John 21:1-14

Appendix – Facing the Future

Post-Easter Appearance of Jesus in Galilee

The incident which would follow was a later addition to the narrative. It connects awkwardly; it seems to have been written after the death of the Beloved Disciple; and many of the words and phrases used do not reflect the general literary style of the rest of the narrative. It may have been composed by a close disciple of the Beloved Disciple, based on memories held within the community. 

As with the earlier Easter narrative, it is to be approached more as a theological reflection than as history.

Scholars have sought to explain the reason for its addition. A general consensus agrees that it was added to address problems that had arisen within the community. It is clear from the Epistles attributed to John that there had already been deep division within the community, and that some former disciples had chosen to separate from the rest [1 John 2:19]. This raised the issue of how to decide who was right. While the Beloved Disciple himself was alive and healthy, it was to him that they looked to make such judgments.

In his absence, the community could try the way of careful discernment under the guidance of the Spirit who will lead you to the complete truth [16:13]. If that way had been tried, it had not convinced everyone. There was need for something more. The community’s answer was to revisit the memories of the first disciples’ experiences with the historical Jesus. There, they found that Jesus had indeed given a certain responsibility, and consequent authority, to Peter. If so, had the responsibility entrusted to Peter been communicated somehow, after Peter’s death, to the various faith communities scattered around the Empire? Were there structures for discernment and decision? To these questions the Gospel gave hints, but no clear answer. 

Future Mission

John 21:1-14     Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

1 Some time after this Jesus
showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius.  
He did it this way: 
2 Simon Peter,
Thomas called the Twin,
Nathanael from Cana in Galilee,
the two sons of Zebedee
and two other disciples were together.  

The incident fitted uneasily. The narrative had left off with the original disciples still in Jerusalem. The following incident picked up the community memory that some of those disciples had returned to Galilee. 

Many of the details, with significant differences, seem to have been drawn from accounts of events that occurred both before and after Jesus’ death, as they have been recorded in the synoptic Gospels. 

In this incident, seven of the disciples were noted. The number seven may have been an accepted way of conveying a sense of wholeness. Peter, Thomas and Nathanael had figured previously in the Gospel. The sons of Zebedee had never been named before. Was the Beloved Disciple one of the two others?

3 Simon Peter said, "I am going fishing."  
And the others said, "We shall go with you."  
They went off and got on board the boat.  
During that night they caught nothing.

Peter and the other six chose to get involved again in what they had been used to and were good at – fishing. Perhaps, theirs was the instinctive attachment to the familiar that affects all disciples – the temptation to freeze the living tradition and, thereby, to betray it. As things turned out, their efforts were fruitless.

Catch of Fish

4 Day had dawned,
and Jesus stood on the shore –
though the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.
5 So Jesus said to them, "Have you anything there to eat, lads?"  
They answered, "No."
6 So he said to them, "Cast your net to the starboard side of the boat
and you will find something."  
They cast the net,

The word translated as lads was literally Children. Jesus had used the term children to address disciples only once before [13:33]. (It is a term that occurs regularly in the Epistles attributed to John. It seems more appropriate on the lips of an old man, than of the Risen Jesus).

Why had they not cast to the starboard side of the boat before? Perhaps, the reason was their professionalism. They were experienced fisherman; and experienced fishermen cast normally to the left side. It was their familiar practice. A back-handed cast to the right was awkward and inefficient. For some reason, they were prepared to let go what seemed to make sense and to try something that did not come naturally to them. They surrendered control.

 ... and then were not strong enough to drag it in
due to the immense number of fish. 

Jesus did not want their professionalism. He wanted them to learn to trust the unfamiliar. He asked them to attempt something that they knew was inappropriate. The outcome was totally unexpected.

7 The disciple that Jesus loved then said to Peter,
"It is the Lord."

As had been the case with the discovery of the empty tomb, the disciple whom Jesus loved was the first to recognise the truth of the situation. His comment echoed Thomas’s confession of faith in Jesus as Lord. Perhaps, the narrative was making a point that it is love that leads to recognition and that enables faith. Perhaps, the Disciple also recognised that it would be typical of Jesus to ask for faith and trust – to be led where you do not want to go (as he would soon express it to Peter) – rather than to go the way of human common sense and competence.

… On hearing that it was the Lord,
Simon Peter wrapped his outer garment around his middle,
for he had stripped to work,
and jumped into the water.

Peter gathered his fisherman's smock up and tucked it into his belt so that he could move freely in the water; and only then jumped into the sea.”

8 The other disciples came on in the boat
dragging the net of fish,
because they weren't far from land, nly about a hundred metres.

The other disciples followed the lead of Peter, and quickly headed for the shore; but they chose to remain in the boat.

Bread and Fish

9 When they came ashore,
they saw a charcoal fire set there
with a fish on it, and bread.

The details carried clear associations: the charcoal fire was last mentioned in the incident in the courtyard at the house of Annas, when Peter had denied all knowledge of Jesus and any association with him [18:18]. Fish and bread recalled the occasion on the mountain side, close by the Sea of Tiberias, when Jesus had fed the crowd, and had later promised the true bread from heaven [6:1-13, 32].

10 Jesus said to them,
"Bring some of the fish you caught just now."
11 So Simon Peter went on board
and dragged the net ashore.  
It was full of big fish -
one hundred and fifty-three in number.  
And yet with so many of them,
the net had not torn.

The significance of the number, a hundred and fifty-three, has been debated, with no convincing reason having been found. But the fact of the net not being torn probably reflected the possibility within the on-going community of maintaining unity, even in face of considerable strain.

12 Jesus said to them, "Come on, have some breakfast."

There is a touching simplicity and intimacy in a Risen Lord who cooks fish on a charcoal fire and invites his friends to Come on, have some breakfast.

… None of the disciples dared to question Jesus, "Who are you?"
because they knew he was the Lord. 

They Knew it Was the Lord 

In a sense, this phrase marks a high point of the Gospel – the culmination of the disciples’ journey of faith. Jesus had promised in his Discourse during his Last Supper, in relation to his approaching death and resurrection: “I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am” [13:19]. The author’s statement bears closer examination.

The title, Lord, according to Jewish reverential custom, was traditionally used as substitute for God’s otherwise proper name (YHWH = I am) whenever the scriptures were read aloud. The author’s simple observation conveyed more than the mere fact that the disciples recognised Jesus. Rather, they had finally moved beyond sight to insight. They had come to recognise, as Jesus had promised, that truly he was “I am”. They had come to see the deep identity of Jesus, beyond defining and limiting description or title: Jesus belonged within the mystery of divinity. For them, it was a break-through moment; they were in touch with truth.

Their experience of Jesus, beyond words, ideas or feelings, resonated in their depths. Somehow, they knew. They knew him, no longer simply as they knew each other; they knew him as way, as truth, as life. They knew it, now, not simply because he had told them, but because their eyes had been opened, and they could see. His love, which was the very essence of his being, pierced them to their roots.  In knowing him, they were profoundly transformed.

It was this transforming experience that the author hoped to share with his readers through the medium of his Gospel.

The disciples’ unasked question served to focus the community’s pressing issue of discerning the risen Lord. Jesus is recognisable, yet the recognition is never so clear that it does not call for faith. 

13 Jesus came up and took the bread
and gave some to them,
and did the same with the fish.

Jesus’ taking the bread and giving it to them were the same words used to describe his feeding of the five thousand [6:11]. They have a eucharistic resonance. Within the Christian community, Jesus is present when disciples gather to celebrate Eucharist.

14 This was the third time that Jesus showed himself to the disciples
after having risen from the dead.

Surprisingly, the count was inaccurate. The narrative had already mentioned three earlier appearances: to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples, and to the disciples gathered with Thomas. (Perhaps, the editor, in line with the conventions of the patriarchal world of his time, did not count the appearance to Mary Magdalene as significant.) 

Facing the Community’s Problems – 1 

How does the story throw light on the problems facing the community with the imminent, or actual, death of the Beloved Disciple? This incident, and the two that will follow, all contain the presence of Peter. How did Peter relate to the Disciple? What might the community learn from that relationship? 

The Beloved Disciple. The Beloved Disciple is an icon of the loving response proper to the vocation to discipleship. The Christian community needs the inspiration and energy that flow from love and contemplation. Throughout the resurrection narrative, the Beloved Disciple had been the first to recognise Jesus. He was “tuned in” to his presence.  

Vocation to discipleship is universal. Flowing from the vocation given to all disciples, and equally universal, is their mission to reveal to the world the face of God and to encounter and overcome the world’s sin. All disciples are firstly called, and then sent on mission.

Peter. Peter showed characteristics of leadership. Throughout the whole narrative, he had been the one to take the initiative. At the same time, he seemed to be the one who reflected the mood and the questions of the group. 

After Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life, in answer to Jesus’ question whether the disciples, too, would go away, Peter had expressed the feeling of the group with his counter-question: Lord, to whom can we go? [6:68]. When Jesus indicated his imminent betrayal by one of the group, Peter had anticipated the question burning in the hearts of all the disciples, did not ask it himself, but enlisted the help of the one whom Jesus loved to ask Jesus who the betrayer might be [13:24]. In the garden, he had taken the initiative, drawn his sword and struck out at one of the high priest’s servants [18:10]. With the Beloved Disciple, he had followed the captive Jesus to the house of Annas. Once there, the Beloved Disciple stayed in the background, saying nothing, while Peter allowed himself to get drawn into his triple public denial of Jesus [18:15-18]. His sin was the reflection of the sin, too, of the other disciples. They had not denied Jesus, because they had already abandoned him; but the weakness of Peter expressed the weakness of them all. After Mary Magdalene’s announcement of the empty tomb, it was Peter and John who ran to the tomb, Peter being the one to enter it and to assess the situation [20:20.6]. 

While vocation and mission are proper to all disciples, ministries and charisms within the community are personal. Jesus had seen the leadership potential of Peter. From early on, he had looked at Simon (as he was known until then), recognised his charism and declared his new name to be Cephas (which means Rock) [1:42], thereby foreshadowing his later ministry of leadership and responsibility within the community. Though nothing further was said on that occasion, the community came in time to recognise Peter as the one gifted and commissioned to be the rock-solid foundation of its strength and unity.

Roles within the Christian Community. Perhaps, in the light of its experience, the community had come to recognise the importance of structures of leadership and responsibility (and the authority they supposed) in order to organise and complement the loving response proper to vocation and the community discernment necessary for mission. Loving contemplation was essential for the development of sensitivity, insight and the capacity for reliable discernment of the Spirit’s guidance. Discerning the will of God, however, belongs to the community, and can need structure to operate reliably. Even then, knowing the will of God would not be enough. Discernment without action would go nowhere. The community needed to be helped to act on its discernment, and, where necessary, to act in a concerted and unified way. For that it needed leadership. The ministry of leadership, exercised without the discernment of the community of disciples informed by love, would be blind. Personal love and community discernment without the structuring of leadership would be deficient. Together, the love inherent in vocation, the discernment exercised in community and the structures proper to the ministry of leadership are all needed to make effective the community’s mission to the world.

Next >> John 21:15-25