What do you do after the resurrection?
"I'm going fishing," said Simon Peter.
"I'm going to teach my class," said Barbara.
Either way, it's back to work. Simon Peter in the boat, me in the classroom, you wherever you were - in the car, in the kitchen, in the office, in the barn. (And if you're a pastor and took the week after Easter off, that's over now.)
Why would Simon Peter go fishing just days after Jesus' resurrection? Why after Jesus had appeared to the disciples saying "Peace be with you"? Why would Nathanael go? (He was from the hill country, we have no evidence that Nathanael was ever a fisherman. Or Thomas, the twin for that matter.) Hadn't Jesus just showed Thomas his wounded hands and invited him to touch the place where the spear had been? "My Lord my God!" Thomas exclaimed.
Thomas should be out preaching not fishing!
Why is the story here at all? John's gospel has already ended with chapter 20. Listen to these words.
"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in Jesus name." (John 20:30-31) That's the end. Close the book.
But it isn't the end. After the conclusion, after saying that there are many other signs not written in this book, the evangelist writes more in the book! (Or someone added it after the beloved disciple ended his story - it doesn't matter... here it is.)
"After these things, Jesus showed himself again." After all was said and done. After everything was written that needed to be written. A postscript, another chapter and another ending. Why did they leave both endings in? Surely a scribe, someone from John's school of disciples could have cleaned that up long ago.
Oh this is the wonder of the Bible. Everything isn't cleaned up. It's not tidy. For years, I worried about this untidiness - now I delight in it. This is the Spirit's work.
Two creation stories ~ no attempt to fit them together, and we learn important things from each one even though we may be confused.
Two songs of victory at the Red Sea, one long, the other short, one sung first by Miriam, the other by Moses ~ and Miriam's little song stubbornly refused to be silenced.
Two completely nativity stories, one with shepherds and angels, the other with magi and a star ~ would you want to give up either one?
Two endings to the Gospel of John
And the last ending sounds more like a beginning. Well, doesn't it? We hear the story with a strange sense of deja vu ~ haven't we been here before? The disciples fished all night and caught nothing. At dawn, Jesus appears on the shore (but they don't know him.) "Children, you have no fish, have you?" (Clearly, Jesus already knows the answer and so do we.) "No," they shout back over the water. "Cast your nets to the right side of the boat and you will find some."
I know what will happen next don't you? They'll throw out the net and soon it will be filled with fish, so full they can barely haul it in. We know the story, but it shouldn't be here at the end. It belongs at the beginning when Jesus first called Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee from their boats.
Indeed, that's where the story comes in Luke's gospel. But not in John. In John it's in the postscript. Later on in this twenty-first chapter, Jesus will turn to Simon Peter and say, "Follow me" ~ as though for the first time. Twice, Jesus will say it. "Follow me," as though Simon Peter was just beginning the journey. Follow me in the Postscript.
For postscript does not mean after though after all. Imagine that you have gone away on a long trip, two or three weeks or longer away from home, and you write a letter to someone you love. You write about what you've been doing; about all the things you've seen - majestic mountains, exciting cities, concerts and plays, or perhaps you write about business meetings and long days; then "P.S. I miss you more than I can say."
The postscript is essential. It is surely as important as the mountains and the marketplaces and the meetings. You wouldn't have sent the letter without that P.S.
We yearn for this postscript word for we live in post-times; post Christendom, post-Enlightenment, post-modem. (We're not even sure what all those "post-times" mean but we have a sense it means that all the important things are over. Our age is called "The information Age" -- but will we know when we slip into the post-information age?) Whatever "post" means, suspect that whatever happened before was better, more certain, and more godly than what is happening now.
It is hard to live in the postscript. It's no wonder that people look to the new millennium only two years off, longing for answers beyond the confines and confusion of this earth. It's hard to take heart when everything is past tense. Jesus knew it would be so, before he died, when he sat at the table with his disciples for the last time. Jesus told them, "I will not leave you orphaned, I will come to you." A bit later he said, "Those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." Jesus is present in the postscript. Jesus came after the story ended. He came to Galilee ~ the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus broke bread with his disciples and gave them fish to eat. In John's gospel Jesus had been to this sea only one other time ~ when he fed five thousand people with bread and fish. There were twelve baskets left over then. Maybe Jesus gave the disciples some of the left-overs. "Come and have breakfast," he said. No one asked where he got the fish or how he got from Jerusalem to Galilee or who he was. They knew it was the Lord.
We could speculate forever about the exact meaning of every piece of the postscript story. Who bothered to count out 153 fish? And is there any secret meaning to that number? (St. Augustine's answer wasn't bad, "It's a mystery.") You might see it as 153 new members for your congregation ~ wouldn't that be something. This story has long been interpreted as a call to evangelism; a great catch of fish and the net is not torn. Does that mean the Church is big enough for everybody?
All of these possibilities are tantalizing, and some are even helpful. But we can get so caught up in counting fish that we miss the surprise of Jesus coming into the postscript of this gospel and into our postscript lives in 1998. We are hungry for a story that will hold us when modem and post-modem have failed. The poet, Stephen Dunn, writes about this deep yearning. In the poem he speaks as a father who has taken his little daughter to summer arts and crafts at a Methodist Church ~ but he didn't count on her learning stories and songs about Jesus. He admits that he had long ago given up believing. He and his wife had made a decision to be post-Christian, but now he's not so sure. Listen to his words:
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming.
Perhaps the little girl will bring Jesus' invitation in the postscript of her father's life. Who knows? He may stop relying on answers which explain things but do not hold him. "I didn't have a wonderful story for my child and she was beaming." He didn't have a wonderful story for himself either.
"I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus said, "I will come to you." So it was that after all was said and done, after the book was closed, after our minds were made up one way or the other, Jesus came to the lake shore. "It is the Lord!" the beloved disciple shouted from the boat.
"It is the Lord," I whispered a year ago at Easter Time. It was the last Easter I would spend in the little congregation I had served for over sixteen years ~ 153 new members would have doubled our size! We gathered in the darkened sanctuary to light the first fire of Easter. After the Vigil readings, we formed a circle of candlelight around the baptismal font and around the two women who came forward to be baptized. The Church had never been part of their lives, but they had loved music and for almost a year they had been singing in our church choir. During the days of Lent they had been part of a Journey Group, hearing God's story, asking questions, struggling with uncertainty. (It was though they had heard Jesus say, "Cast the net on the other side of the boat. I know you've been trying all night, but look it's morning.") Now they stood at the font, two grown women both thirty-something who had spent a lifetime without church.
"Do you desire to be baptized?"
"I do," each of them said in turn.
Those in the larger circle joined them in proclaiming the ancient creed. Then the water mingled with the word and they were baptized. by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus had come once again into the postscript.
What are you going to do now, after the resurrection?
"Come and have breakfast."