It was the third time He had appeared to them, yet they did not recognize Him.
By John 21, the empty tomb has already been discovered and the doubt of Thomas has been assuaged. And yet the story continues. The start of John 21 has a back-to-normal feeling to it. After all these extraordinary things, the disciples seem to revert to their very ordinary former lives: they go fishing.
There are seven of them on this fishing expedition, including Simon Peter. They cast about all night to no avail. Day breaks. The first rays of sun illuminate a figure standing on the beach.
He calls out, asking if they have caught anything. In fact, His question presumes the answer and therefore comes across as more an expression of sympathy. A common translation reads something like: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” But some more literal versions render it this way: “You don’t have any fish, do you?”
When they report back confirming they have not, He suggests trying the right side of the boat. They do so and their nets become swollen with fish. “It is the Lord,” says ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ Peter hops into the water and runs towards the shore, followed by the disciples with their haul of fish.
There on the beach, Jesus already has bread and fish that he is cooking over a fire. He invites them to add some of the fish they caught they share breakfast together. After this meal, Jesus asks Peter if He loves Him three times, undoing his previous three-time denial.
A model for the Christian life
This story is at once so strange and so ordinary. Isn’t the situation of the disciples at the start of the story eminently relatable? Jesus has risen, Easter has passed, and we all return to our lives. In a sense we must—we have obligations to fulfill at our jobs, bills to pay, and food and shelter we need to provide for ourselves and others.
In a sense, all of us are out in that boat, rocking in the waves of an uncertain world, with Jesus calling out to us from the shore. This is the journey of the Christian life, from uncertain lands to the solid ground of Christian faith, from the darkness of night to the dawn, from the solitude of night to an encounter with the risen Lord.
This story contains some guidance on how we might undertake this journey.
Repeat doses of grace. Grace is not a one-time thing. We need ‘multiple infusions’ of grace, as I recall a friend once putting it. Even though the disciples had seen Jesus twice already, they still did not recognize Him. We must constantly strive to see Jesus both in our hearts and in the faces of those around us.
Jesus calls out to us. Notice how the encounter begins with a question from Jesus. In questioning us, Jesus approaches us at our level, inviting us to a personal encounter. The question here demonstrates a simple openness and sympathy towards the all-too-human circumstances the disciples are in. Jesus meets us where we are even if it’s in the midst of things that are quite mundane. Jesus’ question is easily translatable to our circumstances. It amounts to simply asking how we are doing. How is our work going? How are things with your family? Things haven’t been going that well, have they? All we must do is respond and our response doesn’t have to whitewash things when they are awry. No, things aren’t going well at all.
Obedience and trust. Even before they recognize Him, the disciples hear His voice and obey Him (see John 10:27 and Romans 10:17). They trust even though they are unable to clearly see things—Jesus in front of them or the fish in the waters below them.
Hearing before seeing: We must hear and heed the words of Jesus before we can see Him. This is, after all, what happened to the disciples are the road to Emmaus. Jesus was in their very presence but they did not recognize Him until they had first heard Him explain the Scriptures to them.
Don’t discount the small stuff. Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean dropping what we are doing in our daily lives. Go on fishing but ground it in trust of God and order it in such a way that it might bring you closer to Him. This idea that our daily work can be an opportunity for holiness is one of the main messages of Opus Dei. It is also something St. Therese of Lisieux was referring to when she talked about her ‘little way.’
Passion and diligence: The divergent responses of Peter and the other disciples are both models for us. Sometimes following Christ means taking that leap of faith into uncertain waters. Sometimes it means we sprint towards him even if it feels like we’re running into water resistance. But other times the best way to be a disciple is to stick with what we’re doing, stay in the boat, and wait patiently to come ashore.
Join our sacrifice to His. Jesus already has bread and fish cooking, but He asks the disciples to add some of their catch to the fire. At least one day a week, we are invited to join our sacrifice to His, as the words of the Mass themselves state (and as a homily I heard recently pointed out). Each week we work up to this, through the sacrifice of prayer itself, through morning offerings, and other things we ‘offer up.’
Jesus wants our love. Notice the virtue on which this whole episode concludes. Jesus does not ask Peter three times if he has faith or believes in Him. He asks if Peter loves Him. And, this love then is meant to be radiated out to others—the sheep and lambs Jesus calls on Peter to feed and tend. True faith in the resurrected Lord must lead us to love.
The importance of the Church
Thus far, I’ve read John 21 in terms of its message for individual souls. Of course, that is not all this text is telling us. The disciples, after all, are together in this boat. We cannot help but remember the deep symbolism of boats both in the Old Testament and in the gospels. We think particularly of the ark which foreshadows the wood of the cross and the Church itself which lives out the reality of the cross.
Peter’s primacy, of course, also comes to the fore here. It is he who decides to go fishing, only to be followed by the disciples. It is he who first meets the Lord. And it is he who must make the profession of love before all the others.
The encounter with Christ also begins and ends in sacramental imagery. Peter, thinly clad dunking himself in the waters seems subtle suggestive of baptism. The bread and meat, of course, are indicative of the Eucharist, the ‘source and summit of Christian life’ as Lumen Gentium teaches us.
The point is we need the Church. We need Peter running out ahead of us. We need the communion of saints to accompany to help us see the risen Christ, accompany us on the way, and lead us to Him. The Church is not something extra or a necessary burden, but the very vessel on which we travel to our Lord.