Peter had denied the Lord (Jn 18:18). Unnerved by the recognition of what he had done—or rather failed to do—Peter felt unworthy. Yes, this fire reminded him of his denial of the Lord.
Yet even Peter’s repentance is somewhat egocentric. It would seem that he wonders, “How could I have done this, I, who promised the Lord to be with Him even if all should rage against Him!” In moment of cowardice, he had denied the Lord. Oh yes, this fire, this charcoal fire, is bothersome indeed! The Lord stands next to the fire and looks at Peter much as He had in the courtyard of Caiaphas when, after Peter had denied Him for the third time, He turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). How this fire bothers Peter!
Now comes a tender and powerful conversation. To us who read the text in English, the conversation focuses on the fact that the Lord asks Peter the same question three times: “Do you love me?” In Greek, there are subtleties that do not come through in the English translation.
In the English translation, the Lord asks Peter simply, “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” The Greek text, however, is both more subtle and more specific. In Greek, the Lord asks, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων? (Simon Joannou agapas me pleon touton? – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?) Jesus has asked about “agape” love. However, Peter replies, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. (Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se. – Lord, you know that I have brotherly love for you.)
The Lord asked for agape love, the highest love, wherein we love God above all things and all people, including ourselves. Peter does not answer with agape love. Rather, he replies that he loves the Lord in a brotherly (philo) way. This is far short of what the Lord asked. (I realize that there are debates about the Greek used in this passage, but I am convinced that the use of the two different words is significant. I have written further on this topic here: Agape vs Philo in John 21.)
In spite of Peter’s response of imperfect love, the Lord still has something important for him to do: Feed my lambs.
A second time, the same dialogue sets up. Again, the Lord asks for unconditional, ultimate love (agape), but Peter can only return a lesser love, a brotherly love (philo), a sort of affection. Again, the Lord does not reject Peter. He accepts Peter’s response and tells him, Tend my sheep.
On the third occasion, Jesus asks Peter, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; (Simon, son of John, do you have brotherly affection (phileis) for me? This third question strikes Peter to the heart and causes him to exclaim that he (only) has brotherly love. Yet again, the Lord does not reject him, but rather assigns him a task: Feed my lambs.
This is one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looks with love to a disciple and asks him for the highest love; that disciple honestly answers that he has only imperfect love to offer. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter is being absolutely honest. There is no more posing, no more bragging—only an honest answer, born out of sober appreciation of his human lapses. There is nothing more beautiful than honest prayer, for honesty is a prelude to healing. Jesus accepts what Peter is able to offer and (as we shall see) promises him that his heart will expand so that one day he will love the Lord totally, unconditionally, above all things and all people.
What about you? Are you honest with the Lord? Have you experienced His love in spite of your sin? Do you know that if you are honest with Him, He can use you even in your weakness?
IV. Required Remedy – “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
In this whole conversation, the Lord’s purpose is not to stalk or badger Peter. Rather, it is to lead him toward a necessary remedy, to point him back to the future, one filled with evangelical fervor and sacrificial love. Peter is weak now, but the Lord will give him strength. Within ten days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit will come and Peter will be quickened, strengthened in the faith.
Even then, the work the Lord needs to do is not finished, for He speaks of the day when Peter will finally have the grace to accept martyrdom. It will be a day when someone will tie him fast and lead him where he would rather not go—but Peter will go, and he will die for Christ.
In the end, Peter will be able to say, without any simulation or exaggeration, “I love you, Lord, totally, with agape love. I love you above all things, above all people, and above even my own life.”
For now, Peter is not ready, but the Lord will lead him by stages and get him ready. How will Peter get there? How will we get there? The Lord simply says, Follow me.
So, fellow disciples, the Lord is leading you to a deeper love, an unconditional love, a love above all other loves. Only the Lord can do this. He did it for Peter and He can do it for you.