Scripture: John 21:1-19
“I’m going fishing.”
Any other time in Peter’s life, it wouldn’t have been a remarkable statement. He was born, after all, to be a fisherman. His father was a fisherman, and his father before that. Peter was born with strong arms meant for hauling nets and the smell of lake water oozing from his pores. His childhood had been spent in his father’s old wooden boat, casting and hauling, a life lived among fish.
And even that day, it was an unremarkable statement. In fact you could say it was remarkable only for its complete unremarkability—after everything that had happened.
The Lord he served and loved, the teacher he had devoted three years of his life to, who had given him the power to perform miracles, the one he had believed was the Messiah, who was destined to be the savior of Israel—he had died. And not just died, but died a horrible death, an ignominious death, the kind of death that made it seem as though he had never had any power at all.
And then, as if waking up from a nightmare, he wasn’t dead anymore.
Peter had seen the empty tomb himself. He had run there with The Disciple Jesus Loved when Mary had told them. The body was gone and the linen graveclothes folded in a corner. It was so strange, like a dream, but Peter hadn’t known then what it meant.
Jesus showed up, that evening, as the disciples huddled in that upper room, scared of the crowds and scared of what was happening and scared that nothing made sense. He had scars in his hands and his side, where the nails had been. It was him, even though he seemed different—but of course he was different, because he wasn’t dead anymore. Peter and the others had rejoiced to see him. That could have been the end of the story.
But somehow, fast forward a few days, maybe a week, and there was Peter back in Galilee, and he was going fishing.
Fishing, like none of this had ever happened.
There are those who say this is the fault of the storyteller, who put this story in the wrong place, because clearly after everything that’s happened Peter shouldn’t be back in Galilee; he and the others should be in Jerusalem, waiting for their mission to begin. All of this with the fish happened earlier, some say, and it came to us all jumbled up.
That could be, but I can’t help but wonder if it was all just too much. You can imagine how for the disciples that past week or two must have felt like an emotional rollercoaster: they laughed, they cried. On Thursday they faced their own cowardice. On Friday all their worst fears came true. On Saturday they started to accept it; maybe they even began to feel a slow, subtle wave of relief wash over them, because it was over, and even though it had been wonderful, it had been hard, too. And then there was Sunday, and an empty grave, and the folded graveclothes; and then it was Sunday evening, and Jesus, who had died, showed up alive.
And Peter and the others rejoiced and all, of course they did, but…
It was just a lot.
And maybe the only way to process it all was to go home to Galilee, and go fishing. Because fishing made sense.
And then there was the rest of it, the part that Peter would rather not talk about at all, even with the others. Especially with the others. The part that if he closed his eyes really hard he could almost believe it didn’t happen. Maybe that was the real problem here.
Because Peter was a failure.
Peter was the one who had promised he would love Jesus the most. The most. He was the first one to say the words “We know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). He vowed he would never turn away, even when the others did, even when the teaching got difficult, even when following got hard.
It was in the Upper Room just that week before when Peter had refused to let Jesus wash his feet, for those very reasons—he knew who Jesus was. Jesus was too important for that, and Peter was there to serve! But when Jesus told Peter he had no share in Jesus otherwise, Peter reversed course: “Then wash all of me, Jesus!” he said. Poor Peter, always so eager to do and say the right thing, almost to a fault. Almost as if he feared he wouldn’t be loved otherwise.
It was that night in that room that Peter told Jesus he was ready to lay down his life for him. He hoped Jesus would be touched, even impressed. But Jesus wasn’t impressed. Instead he said to Peter that before the rooster announced morning, Peter would have denied him three times.
And that was the part that haunted Peter wherever he went. That was the memory he went to Galilee to escape, even after Jesus wasn’t dead anymore. Maybe Jesus was alive and maybe God had been at work in all of it, after all, but Peter couldn’t stop hearing those voices: “Surely you know this man. You’re a Galilean, aren’t you? Surely you’re with him.”
Three times, they had asked.
And three times, in response, his own voice: “No! No! No!”
He had said he would follow to the death, but when it came down to it, he had run. Peter was a failure.
So maybe that was why he found himself back in Galilee that day; maybe that was why he got back in that boat, to see if it was possible to go back to a time when he wasn’t a failure, he was just a fisherman.
Peter knew the truth, you see: even if Jesus was alive, Peter didn’t deserve any good news.
Whatever mission Jesus had in mind, surely he knew Peter would fail at that too.
So he was going fishing.
The others came with him and they fished all night. It was good to be out again, casting nets, getting wet, fighting the wind. It was good, hard work, the work Peter was made for, and for a while he let himself get lost in it, just like he had wanted to.
Only there weren’t any fish. By morning, they were tired and frustrated, and they began to remember how this old life had left a lot to be desired, too.
And then there was a stranger by the shore, yelling to them. “How’s the catch?” He called them children, which was annoying, especially since they hadn’t caught anything at all.
“Try the other side,” the stranger called.
Peter must have rolled his eyes, because after all, there were only two sides, and it’s not like they had forgotten to try one of them. That was pretty condescending. But he was tired and didn’t really feel like fighting with a stranger 150 yards away, and the others shook their heads, and they threw the net to the other side.
And suddenly there were So. Many. Fish.
“It’s Him,” whispered The Disciple Jesus Loved, grabbing Peter’s arm. “I think it’s him.”
And before Peter knew what he was doing, he had wrapped himself in his coat and jumped into the water, swimming to shore. Because he may have been a failure. He may not have been worthy of any good news. He may have wanted to escape his own memories.
But he did, after all, love this man.
Even this seemed normal again—breakfast, like they had eaten together so many times. There was bread and there was fish, like there always was, in abundance, when Jesus was around. Even this began to feel like old times, and Peter began to feel better, comfortable again in Jesus’ presence.
Until breakfast was over and Jesus said his name: “Simon son of John.”
And a chill went up Peter’s spine, not because there was an edge to Jesus’ voice—there wasn’t—but because maybe this was it, time for Jesus to call Peter out on his failure and his cowardice and all his big talk; to tell him that the work he had for all of them to do wasn’t for Peter, he had to be able to trust them, you know. And because Jesus had called him “Simon.” Once, Jesus had said he would be Peter, the Rock. It seemed like a long time ago. It was the day Peter had dropped everything to follow, left those nets on the shore for the first time. But of course he wasn’t the Rock anymore. Not after everything that had happened.
Peter braced himself as Jesus continued, “Do you love me more than these?”
More than these? More than the other disciples? More than The Disciple Jesus Loved? There was a time when Peter would have said yes, unequivocally, I love you more than all of them. I love you the most. The most. But that was before everything, because if that was true, would Peter have run, like the others? Did you deny even knowing someone you loved the most?
But Peter did love him, so he just said, simply, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” And he hoped to God that Jesus would know it was true, underneath it all.
“Feed my lambs,” said Jesus.
They sat in silence a moment, Peter’s brow furrowed as he tried to figure this out. He knew fish, after all, not lambs.
“Simon son of John,” Jesus said again, in a minute. “Do you love me?”
Peter swallowed. Jesus didn’t believe him after all. “Yes, Lord,” he said, a note of defensiveness creeping into his voice this time, “you know I love you.”
“Take care of my sheep,” Jesus said, this time.
“Simon son of John,” Jesus said again, and Peter had a feeling he knew what was coming. “Do you love me?”
“Lord, I love you!” Peter cried. He tried to stop himself from bursting into tears. I love you, he thought; I’m a failure, I’m a coward, I’m worthless, but I love you, don’t you know that? Please tell me you know that, despite everything!
Jesus just smiled a little and said, “Feed my sheep.”
Three times. Peter sat in the sand wiping a stray tear from his eye when all of a sudden something clicked. Three times. Three times, Jesus had asked.
“Do you know this man?” “No.” Three times.
Three times: “Do you love me?”
And this time, his answer was the right one.
Suddenly Peter realized that this was his second chance. In his mind he went back to another conversation, in that same Upper Room, that same night Jesus had washed their feet. “Love one another,” Jesus had told them, “as I have loved you. By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
“Feed my sheep,” he said, now.
And Peter realized that his work was just beginning, that if he loved the people Jesus loved, if he fed them and tended them and cared for them the way Jesus had done, then the world would know that he loved Jesus, this man he had once denied.
Maybe it would take him places he didn’t want to go. And maybe it would be hard. Maybe it would hurt sometimes. But Jesus had come back to life to give him a second chance. Peter may have been a failure, but somehow Jesus needed him, him, to do this work of loving people.
He may have been a fisherman in his bones, but he loved this man, so by God he would get out there and he would feed some sheep.
It was as if Sunday had meant new life for Jesus, but today, that day, there on the shore, it became true for Peter too. He had thought he would go back to his old life, but instead Jesus invited him into a completely new one, invited him to live in the power of resurrection where the old things, even the really big ones, didn’t matter anymore. The past was the past, and God’s work started new.
“Follow me,” said Jesus, and this time, Peter was ready.