The Gospel of John chapter 21
We have just read a very puzzling story. Even those who would like to understand that story literally must be confused by its strange references. What was so special about the number of fish? Why did Jesus need to ask Peter three times about his love? You begin to wonder if more is intended below the surface of this text and might it have another meaning concealed within it?
This morning I want to take you into the strange world of allegory. Perhaps as a child you puzzled your way through Pilgrim’s Progress. The journey of Pilgrim may have captivated you but you steadily began to realise that his story was a shroud for a deeper, more self-motivating meaning.
Let me hold you there for a moment more. Some life allegories come from happier and more natural contexts. We see someone, catch their eye, remember the fragment of a conversation and then imagination begins to weave its own story. You can’t quite explain this literally, because it is more than an event. It has awakened an emotion about a relationship.
I came across this reminiscence written by one of our children:
When my father was a bush priest in Western Australia, we had a Bishop who was like no other Bishop I have ever come across. His name was Howell Witt. Witt by name, wit by nature. He was an old styled worldly man with an edge, slightly eccentric. He played rugby, smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper. When he came to our place for dinner, which he did often during my childhood years, he would be asked to say grace. We five children would close our eyes and wait with excitement for what he would say. He never disappointed: “Dear God, before we start to eat, I thank you for this lovely meat”, and other such pithy prayers.
Our son recalled the life of a man who for each of us was more than an accidental visitor. His energy engaged us, his very earthiness dispelled fake piety – but more than that he showed each of our children that church could be about translating rituals and liturgies into the daily world of challenge, debate, conflict, self-doubt and awareness. His presence then, and his memory since, remains an allegory that life has hidden within it a profound sense of discovery, wonder and an awakening to love. I can see the man in my mind; I remember his passion for people and then something profoundly pervasive about his inner life that still touches who I am in my inner life.
To call him hero or mentor, teacher or even Bishop misses entirely his impact on our family. He gave each of us a sense of our own resurrection – that we could face a new day with optimism, that our own jaded lives could live to purpose, that we could laugh at ourselves and laugh with those around us. Wonder and love are the qualities of an awakened life.
I seem to have taken a long time to engage today’s reading. Its literal reading has long puzzled me and the commentaries that I have read haven’t helped much. They tell me that the language and style of chapter 21 differ sufficiently from chapters 1-20 that we might assume a separate authorship. Well, I had already reached that conclusion from simply reading the English text. Open John’s Gospel for yourself. On any straightforward reading, the Gospel seems to end with chapter 20. The words speak for themselves:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
So, why chapter 21? I admit that I am guessing. Maybe John or more likely another early disciple wrote these words as a single reminiscence and, like the story of the woman taken in adultery, it just got tacked onto this Gospel – maybe to fill up a scroll.
What was its purpose – since it seems to add nothing of great consequence to the resurrection stories we already know? But what if – my imagination begins to overtake my understanding – what if, as the Greek of verses 22 and 23 actually say about living life to the full, we wonder and we love ‘while he is coming’.
I know the version of the text in front of you says something else about being faithful until Jesus comes, but that translation misses the point. John’s distinctive phrase ‘while he is coming’ shapes around Peter’s call to wait or to use his special word ‘abide’. All through the Gospel Jesus reminds his followers that they must ‘abide’ in him. Every moment and every circumstance is filled with Jesus’ coming – and so we wait. This part of the message is not about activism or evangelism or works of charity. Something prior to all these is intended. Resurrection begins in our inner being.
Before we speak on grand matters, before we seek to serve our neighbours, before we try to save the world, we wait for love to engage us. Love will save us from hypocrisy and from posturing. Love teaches us that we are becoming, discovering, growing and awakening. The world and community around us are also becoming, discovering, growing and awakening. Before we can speak or act we need sensitivity to the touch of love and wonder in our lives.
John’s story of resurrection is about awakening to self and to those around us and, through this awakening, to God, lover, embracer and reconciler. Writers, like St Paul draw other issues from the teaching about resurrection: John takes us to a place of inner awareness. John was undoubtedly a powerful storyteller. He could capture a moment as if it had just happened. But every story has an underlying meaning and often is couched in allegory.
There is an early instance of this in chapter 2 of his Gospel. John there recounted in remarkable detail the very worldly story of Jesus at a wedding feast. With little knowledge of ancient customs you can still imagine the context. Suddenly Jesus and his mother have a strange, almost offensive conversation. The celebratory wine had run out, Mary suggested that Jesus might help – why on earth might she think he could do anything? Was she asking for a miracle – the very thought was anathema to John’s understanding of Jesus. John contrasted their values: ‘Woman’, says Jesus, ‘what do we have in common?’ With scarcely time to draw breath at this dismissive interchange John draws into view six water pots for ritual hand washing. There were ‘six’ he emphasised – the number was very clear and so was their purpose. Just six, not seven – one less than the perfect number, one set of rituals falling short of the washing of forgiveness and inner resurrection, explained in his two following chapters.
Today’s reading picks up the same sort of symbolism. It is a commentary on the inner meaning of the resurrection story. And it was told in perfect numbers. Yesterday I sat with a university mathematics friend over coffee and we did sums about the 153 fish the disciples caught. Was this a triangular number? I won’t bother you with the maths. John’s intention seems to have been to emphasise to a generation, where numbers had mystic meanings, that resurrection is about building us into a beautiful harmony. Type ‘triangular numbers’ into your computer search engine and you will see there the detail and symmetry. We, by extension, are a diverse community, each a separate sequence shaped into a perfect number by wonder and love.
The event John described took place around a meal, the most ordinary experience of daily living. We are in the presence of what we take for granted and in the close company of people thrust on us by family and circumstance. Our failings are obvious; this is no place for pretense.
Peter, the fallen leader, featured strongly in this story. Everyone knew about his bluster, his failure in crisis, his recourse to violence – the Gospel accounts do not conceal any of this. And Paul had his own issues with Peter’s racial and religious prejudice. Peter’s leadership in the early church was here in question.
What sort of man is this who out in the fishing boat and on the way to shore was ‘naked’ – exposed as most of us are among those who know us well. Do you catch the allegory here? Our leaders are stripped bare: the media shows them at their least significant. In close companionship we fare no better. The heart of leadership lies in the ability to listen, to wonder at other people’s lives and discoveries and to see beauty where we never imagined it could be. The measure of a love like that is justice, not sentimentality.
At meal-time, Jesus came with a message of inner resurrection shaped around a question: ‘Do you love me more than these?’ It was a challenging and embarrassing question. But its meaning lay in the response that followed:
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep”.
However much the text may have singled out Peter it speaks to a grounded love. Do I love God more than you do? Has your faith taken you to heights others have failed to gain? Are there spiritual distinctions among us? Yes, I suppose that may be true. But love is always grounded: Michael Leunig once said in a cartoon caption, ‘Love has always a human face’. The face of love is justice. By allegory John here made the same point. Three times, with another perfect number, Jesus asked each of his friends to translate loving into service. Whatever our differences, love is prior; love is the quality that makes us whole.
Resurrection is about the body, the naked, vulnerable body, the body crucified, the body awakened to face a new day with optimism. Resurrection is about our jaded inner self, discovering what it means to sense the passion of others with wonder and love.
I read this memory of more intimate days by an inner city poet. Sense its spiritual energy and let it be an allegory of this sermon’s meaning:
A naked shore is
where two lovers kiss
two worlds for one
still wet sands
a pair of hands
moon and sun.
I kissed her fingertips
with moonlight burning
I held her hand
the hour turning
whilst I learnt the secret
of compassion’s law
so other things mattered
that had not before.
Philip Napier, ‘Two for One’ in Susan Wildman, ed., Dreaming Under a Bridge: Contemporary Poetry from Inner-City Dwellers, Eastside Parish of the Uniting Church, 1990.
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Easter, John’s Gospel chapter 21.