Detail of illuminated page from John's Gospel

Notes on John 21 1-14

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, April 8 is John 21:1-14. Here are my notes on the text [plus some updated notes here; and some questions here]:

Contexts: This text is the first part of the final narrative in the gospel of John, which continues with a dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter on the beach. As such, it falls between the last words in [our] chapter 20,

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

and the last words of the gospel in chapter 21:

25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

So just from context, this text is in a suggestive position, after an invitation to the reader to believe, and before an acknowledgement that Jesus’ activity in the world is effectively limitless, which acts as something like an invitation to the readers to consider whether they don’t have a story of their own to add to the “many other things that Jesus did.” This positioning might have something to do with the surreal quality of the story itself.

Historically, the gospel of John is the latest of the gospels to have been written (from around the end of the 1st century), and is thought to have been associated with a distinctive community in the early Christian world, not the same one as that associated with the synoptic gospels. The important figures in the gospel of John are different from the people named in the stories in the synoptics; Thomas, Andrew and Nathanael all play bigger parts in John.

Saint John the Evangelist illumination
St. John the Evangelist

Detailed Analysis: The narrative structure of the story takes us from an introduction that tells us it’s a resurrection appearance (v1), through the set-up in vv2-3, and into an episode in which the disciples start out not knowing they are having an encounter with Jesus (v4) to their unanimous awareness that they’re having a meal with Jesus (vv12-13). It concludes with the observation that this is the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples – that is, the perfect number, the number of completion, of the risen Christ’s appearances to the gathered disciples in John’s gospel.

Other things to notice might be (1) the list of disciples: Nathanael is tied to Cana – we didn’t know this before (John 1:45-51); was Nathanael part of that wedding in Cana (John 2), that is all about baptism? Why are there only seven disciples instead of eleven, or an indeterminate number? Is it significant that seven is another perfect Biblical number? Why does John not mention the names of the other two disciples? We don’t know, but because we don’t know their names, it does make it easier for us contemporary readers to imagine ourselves as part of the scene.

(2) the fishing expedition in the first place, and its timing: Why does Simon Peter suddenly announce that he’s going fishing? Fishing is work for him, not just recreation. Maybe it is something like “the next thing,” the next thing that makes sense to do in the circumstances. They are fishing at night – in the dark – and “night” and “dark” in this book always seem to mean people don’t know what they’re doing, they are acting in ignorance. So maybe it should come as no surprise that they don’t catch any fish.

(3) Jesus is linked to light (“daybreak”) in v4, but the disciples still don’t have enough “light” (whether literal or symbolic) to recognize him: We don’t know why; maybe his use of the word “children” to address them is a clue – maybe he looks older than they are used to seeing him. So in this story, Jesus can be right in front of people who know him well and it can take them time – and something dramatic happening – for them to recognize him for who he is. It might matter that the word Jesus uses for “children” here is the same one that gives us our English word “pedagogy” – that is, children in the sense of young people who need to be and are being taught things.

(4) Jesus being there, and the disciples following Jesus’ instructions, makes a dramatic difference in the success of their efforts (v6): This provides enough “light” for the disciple that Jesus loved to recognize him as “the Lord” (v7).

(5) The behavior of Simon Peter and the other disciples, which seems significant, maybe because it is puzzling: The word that’s translated “naked” is the Greek word gymnos – he’s dressed, or rather undressed, for physical exertion, like an athletic competition, for which people would strip down in those days; most commentators seem to think minimally dressed. The others are “in the boat,” and according to one of my teachers, we are supposed to think of “the church” whenever we read “the boat” in the gospels. So perhaps we are meant to think of two different ways to exert oneself in the effort to reach the risen Christ – Peter’s way, of plunging into the sea, more out in front, and the others’ way, of keeping on rowing the boat and hauling in the fish … not that far behind, only “about 100 yards” from the beach. Simon Peter putting on more clothes before swimming to shore does not feel literal to a swim mom; although securing or “tying on” the clothes one has, as some have suggested, might.

A white-robed figure on the shore and two fishermen ankle deep in water and carrying fishing nets ...
Peter has been fishing a long time …

(6) The meal on the beach: Jesus is the host. It might make us think of communion: everyone present “knows it is the Lord” who is there. But it is definitely breakfast: the first meal of the working day, the food people get their energy from for the day. It seems that “some of the fish” the disciples have caught will be part of this meal, although that isn’t said explicitly. Do those fish represent something? Having grown up in a church where we sang “I will make you fishers of men,” fish in a net generally makes me think of “more people in church.” This might make the idea that the disciples are going to eat some of those fish a little creepy – or maybe not, considering our willingness to say “As this bread is Christ’s body for us, may we be the body of Christ for the world” as part of the liturgy, and considering our comfort with the idea that we nourish one another with our prayers, service, presence, etc. This idea might have encouraged a 1st century church community that saw itself as living under some pressure, which might have been the case for John’s community. And the net is not broken, which might just be another aspect of the miraculous nature of the event, but it might communicate the unity of the church as an ultimate reality, another encouraging idea.

Final Thoughts: This third resurrection appearance seems to round out the first two appearances in chapter 20. It might extend the presence of Jesus, the Lord, to those who will come to be part of the group gathered around Jesus, thanks to the disciples’ work. That work sometimes proceed rather obscurely, without visible results; but finally it proceeds more clearly, and with dramatic success, when it’s undertaken in the presence of Christ and according to Christ’s instructions. In either case, Jesus is near – just about 100 yards off, on the shore, with breakfast. And there are many more stories to be written.

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