Not every appearance of Jesus after his resurrection was recorded. But the ones that were offer rich fruit for our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of the Risen Christ.
Today we gather two important insights from John’s final account of Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection. The first has to do with the interplay between the world of work and the world of the Gospel. The second has to do with the transformation that occurs in Peter’s heart as he learns to follow Jesus, in the wake of his personal experience of infidelity.
Let’s set the scene. It’s John’s Gospel. The final chapter. Chapter 21. Jesus has already risen. He has appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. He has appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He has also appeared to the disciples, gathered together in the upper room, in the place where they regularly meet in Jerusalem. Now, he appears to them again along the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, another name for the Sea of Galilee.
Here is how the scene unfolds.
Peter, James, John, Thomas, Nathanael, and two other disciples were together. Peter speaks up.
“I am going fishing.”
The others respond promptly: “We will come with you.”
The Gospel Life and the World of Work
There is a detail here that we ought not miss. A cursory understanding of the Gospels might cause us to think that Peter, James and John had definitively left or given away their boats after Jesus originally called them to follow him (See Mk 1:18-20, Mt. 4:20-22, Lk 5:11). But here we see Peter speaking of fishing as though it is still a trade and a function that is familiar to him. He speaks of it as a natural thing. We can assume that it is still his trade, and the trade of the other disciples. It’s clearly how they get food. We might also assume it is still how they generate an income.
We can think this because we know that Paul, though an ardent evangelist, also labored for his income. He was a tentmaker even as he traveled town to town proclaiming the Gospel. Priscilla and Aquila, that admirable husband and wife evangelical team who worked with Paul, also worked as tentmakers (see Acts 18:2-3). So it’s reasonable to assume that the disciples in our story maintained their “day jobs” as fishermen. And that, in this scene, they were engaged in practical work. It was day to day life.
So let’s look closely. They fished all night that night. They caught nothing. They were freshly faced, in other words, with the experience of their limits. Seasoned fisherman, they were given a taste of the desert, of fruitlessness, of a night where human endeavors fail to produce the desired outcome.
This is important to note because it is in this moment that Jesus appears to them. As dawn breaks, and the disciples return from the deep waters, Jesus stands on the shore, he whom their hearts love. But their eyes were not capable of recognizing him. The risen Jesus stood within view, but they failed to see that this was Jesus.
He was within earshot of the boat. They were likely pulling into shore at the end of their fishing efforts. He calls out to them: “Children.”
Jesus calls seven grown men children. That’s a detail worth noting.
“Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
No, they answer.
“Cast your net over the right side of the boat and you will find something,” Jesus replies.
They do so. And there they fall upon such an abundance of fish they can’t even haul the net in.
John, the beloved disciple, now sees. He is often the first one to perceive the invisible beneath the veil of the visible. He says to Peter:
“It is the Lord.”
Peter well knows, by this point, that John has a gift of spiritual insight. So John’s word is enough to convince him. He stands up in the boat, tucks in his garment and leaps off the side. His arms churn swiftly and carry him ashore. The other disciples follow in the boat.
As he tugged the net of fish to shore, Peter would no doubt have remembered the miraculous catch Jesus sparked when he first called them (see Luke 5:1-11). Indeed, this experience, as we will see, may be a kind of renewal of that first call, a renewal in the light of the Resurrection and in the light of Peter’s growing self-awareness.
When they set their feet upon solid ground, they see a charcoal fire already prepared. Jesus had preceded them. The fire was warm, the embers glowing. Fish were cooking. Bread was warming near the embers.
Jesus had no need of the fish the disciples caught but he asked them to bring some anyway. Simon, full of energy, went and dragged the net out of the boat. The very net several disciples had trouble hauling out of the lake just a few minutes earlier. A net full of 153 flopping fish: an image of abundance. A net bursting, yet not torn.
The Bread of Life in a Meal at Work
As the disciples came ashore, Jesus spoke:
“Come have breakfast.”
By this point they all knew who he was. So they drew near to the fire he had built.
There Jesus took the bread – λαμβάνει τὸν ἄρτον. These three words, lambanay ton arton – he took the bread – are a direct echo of John 6:11. There too John wrote: Jesus took the bread and gave it to his disciples. That scene in John 6, where Jesus multiplied bread and gave it to the crowd was a direct prefiguring and a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. What we see here is an echo of that mysterious meal where Jesus gives a bread that transmits divine life.
This fascinates me. We already know that Jesus made himself visible to the disciples at Emmaus, precisely in the act of taking bread, breaking it and giving it to his disciples. That’s how Luke tells the story in Luke 24:30-31. Here John tells a similar story in a different setting, also a meal. Clearly Jesus, here along the shore, is evoking the Eucharist. Sitting by a fire, gathered with his disciples, taking bread, giving it to them. He had just done this at the Last Supper a few days earlier. The disciples understand, in retrospect, that the bread Jesus gave was a fulfillment of the manna in the desert. They know that Jesus had called it his flesh more than once. That this was originally so shocking that many disciples had left when they heard it (See Jn 6:66). Nonetheless Jesus repeated the claim again – This is my body – at the Last Supper. They know that the disciples of Emmaus, on the day of the Resurrection, encountered Jesus and recognized him in the breaking of the bread. So now, here, risen before them, manifest in his power through the abundant catch, Jesus stands in their midst, before the fire, and gives them bread to eat. He does not need spell it out in all the details. They know what this bread is.
We, too, should know what this bread is. He has told us. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Jn 6:51. “This is my body, given for you.” Lk. 22:19
What strikes me about this scene is that Jesus brings the Eucharist – the gift of himself – right into the heart of human life and human labor. He appears to the disciples right in the midst of their work-place. He brings the Eucharist into the day to day. For Jesus, the Eucharist is not reserved only for Church. He brings this sacred experience out into life. Indeed, into the context of a meal and into the workplace. We know the early Church used to celebrate the Eucharist in the context of a meal, for this very reason. Today the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches have a formal and liturgical way of celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist. I don’t mean to question that. But we must see that, for the Emmaus disciples and these disciples along the shore, Jesus brings the Eucharist, the gift of himself, to his disciples, into the workplace, in the context of a meal. It’s an interesting detail to note. We shouldn’t lose this dimension.
The Transformation of Peter
But that’s not all that happens here. The disciples finish breakfast (John calls it a breakfast) and then Jesus draws Simon Peter into a path of deepened discipleship. This is the final point I want to make, for here we see the transformation of Peter’s heart.
After sharing the bread and the fish, Jesus calls Peter and addresses him by his birth name.
“Simon, son of John, do you agape me more than these?” I use the Greek version of this verb, agape, because it highlights a key distinction we can see when we consider Simon Peter’s reply.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you,” Peter replies.
Philo. In his reply, Peter uses a different verb than the verb Jesus used. I philo you, he says; whereas Jesus had said, Do you agape me more than these? Philo (which we use in Philadelphia, brotherly love) and agape are two different Greek verbs which we translate with the same English verb, to love. But agape and philo don’t mean the same thing. Agape denotes the full hearted, deeply generous, self-giving love of God; and of humans when we love with God’s love. Philo denotes the kind of affection we might have for a friend or a hobby. Agape is the highest form of the act of love. Philo is something beautiful but it is less than agape. You might say agape denotes the mature love of a spouse, while philo would be more appropriate to high school sweethearts.
Knowing this, let’s unpack this exchange and see what we can learn.
Jesus calls Peter “Simon, son of John.” That’s his birth name. He doesn’t call him Peter, the name Jesus gave him when he gave him his mission as an apostle. Jesus is doing something here. It’s as though he’s taking Peter back to his beginnings. Reminding him who he is and who he was as an important building block in his journey to become who he is called to be. Jesus is renewing Peter’s call. Just as he renewed the experience of the miraculous catch.
Simon, son of John, do you agape me more than these?
If Peter were in character, how would we expect him to reply here? Normally, he is so full of confidence. Overflowing, sometimes, to the point of bravado. Once he reprimanded Jesus, saying the cross did not befit his mission. Another time, he said he was ready to go his death alongside Jesus, though he betrayed him three times that very night.
But now Simon shows no bravado. He shows modesty, reserve, self-awareness. He defers completely to the master.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” It’s the image of understatement, coming from a man like Peter.
You know the way I love you, he seems to be saying. Peter makes no pretense of being a man of agape. He is saying, in essence, you know I am broken. You know I am not always faithful. I love you, yes, but I no longer pretend to be more than I am. You know the love that I have for you. That it is sincere but that it not-yet-love like you love. Not yet agape.
Peter is making a statement of love and humility. Because he has seen agape in act. He has watched Jesus manifest it. He knows it is beyond him.
Jesus tells Peter “Feed my lambs,” then repeats the question: “Simon, son of John, do you agape me?” Again Peter modestly replies, capable only of saying that he has philo for Jesus. Jesus repeats the call, with a slight variation: “Tend my sheep.”
A third time Jesus asks him, though now he changes the verb:
Simon, son of John, do you philo me? Philo. Not agape. Jesus has lowered his question to a level Peter is able to reach.
Three Affirmations in Place of Three Denials
Peter is pained. It grieves him that Jesus has asked him this question for a third time. Perhaps later he will realize something. That Jesus has asked him three times to affirm his love because in that way he gives Peter a path to suture the wound of his previous three denials.
In any event, Peter’s final reply is full of trust in Jesus; it is modest, born of genuine self-awareness, yet earnest in love:
“Lord you know everything. You know that I philo you.”
Jesus’ reply makes clear what he has been doing with this miraculous catch and with this triple question. He is calling Peter back to the beginning of his call. In a way, he enabling Peter to renew and deepen his vows of discipleship, the way one might renew one’s vows in marriage, the way one learns to love more deeply the longer one is married, the more one is called to love.
Jesus says, solemnly, “Amen, Amen I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Follow me. The very words Jesus addressed to Peter years ago, along the shore. The words which began their relationship.
So, to recap, we see here: A second miraculous catch. Three questions, in response to Peter’s three denials. And two powerful words – Follow me.
In this way, Jesus is calling Peter back to the beginning. It is, in a sense, a renewal of vows. Only now Peter knows himself better. Peter knows who Jesus is. The lamb of God. The suffering servant. The bread of life. The son of man. The son of the Father. The good shepherd. The source of living waters. The revelation of agape on earth.
Peter has become less in his own eyes. And Jesus looms larger. Peter has fallen but, from his fall, Jesus has lifted him up. So that Peter will know how to do the same for others. Just as Jesus had said to Peter on the night of his betrayal: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers.” Lk. 24:32.
It’s a wondrous transformation to behold. We rightly marvel that Jesus heals blindness, leprosy, paralysis. But here, with Peter, we are witnessing the transformation of a human heart. And the formation of the heart of a shepherd.
A Verse and a Prayer that Wrap this up.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jn. 21:16.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, you know my love for you is feeble. Yet I do love you. Form my heart after your heart, as you did for Simon Peter. Have mercy on me a sinner.