James G. Somerville is pastor of Wingate Baptist Church and adjunct professor of religion and philosophy at Wingate (North Carolina) University.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 15,1998, p. 395, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Having heard the invitation to follow so long ago, we need to hear it again, and then to act.
"After these things," John says. After Jesus had been crucified and buried, after he had risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples -- after all these things, "Jesus showed himself again."
I remember a concert at which the singer left the stage before we in the audience were ready for him to be done. We got to our feet. We clapped and whistled. We shouted, "Encore!" And a few minutes later he bounded back onto the stage, strapped on his guitar and launched into the finale: those last few songs we had been waiting the whole concert to hear.
I can understand why he came back. There was something unfinished about his concert, something that he needed to do before we could let him go. But what about Jesus? What kind of encore can you play after you have risen from the dead? What sort of finale would add anything to that most final of acts?
The clues are abundant.
At the beginning of the epilogue (chapter 21) the disciples have left Jerusalem and are gathered by the Sea of Galilee. Simon Peter is there, along with Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and "two others of his disciples." What they are doing there we can only guess. They seem to be waiting for something. Or someone. You can almost hear the clock ticking. Finally Peter says to his peers, "I’m going fishing." And with a sigh of relief (or resignation) they offer to go with him.
I don’t know that John means it this way, but Peter’s words in this passage have always depressed me. All those high hopes that had been his when he was with Jesus have come crashing down, and now, with no reason to go forward, he goes back to that thing he knows best: fishing. There is nothing wrong with fishing. It is honest work. But Peter has been up on the high slopes with Jesus and is now back down at sea level.
That would be bad enough, but to make matters worse, Peter cannot succeed at the thing to which he has resigned himself. "That night they caught nothing," John adds flatly. And can’t you see Peter? He flings his net out over the black waters again and again, hauling them in dripping wet and as empty as his dreams. "What’s the use?" he mutters under his breath. "What’s the point? Even the one thing I thought I could do I can’t do anymore.
But then day breaks and a stranger asks the question all fisherman have heard from the shore: "Caught anything, boys?" They shake their heads. Nothing. "Cast the net on the right side of the boat," he suggests, and to humor the stranger they do. But this time everything changes. This time they are unable to haul it in because of the live, wiggling weight of the fish they have caught. Like the parallel story in Luke 5, the miraculous catch serves as an epiphany, shining a light on the stranger, showing him for who he really is. The disciple whom Jesus loves turns to Peter and says with a gasp, "It is the Lord!"
Impulsive as ever, Peter throws on his clothes and jumps into the water, swimming toward shore while the others drag the full net along behind the boat. At first his strokes are long and strong, then he slows as he gets closer to shore, closer to Jesus. What will he say when the two of them stand face to face? How will he explain not only his denial of Jesus (John 18:15-18, 25-27), but now the denial of his calling as a disciple?
Nonetheless he comes ashore, and after an awkward breakfast at which Jesus acts as host -- giving bread and fish to a hungry, though much smaller, multitude by the sea -- Jesus nods to Peter and they start off down the beach.
"Simon," says Jesus, "do you love me?" And Peter, pained by the question, answers, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." And then Jesus asks it again. And then again. Each time Peter answers with all the sincerity he can muster, his anguish evident in his voice. And each time Jesus follows his response with a simple command: "Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep."
Most scholars believe that Peter’s threefold profession of his love for Jesus parallels his threefold denial, that Jesus is giving Peter the chance to fill the hole he has dug for himself with three huge shovelfuls of love. They are probably right. There is a symmetry here. But there is more. Jesus is not only trying to bring Peter back to where he was before but to move him beyond that. Jesus looks Peter in the eye and speaks the words that won him in the first place: "Follow me.
Suddenly it is clear. Jesus has made this encore appearance for Peter’s benefit. In the same way he returned for Thomas, to move him from doubt to faith, he now returns for Peter, to move him from faith to action.
Perhaps in these days after the resurrection we need that as much as Peter did. We, too, have come down from the high slopes of Easter and now find ourselves stuck in the same sea-level routine. We have seen the risen Lord and believed, but what difference has it made? Perhaps, having heard the invitation to follow so long ago, we need to hear it again, and then to act. . .
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow thee.