So, do you think it was Tuesday or Wednesday after the Resurrection on Sunday when Peter – tired, weary, confused and perhaps even a bit bored – slapped his hand on the table in that upper room and said, “I’m going fishing”?
Like a periodic comet, this gospel passage from the 21st chapter of John orbits around only once every three years in the lectionary. It waits patiently until the third Sunday of Easter to appear, swiftly moving past all of the controversy that surrounds it.
Controversy? In the gospels? You bet. It wouldn’t be the gospel without it. Scholars have long debated whether or not the powerful scene in this gospel chapter is authentic; indeed, whether or not this 21st Chapter of John’s Gospel was appended at the end – written by another hand.
Whether or not that is true, what we know is that the Gospel of John has always included Chapter 21. In other words, while it may not have been part of the original Gospel, it is a crucial element of our Gospel – the Church’s Gospel – of John.
I am glad for it. It makes me move past my annoyance at the attempt to tidy up the images of Peter – who gets to counter the three times of betrayal of Jesus with three assertions of love for Jesus – and John himself, who gets to subtly and humbly boast that he is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Scholars have also long debated when Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” whether or not he was saying, “To heck with it. My job as a disciple is over. I’m going back to my old life as a fisherman.”
Or, whether he is symbolically declaring his intention to perform ministry, going on a fishing venture for the Realm of God.
It hardly matters whether or not Peter is headed for the bait shop or the seminary. He is, as yet, unengaged by the power and possibility of the resurrection.
Peter, like so many of us, is so hungry that he is past the point of even knowing how hungry he is. He thinks he’s hungry for a return to normalcy – hungry for the simple things of life – a steady job, a nice home, a good family, food on the table and a roof over his head.
He wants a return to the status quo.
He has no idea how raw and naked he really is. His ears are deaf to the low, constant grumble in his soul – how empty and hollow one is left after eating the bread of anxiety. He has no idea how his heart longs to be fed by gospel food.
I think that sort of sums up the way some of us feel after Easter. By the third Sunday of Easter, the left over ham or lamb has all been consumed, the Easter baskets empty, the new Easter shoes scuffed.
Even the Madonna Easter lilies are brown and drooped.
Our Easter joy has circled back to normalcy – to the status quo – tucked neatly away for another year, even as we continue to hear the stories of the miracles of the early, ancient church.
And yet, we are hungry and our hunger makes us restless and uneasy and anxious. You can feel it when conversations get round to the vote on the school budget on April 20th. There’s an unmistakable edge to the discussions that threatens relationships and friendships.
The old “insider/outsider” dynamic that often marks little towns like this threatens to become the invisible fault line, causing a damaging earthquake in the landscape of relationships.
As I listen, both sides seem to agree on one point – but they would never concede that agreement to each other. That point is about scarcity of resources and a desire to return to the status quo.
Where sides differ is how to allocate those resources.
Both sides seem to have important points to make. It seems to me, as the ‘ultimate outsider’ in this community, that both sides seem to think they have – or at least are on – the ‘right side’.
Jesus said something interesting to the disciples about fishing from the ‘right side’. We often hear that passage as Jesus telling them to fish from the ‘right’ vs. the ‘left’ side of the boat. But, we don’t know if Jesus was talking from the bow or the stern – whether he meant port or starboard.
He said, ‘right’, which leads me to think what he was really saying was that they had been fishing from the ‘wrong’ side of the boat.
I think part of what fuels the temperature of the debate about the school budget, as I have heard it discussed, is an anxiety about who is right and what is wrong. What causes the heat to rise to an even greater level is the anxiety about scarcity of resources.
That’s not much different from the mood in that boat in the ancient Sea of Galilee, so many centuries ago. It’s not that there isn’t abundance. It’s that we need help to find it. The vote on the 20th will not end the debate or solve the problem. Not really.
The story is so much more than a vote – a win or a loss. Either way, the larger story of this community will circle back to find us, until we are able to find God’s abundance in the world and learn how to be creative, just and fair with it.
John 21 ends not with closure but with astonishing abundance. The author tells us that Jesus did so many things, were all of them to be recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (21:25). This whole story – the entire of the 21st Chapter of John – is a narrative of abundance.
It is the story of an Easter Jesus who will not allow the narrative of God and of the world to come to an artificial, status quo ending.
This is a Jesus who keeps calling and feeding and loving and filling the world with wonder and grace – so much so that the world would run out of paper before it could all be written down.
This is a Jesus who is calling us past our comfort levels, and our need for nice, neat, tidy endings, who circles round again like a comet in orbit to move us out of our boredom or complacency or stasis or anxiety to more fully engage ourselves, our lives – our hearts, souls, minds and bodies – with the power and possibility of the resurrection.
So, I want to close by offering you an untidy story of Thomas, a Presbyterian colleague of mine, and the time in his life when his mother was dying in an inpatient Hospice.
Thomas and his family gathered daily at her bedside, caressing her tenderly, telling her over and over of their love. They cracked jokes and retold old family stories. They sang hymns, prayed and read psalms to her. She responded, he said, as best she could, smiling faintly at the stories and jokes, telling them she loved them too, speaking in a soft, hoarse whisper, which was all the voice she had left after a hospital breathing tube had wounded her vocal cords.
Almost every day, Thomas said, she would beckon one of her children close to her face and mouth with the words, “I’m hungry.”
She had a feeding tube and the nurses were giving her all of the broth and pureed food her frail and failing system could handle, and yet, she said, day after day, “I’m hungry.”
As you can imagine, this was quite upsetting to Thomas and his family, even though the hospice staff assured them that her body, which was gradually shutting down, could no longer feel ordinary physical hunger pangs.
One day, near the end of her life, Thomas came into her room and found her restless.
He asked, “What’s wrong? Are you hungry?”
“Very,” she whispered.
Thomas said he felt anxious and helpless, not knowing what to do. Had he been able to spend all of his money – indeed, his very last dollar – on her favorite foods he would have ordered them up right then and there to be brought to her room.
He tried to feed her some soft food. She took a few very small bites then shook her head. No more.
Suddenly, he said, it dawned on him. “I’m hungry” was her way of describing the totality of her circumstance. She was not asking for food.
She was saying that everything was slipping away, her personal history was closing down, coming to an end. Her days of breath and food and light and family and the touch of love were ebbing, and she was hungry, hungry for more, hungry for the life being taken away from her . . . very hungry.
Thomas says that a few weeks after his mother’s death, in the midst of trying to resume normalcy and return to status quo, this passage from John’s gospel circled back, found him and hit him – hard! – in the center of his soul which was hungry – starved! – for the power and the promise of the resurrection.
He said he saw the power and the promise of this story that undermines closure, this gospel of unceasing abundance that will not allow itself to be resolved by returning to the world that once was.
Here – in this story, as well as in the story of his mother’s death – was the reason the world could not hold the books telling of Jesus’ deeds – because Jesus keeps on doing them, doing them ceaselessly, doing them every day, doing them in our lives.
Thomas had stood besides his mother’s grave “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” but now he could see it more clearly, could see his mother plunging into the waters of death and coming up on that distant shore, where Jesus is waiting with a charcoal fire and fish and bread, waiting with the abundance of new life – Eternal Life.
“Are you hungry?” Thomas could hear Jesus asking his mother.
“Very,” his mother surely responded. “Very.”
I think we’re all very hungry for the power and the promise of the resurrection. Indeed, I think we’re all searching desperately for it – uncertain of what to do.
Me? I’m going fishing.