Easter III, 2019
Do you remember last week’s gospel reading? (I know, it was a long time ago….) And even if you were not able to get to church last Sunday I’m sure you are aware of the famous “Doubting Thomas” story, locked doors, wounds, you know. Do you remember how the story ends? Let me remind you. Here’s the last sentence: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
Now in the literary world we call that “an ending.” Up music, roll the credits, drive safely everyone, and thanks for coming. The writer of John’s gospel ends his entire work by telling his audience that there are a lot more stories about Jesus that he could tell, but he’s not going to because he has given us enough to believe in Jesus and become his followers. Enough is enough. The end of Chapter 20 is the actual end of John’s original gospel. So this morning I just read chapter 21 to you, which most scholars believe was added by another writer much later – maybe even as much as a hundred years later. Why do scholars think that? Well, John ends chapter 20 by saying in effect, “I’m not going to tell you any more stories about Jesus.” And then chapter 21 begins, ”Here’s another story about Jesus.” Why would the same writer do that? Just because chapter 21 is not original, that doesn’t mean we can ignore it or dismiss it. It’s part of the New Testament canon, which means we have to account for it in some way, however, we also need to be honest about what it is doing here and the purposes of the second writer, which may have been different from the purposes of the first writer.
I’d like to do two things with this story in today’s sermon. First I’d like to share why I think this chapter was added to the gospel, and second, to share one thing the story has to say to us, today.
I begin by wondering why anyone would want to add something to John’s gospel. John seemed to be pretty happy with it. It’s not like an unfinished symphony where the composer dies before the final movement can be written. John wrote a complete gospel and felt it was sufficient for his purposes. The only reason I can think of to add another story is that there was something going on the faith community that was reading John’s gospel that needed to be addressed – or there was something not going on that should have been going on, and because John’s gospel was read and respected in that same community, someone added another story to correct the situation. Someone added chapter 21.
So here’s what might be the second writer’s motive. We know from our study of the gnostic gospels that late in the second century, around 170 or 180 AD, roughly 100 years after John wrote his gospel, the majority of the Christian church was becoming much more structured and organized, especially around the authority of the bishops. The gnostics, who were active at this time, rejected the bishops and instead advocated for direct and personal connection with the Holy Spirit as their authority. By tradition, Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and was famously given the name “Petros” (Rocky) by Jesus who said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” All subsequent bishops can trace their consecration to Peter, known as “apostolic succession.”
The problem here is that by the end of John’s gospel, Peter is not looking so good. In the garden of Gethsemane he cuts off the ear of a servant and Jesus has to stop what he’s doing and heal the poor guy. Then in the high priest’s courtyard, standing around warming fires, he denies Jesus three time, “I do not know the man!” Later, Peter doesn’t even stick around to witness the crucifixion and death of his leader. John reports that only Mary, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” were present at this death. Three days later, the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint the body, find that Jesus’ corpse is missing; so, they run to tell Peter, who takes off for the tomb. He walks inside and sees the linen cloth. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” is right behind him, and John writes that he “sees and believes.” Even Thomas in chapter 20 “sees and believes” when confronted with the wounds of the risen Christ. John never reports that Peter “believes.”
So in order to strengthen the authority of the bishops in a church that is rapidly consolidating into a coherent order, Peter’s image needs a makeover. And chapter 21 is more than happy to oblige. There is the charcoal fire on the lakeshore, reminiscent of the warming fires the night when Jesus is tried. But the previous three denials are now countered with three affirmations: “you know that I love you. You know that I love you. You know that I love you.” After these affirmations, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep,” a directive for this future bishop of Rome and by extension to all future bishops. The bishops feed the flock, and no one else! Take that you gnostic heretics!
I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about gnostic heretics in 2019. It may have been a very big deal back in 170, but currently it remains their concern and not ours. So even if this story was inserted to cast Peter in a more favorable light, there are elements here that speak to us today. So let me finish by commenting, not on Peter’s character, but on the setting of this story. It is after the resurrection and Peter along with six other disciples have returned home to Galilee, where it all started, and have taken up their former profession of fishing. They take their boat out at night, in the darkness, casting their nets on the left side of the boat, which turns out to be the wrong side, and consequently they catch nothing. As day breaks, in the full light of day, a stranger on the shore instructs them to cast their nets on the right side, and they haul in an abundant catch, overwhelming, reminiscent of the feeding of the multitudes, or six water jars filled with the best wine, more than what is needed. Clearly, this is a sign that Peter should give up fishing, for God has other work for him to do. Jesus, a stranger no longer, tells him to feed the flock, and to follow him.
When we experience resurrection our lives are supposed to change. We aren’t supposed to retreat back into our pre-resurrection ways. The resurrection is not just for Jesus. When you deny yourself. When you take up your cross daily, and when you follow him, it will lead you to a death – and from a faithful death, God will raise you to a new life.
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
And don’t think that resurrection only refers to what happens when our mortal bodies die. The resurrected life is now. It is the constant goal of the Christian way. Come out of the darkness and into the full brightness of day. Cast your net on the right side, and haul in the abundance of God’s grace and mercy and love.
In Christ’s name, Amen.