The Gospel of John, Chapter 21: Breakfast
Since the previous chapter ended with some final-sounding words, this actual last chapter serves as a kind of epilogue or postscript.
By the Sea of Tiberias (perhaps more familiar to us by one of its other names - the Sea of Galilee) some of the disciples are gathered. The group includes Simon Peter, Doubting Thomas, The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (TDWJL), and a few others. Simon Peter says “I am going fishing” and the others go with him. They are fishing at night, from a boat, but they do not catch a single fish.
The narrator informs us of the time of day, which, as we have seen before, is likely significant:
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. (verse 21:4)
This is similar to the other resurrection appearances - Jesus shows up, but the disciples do not recognize him immediately. Jesus speaks first, asking them if they have caught any fish, and they say, nope. He suggests that they cast their fishing net to the right side of the boat. They do so, and their net is so full of fish they can hardly haul it in.
At this moment, TDWJL recognizes Jesus and exclaims to Peter, “It is the Lord!” The text says:
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he had taken it off, and jumped into the sea. (verse 21:7)
It seems Pete is shocked and embarrassed. Because he is naked? Because he doubts the resurrection? We don’t know. The other disciples drag the heavy net into the boat.
They all go ashore and find a charcoal fire there. There is fish cooking, and some bread. Jesus asks them to bring some of the fish they have just caught. The text specifies that the net is full of large fish, 153 of them. Another piece of miracle is that despite the huge haul, the net is not torn.
Jesus says “Come and have breakfast.” A wonderful and simple invitation. By this point, all the disciples recognize that it is the Lord. Jesus gives them bread and fish. The author notes that this is Jesus’ third resurrection appearance to the disciples. Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene doesn’t count, because she ain’t no disciple. Or so the gospel author and centuries of tradition would have us think.
What do I love about this story? I love it because it was one of my Mom’s favorite Bible scenes. I love it because it’s breakfast, and cooked by Jesus. I love it because Jesus is so down to earth and friendly. He is quite unlike what we have seen in some of the earlier chapters of this gospel. I love it because it has a miracle involving fish. I love it because Peter is impetuous, as always. And I love that it is so specific about the number of fish caught.
Next we have the famous passage where Jesus offers Peter redemption from Peter’s three denials of Jesus on the night of his arrest. Three times, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” This time, Peter is able to reply in the affirmative, three times. Jesus has some instructions to go along with the redemption, and a dire prediction. It’s worth sharing the whole dialogue:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
And so we have circled back to the start of the gospel. In 1:39, Jesus issues the simple invitation to the first disciples - “Come and see,” just as simple as “Come and have breakfast.” In 1:42 Jesus says to Peter “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (Peter)”. And here in Chapter 21 Jesus calls Peter “Simon son of John” just as he did at the start. And in 1:43, Jesus says to another new disciple, “Follow me.”
It’s now the dawn of a new day. We have an immense catch of fish. We enjoy a hearty meal with close friends, sitting by the sea. We have a renewed sense of purpose. Given the particular week in which I am writing this, I find re-reading this story immensely comforting. Jesus’ language is all about invitation and companionship and love; he does not use force or oppression. “Come and have breakfast.”
Although the story has circled back to the beginning, Jesus does not seek to return to how things were. Jesus wants to move forward with love.
At the same time, Jesus’ words are perplexing. Jesus reaches back to one of the major metaphors of the gospel – the sheep and the Good Shepherd – and assigns to Peter, and by implication us, the task of caring for his “sheep”. There’s very little explanation on how to do that. Would that we could live up to what Jesus is asking us to do! Perhaps it’s good that Jesus didn’t spell it out to specifically, because how we tend the “sheep” now has to be different than what was needed in 1st century Palestine. Or in 17th century England, a time that at least one US Supreme Court Justice, curiously, feels is relevant to our jurisprudence. Or in 21st century United States.
From Jesus’ prediction, Peter knows that it will not be all sweetness and light to be tending Jesus’ sheep.
The next paragraph focuses on The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved and implies a kind of rivalry between Peter and TDWJL. TDWJL had been following Jesus and Peter during their close conversation. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” (verse 22). Jesus replies “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The implication is that TDWJL will not die, but then the narrator denies that is the meaning of what Jesus said. Jesus is basically saying, never mind about the other disciple, you just keep your eyes on me and follow me.
This week, powerful people in this country showed just how much they want to impose draconian abortion restrictions on all women, no matter the woman’s circumstances. I will interpret this passage about Peter and TDWJL (John 21:21-23) as showing us that Jesus does not make the same rules apply to everyone. He is able to take into account the particulars of both Peter and John’s situation. Jesus knows each person’s situation is unique. Justice Alito, the rest of McConnell’s Handmaidens on the Supreme Court, and on down the line to state legislators - they have no qualms about applying the steepest penalty across the board regardless of the circumstances surrounding a pregnancy (but zero penalty for the man causing an unintended pregnancy! and zero intention to provide healthcare coverage for those involved!).
But I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman who has a miscarriage that looks just like an abortion attempt. I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, very much intended, but who finds out something has gone wrong and her health is threatened. I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman who already has three children, has an unintended pregnancy, and just lost her job and her health insurance, and can’t see how she will support another child. I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman with an unintended pregnancy because a man raped and impregnated her. The Jesus I worship will not oppress these women the way Justice Alito would. And yes, forcing any of these women to give birth against their will is oppression.
Theodicy would address why these women end up in these horrible circumstances in the first place, but I'm not going there. There is no good answer to that question. In Jesus' prediction about Peter's fate, Jesus is acknowledging that horrible things happen.
In the final paragraph of the gospel the narrator reveals that he himself is The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved:
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (verses 24-25)
Thus ends this reading of the Gospel of John. Thanks be to God. It was not an easy read, but I feel I have gained blessing from the reading of it.