We have just heard another, very familiar resurrection account from John’s Gospel. John tells us this was the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples. It was actually the fourth time: John omits Jesus’ very first encounter with Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning. It would be good to think that we’ve made a bit of progress since then!
This gospel reading is so evocative. If you stay with the passage for a while you can hear the slap of the waves on the boat, the excited shouts as the fishermen try to haul in the huge catch of fish. You can see the texture of the gritty charcoal fire on the sandy beach, and smell the smoke and lovely smell of cooking fish and warming bread. You can see John’s humour – not something we often discuss in relation to the Bible: Peter, in his excitement, putting on his clothes and then jumping out of the boat, presumably reaching the shore completely soaked. And then shortly afterwards, when Jesus asks for some more fish to cook, Peter drags the whole net along the beach – all 153 fish. And the sorrow and forgiveness mingling in the question and answer session – Peter, do you love me. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
John is a brilliant storyteller. Things we overlook when we read his Gospel in chunks, are the repetitions and reappearances that make the story whole. Here, in this passage, a charcoal fire and a cold, wet Peter are brought together again. Of course, the last time Peter warmed himself by the fire was in the courtyard of the high priest on the night of Jesus’ trial. On that occasion, Peter denies Jesus three times, just as Peter states his love for Jesus three times in today’s passage. We often overlook the fire though: in the story that John tells, it’s like a marker, saying ‘let’s start again’ which says ‘God always offers us another chance’, ‘with God we can always start again’. Peter started again several times, this funny, impetuous man. From a very wobbly start he became the rock on which the church was built – the church of which we are still members today.
It’s easy for us to be a bit hard on Peter. A lot was asked of him, including, at the end, to be crucified like his friend – except he chose to be crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to be tortured and killed like Jesus was. In today’s passage he was, effectively, asked to undertake a complete change in his career, from fisherman to shepherd, from dragging a huge net of 153 fish out of the water and along the beach, to being the shepherd of the Jesus’ flock. Even if this career change is metaphorical, Peter’s new role meant learning whole new skills – and this took a lot of courage. It would have been easier to Peter to remain a fisherman – either out on a boat or as an evangelist and missioner. Both these roles are to do with ‘bringing in’ – fish or people. But here, in John’s Gospel, Peter is given a more tender and pastoral role – to tend and feed the flock of those who come to follow Jesus.
These two roles or evangelist and pastor are still central in today’s church. These days, with the church in serious decline, the focus is much more on the mission and evangelism than on the caring and pastoral. But both are important, and one doesn’t work without the other. Peter was given the role of pastor, of caring, or leading the flock to green pastures. Others did the work of bringing people in, of fishing for men, as our older versions of the Bible said.
I looked up the word ‘feed’ in my Greek bible, which I have to confess I found in a rather dusty state. What exactly did Jesus mean by ‘feed’? Was it to do with the daily task of providing meals? Or maybe to do with spiritual sustenance?
Actually, 2 words are used. Twice Jesus uses the word for ‘grazing’ and once the word for ‘shepherding’. It took me straight back to Psalm 23 – the shepherd who leads his flock to green pastures and still waters. There’s a sense of abundance here – the long, green grass of spring and a contented flock of sheep munching away happily.
Of course Jesus also fed people their daily bread. That breaking of bread and fish intentionally takes us back to the feeding of the five thousand, the surplus of fish and bread once again provided by Jesus. It is easy to be cynical and asks why Jesus doesn’t still do that today for those who are hungry and thirsty. If God is so good, why do we still have famine? Here I return to the grazing sheep. God still provides abundance – there is plenty of food for everyone. But the system, of which we are a part, gives more and more to fewer and fewer people, while less and less is given to more and more humans. So, currently, half the land in England is owned by 1% of its population. Or how about this for a statistic: in 2018 the 26 richest people on earth had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, some 3.8 billion people.
From today’s reading I think we can surmise that this isn’t how God intended it to be. Jesus spent his ministry with those who were becoming increasingly poor and landless at the hands of the Roman state. He made himself very unpopular with those who were benefiting from this shift in wealth from the poor to the rich, whether that was the Roman state or the temple hierarchy and others who colluded with them.
I am delighted that we, at St Oswald’s, show such generosity in our donations to the food bank. I’m also delighted that we enjoy ourselves so much, sharing cake or having breakfast together at our new breakfast club. It’s easy to forget that these, are some of good things that Jesus intended for us – green pastures, shared meals, abundance. Holy Communion is, of course, central – but it isn’t the only sharing of food that Jesus showed us. The Quakers understand every meal to be Holy Communion, and there is some truth in that, I think. Companions are, literally, those who share bread together. So let us share in God’s abundance. But let us not forget those whose pastures are not fertile and green – those who are hungry, landless, voiceless, lonely, forgotten. Like Peter, our concern must be for them. May we too, find it in ourselves to make God’s abundance available to all people. Amen