“Unfinished Business”Dr. R. Lee Carter John 21:1-19 Year C - Third Sunday of Easter
The Gospel of John reaches its grand climax when Thomas, having put his finger in the nail scars and his hand into the wounded side of the Risen Lord, is compelled to doubt his own doubts and declares the greatest confession of faith in the Bible: “My Lord and my God!” The curtain of the gospel falls with its concluding statement of purpose: “Now these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).”
Yet, surprisingly, this gospel does not end there. There is still some unfinished business. Attached to the gospel is an Epilogue (John 21).
Now, the purpose of an Epilogue is to treat unfinished business and most of it, according to the Gospel of John, revolves around Peter. There is unresolved tension between Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and confusion about what the disciples are to do next. Indeed, they had witnessed the Risen Lord. They had received the Holy Spirit. They had received the Great Commandment to love one another. Yet the disciples seem all dressed up with no place to go. Moreover, Peter is still agonizing from guilt over his treacherous denial of Jesus that occurred while his master that night was being grilled, humiliated, and given the “third degree” by the High Priest of the Jewish Supreme Court.
It may seem baffling that Simon Peter, having originally responded so unhesitatingly to Jesus’ invitation to come follow him– and having spent so much time on the road with him, having personally observed the many ways Jesus liberated people, and having testified to our Lord’s miraculous acts and having witnessed the appearances of the Risen Christ—should decide to go back to fishing again in the old hometown.
What? Just go back to the old job? Back to the same old nets? Back to that old familiar smell of fish? Back to the very same place where Jesus had first called them to become fishers of men?
But maybe the old, familiar lake was not such a bad place for Peter and his friends to return to. And maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for us to return in mind, if not in body, to the place where we first came to faith in Christ, the place where we first felt called by God, the place where God had met us before. Refreshment and renewal of the spirit, after all, come through the process of recollection and return. Certainly, after all the physical, emotional and spiritual overload of experiences and trauma that Peter and the others recently experienced, it was time for clarifying reflection and to find comfort in the ordinary.
However, there was still some unfinished business that needed to be settled. Peter’s memory of a dark night would soon give way to the redemption that would dawn at morning light.
Have you ever been on the beach at sunrise, before fishermen and surfers come to play? What a spectacular show! Out of the darkness of night, the great solar disk makes its return debut off the far horizon, beyond the distant sailboats. You stand there in awe of seeing a golden dawn breaking on the world’s eastern edge. It is the birth of a new day.
It was on the beach that today’s scripture lesson is set. In fact it was at the water’s edge that Jesus first called people to follow him. Now it seemed that the “fishers of men” had gone back to become “fishers of fish.”
No doubt they had heard the scoffing among the neighboring villagers: “Well, look who’s back! The grand adventurers, the glorious revolutionaries, the idealists out to change the world have decided to come home after all. We always knew that their silly scheme would amount to nothing.”
Adding insult to injury was the fact that the disciples seemed to have lost their old touch. They had been out fishing all night and had caught nothing.
Come morning, a stranger stood on the beach and called, “Have you caught anything yet?” Is there anything more irritating to an exhausted fisherman who has been fishing for hour upon hour than to have to admit that the answer was “no?” Yes, there is something more irritating—getting free advice on how to fish from someone who didn’t know a hook from a sinker or from a stranger who offered that they had cast their nets on the wrong side of the boat. Is there anything more irritating than that? Yes—following such unsolicited advice and just as you were about to say “I told you so!” you wind up catching so many fish that your nets are threaten to burst.
Just then the disciple, John, realizing that the stranger cooking breakfast on the beach was Jesus, shouted, “It is the Lord!” In the confusion of the moment, an impulsive Simon Peter jumped overboard and made for shore. The others stayed with the boat. Dragging a net full of fish, they finally came ashore.
The fact that the gospel is specific that the number of fish caught was 153 has given rise to countless speculation about its numerical significance. From the consonant-counters who think the Bible reveals hidden secrets in code, to those who dabble in kabbalistic ciphering, to those who think there must be some esoteric meaning behind the numeric values of letters in Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek, I suppose the number of theories purported to explain the meaning of the number must amount to at least 153. Perhaps the number refers to the congregants in the church that first heard the gospel of John or to the number of the nations in the world (based on the Table of Nations in Genesis 10). If that were true, the ending of the gospel of John would parallel the ending of the Gospel of Matthew. Both would declare the same commission: to take the gospel to all nations.
Of course, for an amateur fisherman like me, catching 153 fish at one jaunt would be something I would never forget. In fact, that exact number, 153, would be etched forever both in my mind and in the fish story that people would weary of hearing me boast about ad nauseam over the years.
Now, while the meaning of the 153 fish is up for grabs, there is little doubt about the meaning of the charcoal fire with fish lying on it and the bread that Jesus broke and distributed to the disciples that morning. Far more than this breakfast fare being simply what my wife, Pam, calls “man food,” cooked over the open fire, Jesus triggered for His disciples the memory of His feeding the multitudes. The connection with their participation in His last supper was unmistakable.
Of course, for Peter that charcoal fire had a deeper, disturbing meaning. It was beside a charcoal fire that Peter had committed his cowardly act of treachery. As he warmed himself before a charcoal fire that evening he denied before those gathered around him in the Temple courtyard that he was a disciple of Jesus.
As he hovered again around a charcoal fire, there was no need for explanation. Peter knew that Jesus knew. Jesus and Peter had some unfinished business.
“Peter,” asked Jesus, “do you love me more than these? “ He was referring to Peter’s old business; his economic security. It was like he was saying…“One day I called you, Peter, and you responded. You stood up, left all, and followed. But are you back to your old life again? Well, are you going to fish or cut bait? Are you going to abandon me? Are you pulling out of the adventure? And do you want to make things right about denying me three times?
Perhaps we might think of the three question of Jesus to the thrice denying Peter this way:
Do you love me more than these?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs,” perhaps meaning to look after and nurture the younger, less mature members of the flock of God. An uncomfortable Peter had no way to escape the directed questions of Jesus. “I’m talking to you, Simon, son of John, do you love me?”Peter answered with grief in his voice. “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you!” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
The three-fold repetition of the question must have been excruciating for Peter. Would Jesus have forgiven Peter for denying him? Of course. Unhesitatingly. But this wasn’t about forgiveness. It was about Peter redeeming himself. Forgiveness is immediate but the hard process of redeeming ourselves takes time.
Reconciliation is hard. If God only wanted to forgive us, all He needed was a megaphone so that we could hear it.
Reconciliation, however, demanded a cross.
Reconciliation, whether we are speaking of a family torn by greed so that its members no longer speak to each other, or of a couple whose marriage is falling apart, is painful work.
It is so hard for us to be open to those truths about ourselves that everyone seems to see but us.
It is hard for us to keep from trying to justify ourselves or rationalize our bad behavior.
Reconciliation is hard work. Yet both reconciliation and our journey toward personal redemption is God’s unfinished business with us.
No doubt Peter spent the wee hours of many recent sleepless nights beating himself up for his spinelessness. Worse, his decision to return to the old and familiar life of the fisherman only heightened his self-doubts and confirmed to his beleaguered conscience that not all remnants of his cowardice had been eradicated. Peter had some unfinished business with his own manhood. But Jesus was there to help him restore it.
Peter also had unfinished business with his calling. Although we too often and quite mistakenly associate “calling” solely with entrance into the pastorate, we forget that the great Protestant reformers, Luther and Calvin, insisted that every Christian is called by God.
Calling is the inner urge to give our gifts away in service to something that we are passionate about in a context consistent with our values (Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, Whistle While YouWork: Heeding Your Life’s Callingand Ernie J. Zelinski, The Joy of NotWorking, p. 59).
Are you stifling that inner urge to give your gifts away in service to Christ? If so, you’ve got some unfinished business with God.
Like Peter, perhaps we do have some unfinished business with our own calling. Perhaps we have lost our way. Maybe our enthusiasm or our sense of urgency has waned. Perhaps we have grown weary in our professional well-doing. Like Peter, a renewed sense of calling brings us back to life. We are energized to get back to work.
Indeed, our Lord revives Peter’s understanding, fervor and commitment toward what God is calling him to do. Jesus tells Peter that his renewed mission to bring the gospel to the nations will be difficult. Peter is told that he will die as a martyr. Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:19)
A long while back, by a lakeside, Jesus had ordered “follow me” and Peter followed.
Now Jesus beckons Peter to “follow me” once again.
This time things are different.
Peter has been restored.
Peter has been revived.
He is ready to feed the sheep.
But even that cannot serve as the end of our story because …. well,
God has some unfinished business with us as well.
About the writer: The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and the William C. Bennett Chaplain.
He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
It Is Well with My Soul
All Hail the Power of Jesus Name
Rescue the Perishing
Come, Ye Disconsolate
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
Worthy Is the Lamb (G.F. Handel from Messiah)
Feed My Lambs (Sleeth)
Since By Man Came Death (G. F. Handel from Messiah)
Open thou Mine Eyes (John Rutter)
Open the Eyes of My Heart (McDonald)
It Is Well with My Soul (Fettke)
Once Upon a Tree
It Is Well with My Soul
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee