John 21:1-14: Here we have another story of an appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus. Given some of the details of the story, it indeed appears that this chapter was an add-on. How could the disciples not recognized Jesus after he had already appeared to them twice before? The story contains echoes of the first call of the disciples in the other gospels. It also has echoes of many other stories in John. Jesus here offers another Johannine sign, a night of fishing which has produced nothing is turned into an abundant catch. Notice again that it is the disciple whom Jesus loved who first recognizes Jesus. The catch is enormous – 153 fish, yet the net was not broken. 153 must have some significance. It is the total of all the numbers in the series 1-17. It signifies abundance, as did the miracle at Cana. The meal of fish and bread recalls Jesus feeding the multitude. The charcoal fire reminds readers of the last time Peter was around a charcoal fire – when he denied Jesus.
Back to the abundant catch and the net that remained in tact. One meaning of this is surely that the church was to be an inclusive community, containing Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, varying understandings of the Jesus tradition. In some ways the current debate in the Christian church about the open inclusion of gay and lesbian persons can be framed by this story – is our net elastic enough and strong enough to include these persons fully in the life of the church? To my mind, it should be, but those who have a different view are concerned that full inclusion of GLBT people would tear the net.
There are some puzzling words about the disciples both knowing it was Jesus, yet wondering if it was Jesus. Could this be a commentary on the kind of faith most of us work with – trusting but sometimes wondering? Even if it is, we are invited to the feast, just as Jesus invited these disciples to a breakfast of fish and bread.
John 21:15-19: There is a parallel here between Jesus’ three questions for Peter, and Peter’s earlier three-fold denial of Jesus – and both take place around a charcoal fire. To love Jesus is to love the people of Jesus, and in a very real sense, that includes the whole of humankind. In our day and time it needs also to include love for the wider creation – a different love perhaps, but a love and care nonetheless. By the time this gospel was written, Peter had died a martyr’s death in Rome. Here that death is marked by words of Jesus. For Peter to follow Jesus meant following Jesus to his death.
John 21:20-25: These verses probably have something to do with varying streams of the early Jesus movement. The previous verses are a nod to the importance of Peter for the Christian tradition. John’s Jesus community traced its most important influence to the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” but it remained a part of the wider Christian community which looked at Peter in a special way. Yet, they still held in the hearts a warmth toward this other disciple. “What about him?” He, too, is a faithful witness, though he did not die the dramatic martyr’s death of Peter. Could this be some kind of response to those who wanted to so elevate the Peter tradition in the Jesus movement over the Johannine stream? Even early in our life, the church has struggled with unity amidst diversity. This gospel builds on the tradition of the beloved disciple, but it acknowledges here that much has been and could be written about Jesus. The ending is a wonderful literary exaggeration, but there is a symbolic truth here as well. The story of Jesus, being the story of God in the world cannot be contained by that world! Each of us contains our part of the story and is asked to share it.