Charcoal Fires, 153 fish, and Discipleship: A Sermon for 3 Easter C, 2022

3 Easter

May 1, 2022

Friends, I love this gospel story. It’s full of fascinating details that invite speculation. There’s the 153 fish—what a strange number! I’m sure you can imagine how much has been written about the significance of that number. There’s the detail that apparently Peter was fishing in the nude and put on clothes in order to swim to shore. There’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Strange to begin with, but even stranger when you consider that Jesus uses two different words for love in the questions he asks Peter—again, think about how much has been written about that!

There’s more to puzzle over. For one thing, this whole chapter seems like an addition to the gospel. Chapter 20 ends with a beautiful summation that sounds like the perfect way to end a gospel: 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.

Then, it’s like, “Oh, I forgot. I gotta tell you this other amazing thing that happened! 

I don’t know whether it’s a later addition. If it is, it is carefully written to connect this story, this resurrection appearance, with the rest of the gospel. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. Nathaniel is mentioned here. The only other time he’s mentioned is in chapter 1, when Jesus calls several of the disciples. There’s the charcoal fire; mentioned here and in chapter 18. There’s a charcoal fire in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s to them, and is the location of Peter’s third denial  of Jesus, when he hears the cock crow. 

I would like to pause and reflect on the significance of the confluence of those two things. With Nathaniel, we are drawn back to the original story of the calling of the disciples. In John’s gospel, the location of that initial call is not clear. All we know is that Jesus is walking. We may conclude because of the presence of John the Baptist in the story, that these calls are meant to be taking place in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. The disciples mentioned are not quite the same. Several are unnamed in chapter 21; there are the sons of Zebedee, who are not mentioned in Chapter 1; and Simon Peter, who like Nathaniel, is mentioned in both places.

However, the presence of the Sons of Zebedee; and the location of the story in chapter 21, the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee bring us back to the story of the calling of the disciples in the synoptic gospels. There, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, working in their fishing boats.

What I’m getting at here, is that this story is about call and discipleship as much as it is about the appearance of the Risen Christ. Simon Peter, at that other charcoal fire, denied Jesus and turned away from following him. Now, at this charcoal fire, he is called again. As he denied Jesus three times, now Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and then gives him a task or responsibility, to feed his sheep. After the third question and answer, and an allusion to Peter’s martyrdom, Jesus commands him, “Follow me!”

But perhaps the most significant parallel has to do with the location—the Sea of Tiberias or Sea of Galilee. It’s mentioned here, and in chapter 6; where it is the site of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. And it’s a similar meal on both occasions: bread and fish. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the jumping off point for Jesus’ great discourse on the bread, an extended reflection on the meaning of the bread of the Eucharist, Jesus as the Bread of Life. Jesus says there: 

When we think of Christ’s resurrection or the presence of the risen Christ, we tend to think of those gospel stories: of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ in the garden or the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples in the upper room. We tend to think of those spectacular events.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 

Or for another spectacular appearance of the Risen Christ, consider Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus; struck down, struck blind; transformed from a persecutor of the Gospel to an apostle of the Gospel. We may not consider Paul’s experience quite like those gospel stories. But Paul did. When he describes it in I Corinthians 15, at the end of his list of the appearances of the Risen Christ, Paul writes, “And last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, … but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Gathered around that charcoal fire, eating bread and fish; the disciples were in the presence of the Risen Christ. They might have wanted to linger over that meal, to enjoy being in his presence and being with each other, to rest after a long night’s work. 

But Jesus had other plans. He took Simon Peter aside and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, he said in response to Peter’s affirmation, “Feed my sheep.” Relationship with Christ, experience of the Risen Christ is not just about, or primarily about, our own spiritual experience, our own personal faith. It is about what we are called to do for others. To feed them, to offer them daily bread and the bread of life. 

But even more. It had never occurred to me before this week as I was preparing this sermon, and I don’t know how many times I have read this chapter; discussed in classes both as student and teacher. It had never occurred to me that in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ last words are to Peter, after he tells him to “Feed my sheep.” He says then, “Follow me.” He will say it again to him a few verses later, “Follow me.”

Think about it. Where was he going? In the synoptic gospels, of course, the story ends not with resurrection or resurrection appearances, but with Jesus’ final departure from his disciples, his ascension, to the right hand of God, as our creeds say. In the gospel of John, that’s not quite the case. Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” Follow me, away from here into the future, into the unkown.

Jesus says to us, Feed my sheep. He also says, “Follow me.” He is calling us to follow him, into the future, into the uncertainty of the world in which we live and into the world that is being made. He is telling us to follow him as disciples, making disciples. He is calling us to gather around charcoal fires and tables,, to encounter him in the breaking of the bread and in the community gathered. He is calling us to follow him, into the unknown, into the world. Let us heed his call and follow him.