John 21:1 – 19: Try Again


A sermon preached on April 14th based upon John 21:1 – 19, on the occasion of the baptism of Amber and Russell.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When 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.” 16A 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.” 17He 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. 18Very 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.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:1 – 19)
Ten years ago Sarah and my now seventeen year old son Bobby started playing soccer.  With his high energy level and his innate competitive nature, he took to the game like a fish to water.  Before long Bobby settled in to the position of goalkeeper, and over the years soccer has been the consistent passion of his life.  There have been times Sarah and I have regretted that we ever started down this youth soccer path with our son, particularly during those times when the game generated more heartache and frustration than fun and satisfaction.  There have been numerous obstacles to overcome:  the pain of defeat, felt personally by the goalkeeper who gives up the goals.  There have been the setbacks caused by injuries, and conflicts with coaches and benchings to endure. 
Through it all, perhaps the single most important character trait Bobby’s pursuit of the game has brought forth has been the capacity to persevere in the face of the setbacks — to get back up again when the game knocked him down.  In the times of defeat when the initial urge was to simply give up, Bobby has repeatedly worked his way through to a place where he was able to choose to try again.
The capacity to persevere in the face of adversity is crucial because life itself is filled with countless setbacks – countless situations where the temptation to give up can arise.  This wouldn’t be the case if life were like a sprint.  But it’s not – life is more like a marathon. 
Our Gospel story this morning got me thinking about such things. 
At the end of the preceding chapter, the Gospel writer seems to wrap up his book.  He tells three stories of Jesus making resurrection appearances, and then finishes off with a concluding statement about how all the stories he’s recounted are intended to help the reader believe. 
But here in the 21st chapter, we hear of yet another appearance made by the risen Lord.  A lot is left unanswered in this story, leaving much room for our imaginations to roam. For instance, how much time has passed since the previous appearances?  At the very least a couple of weeks because the previous appearances happened in Jerusalem; this one occurs back in the region of Galilee where Jesus’ ministry begin.  But since John’s Gospel is believed to have been written at least fifty years after Jesus’ resurrection, for all we know this final appearance could have occurred years later.
And why at the outset does Peter decide to go fishing?  Again, the story doesn’t tell us.  In my imagination, enough time has passed for the apostles to have lost their initial burst enthusiasm. Over time, things have once more returned to a sense of being routine – even mundane.  Where at first the Christian life had seemed like a sprint to the finish line, now its beginning to feel more like a marathon.  Perhaps they’ve encountered setbacks. Peter and the others wonder, What exactly should we be doing now? They don’t really know.  When all else fails, go back to what you know, which is fishing.  After all, the community needs to eat.  But Jesus had called them to leave their nets; from now on, he had told them, they would be fishing for people. 
In certain ways it was easier when the Christian life felt like a sprint.  The urgency of it all made for a compelling witness.   During the middle ages, when the hardships of ordinary, mundane life were so brutal, young men would sign up to go fight in the Crusades in the hope of turning it back into a sprint.  They actually hoped they would die as martyrs fighting the infidels, because they believed such a death would take them straight to the finish line of heaven.
Why exactly John (or somebody from his community) decided to add the extra chapter may never be answered, but following the line of conjecture I’ve staked out above, perhaps he wanted to encourage people to keep on keeping on in running the marathon.  He describes a long night of fishing in which no fish are caught, which means frustration, fatigue, and perhaps a desire to give up. And so Jesus appears on the shore and says, “Try again.”  Cast your nets down on the other side.  And lo and behold, this time they catch so many fish the nets are near to bursting.  It’s a little like the story Jesus told (Luke 18:1-8) of the widow who kept knocking at the door of the unjust judge for justice, and after a very long period of being ignored, the judge finally opens the door and gives the widow the justice for which she has persevered.
I’ve always appreciated the fact that Christianity so readily acknowledges basic human frailty.  Simon Peter is the character whose personality is most developed, and with whom we are invited to identify.  Although he has his shining moments, they always seem to be followed with him getting knocked down as a result of his own personal shortcomings.  He gets praised for first putting for the notion that Jesus is the messiah, and then gets rebuked by Jesus when he tries to convince Jesus he doesn’t have to suffer and die.  When Jesus comes walking on the water, Peter is the only one who willing to risk stepping out of the boat in faith.  But it’s also Peter who quickly thereafter nearly drowns when his doubts overtake him. 
And then, of course, there is the story that all four Gospels take the time to tell of how shortly before Jesus was arrested, Peter declared that he would never leave Jesus’ side, come what may, only to deny ever knowing him three times when hell broke loose. 
So at that point, having failed so miserably, the temptation to give up must have been pretty strong for Peter.  So maybe Peter’s decision to go fishing expresses his conclusion that his past failures prove he just doesn’t have what it takes to be an apostle of the Lord. If that’s the case, the scene that takes place by the charcoal fire can be seen as Jesus tenderly healing Peter in regard to his memories of past failures.   The only other place that a charcoal fire is mentioned in the Bible was from the night of Peter’s betrayal – it was by such a fire that Peter was trying to get warm when the question was put to him three times if he was one of Jesus’ followers. 
It’s clear that Peter doesn’t want to go back into those memories.   But Jesus takes him there because they live inside him, sabotaging his capacity to move forward in his life – in his ministry in Christ’s name. 
The message is the same for us as well.  The failures of our past need not define who we will be and what we will be about in the future.  The living Christ wants undue the damage such memories have done to our souls. 
The metaphor of the Christian life being a marathon is an imperfect one, because the point really isn’t to get us somewhere, such as heaven, even though that’s how Christianity is presented.   What happens along the way is as important as where we end up. And the story that John added on to the end of his Gospel suggests that it’s the little things that we do along the way that matter.  Jesus gives one example in the hospitality and kindness he shows in preparing breakfast for this tired disciples after a long, frustrating night of fishing.   The things Jesus asks Peter to do out of love for Him aren’t extraordinary, liking getting martyred on his behalf.  Jesus asks Peter to feed his sheep, and tend his lambs.   Little acts of kindness and caring for human beings who are innately frail and fragile, like sheep. 
We find the same truth expressed in the testimony of many who have undergone Near Death Experiences, and experienced what is commonly called the “life review.”   In the presence of the divine loving presence, as they review their life what stands out is not what we commonly think of as being significant; instead, it is the simple acts of kindness (or lack therein) with which we treated one another along the way. 
This morning we baptized Amber and Russell.  As their parents, Jahn and Marguerite know, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint.  No one does parenting perfectly.  What matters though, is not perfection, but persistence.  Persistence in being there for our children throughout all the twists and turns of the lives, feeding and tending to them in such a way that they will come to rest in our love, even as they would learn to rest in, and bear witness to the greater love of God revealed in the risen Lord. 
I want to finish this morning by telling me a story my wife Sarah told me about something that happened to her in what was for her the darkest days of her life.   Over twenty years ago, following eight years of marriage to her first husband, she found herself alone with her five year old daughter Kate, after her husband walked out on her for another woman.  She was devastated, crushed, feeling tempted to give up.  One night as she laid upon her bed she suddenly saw two circles of light in the corner of her room.  She felt a sense of terror, as is the case throughout the Bible when angelic beings make an appearance to mortals.  A message was given to her consisting of two words.  Can you guess what they were?  “Try again.”  When the circles of light disappeared she went first to check on her daughter sleeping in her room.  Finding her safe and sound, she began roaming about her house calling out loudly, “Try WHAT again?!”
A month or so later Sarah and I met, which would suggest that the thing to be tried again was the sort of love that leads to marriage.  But I suspect it meant more than that.  Try love in all its forms again. Try life again.  Try trusting God again.  Feed and tend to the various sheep God has given us to care for in every arena of our lives. Try again, knowing we’ll never be perfect in this life when it comes to this thing called love, and knowing that we’ll repeatedly stumble and fall.   No matter what setbacks and adversity may come, get back up and try again to follow Jesus as best you can.