What does it take to follow Jesus for life? We can look to the epilogue of the Gospel of John for some answers, I think.
It’s an amazing scene, truly. You can imagine it, I hope. Here’s a picture—even though it has receded so significantly in the
last several thousand years, and it’s filled with tourists now, I hear that if you venture to the right spot, you can still feel the serenity that Peter may have been seeking after his teacher, rabbi, and friend died. Peter may have been looking for a quiet place by the sea to mourn. He may have been trying to just get along with his life already. “I was a fisherman before. Now my friend, that I betrayed, is dead. I might as well go back to how things were. It’s gonna be awkward, but I’m just done.” The thought is, I was a believer in my youth, and now I want to do something practical: make some money, get a real job, catch some fish.
It’s hard to be a Christian into our adulthood. We usually have a few good years in us, then student loans pile up, our mortgage looms, our two-year-olds make us insane, and following Jesus seems so freaking impractical. Peter may have felt that way too.
There they are, out there, in the morning before the sun came up, it’s the best time to catch fish (they know exactly where to go too), and they don’t catch any. By the time dawn breaks, it really won’t happen. But it does. Jesus tells them where to go and they get the fish! You can rationalize this away in your faith. For example you could say people on the shore can see where the shoal is more than people on the boat do—but that’s not the point.
They have a huge catch, and they want to bring it in, but once Peter sees that Jesus is on the shore, he jumps out and runs to him.
Peter finally does things Jesus’ way and it works for him. If we expect to wade in the depths with Jesus, we need to follow him and heed his advice. Otherwise, we might toil all night and get nowhere.
When they get to the shore, they find Jesus already cooking. He already has fish. He doesn’t need more. We need him to get our fish. He doesn’t need to us to provide him with fish. He’s already eating breakfast. He may have provided 153 more fish for his disciples, but breakfast is already cooking. We don’t need to do all the work by ourselves. We are interdependent not with those in community, but with Jesus.
To keep our faith into our adulthood, we’ll need partners and we’ll need Jesus. If we try to do it on our own, it might not work. My advice is pretty simple: be a part of the community. Don’t legalistically reduce it down to making it to a cell each week or the PM—that’s a good start, but be a citizen with the rest of us, find God in his Body.
When we see God and know him, even in His body, we might be surprised. There is an unusual exchange that John records. He writes that the disciples wanted to ask Jesus who he was, but they already knew, and they were afraid, so they didn’t ask. How could they know and still want to know? Death and resurrection change Jesus. Here he is, in flesh form, eating, but different enough to make the disciples wonder.
Jesus surprises them. As we venture deeper with God, let us also prepare to be surprised. Anything can happen and God can show up in new ways. If we keep expecting God to show up in the ways like he used to, we may not grow. If doing the work of the church, the work specifically commissioned for us, gets boring, we may need to think if we are still wading with Jesus, we are still listening to him fill up our nets.
When Peter finally approaches Jesus, Jesus forgives Peter for his sin. For his betrayal. For sending him to the cross. For not standing up for him. For not believing Him!
But Jesus does more than forgives Peter, he invites Peter to do more. He asks him if he loves him three times, just like Peter denied him three times, and each time Peter says “yes.” Jesus’ response is simple: do my work, feed my lambs, feed my sheep, look after them.
The amazing thing here is that Peter’s betrayal, the guilt he feels about it, the sin he committed, is forgiven by what he allowed to happen. The Lamb was sacrificed and now Peter can be forgiven.
Jesus more than forgives Peter, he invites him into a fuller life. He is now an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd, swimming in deep waters, ready to catch fish and tend sheep. He has been through it all. He has been called. He says “yes” and moves with the Spirit. He has been following Jesus. He betrays him, and he returns forgiven. Peter is a great example of how we move into depth with Jesus. We receive the gift of salvation and forgiveness and we act. Jesus tells Peter to do his work, and also tells him that the whole thing may end in martyrdom. He swims deeply with Jesus, until he dies—really, until he drowns. But he’ll be resurrected like Jesus. Death looms, but death has been conquered. How dramatic!
Our story may not be like Peter’s. We may not have the kind of drama that he experiences, like John does not.
As Peter and Jesus are having their private conversation, the beloved disciple, who we think is John, who we also think wrote this book, is following them. Of course, Peter has to ask, “What about him?” Is he gonna die too? We’ve been doing this thing together for a long time, and now what?
John’s fate is much different than Peter’s—at least as far as we can tell. First of all, he’s probably a teenager when this is all happening, so his death probably isn’t as imminent. In fact, he’s the only disciple that observes Jesus’ death on the cross—probably because he doesn’t have a beard yet and he looks like a kid. But nevertheless, the Gospel of John is a book that took a lifetime to write. It’s the magnum opus of the apostle and it reads like it took a lifetime of pondering to produce. It’s deep enough for an elephant and shallow enough for a child. You can see the maturity that’s written into it. Compare that to the suffering Jesus in Mark, the Gospel historically thought to have been narrated by Peter. It is action-oriented, truncated, and fast-paced. John’s is slower. The Gospel of Mark runs to the shore to find Jesus. The Gospel of John stays back, and then follows.
Our deepest depths with Jesus in the water are not formulaic. They don’t necessarily match up. So I think you spend enough time with God, with his community, to figure out what your depth with him looks like. It won’t look like what came before, and it won’t be boring either.