The gospel for Sunday May 1st (John 21:1-19) is, by turns, confusing and mysterious. I’ll suggest a resolution to this strangeness. First, though, the context and the gospel.
In last week’s gospel Jesus appeared to his disciples twice, once without Thomas, who doubted the others’ stories that they had seen Jesus alive, and once with Thomas. That gospel includes Jesus’ commission, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” The gospel added a summing up statement, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.
Those last words read like a solemn conclusion, so it is surprising that the very next words...this morning’s gospel... begin, Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Many biblical scholars think this chapter was a later addition to John’s gospel. Aside from the fact that it follows what seems to have been a formal ending, the passage includes several Greek words not found elsewhere in John’s gospel or the New Testament. It suggests another author.
Also, having seen the risen Lord, received the Holy Spirit and his commission it is strange that Jesus’ disciples would simply return to their former jobs as fishermen. Had his life, death, resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and assignment had so little impact! The scripture scholar, Francis Moloney, wrote, “there is an obtuseness among the disciple that makes nonsense of the joy, the mission and the gift of the Spirit in 20:19-20.”
Nevertheless, according to this gospel, the disciples were fishing. It is work that they knew.
The gospel continues, Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Moloney again commented, “After having twice seen Jesus in the upper room why do they not recognize him when he appears for the third time?” Unlike Mary Magdalene, or the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, who thought he was dead, they had seen him alive, twice.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say this, he…jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore…When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
Many see similarities between this story and the account in Luke 5:4-8 where Jesus told Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets ….” Simon answered, “Master, we worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will.” When they did, they caught so many fish that…they signaled…the other boat to…help them. And they filled both boats…Then Simon Peter…fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Both stories involve an unproductive night of fishing followed by an overabundant catch and Peter as a central character. One explanation is that Jesus may have used the circumstance to remind the disciples, particularly Peter, of his original call.
Peter’s impulsive reaction of jumping into the water also recalls other episodes in the gospels, such as when he got out of the boat (Matt 14:29) and started walking on water toward Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter…dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but… the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
The specific details in the gospel…naming five of the disciples, the 153 fish, the fact that the net was not torn…give the passage an eye-witness sense. The facts make no particular contribution to the resurrection story, but suggest that the source was present and that, by extension, all the other details of the story are accurate.
While the disciples had recognized that it was Jesus before he took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish, this act may well have reminded them of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes when Jesus fed the 5,000 (John 6:1-14) Later in that same chapter Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.(John 6:35) It also has elements of the experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus who recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:30-31)
When they had finished eating, Jesus quizzed Simon son of John, three times about whether Simon loved him, then Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 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.”
Even if the events of this chapter are accurate, the disciples' behaviour is strange in the context of Jesus’ other resurrection appearances and his commissioning of them. The following is an attempt to resolve these issues.
One of John's followers may have heard the story from John and added it later. Alternatively, since John wrote his gospel roughly 60 years after the events described, he may have mixed up the sequence. If this post-resurrection appearance is true, but out of sequence, the following makes more sense…at least to me…though I acknowledge that it creates other problems.
Try reading the gospel through this lens and consider whether you agree.