In last week’s Gospel Reading, there were ten disciples in the upper room, behind locked doors, on Easter night, when the Risen Lord Jesus appeared. He breathed the Holy Spirit on them and gave them the keys to the kingdom—to retain and forgive sins as repentance is born. Thomas was in the spotlight last week. Not present; not so willing to believe.
Now it’s chapter 21, and there are only eight disciples present. Where the other three are, John doesn’t say. Though Thomas is here this time, right next to Peter! These eight go fishing. And, déjà vu, they catch nothing after a long night of hard work.
Now this is a strange sequel to last week’s episode. After all, last week, the Ten had received the Holy Spirit and the keys to the kingdom. And then Thomas, presumably, a week later was also given the Holy Spirit and those keys. So you’d think that now we’d see them off and running, moved by the Spirit, putting those kingdom keys to work, loosing a fallen human race from its sin. Ah…but what we see is that confession and forgiveness, the keys always begin their work among those closest to Jesus!
At the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberius as the Romans renamed it…the risen Lord shows up a third time. On the beach He has a charcoal fire going with some fish and bread on it. Fish and bread. The last time fish and bread was on the menu by the Sea of Galilee in St. John’s Gospel, it was that boy with the five barley loaves and two fish, which Jesus stretched to feed more than 5,000 people. St. John is making a point!
For John in his Gospel, this bread and fish reference hearkens back to the 5000 and all those things Jesus had told the crowd about the Bread that came down from heaven, of which a person may eat and not die. That Bread, He had said, is His flesh which He would give for the life of the world.
John’s point is that now He has. And while the feeding of the 5000 certainly has all sorts of overtones for the Lord’s Supper, here it’s a breakfast, the joy of the morning with Jesus. And this whole scene is about sharing in Jesus’ Bread of life. But first, some unfinished business that’s going to make Peter choke!
It’s John, the Beloved Disciple, who first recognizes Jesus. “It’s the Lord!” he shouts. Simon Peter, who has been stripped down for the work of fishing, puts on his outer garment, an act reminiscent of Adam and Eve clothing themselves with those fig leaves. Until now Peter has kept a low profile. He knows that he’s exposed. He and Jesus have not yet had a discussion about that night, by the charcoal fire, and those three denials. Ever since Easter morning, when Peter had run to the tomb and found it empty, he must have known that the chat would come.
When they had been in the Upper Room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, Peter hesitated to have his feet washed when Jesus came by. Jesus had said to Peter, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with Me.” Peter replied, in effect, “Then give me a bath!” Now he does throw himself fully clothed into the sea to get to Jesus. Perhaps it’s John’s sign of how unclean Peter really is, and of how much he needs that bath now.
So…in a setting that is so rich in the symbolism of Baptism and the nakedness of sin, so reminiscent of the 5000 who unless they eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood have no life…here and now Jesus serves up a breakfast that will be tough chewing, but in the end it is life itself!
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John [Jesus doesn’t use the easy-going, friendly nickname “Peter”], Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’” Maybe Peter begins to think: “Whew! This isn’t so bad.” But Jesus goes right on, as if He hadn’t heard Peter’s response.
“He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, [again with the formality] do you love Me?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’”
Now you have to wonder about Peter’s thoughts at this point. He must realize that Jesus is making a point beyond simple expressions of love and friendship. He must realize that this is about that night in the high priest’s courtyard. But perhaps the chief disciple still hopes to be spared the exposure of what he did. Perhaps none of the others even knew about it. Perhaps Peter’s great pride still holds him. So Jesus presses.
He asks the question yet a third time, but not more pointedly, not more forcefully. This third time He asks more intimately. And now Peter, who on that fateful night before his denials was so full of himself, so full of bravado and self-confidence, Peter is now laid bare.
“He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ [And this time the Greek word is different…no longer the lofty divine love, agape, but this time the intimate love, philos, the love of a friend] and Peter was grieved…” Grieved, not so much because Jesus isn’t letting him off easier. Peter’s first two responses are certainly true: “Do you love Me? Yes I do.”
But with His third question, Jesus is not looking for the right answer…He is waiting to hear what is in Peter’s heart. Oh yes, Jesus, being Jesus, knows what is in that heart…but He wants Peter to say it out loud so that Peter can hear his own voice saying it. Will Peter return to his customary bravado? Will Peter become the new man which Easter, this Bread of life, this breakfast with Jesus has fed him?
Saying it out loud opens the wound that has been festering since that night of denial. For if the wound is to heal, it must be opened…but a lot of foul matter comes pouring out. “‘Lord, You know everything,’” Peter cries with a combination of frustration and shame and confession; “‘You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
This is remarkable! Jesus’ faithfulness reaches even to those who are least faithful to Him. How easy it would have been for Peter—how easy it is for us—to deny, deny, deny because of what it might cost to say otherwise. How much easier then to “move on,” as people say when they really don’t want to deal with a mess in their lives. “I’ve moved on”…which just means they’d rather shut the door on it, block it out, ignore it.
But sin locks up a person within himself. It pulls that person away from the fellowship of faith and the Bread of life in Jesus. Ironically, though seeking escape, the more isolated a person becomes, the more destructive that sin becomes in him, and the more deeply he is trapped within it. Sin prefers to remain unknown. It shuns the light. And in the darkness it festers and poisons a person’s whole being.
Now we can only guess what it was like for Peter to look Jesus in the eye as they sat together on that beach sharing breakfast. Yet after everything that had happened, in this painful moment, Peter isn’t merely forgiven; he’s drawn back into Jesus’ life, and back into the disciple community.
We are Peter, and Peter is us. And it is this being drawn back in…back in to Christ, back in to His fellowship of faith…that’s what it means for us to eat the Bread of life with Jesus. It comes through the sheer grace and love of Jesus, a grace and love which lives among fellow Christians who share Jesus’ life. It is the grace and love in the brutal honesty required in those moments of silence during our confession of sin in the Divine Service, and more so, in the love and courage of a fellow Christian who sits down privately with a disgraced disciple, to touch the buried infection of sin. Whether in public or in private, whether our own sin or another’s, we always touch on it to bring the healing of Christ, to bring His life to that isolated person…to each of us in our sin.
For when the Christ, who has given His flesh for the life of the world, enters such painful territory among those whom He feeds with His own life—even us in all our sin—when Christ enters, He never leaves us the same. Never. Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning! And after breakfast with Jesus, He says, “Follow Me.”