A reflection on John 21:1-14 by a Carthusian Novice
Climbing over the hills the sun began to gentle the landscape teasing delicate tints and hues, hints of colour, out of the austere shadowland where they had been asleep. The see once more began to assume her living aspect as she responded ardently to the fingers of sunlight softly brushing across her undulating surface. With nothing but tiredness and aches to show for a long nights toil the Apostles would have sat in their dawn brightened boat reflecting wryly perhaps on the recent words their Master had spoken to them apart from me you can do nothing The beauty of watching day break across that Syrian Sea and their own beloved land perhaps provided some compensation for their strains strains and pains. It is of no moment just how often you have seen new day manifesting itself by land and sea. Each time seen it has a quality that entrances and enkindles hope in even the most cynical and world weary; amongst whose numbers the seven Apostles could never be counted. It may be that for a time they became wholly absorbed in watching the first dancing, sparkling encounters between cheerful sun and restless wave. If so they would have been oblivious to the man rising out of the shorelines shadows, leaving a small fire he had been tending and walking to where water and land were exchanging age old pleasantries.
Have you caught anything, friends?
His voice effortlessly crossed the distance separating them. The same voice that had once been heard with ease by thousand upon thousands of eager pilgrims. Had the seven known who it was that spoke with them then they would have considered it a fulfilment of David's prophetic words The voice of the Lord is heard over the waters (Psalm 28/9:3).
"No" they chorused back to him.
Cast to the right of the boat, and you will have a catch
Others might have wondered who this stranger was to give them orders. Not the Apostles though, not even John the Theologian. Led by the indefatigable Peter they immediately went into action. In doing so they justified the words their Master had once uttered-
Believe me, unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3)
How like children as yet unspoiled by the world it was to leap full tilt into deeds without thought or murmur simply because a stranger has asked them to. Even after they had recently seen of betrayal, abandonment, torture and death the seven were still the happy possessors of a guilelessness, an essential belief in the goodness of men, leading them on to trust and accept them. What a dreadful and truly evil thing it is to abuse such trustfulness freely offered by the innocent and childlike. One who does so walks thereafter in the shadow of the gates of Hell unless they should repent seeking forgiveness, reconciliation and conversion.
And now the net which had remained dispiritingly empty all night was overwhelmingly, unmanageably full. To the swift apprehensions of love that could mean only one thing. It is the Lord breather His beloved disciple. At that, pausing only to clothe his nakedness, Peter plunged into the sea. His burning longing to be by the side of his Master unable to contemplate the possibility of even a moments delay. In his account of the event John the Theologian has, in a few brief words, clearly sketched out the profound differences between the contemplative and the active ways of attaining the fullness of the presence of Jesus the Christ. The beloved disciple, however busy he might be with the practical things of the everyday world, is always in the inmost chamber of his heart deeply immersed in loving remembrance off and communion with his sweet, divine, Lord. So it is that he is always the the first to discern by inspired intuition the Masters presence whether in the flesh, as here by the Syrian Sea, or in the spirit. Having discerned Him what follows? He is content simply to gaze adoringly upon Him. In the simple exchange of loving glances between Master and beloved disciple all that needs to be said and done is said and done through silence and non-action. By contrast Peter is first and foremost the man of action, he gets things done. Sometimes perhaps it happens that he is so busied with doing things that he lets the 'why' of his actions fade in importance before the 'what' and the 'how'. His love for his Master, however, is so great that the merest whisper of the name of the Lord will bring about an instant change of direction and no obstacle on earth, or out of it, can keep him from plunging into the action of union and reunion.
Elsewhere in his Gospel account the Theologian, in a way which is striking in its psychological realism, never fails to to display this contrast between his own personality as the beloved disciple and that of St Peter. In his account of the Last Supper, for example, after Jesus predicts Believe me, he said, believe me, one of you is to betray me (John 13:21) Peter impelled by his need to do something motions to the beloved disciple, who was reclining next to the Lord, to to find out who the traitor is. Since the Christ of God can deny nothing to one who loves Him so much he indicates that Judas is to be his betrayer. Yet the beloved disciple is so absorbed in contemplating his Divine Master that he neither notices nor communicates this datum. When the son of Simon Iscariot went out into the darkness only he, Jesus and Satan knew why. Similarly during the Passion of the Lord once more impelled by the need to do something Peter rushes into enemy territory alone and unarmed. Once his impetuous urge has passed he finds himself standing by a charcoal fire surrounded by many who would gladly compass his death. Under the dominion of fear, understandable and very human fear, he then denies his Master three times. The beloved disciples way is very different, together with the mother of Jesus he stands at the foot of the cross sharing the agony beyond words of both the crucified one and Mary. As a consequence it was he and not Peter who was entrusted to the care of the women who was flesh of his Masters flesh and blood of his blood. For the one who can contemplate unflinchingly the rewards are great.
And now, on this Galilee morning, Peter's relentless activism carried him wet and shivering to the side of of the Risen Lord. There is no doubt that Jesus would have been touched by his disciples devotion, perhaps even a little amused. I imagine he would have smilingly urged Peter out of his wet things, perhaps covering him with his own cloak. And then the Prince of Apostles would find himself beside another charcoal fire, made by his Masters hands, to drive away the memory of that other charcoal fire made by the hands that crucified that same Master but could not destroy Him. To the other six Apostles remained the task of bringing the boat and its heavy laden nets to shore. They perhaps were not amused to lose their leader and moving spirit at precisely the time when his energy and drive would have been most useful. Being simple, kindly folk though it is likely enough that the mere sight of their delighted Master with his delighted disciple would have given them so much pleasure that unlike more sophisticated types they may have forgotten to grumble. Upon coming ashore they would immediately have seen and, more evocatively and inspiringly, smelt the breakfast that their Master was preparing for them. The scent of hot bread and grilling fish as it wafted over them would have been a cause of real joy, for they were hungry. It is a fact both real and symbolic that Jesus did not require the fish that the Apostles had caught in order to feed them. The Master feeds His own; Himself Alone, He feeds them. The fish already on land and the fish about to be hauled in also symbolise those who were already disciples and those who would become disciples through the labours of the Apostles obeying the words of Jesus.
There are some people, usually very learned and clever people, who maintain that facts can be either symbolic or they can be real but they cannot be both. Since the Christian scriptures contain many such symbolic facts these clever people go through them closely to separate the real from the symbolic as one separates sheep from goats. Having done this they can produce lists of 'things that might have really happened' and 'things that were made up by the authors to make a point'. They do not do this to prove people like John the Theologian liars, dear me no. What they want to suggest is that there are two kinds of truth, real truth about real things and 'faith truth' which people of faith use to describe their faith encounters. These faith events don't occur in real time and space but only within the heads of believers who then re-present them as if they were real time events as being the only way to explain them in a convincing fashion. The first category is unalterable objective fact, the second category is subjective, the experiences described as events are different for different people. This means that the 'faith truths' which are recorded in the Gospels which do not accord with the 'faith experiences' of the clever, list making people can be safely ignored. And that, very neatly, does away with the need to be crucified. You need to know that these clever, scholarly people could not be more wrong. And here is a real fact that you can stake your life on: Jesus is the Son of God, crucified in the flesh, died in the flesh, risen again in the flesh. If you believe in Him and on His name even though you should die yet will you live. Indeed there is none other name under heaven given to women and men whereby we must be saved.
To complete that morning breakfast the Lord asked for some of the fresh caught fish to be brought to him. Strange to relate this netted haul of fish which seven together could not haul into the boat was now brought ashore by Peter alone and unaided. Now, the scriptures to refer to food and its important effects quite often. For example in the history of the wars of Saul and David we see of Jonathan that reaching forward and dipping the end of his staff into a honeycomb, took a mouthful from his hand; whereupon his eyesight grew clearer at once (1 Samuel/1 Kings 14:27) And in Genesis it is recorded that Esau sold his inheritance to Jacob in exchange for a rather nice vegetarian casserole. (Gen 25:29-34). This turned out to be an important transaction since God later renamed Jacob as Israel and his descendants, the nation of Israel, still to this day claim that inheritance as their own. The young prophet Daniel and his teenage companions when in captivity in Babylon insisted on a purely vegetarian diet instead of the one provided by the King And- the ten days trial began; when it was over, never a one of the king's pensioners shewed healthy and well nourished as they (Daniel 1:15). The point, however, that the Theologian was drawing our attention to was not the revitalising effects of a bread and fish breakfast. Rather we should understand that Peter alone was able to accomplish what seven together could not because of the strength that comes from an encounter with the Risen Lord. Another of those facts which are both real and symbolic.
This episode recalls another much earlier one involving Simon before he was called Peter and some of the Apostles before they were called to be Apostles. They were all fishing (Luke 5:4-11) and on the advice of Jesus let down their nets at a particular place. They caught so many fish that their nets began to break. And here is yet another symbolic fact. The net represents the Old Covenant of the Jewish people and the Apostles prior to their calling by Jesus its adherents. The net broke and they were unable to cope with the catch because the old Law and righteousness by adherence to it were unable to meet the desire of God to save all the races and peoples of the world from the ruinous consequences of sin. Everything was transformed by the salvific death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The net described by John the Theologian represents this Good News about Jesus. In the hands of the Apostles, the men chosen by Christ as leaders and ministers of His Church it is now the a net which is strong enough to contain every nation and tribe and tongue and people (Rev 14:6).
The Evangelist is not known as John the Theologian for nothing. His Gospel account is carefully crafted and every word serves a purpose. It is no accident that he lets us know from the outset that this appearance was seen by seven witnesses. Perhaps he was anticipating the objections of those people who are to clever to accept that God intervenes directly into human history and can bring about events which are both real and symbolic. In any event for Jews of that epoch seven was a number with special significance. It indicated wholeness or completeness, seven was the perfect number for a body of witnesses whose testimony can put a case beyond doubt. We see this number appear in the very first part of the very first part of Scripture when God completes His work of creation on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). This led the Jews into having a seven day week with a mandatory rest day, we take the fact for granted nowadays but int the ancient world it was not so and the Jews were much mocked for their day of rest. When atoning for sin the priests of the Old Covenant sprinkled blood seven times before the Lord (Lev 4:6). Every seven years debts were forgiven (Dt 15:1) and slaves set free (Dt 15:12). When the Jews first entered the promised land the first city they captured, Jericho, fell into their hands after a seven day siege ended with them marching seven times around the city walls behind seven priests with seven trumpets (Jos 6). And the women of Bethlehem told Naomi that her foreign daughter in law Ruth was more wealth to her than seven sons (Ru4:15) meaning by that the perfect number of sons. Incidentally in ancient Israel where daughters were considered inferior to sons and foreigners very much inferior to Israelites it was an extraordinarily powerful compliment to Ruth to put her value above that of seven Israelite boys. To see how she earned this honour you should read the beautiful Book of Ruth which is only four chapters long.
John, therefore, cited this perfect number of witnesses so that his readers might believe his testimony and theirs. If we do so then we will surely come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing we will have life in and through His name.