Christ is very careful with us. He knows how to shepherd hurting and discouraged souls. For an example, consider John 21. The gospel of John seems to come to a crescendo at the end of chapter 20. Thomas gets to give the great punchline of the book when he declares to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Then John seems to wrap things up at the end of the chapter. But then we get chapter 21.
John 21 does not really teach anything new about Jesus. The big themes of the gospel seem to have come to a conclusion, but still John adds this final chapter. Why? Probably because we need to focus on the disciples for a moment.
They were tired. Probably they were drained. Perhaps they were discouraged. Certainly they felt a bit down. The adrenaline of being in Jerusalem for the previous three weeks was gone and now they were coming to terms with being in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He was going back to heaven, and they would have to get used to this new life. So Peter went fishing, and six others went with him.
At least that was something he could do right, or so he probably thought. They caught nothing. And so begins a sequence of déjà vu’s designed to tenderly shepherd the hearts of these men.
Déjà vu #1: Calling – The man on the shore told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and suddenly they had an overwhelming catch of fish. Hang on, does this seem familiar? Didn’t this happen one time before, about three years before? It was in Luke 5. It was the point at which Christ called Peter and Andrew, as well as James and John, away from their fishing business and into the business of fishing for people. Now Jesus gently nudged them back on track with a careful reminder. “I called you to fish for people. Keep the focus.” He could have rebuked them, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.
Déjà vu #2: Provision – As they arrived on shore and sat down to enjoy breakfast, Jesus passed out the bread and fish. Hmm…hang on, is this familiar? Jesus providing bread and fish for everyone, besides the Sea of Galilee, maybe even in this very spot? That was in John 6 (and other places). Maybe Jesus was gently reminding them that as he had provided for their needs before, so he would continue to provide for them now. Keep trusting. He could have told them bluntly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.
Déjà vu #3: Purpose – Jesus works with us in groups, but also individually. As Peter walked up the beach he would not have struggled to recognize the relevance of a charcoal fire. There is only one other mentioned in John’s Gospel – the one where he had denied his Lord three times. Now Jesus was ready to talk things through with Peter. Actually, they would surely have talked about the matter on Easter Sunday, but now there were six other disciples needing to hear what Jesus had to say to Peter.
So began the famous conversation. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” It was a poignant and even painful question for one who has betrayed the Lord he loved. But Jesus tenderly reinstated Peter, making it clear for him and for us all, that even though he had failed, he was not finished. That is a message we all need to hear.
So Peter was not finished, but what was he called to do? Feed sheep, tend lambs, tend sheep – that is, to be about Jesus’ other great concern. Again Jesus nudged his disciples gently back toward the priority issues – fishing and feeding. That is what life is about for all who follow Jesus. We either fish for people, or support those that do. We either feed the sheep, or help those that do. It is a simple reminder of what matters to Jesus – people. How easily we forget, or get discouraged, or distracted. We are to keep giving ourselves to people ministry. Jesus could have commanded it harshly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.
And after the déjà vu came the future view. Peter had claimed to be ready to die for Jesus. In the strength of his own resolve he had lasted mere hours. Now Jesus told him that he would get that privilege, but it would be when he was old that he too would be stretched out to die.
How was Peter supposed to live with that knowledge? He had not made it through the night before, but now Jesus tells him that he will be martyred in his old age. Now things were different. Peter knew Peter just a little bit better. And Peter had a very simple instruction to bring him through these next decades toward death – he was to “follow me.” Simple.
But Peter was distracted by his lifelong friend who was walking along near them by this stage. So Peter asked about John. Jesus told Peter not to worry about him, but to stay focused – “you follow me.”
As we live our lives we are called to fish and feed. Some will be more fisher, others more feeder. Some will be more front line, others more supportive. And we are all called to follow faithfully. We may be on the Peter path, or we may be on the John path. Neither are easy. The Peter path of martyrdom is so intimidating that Jesus typically doesn’t give us decades of warning. But the John path of growing old, being alone, dying of “natural causes” – this is also uniquely challenging. The key to both is clear, “follow me.”
As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find our values reflect his, for we will be driven by giving ourselves to people – fishing and feeding. As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find ourselves following faithfully, all the way to the finish line that he ordains personally for us. Christian? Follow me.