Follow Me – April 30, 2023
Psalm 67, John 21:1-19
April 30, 2023
“Life as it was before.” I’ve often characterized our story for today as one in which the disciples thought they were going back to life as it was before. And that’s at least a good place to start. This “adventure” – this “journey with Jesus” – was over. He was gone. He had risen. He was alive again. He was back – sort of. And all of that was good.
But their time of being ”disciples,” that was over. Disciples were people who would follow their rabbi, be with him as he spoke and taught, learn from him in private teaching sessions, and were guided by him as they sought to become rabbis themselves someday.
Well, that time was over for these men. I’m sure they felt that way. Their leader was gone, what else was there for them to do. So, when Peter said, “I’m going fishing,” that wasn’t just a “recreational” thing. It wasn’t about grabbing poles and line sand going out to “drown some worms.” It was a move to return to life as it was before.
Sometimes I think we’ve had some similar feelings in what we might now be calling our “post-Covid days!” All throughout the pandemic we just wanted to “get back to normal” – to get back to “life as it was before.” Well, there were some of those feelings for these guys, too. And even if they weren’t necessarily wanting things “back to normal,” but what else was there for them to do?
I truly believe that was their prevailing thought here in this story. Remember, we the readers know more than the people in these stories knew. We know what was in store for them. They didn’t. I think they had to have some feeling that it was time to get back to things they had put on hold for the last three years. Maybe they were even thinking, in a practical way, that it was time to start earning a living again.
That’s how this starts. But then, as this story plays out, it becomes a “replay” of an earlier scene. It becomes a replay of the scene where Jesus called these disciples three years earlier. He even ends here with the words he started with, “Follow Me.” Those words jumped off the page for me this week. Well, ok… they jumped off of my computer screen! Either way, I think those words would have jumped out for these men. They would have remembered what happened when Jesus called them three years prior.
As I pointed out a few years ago, this had to have been, not just the same words, and the same actions, but also the same location! When they went fishing, it was commercial fishing, we might say! They were fishermen by trade. And again, they didn’t take poles and lines and bait, they were going to fish the way they did before. They went out in boats, with nets. And whose boats and nets were they? They were theirs! So this had to have taken place where they left their boats and their gear, three years earlier!
So the place was the same. And this story was the same! It was replay of the scene where they caught a large quantity of fish. You can read that story in Luke, chapter 5. (Luke 5:1-11) That’s where Peter scornfully mocked Jesus and his call for them to put out into the deep and let down their nets. We read it as almost an obedient statement. “We have fished all night and caught nothing. But at your word I will let down the nets.” I think there was sarcasm and cynicism in his answer. “Ok, we’ll show you. You’re crazy!”
Well, here there is a similar call to cast the nets. Jesus stood on the shore calling to them, though we’re told they didn’t recognize him at first. And when he called to them, he said, “Little children!” And I’m wondering if that was “less than endearing.” I wonder if Jesus was jabbing them a little. And I wonder if they liked that! “Little children, have you gotten any fish?” And actually the Greek word here is not “fish,” it’s “food.” Again, they went fishing so that they could make a living again. They went fishing so they could eat! There’s some of almost sarcasm in Jesus’ question.
Well, this time, it wasn’t “Put out into the deep!” It was “Stay right where you are!” “Just cast your nets on the other side of the boat.” That would have seemed almost silly to these experienced fishermen! But again, they did what he said, and they caught a “great quantity” of fish! And again, the Greek word here is, “Plethos.” They caught a “plethora” of fish! I was so excited the first time I read that!
Then they recognized that it was Jesus – duh! Then Peter jumped in the water and swam to shore, followed by the other “less than happy” fishermen. They were left to dragging the nets full of fish – without him! And then they shared this meal with Jesus. And it was the first meal since, when? The Last Supper, right? That had to have had some special meaning for them, too!
And then Jesus turns to Peter. And this is a sermon in itself. He asks Peter three times, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me.” We could talk about the word he uses for “love” here. Jesus says “agape” – God’s love. Peter says “Philos” – brotherly love, as in “Philadelphia.” And Jesus uses his old name, Simon. I’m sure that wasn’t lost on Peter. He would have remembered him saying, “No longer will you be Simon, but Peter, which means ‘the Rock.’ And on this rock I will build my church!”
Now he is Simon again. And there’s no doubt why. “The Rock” had crumbled. Peter had denied Jesus three times – before a servant girl! Now Jesus is offering him a three-fold chance to redeem himself. And I’m sure Peter was painfully aware of what Jesus was doing!
As I often say, confession is not telling God something he doesn’t already know. Confession is acknowledging our sinfulness before him and recognizing our need for forgiveness. Peter’s denial is being brought back into this picture here, and sure it had been eating at him! John says, “Peter was grieved when Jesus asked the third time.” He knew what this was about!
And lest we think he was the only one who was “grieved” here… Remember! All the disciples had fled! They all ran for their lives in the Garden. With Jesus confronting Peter here, they must have felt like a child listening to a friend get scolded for something, even though they were both guilty.
So this fishing scene is a replay from three years prior. And it is a renewal of Peter’s call – and the call of the others, as well! In the earlier scenes where Jesus called his disciples, he said, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” But here, he just uses the two operative words, “Follow Me.” And I’m sure the significance of those words came home to these men!
This then became the call to continue his ministry. It was not over. In fact, it was the fishing that was over! The Acts of the Apostles was about to begin! There would never again be “life as it was before.”
And it’s the same for us. Once we decide to follow Jesus, there will never be for us “life as it was before.” And I believe Jesus says those same words to each one of us. “Follow me.” And when we do, life will never be the same. And that’s going to look different for each one of us. We’re not all pastors, or deacons, or elders, or teachers. But we’re all followers in our own way. And I ask you to think about that.
I often ask people to think what their life would be like if they weren’t followers – if they had never heard and heeded Jesus’ call to “follow him.” So what about you? What was it like for you before you made that decision? Maybe you’re like me, there was never a time before Jesus for me. I was raised in the Church! For me, there were only times of better understanding. And maybe that’s what you’re thinking about, those times when it all made sense.
Or maybe you’re thinking that your “following” has suffered a little. Maybe you’re like Peter. Like him, you were eager to follow at first, but then maybe the other cares of life took over and became more important. Maybe you’ve even have had your time of denial. Maybe you’ve felt like going back to the way things were. Maybe you’ve “gone fishing,” like he did, and maybe you need to hear again the call to “Follow me.”
Wherever you are in all of that, know today, that you are called by Jesus. And nobody is called by Jesus to sit on the sidelines. We’re all important in God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom is important in our lives. May this scene of Jesus at the sea run through our heads this season of Easter. May his words echo in our ears, as he says to each of us, “Follow me!”
Eternal God, we thank you for your call on every one of our lives. Help us to answer that call. Help us to know we are disciples, followers of Jesus Christ. Help us as we seek to serve joyfully in his kingdom. For this we pray in his name, Amen