This week I’ve got a miniseries going on the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. It’s not going to be an exhaustive list, but we started with his appearance to Mary (and the other women), then his encounter with Cleopas & Co. on the Emmaus road and around the table, followed yesterday by his first appearances to the eleven as they gathered together behind closed doors, including his first meeting with Thomas, the Johnannine Pentecost, and an appearance to Peter, of which we have no details. This brings us to the third appearance of Jesus to the disciples, a seaside encounter in John 21 where the disciples land a miraculous catch of fish at Jesus’ instruction, then haul them to shore to find Jesus already has some fish cooking over a charcoal fire, along with some bread for their breakfast.
This time, John says, “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” This phrase has puzzled me — does John mean to say that they now recognize him and have no need to ask, or that they want to ask but don’t because they know, deep down, that it is Jesus… even if they don’t immediately recognize him. So far, they seem to have a strange relationship with the risen Christ — they aren’t nearly as sure of themselves as they’ve been all along to this point. John, however, seems to recognize him before the others.
Back on shore, they find Jesus serving again, and again, there is the context of a meal for them. I like to imagine this encounter as one between Jesus and a smaller circle of friends, although outdoors, somehow still a more intimate setting. The encounter echoes some of their experiences with Jesus from the time they’ve been following him — the miraculous catch of fish when he first called Peter (again after fishing all night but catching nothing), the meal of loaves and fishes that Jesus provided, Peter’s exit from the boat to meet Jesus, even Jesus simply calling to them across the water. I don’t think that John necessarily intended any of these allusions since he makes no point of mentioning them, but I wonder if some of them didn’t occur to the disciples at the time or soon after.
Much is made of Peter’s reinstatement, and yet somehow I always feel that despite new insights I might glean each time the text gets attention, I’m still always missing something in it. The threefold repetition like Peter’s denials and the interplay of the different words for “love” and “sheep” or “lambs” may be quite interesting and even be of some significance, but this alone doesn’t seem to catch the full thrust of what’s going on here. From a literary perspective, it seems certain that John sees this as Peter’s reinstatement — or at least that he’s portraying it as such for the reader so that they know for certain that his denial was not a disqualification. Important lessons to be sure, but there always feels as though there should be more. Why 153 fish? Much has been made of the number, but absolutely none of it is convincing. It probably means nothing more than that they counted actually found 153 fish — significant only because it was a lot considering the net they were using.
It is often assumed that Peter was unsure of his standing until this time, but this does not explain his rushing to Jesus on the shore, and forgets that he had seen the risen Jesus three times already, once evidently during a private encounter. Clearly his relationship with Jesus has been restored before this, and certainly his hope for continued friendship remains. Perhaps this is the reason why he seems hurt at Jesus’ repetition of the question… was the episode as much or more for the other disciples’ benefit as for Peter’s?
In this revisiting of the account, I’m seeing outside John’s literary concerns and looking at parallels with Peter’s original calling… the things that are the same and those that differ. Both times, the fishermen had been fishing all night and caught nothing — almost certainly an unusual occurrence for them. Both times, Jesus shows up and provides special instructions on casting the nets so that they haul in a massive catch of fish. The first time, the nets begin to tear, but the second time they do not. The first time, Peter falls to his knees and attempts to send Jesus away from his presence because he is a sinner; the second time, he jumps from the boat because he can’t get into Jesus’ presence fast enough. The first time, Peter is to be a metaphoric fisher of men, the second time, a metaphoric feeder of sheep. Both times, Jesus provides some assurance concerning Peter’s condition and gives him a commission.
I’m still left with the feeling that the depths of this passage have not been plumbed, but this is true of so many passages, isn’t it?