He’s got our back

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21:1-19

By Emily Rowell Brown


If you’re anything like me, today’s gospel sounded curiously familiar, but you couldn’t place quite why it set off such déjà-vu.  Jesus feeding the disciples fish on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias seems similar to Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish in that same place.[1]  Cana, the hometown of one disciple, recalls the site of Jesus’ very first sign, turning water into wine, at the wedding.  That the disciples do not initially recognize Jesus hardly surprises us, since the disciples are always slow to catch on, but this instance is a subtly altered repeat of the resurrected Jesus’ other appearances to a confused Mary, who mistakes him for a gardener, and to Thomas, who demanded proof that the Jesus who had been raised was the Jesus who had been crucified.  And John never tires of likening God’s people to sheep, and Jesus’ commission to Peter to tend the sheep sounds like Jesus’ Good Shepherd teaching.[2]

But what may be most resonant of all is the exchange between Jesus and Peter, which again happens in “threes.”  We recall how Peter denied that he was Jesus’ disciple before the cock’s crow preceding Jesus’ crucifixion, just as Jesus had predicted.[3]   Three times accusers asked whether Peter followed Jesus, and three times Peter protested.  This was not the answer Jesus wanted, but Jesus refuses to give up on Peter.  Here, post-resurrection, he questions whether Peter loves him, and this time, Peter answers affirmatively.  But Jesus does not merely ask once.  He asks again.  And again.  (If we’re counting, that makes three.)  And every single time, Jesus’ response is not a “good” or “that’s the right answer” or “thank you” but a charge.  “If you love me,” Jesus says, “then you will feed my sheep.”

In other words, loving Jesus is about discipleship.  Jesus’ repetition of the instruction to tend the flock hammers home the implication that faith in Jesus requires not merely a profession of words but action.  We’ve heard it before: Love God by loving others.

While Peter may feel reticent to accept Jesus’ vote of confidence in him, Jesus does not send him off aimlessly or without provision.  Notice what happens before Peter and Jesus’ conversation: Jesus feeds him.  Even at their final meeting with Jesus, the disciples still cannot catch fish on their own.  In one sense, the reality is discouraging: have they made no progress, have they learned nothing, over the course of their time with Jesus and one another?  Yet the deeper point rests in their utter reliance on Jesus.  They need Jesus–they show up confused, broken, hungry, not always even sure why or of what they have need–and Jesus provides.  Always.

This story is an apt metaphor for what happens to us when we come together as church or seek Jesus in our own lives.  We show up here– some of us Sunday after Sunday, some of us on those occasions we can manage to get everyone’s hair and teeth brushed on time without murdering a fellow family member in the process–and Jesus feeds us: in the bread and wine of communion, in the caring faces of our community, in the inspiring examples of those we feel privileged to call brothers and sisters in faith.

Jesus takes the fear of those like Simon Peter, who retreats to his work in avoidance of Jesus, afraid to look his friend in the eye again after failing him; the fear of those like our fellow citizens, who worry about the security and political stability of our country and world; and the fear of those perhaps like you or me, who question whether they are measuring up and succeeding in their work and relationships, and Jesus absorbs it.  He alleviates fear by feeding us, by directing us to an abundant supply of all that which will nourish us, by calmly inviting us to come sit down by the fire with him and have breakfast.  It will all be okay, he whispers into our ears.  I’ve got you.

This image of Jesus as a parent teaching a child to ride a bike readily comes to mind.  The child so wants to ride the two-wheeled bicycle and seize the freedom that it offers: the ability to explore the greater neighborhood, to meet friends, and to develop independence and claim agency.  Yet the child is nonetheless scared.  It is not a question of whether she will fall but when, and she tentatively climbs and shuffles on the bike with a sense of impending doom.  The parent holds on to the back seat and helps her to gain balance and confidence, and offers guidance and advice, but the time comes when the parent must let go.  And the child pedals and pedals and glides, almost as though floating on the road, until she falls.  She cries and yells, and her parent embraces her, holding her close, until the child feels safe again and not so afraid.  But the child cannot stay in the parent’s arms forever; she must go out again.

So is true for us.  We cannot stay in the warmth and security of Jesus’ outstretched arms (or, for that matter, in the beauty and comfort of our churches) forever, cocooned off from the challenges and adventures and sometimes threats of the world.  It is telling that John’s gospel–all the gospels, for that matter–ends not with Jesus but with Jesus’ followers.  If the climax of our faith is Jesus’ glorification through his crucifixion and resurrection, the resolution is Jesus’ commission to the followers to carry on the mission, to keep on building the kingdom.  We are nearing John’s final words to us (only six verses follow today’s gospel text), and he leaves us with momentum, a push to go out and to ride that bike, to be disciples.

One of my professors in divinity school is a scholar of John’s gospel, and the book she wrote about the Fourth Evangelist’s characters she entitled Imperfect Believers, which says everything we need to know.  Jesus’ followers then–the disciples–and followers now–among which we include ourselves–serve Jesus imperfectly.  We will stumble, we will fail to see and understand how and when and where God is working, we will shut Jesus out.  But this is the body of people whom Jesus has chosen–imperfect believers.  He believes quite perfectly in us.

It is because he has poured such love into feeding and sustaining us that we can go out, strengthened, encouraged, endorsed, knowing that Jesus has always got our back.


[1] John 6:1-14

[2] John 10:14

[3] John 18:27