The Harry Potter film series was pretty well done. Even though purists might balk at this, I found that every departure from the books in the film versions was an intelligent move and wonderfully improved upon the at-times convoluted plots.
I was shocked, therefore, to come to the end of the The Deathly Hallows only to find that they simply couldn’t leave well enough alone- they had to include the Epilogue. Even purists generally agree that the Epilogue was completely unnecessary and, well, a waste of time. But there Harry and Ron and Hermione are at the train stop, bidding the little wizards and witches farewell.
The Lord of Rings trilogy suffered a similar shortcoming, not necessarily because of a bad epilogue, but rather because of having so many epilogues. Every time you thought a fade to black meant the house lights would come back up, all of sudden another ten minutes of movie had to play.
The Gospel of John is probably my favorite of the Gospels, if one can have such a thing, and I must admit to always kind of skipping over the epilogue, for two reasons.
Firstly, um, Resurrection. What better ending to a Gospel than that? Let the Ascension close it out tastefully and wrap it up.
Secondly, John seems to pull a Peter Jackson, in that after the appearances to the disciples he pretty much goes into wrap-up mode with this:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Poignant, pithy- like I said, wrapping-up stuff. One would be forgiven for expecting the house lights to turn on.
But as you turn the page, all of a sudden you are watching hobbits cry as Frodo sails off into the distance.
I must confess a general ambivalence towards the story of the miraculous catch of fish. It’s not that it’s not interesting, but it has always felt like a bit of a let down, as if John is just drawing the story out to fill up a pre-defined word count.
I am obviously exaggerating, but I still have never paid much attention to the story. The reinstatement of Peter is more usual fodder for sermons and teaching, so I am pretty familiar with that and why it is important, but the catch of fish still escapes me. However, since one might expect that John has some personal reason for including it, and the Holy Spirit a more supernatural reason for the same, I find that I must treat it as more than a tiresome epilogue.
I’d Rather Be Fishing
Following the Resurrection, Jesus has already appeared to the disciples two times. The first time they are locked in a room, fearful for their lives. The second time is similar, only Thomas is there as well. Given that they seemed to think there was some danger even after a couple weeks had passed, it is somewhat surprising that Peter decides to go fishing.
The strange thing is that if they thought people were out to get them, the last place one would want to go is back to one’s previous occupation. (Although I guess that’s what happened in The Fugitive.) But Peter is either tired of sitting around and wants to fish, or there may be other things at play.
It might be remembered that he was adamant about being willing to suffer for Jesus, but when push came to shove he ended up denying Jesus three times. Is going out to fish- going to the place where he knows people who wish him harm would be watching for him- a way of trying to make up for the failure, to prove his love for Jesus after all?
Further, while John does not include the statement of Peter being called to be a ‘fisher of men,’ such a tradition would not have been absent in his readers’ understanding. Peter was also the one to whom Jesus gave the keys, the rock on which he would build his church. Is this going out to fish meant by John to be a double meaning, in that Peter is trying to kick-start the ministry with which he has been entrusted?
While all fishermen have their good days and bad, John makes a point of mentioning that they didn’t catch anything at all. This whole excursion- potentially fraught with danger- has been for naught. Suddenly a stranger on the shore (perhaps an informant?) starts asking them about their luck with the nets. Their terse response (perhaps to get the stranger to leave) only invites fishing suggestions, in that he tells them to let down the net on the right side.
The amazing thing is that even though they have no idea who this person is, they decide to comply. Perhaps a night of wasted effort couldn’t get any worse for trying.
Of course, once they do they suddenly get more than they bargained for, as they now have so many fish that they had to drag the net back to shore. Who was their stranger who knows so much about fishing?
It could be that they are so used to Jesus appearing through walls that most of them do not recognize who it is- Maybe beginner’s luck or a veteran who knows these waters better than they do. But John has a contemplative streak about him and is not one to just take events at face value. This catch of fish is not just one like the thousands of others- there is something about it which reeks (more than the fish!) of the supernatural. It has the fingerprint of Jesus on it.
John- who wrote about the Word of life whom he has seen and heard and touched- is always looking for Jesus, and as such recognizes him even in the mundane aspects of life. But the mystical life cannot be closed in on itself- such a recognition of the Lord demands it be shared, a motivation John mentioned only sentences earlier as precipitating his Gospel.
Peter may be blind, but he isn’t deaf. For all his failings, he truly loves Jesus and wants to be near him, even though he recognizes in himself the bitter fruits of his own wickedness and weakness. Just as he ran to the tomb when the women said that Jesus had risen, so now he jumps into the water when John tells him that Jesus is on the shore.
But John includes an interesting tidbit about Peter’s clothing- evidently Peter was in his skivvies, perhaps even stark naked. Hot sun on the lake and all that. We might be tempted to pass this off as an interesting yet meaningless detail, but we must remember that John is looking for the divine in everything, even in catching fish.
Nakedness in the scriptures naturally brings us back to the garden, where man stands before God in perfect innocence and fellowship. But this nakedness, which once was a source of transparency and union, is- under sin’s curse- a source of shame.
We find here a recapitulation of God strolling in the garden in the cool of the eve, looking for Adam after his fall. Peter has had a fall of his own, and in the bitter tears of regret exchanged, like Adam before him, the Truth for the serpent’s fruit. Adam would be the father of the human race, Peter the father of the church. In this crucial moment time stands still to see how far love has broken into the world, to reveal the final justification of the resurrection and the reconciliation of God and man.
Hiding in Your Clothes
Peter faces a mountain of disappointed loves and desires, incredible failures and sickening woes. Everything he swore he was was shown to be nothing, like ashes blown from the barrel fires of denial. But in this pivotal instant, he chooses to go to Jesus, rather than to try and hide. The residual shame still clings to him like the clothes he wraps around himself, but at least he is going to Jesus, not hiding in the figs and hoping God won’t notice.
For all of Peter’s weakness, he has one thing going for him- he always runs back to Jesus.
Peter gets to shore, with the other disciples following behind. Once there, Jesus asks for some fish. In typical fashion Peter goes and drags the net full of fish onto the shore by himself!
John clearly intends some deeper meaning here, for earlier it was impossible for all of them to pull it into the boat. But now Peter can pull it onto the shore without it tearing.
From all of this narrative we can begin to see a pattern emerging. Peter leads the others out to fish, but they don’t catch anything until Jesus tells them where to fish. They try to haul the net on board, but they can’t until Jesus tells them to.
Peter is learning that he must learn to wait for Jesus, to wait for his timing and not Peter’s. Before his denial Peter impetuously promised undying fidelity, but it was not to be granted him yet, even over-against his protests. In fact, the deepening of his resolve only led into utter disaster.
Peter is the rock, but not simply because of himself but rather because of Jesus. Peter is always wanting to get to Jesus, but in doing so he must be careful to not get out ahead of him. Doing so is the place of the devil.
After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and begins to ask him about love. Many commentators have noticed the differing uses of love, but there is also another angle. Jesus specifically asks him if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples do. It should be remembered that earlier Peter rashly proclaimed that even if everyone else denied him, he wouldn’t.
He even said he would give his life.
But Peter has seen the fruits of trying to be the greatest in the kingdom, of proclaiming a strength he does not have of himself, of trying to pretend he knows more than Jesus. And now he has seen that others have been able to recognize Jesus before him- the women at the tomb had the honor of seeing him first, and now John can see him even in fish, the one thing that Peter knew more than anything.
Peter is finally beginning to see that his love for Jesus cannot be about the grand ideas of kingdoms or the petty squabbling of personal politics or even the misguided understanding of his own nature. Rather, loving Jesus comes down to the very real and very personal question of if he will finally submit all of himself to Jesus, if he will be the greatest by being the least and feeding the sheep.
It is as if Adam is standing before God again, covering his nakedness and feeling his shame. But Peter is done with hiding, and in humility he finally is able to confess his love not in the blazing fires of a glorious martyrdom or the adulation of his friends, but in a quiet conversation in the morning over fish. Peter’s hurt at Jesus’ insistence reveals both his shame and his inadequacy, but more so it lays him bare so that he knows that, yes, he truly does love Jesus, even though it hasn’t seemed that way. Jesus hasn’t given up on him yet, but is now getting ready to send him into the glorious adventure he was longing for all along.
Peter’s reinstatement concludes with Jesus reminding him once again to be the least so that he may be the greatest. His time will come- the blazing glory of martyrdom will be his eventually- but he must wait for it. In the boat he dressed himself to meet Jesus, unready to fully face Love itself in the full fury of its purity, but one day he will be ready, finding that the draw of that love ultimately becomes something irresistible. The physical ramifications will be a gruesome death, but Peter has also learned to listen to John, who can recognize Jesus even in a catch of fish.
If there, why not on the cross?
When Peter will finally stretch out his hands, it will culminate the act of surrender that has begun here on the shoreline, as the waves and breakers crash over each other and the din of their rushing underscores the movement of love that is happening here. Peter is coming to peace with Jesus and with himself, finally realizing that the ultimate love is not in the grand words nor in the great acts nor even in what others’ think or what their task is, but only in following wherever love leads.
Peter’s decision then and there to follow Jesus is what made him the rock on which the church is built.
What better epilogue could there be?