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First Impressions: John 21:1-19

April 14, 2010

This week’s gospel lesson gives us several avenues of approach.  I will focus in on the scene of the disciples’ first vision of the stranger on the shore, but there are at least three major chunks of text to serve as a jumping off point for preaching, verses 1-8, 9-14 and 15-19.

A preacher may wish to introduce the idea of this chapter as a later edition of the Gospel, but I will avoid that topic this week.  There are plenty of good details regarding language and setting that could be instructive, but they could also bog a sermon down.  Since I recently did something similar with the story of Mary anointing Jesus (John 12:1-8), I will skip that for this week.  Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible commentary contains a long, detailed and technical description of these issues (The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XII-XXI, volume 29A [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970], 1066ff.), if you’re interested.

21:1-3 These verses set the scene.  It seems odd that Peter and the others seem to have fallen back into ordinary life.  It is almost as if the two appearances of Jesus (in John 20:19-29) have never happened.  Otherwise, this paragraph prepares us for the significant events to follow.

21:4-8 This is where I expect my sermon to reside.  I like the image of “daybreak,” and prepare a narrative for myself that as the sun rises and the day dawns, so do the disciples’ identification of the stranger on the shore as Jesus.  In the half light—and from a hundred yards out—they can make out only the shape of a man by the sea.  As the disciples obey his command by recasting their nets, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is certain that it is Jesus.  I like the idea that even then, as they sit with him around the fire, they are not so certain, since in verse 12, even then there is a touch of doubt.

I will likely use this to discuss John’s images of day and night, using them to clue us in to moments of doubt or lack of faith (night) or truth and faith (day).  Often, we live our lives in times of dawning, twilight and dusk, just like the disciples in John 21.  We are not certain of things, but we are not completely disbelieving, either.  Using John’s image, that must mean that moments of partial faith, partial understanding are like the new day, not yet here, but promising to arrive soon.  I don’t really know anyone who lives most of life in the blazing noonday sun.  In fact, for most of us, that would be too much sunlight to handle.

You could also fix on to the image of the disciples’ obedience to the stranger and the miraculous catch.  While I would not preach the value of blind obedience, there is something to the idea that some of our lives of discipleship ought to be lived with some sense of risk or not knowing all the answers before we act.  Why in the world should these disciples trust the stranger on the shore?  What does he know about fishing?

21:9-14 I like the idea that in John’s version of this story, the net does not break (in contrast to Luke 5:1-11).  To me, it speaks to the idea that even though the Church casts a wide net, there is a sense of unbroken unity (in an ideal sense; in reality, our churches often resemble a fragile glass dropped from a high shelf) within the Body.  I’m not sure the text is saying this, but you could preach the idea that in the church, there is always room for more.  We don’t have to worry about keeping certain folk “out of the net” in fear that the lines will break.

21:15-19 Some of my colleagues are preaching on these verses.  Their approach will be to preach this as Peter’s redemption after he had denied Jesus three times (John 18:15-27).  It is a story of grace and peace for all of us who have been unfaithful to our calling.  Even though Peter had let go of Jesus, Jesus had not let go of Peter.  Even after denial, Jesus could ask Peter to care for the flock.  Peter still had an opportunity to follow.  One mistake—even a series of mistakes—do not disqualify us for Jesus’ love or redemption.  Some of my friends like the idea that this seems to leave John’s gospel a bit open ended.  The resurrection has not been wrapped up neatly, but it continues in the world…and in us.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kennedy Nyaga permalink
    May 1, 2010 7:27 pm

    I discovered this website today and i read a few of your sermons. I must say they are very informative, balanced and resorceful. Most of them left an impression engrafted in my spirit. God bless you and thank you.

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