Text: John 21:1-19
“Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it” (Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow).
Followers follow. Scot McKnight says it’s simple, but I wonder. It may be simple but that does not mean it is easy. Take these first followers of Jesus. In chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus stands among them – more than once – bearing witness to God’s ability to turn the world right side up. In this epilogue, which was clearly added to John’s original later, we find those first followers busily bringing the Beloved Community into being, right? Well, not exactly. It seems they’ve made their way back to Galilee, left the big city and all its challenges behind them. They’re back home, just sitting around, apparently at loose ends.
In chapter 20, Jesus has offered them peace, shalom, well-being, the breath of the Spirit, the power to forgive and retain sins, even. Something significant has been given to them and yet they are not clear about what comes next. What exactly does it mean to follow the risen Christ? Hmmm. I don’t know. “Let’s go fishing.” “Yeah, that seems like a plan. Let’s go.”
Now admittedly fishing can have its meditative moments. Sitting in a boat, on a quiet lake, waiting for the fish to bite can provide time and space for contemplation. “Yes, we agreed to follow. We want to follow. Followers follow, but just where is it you want us to go?”
It’s a long, silent night on the lake. No fish, not even a nibble. Well, yes, there are nights like this. Fishing takes patience, no doubt. But now the eastern sky is showing the first faint signs of sunrise. There is a tinge of pink spreading through the clouds on the far horizon. Time to call it a night and wait for a better day, right?
But there, there on the beach is a shadowy figure. He is waving, asking that infernal question no fisherman likes to hear or answer on a night like this. “How’s it going?” the voice skims the calm surface of the lake. “Caught anything?” “No, not tonight. They’re just not biting.” “Why don’t you give it one more try, over on the right side of the boat?” Who does this character think he is, telling us how to fish this lake? We’ve been out here all our lives. On nights when they don’t bite, there comes a time when the fishing is futile. Pack it in and head for shore.
But for some strange reason, on this night they decide to humor the stranger on the beach. Maybe they’re just trying to be nice. Maybe there is something compelling in his tone of voice. Maybe he hooks the fisherman’s eternal hope that just one more cast will bring in the big one. Whatever their reasoning, they cast the net on the right side. The catch is so significant it threatens to swamp the boat.
It’s that disciple called the “one whom Jesus loves,” that disciple who seems to be more finely tuned to the master’s voice, who first floats the idea that it is Jesus, once more standing among them. Peter, fumbling with his tunic, leaps into the water and starts swimming for shore, in an act of ecstatic impulse at the thought of seeing Jesus once more.
One compelling thing about the story telling in John’s Gospel is the richness of these tales in curious detail. There are seven of the original 12 there. (Where are the others?) It’s apparently important to remember that Thomas is a twin and that Nathanael comes from Cana. Peter is fishing in his underwear, stripped for the hard labor of the night. They are only 100 yards from the beach. They catch 153 large fish. (Who knows the significance of this exact number?) Even with such a large catch, the net holds, it does not tear. Then there is Jesus, standing next to a cook fire, a charcoal fire to be precise, preparing fish and bread for breakfast. Details unnecessary, perhaps, but surely enriching the story.
Those first followers are both sure and not quite sure who he is. It’s again that early morning half-light that keeps things shadowy and unclear. Yet, the voice and the power of the presence are undeniably his. They have learned from Thomas’s challenge that it is better not to question the miracle of his appearance. And then, like Cleopas and his companion in Emmaus, they have that powerful sense of remembrance in the breaking of bread, the sharing of a simple meal. Didn’t our hearts burn within us? Don’t you just know when you’re in the presence of the risen Christ?
Pity poor Peter…so eager to greet Jesus, impatiently rushing to his side, hoping that all has been forgiven or at least forgotten in these blessed moments that they have together. But after breakfast it’s time to talk. Jesus and Peter stroll down the beach. They stop by a large rock. Jesus leans against the rock and Peter squats down at his feet. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” The question pierces Peter. All is not forgotten. Is it also not forgiven? “He calls me Simon. That’s my old name. He has withdrawn his affirmation of me as the Rock.”
The painful memories come flooding back, Peter, standing in the courtyard of the High Priest on that fateful night. That woman, guarding the gate, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” “I am not.” Followers follow. It’s simple but not easy. That night they were gathered around another charcoal fire, warming themselves. “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” “I am not.” Such a simple thing to follow and so hard. “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” “No, damn it. I’ve told you, it wasn’t me.” The piercing crow of the cock and the scalding tears.
Do I love him? “Oh yes, yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” The words come tumbling from his mouth. He is so eager, desperate in his desire to be in the teacher’s good graces again. “How can I make it up to him? How can I convince that I really do love him?”
Some moments of silence and again the voice, so terrifying in its gently aching inquiry, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” The ache moves back and forth between the two friends. These are necessary and painful moments for restoring a trust betrayed. Peter cannot look up. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” uttered with that lingering fear that Jesus does not know for certain the extent or even the existence of Peter’s love.
More silence. Then a third time, the same searching question, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” The tears brim in Peter’s eyes, the lump in his throat causes the words to catch there, the pain is palpable, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Followers follow, so simple, so difficult. “Lord, I want to be more loving…Lord, I want to be like Jesus…Lord, I want to be a Christian, in-a my heart.” Yes, but outside your heart, in the real, tough world, when you’re standing in the High Priest’s courtyard, warming yourself at his fire, being challenged to tell the truth, what then Peter? Not so easy, is it?
“But Simon, son of John, I need you. I need you to feed my lambs, to tend my sheep. I need you to be Peter, the rock on which I can establish the Beloved Community of God. I need to know I can depend on the depth and breadth of your love for me both to live inside and manifest on the outside of you. Follow me, Peter. Can you simply follow me?”
“Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers.” But here’s the catch. Here’s where it gets hard. It’s not enough to want to be like Jesus in your heart. “To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it.”
The risen Christ stands among us, bearing witness to God’s ability to turn the world right side up and offering us the same peace, shalom, well-being, along with the breath and power of the Spirit, that was offered the first followers. Are we any more ready, any more willing than they to accept these gifts and follow, to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules and love shapes everything? Are we any better than Peter at speaking truth to power and living out our love and allegiance to the Lord of all life? Do we find ourselves any more busily bringing the Beloved Community into being than those first followers? Or are we, too, sitting around, at loose ends, waiting for the next miraculous appearance or a few more signs and wonders?
Can you hear the call today, echoing down the ages, so simple, so challenging, “Follow me.” Will you heed the call? accept the challenge? walk the way? bear faithful witness? Followers follow…it’s that simple and that difficult. What about you…and me?