The lectionary skips over John 20:30-31. On Easter Day, those of us who used John's account of the empty tomb (John 20:1-18) heard about Jesus appearance to Mary Magdalene. Yesterday, we heard about John's version of the second and third times that Jesus appeared to his followers--once without Thomas and once with him (John 20:19-29). This coming Sunday, we'll hear John recall the fourth and final encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ (John 21:1-19). I understand why we're skipping over those two little verses, but, because we are, it's easy for the congregation to miss the evidence that this final encounter was stuck on the end of John's gospel account and not a natural continuation of the story.
After Jesus tells Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed," John seemingly concludes the account with these verses:
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.The end. Wasn't that lovely? That's a nice way to finish--an emphasis on believing without seeing and an editorial comment that drives the point home. But, of course, that isn't the end. John has more to say.
Turn the page, begin chapter 21, and we get Sunday's gospel lesson: "Jesus showed himself again to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias..." What is the preacher supposed to do with this? If we're blindly following the lectionary with no appreciation for how the whole gospel is stitched together, we can focus on this as simply one more story of the Easter Jesus. It's nice. It makes sense. It has a "magical" quality that attracts the audience. There's the emotional bit about the redemption of Peter and his three-times denial of Jesus. It's a good passage. It's great for preaching. But I don't like what it does to Easter. Instead of bolstering the case for the risen Christ, it undercuts it. Jesus just said, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!" And the disciples, who had their own in-person, in-flesh encounter with the resurrection, seem to struggle to grasp it. Where is that supposed to leave Christians in the 21st century who are inviting a skeptical, unchurched world to believe the unbelievable--that Jesus is risen from the dead--when even those who saw it firsthand are struggling to get it?
That's the heart of this passage for me--a clear, intentional rejection of a see-it-to-believe-it theology. I see this story as one of criticism first and encouragement second. Peter and six other disciples are hanging around. Remember: according to John's account, they've had their Pentecost moment. They've received the Holy Spirit and the commission to go out and forgive sins. And what are they doing? Hanging around on the beach, kicking the dirt, throwing stones into the water. Peter says, "I'm goin' fishin'. Ain't nothin' else to do." And what do they catch? Not a darn thing.
Daybreak. Enter Jesus. "Any luck?" he asks them, already knowing the answer. "What, no fish, children?" He tells them to try on the other side of the boat. It's a silly request. These are professional fishermen. They know how to fish. They don't need any pointers from some landlubber. But, of course, the advice pays off. The net is overflowing. Someone even takes note that there were 153 fish--the kind of story one retells for a lifetime.
This story isn't about proving the resurrection. It's about kicking the disciples in the pants and telling them to get moving. They already know Jesus is risen, but they don't know what to do without him. They're sitting around waiting for something, but they don't know what. Jesus calls them out for their fruitless endeavor. He invites them to refocus their efforts. Go back and read Luke 5:1-11. This miraculous fishing story was originally a part of the calling of the disciples. And that's where it still is--even for John. In this story, Jesus is calling his disciples to become apostles. His dialogue with Peter is about going out and doing the work of a shepherd. Jesus is sending them out again. It's a recommissioning. Maybe they'll get it this time. And maybe we will, too.