With so much of life being untidy and imperfect, I appreciate an epilogue that brings a satisfying completeness to a complicated story. I’ll even settle for a couple of lines at the end of a movie: Jack’s fortunes were restored, his good name was cleared, and he lived to see many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which sounds peculiarly like a great Old Testament epilogue. Yes, the end of Job is a winner, but, as we might expect, everything is better once Jesus comes. The epilogue to John’s gospel is the best ever.
John seems to finish his gospel at the end of chapter 20, but at the urging of the Spirit – and perhaps with a little time afforded by older age and the incessant questions from inquiring minds – he brings everything together in such a way that you too will find it to be the best and most edifying epilogue ever. Throughout his gospel John tosses out intriguing themes and connections, but he rarely spells out his ingenious method. Instead, he is content to put us to work and let us figure some of it out. But, when we get to John 21, we can sit back and relax. Everything is clear.
Peter is the main character, and for good reason. After all, who doesn’t want to find out what happened to this inner-circle disciple who fell as hard as anyone possibly could? And our interest is not mere curiosity. Since we all have some of Peter in us, we are eager to see how far Jesus’ forgiveness actually extends. If it extended to him, it extends to us.
The epilogue starts in a very familiar way. John echoes the very beginning of Peter’s relationship with Jesus (Luke 5:4-11). Same lake, no success fishing, an incongruous request from Jesus, a ton of fish. But this time it is no idyllic scene. The last time Peter was fishing Jesus said, “from now on you will catch men” (Luke 5:11), and he hadn’t cast a net since. Now he was back fishing again. He was a man without a mission. At the beginning of this epilogue, Peter had to be thinking that Jesus’ invitation to catch men and women to be part of God’s Kingdom was no longer valid, so he went back to fishing for fish. When Jesus called out to Peter, “throw your net on the right side of the boat” (John 21:6) the nets were soon bursting at the seams, and the message was unmistakable: Peter, what are you waiting for? Get out and start fishing for men. Do you think sin can tinker with my purpose in your life? No way.
Great epilogue, isn’t it? Peter could not max out God’s gracious forgiveness with three blatant denials. For us, since three blatant denials equal or beat any of our own top three sins, God’s gracious forgiveness certainly extends to our worst sins. As a result, we are justified in hearing Jesus’ words as if they were his words to us. Better yet, it is one thing to be forgiven, but it something much more to be a fruitful partner in God’s plan for the world. We tend to think that we need to spend a few years in the doghouse after such a shameful display of sin. Well, that is not the case. Forgiveness, acceptance and re-commissioning are the way of the Kingdom.
But in case you have a hard time believing this, Jesus does more.
An invitation to a meal has always been a sign of fellowship and acceptance. The host is saying that all is well in the relationship with you. Now intensify that experience. For the New Testament Jew, eating together had near sacramental overtones. It was filled with the symbolism of unity and friendship. If you feel unworthy or unclean, your host responds by honoring your and making sure you are cleansed.
Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.”
The message again is unmistakable: Peter, you are cleansed. You are a friend. Please, join me. I love you.
And he says it to us too.
Too good to be true? Jesus keeps at it. He matches Peter’s three-fold denial with his three-fold commissioning, and he doesn’t even raise the shameful events of the past. Here is a prime moment for “I told you so”—how many times have I gone into a conversation in which I swore off the “I told you so” only to hear it come stumbling out of my mouth— but all Jesus does is stress his love, acceptance and partnership.
I talked to a man the other day who had been in the marriage dog house. Bad decisions, too many hours wasted in self-indulgence, a roommate more than a spouse – then, finally, after years of indifference to his wife’s pleas, he experienced real repentance. The only question: Was this too little too late? About a month into his changes, he heard his wife on the phone. She was making an appointment with a counselor, who happened to be me, and the husband interpreted that to mean counselor-at-law. He wasn’t angry, but saddened that this was the consequence of his old lifestyle. The marriage was over. When she hung up the phone, she sat down to give him the news. She had set up a time for counseling. It would be like a date. They could spend the morning together, go out for lunch, and top off the day with some biblical direction for their marriage. He witnessed John 21 in a modern-day form.
“Do you love me? Feed my sheep” Jesus is saying that Peter’s sin is in the distant and forgotten past, he loves Peter, and he is asking Peter to respond in kind. In this case, Peter’s love would take a particular form. He would adopt the mission of his Lord and King. Forgiveness and purpose – if you have one, you have the other.
John crams a lot more in this epilogue, but this is enough to leave a smile on my face. Sins forgiven, fellowship restored, and guaranteed fruitfulness in the best job ever. I still have a hard time believing that he gives us the entire package – forgiveness, fellowship and fruitfulness – even when my sin rivals that of Peter, yet my unbelief is nothing that a few more years of repentance can’t cure.
Lord, you said these things to Peter. You said them to me. I confess that I limit your words to the size of my own imagination. I believe you. I trust you. And, to respond to your question “Do you love me?” – yes, I love you.