I was listening to the sermon on Sunday and my mind began to wander. We were looking at John 21, fairly standard stuff, not exactly an obscure passage. Usually we focus Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs and sometimes (if we’re lucky) we get to think about what that means.
And that’s all well and good. I’ve heard that sermon about… what, twenty times or so? I’m at the point where if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m probably not going to at all, you know? (If this all seems a bit too much “for me to know and you to agree that I probably haven’t gotten it and never will”, don’t worry, the navel-gazing ends here.)
This passage is all about echoes to me. The structure of it is very telling. The structure itself tells the story of what the passage is about. Everything in it refers back to something else that’s already happened.
The miracle itself is a retread. It clearly refers back to the previous miracle of the fishes. It’s an echo of something that’s already happened. The question is — why? Why does Jesus do this? Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is in control of what’s happening and he isn’t just caught up the current of events (a… safe assumption, right?). He isn’t reliving his greatest hits or accidentally reading the same page in his playbook. So he’s doing all this stuff with a purpose. What might that purpose be?
Well if we back up a tiny bit and look at John’s explicit purpose in writing his book, this all becomes clear:
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.
Isn’t this the purpose of Jesus speaking to Thomas as well? Of showing him his wounds?
John writes, more than any other gospel writer, to us. We need evidence. We need proof. We need the authentic Christ.
Whether or not you find this convincing… well, that’s up to you. It’s two thousand years later and the debate has evolved since then. Either way, you have to strip yourself of the chronological snobbery that insists these men who believed must have been hicks who had a fast one pulled on them. Jesus (and John) is interested in establishing himself as The Christ. He links his present glorified self with his previous mundane self by way of a continuity of miraculous activity. Here he has the same power to control nature, to step sideways from heaven into the fabric of spacetime and mess things up a bit.
This is a confrontational position. Common sense and received wisdom tell us the universe is a hermetically sealed box where every aberration can at claim at least some explanation. But this miracle isn’t the work of a cosmic clockmaker content to let the whole thing wind down in the other room: It speaks to a resurrected, present, and active Christ as the authentic Christ.
Of course, we’re not done with the echoes here. Jesus speaks to Peter in a way that echoes Peter’s own disavowal of Jesus. He asks him three times, an affirmation for each denial.
The content of what he tells Peter to do isn’t really the point, at least not for me right now. The structure is the point, the rhetorical point being made. Again, Jesus is concerned with authenticity. Jesus is pointing Peter in the opposite direction of his shame and cowardice, giving him a mission that he has to affirm three times.
It’s an amazing symmetry. It’s a sort of… turning around. The denial has been redeemed. The authentic Peter is not a Peter of denial. It is a Peter of affirmation. This affirmation then becomes a mission. And the mission itself echoes Jesus’ ministry: “Feed my lambs” gives Peter the mission of being a deputy-shepherd or shepherd-in-absentia.
The metaphor of echoes seems significant. I mean, I made it up, but it’s still kind of cool, because the echo of this affirmation keep going on down through the ages. It reached even me. I live inside that echo, as it were.
If John can do it, so can I: Here’s a coda. There’s a lot more to take out of this passage, a lot more that could be said. Echoes of the Eucharist, of the feeding of the 5000, talking about what it means to shepherd, of what it means to lay down your life for the sheep. Lots more. But we’ll have to wait for my mind to wander some more.