Going Fishing and Tending Sheep
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 21:1–21:19
The Third Sunday of Easter
May 4-5, 2019
“Going Fishing and Tending Sheep”
With the beautiful spring weather that we’ve been having, we all want to get outside and enjoy it – even with all the tree pollen that’s floating around in the air. All of the coughing and sneezing, the itchy eyes and runny noses say, “Welcome to springtime here in Virginia.” On this Third Sunday of Easter, today’s Gospel lesson takes us outside as well. The risen Lord Jesus Christ meets his disciples in the early morning at the seashore and has breakfast ready for them. With this as our backdrop, the message for today, based on that Gospel lesson, is entitled “Going Fishing and Tending Sheep.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
First off, we’ll focus on going fishing. Spring is a time when lots of folks head out in the hope of catching that big one. I’m not much of a fisherman, although I have gone fishing at different times. You have to be patient if you’re going fishing, and for some people, this is relaxing and enjoyable. But for others, it’s just plain boring and no fun at all. The image most of us have of fishing is with rod and reel, but that’s not what those fishermen in the New Testament did. At least four of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen by trade– the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John (Matthew 4:18-22). The fishing they did on the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias) was not with rod and reel, but casting nets out into the open water. In today’s Gospel lesson, Peter announces, “I am going fishing.” And the other disciples chimed in, “We will go with you” (John 21:3). I wonder why Peter wanted to go fishing? Was it because he just needed to clear his head from everything that had happened with Jesus’ death and resurrection? Was it because he needed to make some money and could do this by selling fish that he caught? Was it because this was all just too much, and he was ready to pack it in and go back to the familiarity of fishing over against being a disciple of Jesus? Scripture does not tell us the “why” behind this fishing trip, only that it was unsuccessful. Those fishermen didn’t catch anything all night long. Sometimes it’s like that when you go fishing. We can well imagine how disappointed and frustrated those disciples were. And then as day was breaking and they are headed in, a lone figure on shore calls out to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” (John 21:5). The question here is asked expecting a negative reply, which is not reflected in the wording of our Gospel lesson. It should read something like: “You didn’t catch any fish, did you?”, followed by the dejected reply, “No” (John 21:5). And then this person on the beach, who wasn’t with them out in the boat all night long, tells them: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:5). It would’ve been very easy for these fishermen to just blow this off and come on into shore as planned. But, they did as instructed, and miraculously haul in a net full of fish. And not just any old fish, but “large fish,” we are told; “153 of them” (John 21:11). “That disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7), who is John, the author of the Gospel that bears his name, tells Peter, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). Who else could this be but Jesus? Peter can’t wait, but jumps out of the boat and into the water to be the first one to shore. And there on the shore, a breakfast of bread and fish is ready for the hungry disciples. Fishing can hold many surprises! We are told that “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (John 21:14). The first was Easter evening when Thomas was not present (John 20:19-25). The second was eight days later when Thomas was present (John 20:26-31), and this is now the third resurrection appearance of Jesus.
Now let’s focus on tending sheep. Spring is lambing season if you are tending sheep, and that is a very demanding time. In today’s Gospel lesson, after breakfast on the beach, Jesus has a conversation with Peter – a very important conversation. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and Peter replies that he does. Three times, Jesus tells Peter: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Why does Jesus do this? Think back to Jesus’ arrest and trial before the high priest. Three times, bystanders said Peter was with Jesus, and three times Peter openly denied ever knowing Jesus (John 18:15-18, 25-27). All of this fulfilled what Jesus told Peter would happen when Peter said that he would lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times” (John 13:36-38). Now, everyone is on the other side of Jesus’ arrest and trial, his suffering, death, and resurrection. The elephant in the room is Peter’s denial. Even after Jesus’ blessed words on that first Easter evening, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19), this is unresolved; it’s still sort of hanging in the air. Here at the beach, after breakfast, Jesus restores Peter with a three-fold commission: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15, 16, 17). Our English translation doesn’t convey the original meaning here. Two of the three times that Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love (αγαπάω) me?”, Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him with the same sacrificial, self-giving love that God loves us in Christ. That’s the word Jesus uses here. But Peter’s reply is different: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (ϕιλέω) you” (John 21:15, 16, 17). Peter replies saying that yes, he loves Jesus with a friend-to-friend kind of love. He doesn’t say that he loves Jesus with the same sacrificial, self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated for him. And here’s the thing: none of us do. Like Peter, we all have denied Jesus through what we have done and through what we have left undone. We have all denied Jesus with our words and our actions. And yet, Jesus still loves us with that same sacrificial, self-giving love that moved him to go to the cross and offer his life there for each and every one of us. This is at the heart of the Gospel; something called grace – God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. We don’t earn it, and we certainly don’t deserve it, but God graciously gives us his undeserved love and forgiveness in Jesus. Like Peter, whatever mistakes we have made in the past, Jesus is more than ready to restore us and has already done so through his sacrifice of love on the cross.
The image here is of St. John’s first youth Confirmation class in 1959, exactly sixty years ago. The photo was taken on Confirmation Sunday, May 17, 1959, at nearby Franconia Elementary School because our congregation didn’t yet have its own worship facilities. St. John’s first building (our current Fellowship Hall) wasn’t dedicated until the following month in June 1959. And now, sixty years later, another group of young men and women today will reaffirm their Baptismal vows in the Rite of Confirmation. What Jesus said to Simon Peter, he says to each of them: “Do you love me? Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Whether our Confirmation was sixty years ago or whether it is today, the risen Lord Jesus Christ wants nothing more than that we love him as he loves us: deeply and sincerely, sacrificially and from the heart. In response to Jesus’ saving love, Jesus now calls us, as he did Peter, to tend and feed his sheep. We often think that we’re only on the receiving end of this tending and feeding, but the truth is that we are also called to care for the flock of Christ. As we have received, so we are to give: generously, freely, joyfully. May the risen Savior open our eyes, our hearts and minds, to see how we can – all of us – feed and tend the lambs who belong to him who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. May the Lord help us to do this until we join that multitude which no one can number in the song of heaven: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13). Amen.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!