“Fish, Forgiveness and a Future”

John 21:1-19

Preached by Dr. Robert F. Browning


Calvary Baptist Church

Lexington, Kentucky

April 26, 2020

Printable Document Video Will Be Posted Here

Today’s text describes the third encounter the disciples had with Jesus after his death and resurrection. It occurred on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the place where several of the disciples were invited to follow Jesus when he began his public ministry.

Seven of Jesus’ disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. At day break, a stranger on the shore called to them asking if they had any fish. The disciples had no idea who he was but informed him their nets were empty.

When the stranger told them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat, they obeyed. It was common for a spotter on the shore to let fishermen in a boat know the whereabouts of a nearby school of fish. They could see from a distance what those in a boat were missing.

As soon as the disciples did what they were told, their nets filled with fish, 153 in all. I’m not surprised they knew the precise number of fish they caught. I’ve never met an avid fisherman who did not keep track of how many fish he or she caught, including the ones thrown back. These disciples were no exception.

While the disciples struggled to get this many fish close to the boat and ultimately the shore, the beloved disciple, John, realized the identity of their spotter. It was Jesus.

When John shouted out this good news, Peter jumped into the water and headed to the shore. He was too eager to have another encounter with the risen Jesus to help with landing the fish.

            I am certain the first thing Peter noticed when he stepped on shore was that charcoal fire. The scent was both unmistakable and unpleasant.  It immediately brought to mind shameful memories surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus.

The night Jesus was arrested Peter denied knowing him–not once, not twice but on three different occasions. Each time, Peter was standing around a charcoal fire warming his hands.

            No wonder Peter and the disciples remained silent while Jesus took some of the fish they caught and prepared breakfast for them. They had much to think about as they watched those coals burn and smelled the stench of shame and guilt.

            When they finished eating, Jesus turned to Peter and asked a series of similar questions. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him.

Each time Peter said he did, although he was unwilling to use the same word for love Jesus did, ‘agape’. This word refers to an unselfish, sacrificial love that puts another’s needs above one’s own. Instead, Peter responded by using the word ‘phileo’ or ‘philos’, which is the good will we associate with friends in a pleasant fellowship.

Peter knew his cowardly denial of Jesus the night he was arrested did not rise to the level of ‘agape’ love. To be truthful, it did not even resemble the love friends have for one another.

Even though Jesus was aware of the discrepancy in Peter’s response, he still responded every time by telling Peter to feed his lambs or sheep. It is clear this was the way Jesus chose to call Peter and all the disciples back to the work they began when they were first called to follow him along that same shore.

            Why do you think this encounter between Jesus and the disciples found its way into the fourth gospel? After all, it appears this gospel originally ended at 20:31, and this chapter was added at a later time before the canon was closed.

Why? What did the early believers feel would be missing with its absence? Why was it important to them that this story be included?

            I am confident the editors added this story to resurrect Peter’s image. He did not need to be remembered as a coward who denied having any association with Jesus out of fear for his own safety. This story was the first step in Peter’s recovery and rehabilitation.

Jesus could not undo what Peter did. He could, however, give him the opportunity to restore his self-esteem and support him in his efforts to make changes in his life.

            In addition, this breakfast encounter could have been written to show there was no difference in Jesus’ loving and gracious nature after his crucifixion. The worst thing that happened to him did not bring the worst out in him. To the contrary, it brought out his best.

The risen Jesus was not bitter, hateful or vindictive but forgiving and compassionate. He was not interested in settling a score or humiliating those who let him down. His focus was on helping the disciples move beyond their shortcomings so they could continue the work of making hope visible to those struggling to survive.

I believe there was another reason this story was attached to this particular gospel. I think it was included to teach us about relationships: the good, the bad and the ugly.

So, what do we learn about relationships from this post-resurrection story?

Relationships are important. They certainly were to Jesus.

One of the first things Jesus did after he began his public ministry was to call twelve disciples to follow him. Why?

He was following tradition. Every rabbi had disciples, students who would listen to the rabbi teach and prepare for the time they would instruct and lead others. If Jesus was going to be a rabbi or prophet, it would be expected of him to train disciples.

Beyond this, though, I believe Jesus chose disciples because he valued and needed companionship. All his adult life had been lived in Nazareth where he was surrounded by family and friends.

Leaving home to become an itinerant preacher would require much traveling. Most days he would be on the road going to see people in their hometowns, and often he would be gone for days and weeks at a time.

He needed companions on this divine mission who would support him, listen to him, give him feedback and offer wise counsel and advice. The disciples became those traveling companions, a band of brothers whose lives were forever intertwined.

If Jesus needed other people in his life, how much more do we? Healthy relationships are a vital part of every balanced and productive individual.

At the same time, relationships are messy. Jesus found this to be true.

These twelve disciples tested his patience and resolve on many occasions. From time to time, Jesus had to respond to their impatience, outbursts, complaints, selfish requests and cowardly actions.

I am confident Jesus was not surprised by their occasional poor behavior. He knew human nature, and he knew people with even the best intentions can disrupt relationships and put them in peril.

I believe we are aware of this, too. We know the steadiest relationships can slide off the tracks. This is because people are truly a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly and so are their relationships.

We make promises we don’t always keep. We brag about things we cannot do. We let others down when they need us most. We abandon people depending upon us in their darkest hours. We embarrass and humiliate those closest to us in front of other family members or friends.

We lose our temper and say or do hurtful things. We spike an attitude that creates confusion and deflates the spirits of those around us. We transfer our anger to innocent victims. We lie to people to cover up our transgressions.

As much as we would like to think the time will come when our family resembles our friends on Facebook who post pictures of the one minute during the week when they quit fussing or fighting, it never will. Our selfishness gets in the way.

This is why all relationships are filled with great hopes, big dreams and huge disappointments. Both our greatest joys and most painful sorrows are connected to the people around us. Our experiences with them bring out the best and worst in us.

So yes, even the healthiest relationships can be messy at times.

In spite of this, relationships are resilient and repairable. Peter discovered this around a charcoal fire on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

That morning, Peter discovered there was something more powerful than broken dreams, disappointments and bad memories, and this was love, the kind Jesus referred to in his dialogue with Peter.

Jesus’ love for Peter was similar to God’s love for the world. It was willing to do the difficult. It was willing to make sacrifices. It was willing to put another’s needs above one’s own. It was willing to take the initiative to repair a broken relationship and to chart a new way forward.

What Jesus’ love for Peter was unwilling to do that morning was to walk away from this disciple who let him down without trying to repair and to restore the relationship both valued. This was unconscionable to Jesus.

No relationship was disposable. No person was dispensable. No damage was beyond repair because God’s love flowing through them was this powerful and transformational.

Who needs you to love them the way Jesus loved Peter? Who needs you to love them unconditionally? Who needs you to reach out to them and to offer a new path forward that leads to hope and healing?

Can you find it in your heart to do for someone in your family or among your friends what Jesus did for Peter? I know it is not easy, but I also know all of us have had others who have done this for us. We have messed up our share of relationships and needed someone to intervene on our behalf to help us restore them.

We could all rewrite portions of our lives, couldn’t we? Where would we be if others had not given us more chances?

What I love about the gospel is that it is profoundly hopeful. There are no dead ends on the road of faith. With God’s help all things, especially relationships, can be made better if the Holy Spirit is invited to lead, guide and empower everyone.

Remember what I said in my Easter message a couple of weeks ago? Easter is about starting over when you thought all hope was gone.

This is as true today as it was Easter. It will be just as true tomorrow and the next day.

It is up to us to decide if we want to try again to repair a broken relationship, whether we are the one who has been hurt or the one who is guilty of hurting others.

I know what Jesus wants us to do.

I know what God will help us to do.

I know what Peter would encourage us to do.

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