Thoughts on John 21:1-19

This is a sermon I gave April 11, 2010 with the text of John 21:1-19

Jesus certainly knew how to pick the disciples who were to carry forward his ministry once he was absent from the earth.  The HR department of a large company would have said that Jesus did not have a clue about choosing adequate workers.   Take a look.

Seven disciples were recorded as being present at the encounter with Jesus at the lakeshore.  There was Simon, named Peter, who had a few days before sworn he never knew Jesus – out of fear that Jesus’ fate would befall him as well.  There was Thomas, who had doubted for a week the word of the others that they had seen Jesus alive. Then there was Nathaniel, who could not believe that a despised town in Galilee could produce the Messiah.  He said sarcastically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” 

Then there were James and John, who grasped at glory by asking Jesus, “When you come into your glory, let us sit at your left and right hand.”  They were also the ones who, faced with an inhospitable Samaritan town, eagerly asked Jesus, “Master, should we call down fire from heaven on them?” (As if they could.) There were two others who don’t even get named.

Having seen the resurrection of Christ, alive in such a different way that often they could not recognize him, they now went fishing.  Jesus found them in their work place.  (I had always thought this encounter took place on a Sunday, I guess because it is usually read on a Sunday in worship. The Bible does not say, but surely it was not a Sabbath.)  They had fished all night with no results.   They were at work – and it was not a good work day.  They were disappointed.  Not one fish.  And they did not know it was Jesus.

He told them, “Cast the net on the other side of the boat!” – something different from their usual habits.  The catch was great – 153 big fish — and the net did not break.  The beloved disciple recognized Jesus and said to his fellows, “It is the Lord!” 

I want to remind you that in this gospel the beloved disciple always represents us.  This book is a mirror where we hope to see ourselves.  Of course, sometimes we are like Simon and we deny Jesus, sometimes we are like Thomas and we doubt, sometimes we react with prejudice like Nathaniel, sometimes we are overly ambitious like the sons of Zebedee, or we hate those who mistreat us.

But at the best of times, we are reflected in the beloved disciple.  May God grant us, in the routine moments of our lives, to see Jesus and say, “It is the Lord!”

When they got to the beach, they found a fire going, with breakfast ready: a fish (barbecue?) and some bread.  As he did many times, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them, the fish as well.  This reminds us of the feeding of the 5,000, and also of the many times he broke bread at the table for his followers to share.

It also reminds us to the communion of bread and cup that the other evangelists mention at the last supper.  However, the fourth gospel does not mention bread and cup at that supper, though there are several chapters about that meal. 

The breakfast by the shore of Galilee is the communion meal in the fourth gospel.  Jesus breaks the bread and reminds us that in his entire ministry he shared food around tables with people that would have been excluded or not chosen for such a mission, with people who were forgotten and despised by society.   By the shore at this breakfast, he was with those who had failed him in great ways.  But he shared with them.

It’s believed that a tradition persisted in the early centuries of the church in which communion was not always bread and cup, but sometimes bread and fish, to remember this and many other encounters of Jesus with his followers. Maybe the Johannine community was one of those that celebrated in this way.  (We know that the fish was early on a symbol for the Christians, used in secret communication.)

Bread and fish, shared in an unlikely place – not an upper room, but on a simple beach.  What does this say to us today in the church?  If we are to see ourselves in the beloved disciple, what does this story say to us almost 2,000 years later?

We have to realize that the church companionship does not have to be in a church building.  We may be thankful for such a place, but it is not essential.  The church does not depend on a building.

The church does not have to meet on Sunday morning.  We can’t say, “If it’s not a Sunday service, then it’s not church.”  And the church does not have to look like a service of worship.

The great reformers of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries asked, “What are the essential marks or great ends of the church?”  They were asking the questions because in the midst of great change and confusion, they wanted to be able to identify the church.  One group responded that these marks or ends are:

  • The proclamation of the good news
  • The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Reign of God to the world


Many elements that we choose are not essential to being the church.  Some time ago, people said such things as, “It’s not a real church service if there’s no organ music.” People began to bring guitars. In Africa some said, “Drums are our musical instruments, and dance is our way of worshipping.”

The word of God can be lived out in many ways.  I do not say that we have to abandon all the forms we may have, but to be open to adding.  In this century an enormous change is coming to the church.  For the new generation of young adults, many things that previous generations in the church held as precious have little or no meaning.  And they see no reason why these things should matter.   The reality being lived by young adults today is far removed from that of 20 years ago, let alone 50. The forms of the church must change to meet the new needs.

The community of faith gathering – how and where and when?

The sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ — in what shape or form?

The response of people to this good news — mediated how?

Not long ago a church in Arizona had a great controversy. They wanted to welcome younger people.  So they tried to experiment with different kinds of music.  Musicians and leaders were brought in.  On some Sundays, worship was given over to music very different from what the previous members were used to.  Some complained that they had come to worship and that not a single song that day had meant anything to them.  They felt deprived.

The pastor explained how the traditional music of that church emphasized meaningful and detailed lyrics, much head knowledge, certain ways of singing and harmonizing. He noted that much of the new music being played appealed with rhythm and beat, and that the experience of worship was less head-oriented and more body-oriented for some.

Without judging, he pointed out that one was not better than the other, but simply that people respond to different things, and that each of these helps some people feel more connected to God.  Should we insist that our way is the only way?

It is not easy, and I repeat that we do not have to give up all that we have had in the past.  But let’s think of a parable.  I love my family.  I fight with some of my siblings, but we are family.  I identify with them.  But I am not going to say that someone else’s family has to be like my family in order to be a family.  I can’t force another family to be set up like mine, to act that same way. If I see another family, I recognize that it is a valid family.   To see that is not to despise my own family, but to realize that they are valid too.

The same goes for the church.  Within God’s creativity, there are infinite forms of being church, of seeking a spiritual path, of knowing God better, of seeking hope in the midst of such a hard world, of expressing oneself with others, of encouraging, of supporting, of strengthening through companionship, through the Spirit, through recognizing Jesus in our midst.

If there are so many ways of being church, how do we respond?  Since a year ago, our congregation has undertaken new forms of ministry.  We have recognized that at times when we are not finding any fish, we have to cast the net on another side and do things differently.  That’s why nearly a year ago I said to Ricardo Magallanes, “Would you open your store, Pueblito Latino, as a meeting place for a support group?”   He said, “Great!”

Someone looking at that group might say, “They’re not meeting in a church, they don’t sing hymns, they don’t read the Bible.  How can this be church?”   But there is spiritual movement within that group, and in other ways as well.

If we don’t see the results in a church building on Sunday morning at 11:00, what will we say?  That nothing is happening?  No.  There is ministry happening.  The net is cast in a different place, and it is filling up.  Jesus said, “The Reign of God is like a net cast into the sea, which was filled with many different kinds of fish.”  Fish with different forms, different shapes, different histories, different ways of being – they are all in the same net.  That’s the Reign of God.

We may say, “We would like to meet these people.”   There are ways to do that.  We can host events that bring people together. One idea was a meal.  Just think – that gathering around tables was much of Jesus’ ministry.   He did not do a lot on the Sabbath or in synagogues.  Mostly he was out during the week, sharing with people of all types, of different beliefs, different social groups, meeting around tables.

The essence of ministry is in the words that Jesus repeats three times to Peter: “If you love me, feed my sheep.”   These words remind us of another passage in the fourth gospel, where Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”  They are still his sheep.  Feed these sheep, and those, too.

And finally, Jesus had some difficult words for Peter, and for us: “Another will dress you and take you where you will not be willing to go.”  We will have to walk in faith, in a place where we had no plans to go, a place that we had not thought of.  But we will have to go there.   Another will lead us.

Jesus did not say who would lead us.  We tend to take this as someone hostile to us, someone who would harm us.  But maybe this one who will lead us is the Spirit.  Maybe that “other” will be the risen Christ.   Maybe the power and presence of God would be what took Peter to another place, a new place, a place that would feel like death.

If the church is going to continue reaching out in this century, some things will have to be left behind.  They may practices or attitudes. They will have to change.  It will not be an easy road, but it is the discipline of following Jesus.

He assured Peter, and he assures us, “you will glorify God in your death.”  When we let go of our control and our way of doing things, when we allow our major mission to be feeding the sheep, casting the net in different places, seeking new ways to carry out the mission of the gospel, we allow something to die.   

Then there is a promise, spoken to us beside the Sea of Galilee 2,000 years ago:  After that death, there is a resurrection to new life.  After that death, you will live again –a life transformed by the One who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”


4 Responses to “Thoughts on John 21:1-19”

  1. William Poehner Says:

    Thanks for posting Daniel, it was good to get a refresher from the morning. There are times that my mind travels during the service and I really enjoyed coming back and reflecting.
    Big hug,

  2. manuel Says:

    I appreciated the opportunity to read this, Daniel. There are many parts of this sermon that stirred my thinking, none more than your analogy of a church to a family, where other families do not have to be like mine in order to be a valid family. Rituals have their place, but how often we confuse a certain mode of doing things with the only authentic way!
    Mil gracias.

  3. guadalupe magdaleno Says:

    Daniel, este es un sermon con una gran verdad. yo creo que hay muchas maneras de servir a Dios y no todas tienen que ser desde la seguridad de una iglesia, nosotros estamos viviendo una era de terror en esta cuidad y sin embargo salimos a predicar el evangelio a los parques y colonias ya sea con propaganda o con conciertos para los jovenes porque si esperamos a que ellos se acerquen a la iglesia tal vez no lo hagan. Quiera Dios que este nuevo enfoque sirva para que mas almas tengan la oportunidad de conocer la Palabra.
    gracias por pensar en mi y mandarme la predicacion, espero seguir recibiendolas.-lupe magdaleno

    • grumble87106 Says:

      Es admirable el tener el valor de salir as cuando la situacin es tan precaria. En esta nueva poca, la Iglesia va a tener muchas formas. El prximo sbado voy a tener el gusto de comentar sobre esto en una ctedra en la junta anual de la Conferencia, en un taller que se titular “How do you say “Emergent Church” in Spanish?”



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