The Gospel writers don’t say much about Jesus after his resurrection and before his ascension. Matthew and Mark are particularly sparse. Luke says more by taking us to Emmaus. John provides the most. In addition to stating explicitly why he wrote his Gospel (John 20:31) and reminding us that Jesus did many things that were not written down (John 21:25), John records three separate post-resurrection appearances to the disciples. We read about the first two last week. They both centered around the disciple who doubted Jesus. This week his appearance draws our attention to disciple who had denied him.

The story begins with Peter. John lists him first among the seven disciples gathered together by the Sea of Tiberias. The action begins as Peter decides to return to his previous vocation and go fishing. Upon seeing Jesus on the shore, Peter stays in his impulsive character by throwing himself into the water. When Jesus asks for some of the fish, it’s Peter who hauls the net ashore. By the time Jesus pulls Peter aside at the end of our reading, the reader isn’t surprised. Peter has been as central to this story as he was to his own denial in the courtyard of the high priest.

It’s not uncommon for readers of this text to think about the work of the church. Many (including Bruce Schuchard in his helpful translation of the text) have noticed connections between this text and Jesus sending the apostles to be “fishers of men.” Augustine, for instance, recalls the previous catch in Luke 5:1-11. He compares the fish in this text to the church, suggesting the large number of fish signifies the large number of believers who will come into eternity on the last day. Some of Augustine’s connections may be too great a stretch. (For example, Augustine says that big size of the fish in the text represents the immortality of believers at the resurrection, for “what can be bigger than what has no end?” He also suggests that the right side of the boat in verse six signifies the good people who were separated to Jesus’ right side in judgment.[1]) But in light of Jesus’ (re)commissioning of Peter in verses 15-19, it’s possible to recognize a number of similarities between the disciples in the text and the church today. For example:

  1. It was after the resurrection and the disciples were together (21:2). To follow Jesus after his resurrection is to be together with other believers.
  2. Not only were they together, but they did what they knew how to do. That is, they returned to their vocation as fishermen. Easter doesn’t mean the end of life or work, but rather faithful living and working in a new light.
  3. Before Jesus entered the story, the disciples had caught nothing despite working all night. The church’s work is only productive insofar as Jesus directs and effects it.
  4. The disciples did not recognize Jesus at first. This seems to have been a pattern in almost every post-resurrection account. It fits with Jesus’ description in Matthew 25:37 of his people’s inability to recognize him.
  5. Jesus provided for the disciples. He provided direction for their fishing. He provided the large catch of fish into their nets. He provided food for them back on land.
  6. In his conversation with Peter, three times Jesus connected love of the Lord to care for others. Those who love the Lord care for his people.
  7. Jesus’ threefold exchange with Peter seems to mirror Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus. This invites reflection on Jesus’ work of full reconciliation and complete restoration.
  8. Jesus foretold Peter’s suffering that would accompany his following. It’s a reminder that the Christian life—the resurrection life—will involve trials and tribulations.

These similarities invite the preacher to help the hearers identify with Peter as a representative of all Christians—both as individuals and as the church as a whole. The sermon could proclaim both law and gospel by pointing out that Jesus takes the initiative with us, too. He comes to us in our everyday vocations and graciously provides for all our needs. As he reconciled and restored Peter after he had denied him, so also Jesus reconciles and restores us through his Word of forgiveness and life. And having been restored, Jesus calls us to follow him and suffer with (and for) him as our love for Jesus leads us to care for his people.

Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, to assist you in preaching John 21:1-14 (15-19).

Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 21:1-19.

Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, walks us through John 21:1-14 (15-19).