What you learn in the light

John 21:1-19

I started to prepare this talk on Easter morning. This story in John 21 has all the hope and promise of the Easter dawn in it, and all of the fear and loss of the time running up to it too.

I was sat looking out of the window on holiday in Cornwall, on the edge of the Percuil river and the sun had just appeared over the hill in front of me. It was the sign of a glorious day ahead with the sun fully there but tempered by the morning haze.

The water was right in front of me, there were boats moored, the sun was bouncing off the ripples. Songbirds were singing their early chorus, there were gulls in the distance and the tide was high.

The events that we will look at today take place on shore, on a fishing boat, and in a place of great beauty, especially in comparison to the ugliness of the place of skulls in Jerusalem.

So, as I started to prepare this talk, I felt a real physical connection to the story, and hopefully I can help you connect with it too.

We are told that this, lake-side, post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples is the third. [There are eleven in total recorded appearance of Jesus].

The first was on Easter evening, when the disciples were all laying low, in fear of being rounded up. The second was one week later, in the same house. This third occasion is the one that we are arriving at on the Sea of Galilee.

The disciples are going back to the place of their roots, where they were first called, and in the region where Jesus grew up. Some of them may feel that this is it. They’re giving up on The Way and going back to the boats.

And while the story focuses on the men, and the close disciples, it is quite likely that there was a larger group, including women, even Mary, the mother of Jesus, who John had been charged with looking after, when Jesus was on the cross.

The focus of the story is Simon Peter. He is about to take on the role as leader of the church – not that he knows it – or expects it. There is a very human element to the story, but there is a hugely spiritual element to it too.

These men have had a long walk and probably a long time to talk and think over everything that has happened. They’ve gone back to what they used to know, what they were expert at, and yet they have not caught one single fish. 

The journey

Our scripture is set in Galilee but the story starts in Jerusalem, just after the shock of the crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples were clearly feeling really worried about what might happen next. They were keeping a low profile in the city. With the leader of The Way gone, the Jewish ruling classes would surely be thinking that they can break up and destroy what is left of this group.

The disciples abandon this dangerous city and head to Galilee. To go home.

The disciples had known much walking over the short few years that they had been with Jesus but this walk back home was over 100 miles and probably going to feel like a long one.

The first part of the walk from Jerusalem was a 20 mile trek east to the river Jordan.

Just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem, they would have entered Bethany, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That was the big miracle that led to Jesus being treated as a king as he entered Jerusalem, but also became a big target for the disgruntled Pharisees.

Having reached the Jordan, they would have passed the place where Jesus was baptised by John, and likely the place of many baptisms since.

A further 60 miles or so up river, they would have had a choice to leave the river and head north west in-land towards Nazareth, or keep going to Galilee. On this occasion, they went straight on.

Once they would have reached the Sea of Galilee, they would have had a long but familiar, 15 mile or so, walk along the western shore, all the way to the northern town of Capernaum, where we believe Peter lived, and shared his home with Jesus.

So, the disciples are back where it all began, the place where Jesus first asked them to follow him. And on this particular evening, Simon Peter determines that they should go and fish. Like the great leader he is, they follow him into the boat.

This night of fishing that is a real echo of Simon Peter’s first encounter with Jesus, and I want to go back to that. 

Where it began

Simon, his brother Andrew, and their fisherman partners, James and John, also brothers, were some of the first disciples to be called by Jesus.

Simon clearly was a real worker, but a business owner too – he had his own boat, in a key industry, and comes across as a natural leader – not just a simple deck hand.

Interestingly, Andrew, Simon’s brother, was a disciple of John the Baptist, and when Andrew first encountered Jesus, the first thing he did was to fetch his brother, telling him that he had met the Messiah. [John 1]

Jesus had really just started his ministry and a hallmark of that ministry was the healings that he brought about. Jesus was finding that crowds followed him wherever he went, and to create some distance from the people, he stepped into Simon’s boat, asked that it be taken off shore a little, and he spoke from the water. [Luke 5]

After he had finished teaching, Jesus suggested Simon push out into deeper water and let out his nets. Simon explained he had caught nothing all night but cast them anyway. As soon as he did so, the nets were filled.

Simon fell at Jesus’s feet and confessed his sinfulness. Jesus called him to be a fisher of men.

He told him he would be called "Peter”, which translates as "rocky”. I suppose that’s exactly what he was – strong with sharp edges..

He was at right at Jesus’s side until the night of his arrest.

What was Peter like?

Simon Peter was passionate for the Lord and just wanted to be with him. He was also very impetuous. We see this repeatedly

-He was the first to declare that he would not deny him then Jesus warned of his upcoming arrest

-He pulled a sword on the assistant of the chief priest when arrest proceedings started

-He followed right behind Jesus after his arrest to the High Priest’s quarters

-He was the first to run with John to the tomb when he heard from Mary Magdelene and the other women that it was open and empty

-He immediately leapt out of the boat and swam ashore when he realises it is Jesus again in Galilee

Yet, Simon Peter denied ever knowing Jesus as soon as he was in custody.

In Matthew 26, the night of Jesus’s arrest, Jesus foresaw the collapse of the team that was to follow. Verse 31-35:

"This very night you will fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’. [a quote from Zechariah 13:7] But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter replied, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” "Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

Jesus had known that Satan was going to challenge his followers. The day of the arrest, Jesus’s words are recorded in Luke 22,31: "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”.

Jesus had tried to prepare Peter for this. And by calling him Simon, he tried to put it in flashing lights, but Simon didn’t really grasp what he was being told… He knew afterwards.

If Simon Peter just thought a bit more about what Jesus said before he rushed his oath, he would have saved himself a lot of grief. Jesus knew the fear that would come.

At the end of Matthew 26, and the story of his denial, after the cock crowed Peter "went outside and wept bitterly”.

I cannot imagine how Simon Peter felt. He had denied ever knowing Jesus just a short time after declaring he never would.

We don’t know if Simon Peter went into hiding then or if stayed hidden in the crowds. We don’t know if he saw Jesus paraded through the streets. We don’t know if he went to the cross. The next we read of him is Mary rushing to tell him and John that the tomb is empty on Easter morning.

Peter should have heeded Jesus’s warning. He didn’t need to rush his declaration, he didn’t need to say those words of commitment for Jesus’s benefit. Jesus knew that a time of testing was coming and was trying to prepare his followers.

Jesus knew he was going to be arrested, he knew he would die. It was not a prophetic warning to his followers, it was a prophecy of what must happen, of what was always going to happen. Peter’s attacking the servant of the chief priest, and loitering in the quarters of the chief priest, was just not necessary or helpful. Peter put himself in places where he was going to be compromised. He warmed his hands around a fire with the wrong people.

There was a wonderful quote by Greg Haslam, of Westminster Chapel, on this section of scripture. He says, we need to "remember what we are told in the daylight, when we are in the darkness”.

Peter’s restoration

In our post Easter story, Jesus seems very intentionally to take Simon Peter back to their original encounter and re-establishes that promise of sufficiency.

Here we are, on the lake shore in the very early morning, and a man calls to the fishermen (who had again been fishing for hours without success) and told them to throw their nets out of the right -side of the boat. They caught so many fish that they could not haul them on board.

The repeat of the full nets after an empty night was Jesus’s way of reminding Simon Peter that he was the same Jesus, with the same grace and strength, that he has always known.

Jesus had a fire going, fresh bread, fish cooking, and was ready to feed these hungry men, weary after their loss, their journey and their failure. 

Jesus had just risen from the dead, he had beaten the fate of all humanity, but he sat and cooked and ate breakfast with his friends.

Peter was in a place of darkness but a new day was dawning. The sun was breaking through, and there was hope.

Today’s meeting of Jesus and Simon Peter was not the first since the resurrection. Peter has not just been thrown into the awkwardness of a group meeting, when he has so much baggage from Jerusalem.

We think of Jesus appearing to the women first and then the two group appearances in the upper room in Jerusalem, but there is another encounter, and it is between Jesus and Peter, just the two of them. We learn this from a couple of followers who leave Jerusalem well before the others.

In Luke 24, we have a story of two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus. These two had already decided to leave the city, and were joined by Jesus on their walk. It took them quite a while to realise who it was, they even had lunch with him.

They rushed back to Jerusalem and found the eleven. The first thing they say is "It is true! The Lord has risen and appeared to Simon”. [This appearance is only mentioned in the gospel of Luke, but it is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 15.]

Jesus and Simon Peter clearly had some time alone. How precious that must have been for Simon Peter, to be able to see Jesus, one to one, with no-one else around. Able to face up to his shame and his embarrassment privately. 

Our temptation when someone hurts us, is to ask them why. We need an explanation. We need them to justify themselves. We want them to understand the hurt. Often we push for that even when people don’t know what they have done wrong.

But when Jesus meets Simon Peter today, he doesn’t run him down. Jesus doesn’t ask Simon Peter why he flaked. He doesn’t make him feel bad. He doesn’t humiliate him in front of everyone. Everything he says and does builds him.

Jesus knew on Maunday Thursday that Simon Peter was going to be tested, and he knew he was going to fail, but he also knew that Peter was going to bounce back. He knew that he would come back stronger and lead and lead well. He gracefully and graciously restored this passionate and dynamic man.

Three times Jesus asks if Peter loves him, and in each case Peter responds "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. Each prior denial is cut down with a word of love.

And Jesus doesn’t just restore the relationship between the two of them, he restores his authority as a leader.

He commissions Peter in front of the team. "Feed my lambs… Take care of my sheep… Feed my sheep”.

Peter is to teach, to disciple, to lead, to shepherd, to pastor. Peter is commissioned directly by Jesus. The call that Peter thought he had failed, is restored.

In John 21, and the conversation that follows, Jesus does two other things (1) he prepares Peter for the death he will face – martyrdom, and (2) he tells Peter not to compare his life or calling to John, specifically, but not to anyone else either, but to be himself.

Our own lives

There are many lessons for us today in this story

-Even the greatest of our biblical heroes trip up, and Jesus’s determination was and is to restore each of us when we trip, and to build us up, and make us stronger.

-Simon Peter got caught out when he didn’t have Jesus with him. All the confidence and faith he had had when he was alongside Jesus, evaporated. He forgot the words he had been given and he stood alongside the wrong people.

-Jesus will and does seek to prepare us for the difficult paths of the road ahead. We need to learn how to hold on to him and his word in the daylight, so that even more so, we will in the darkness

-Jesus is praying for us. He is interceding for us. He is faithful to us even when we are not to him. Jesus was praying for Simon, and he is praying for each of you, right now. [Romans 8:34]

-He wants us to recognise and realise the call that he has placed on our lives. He doesn’t want us to compare our call to that of the person next to us. The life he has for each of us is to draw on our own gifts and talents.

-While we may feel we have failed, it doesn’t mean our faith has failed. Jesus can fan the smallest flame into a beacon. Peter needed to learn to lead in his own right and this death and resurrection that Peter himself went through was vital for the future of the church.

-It is the most uncomfortable thing, but sometimes we need to be challenged to grow. It is only through refinement that we can face the bigger things, the steeper path, and have greatest impact.

-What do you have ahead of you? You may see nothing. You may see a high mountain or a dark valley. Go back to the words of comfort that Jesus spoke to Simon Peter, read his story.

-Perhaps you need Jesus to speak to you directly now. You really need guidance, encouragement, perhaps forgiveness. Come and sit with one of us in the chapel afterwards and we can talk and, if you like, pray together. Jesus speaks today, and he speaks words of resurrection and of life.

-Easter happened. The Lord is risen and he has a resurrection for each of us.