Talk Is Cheap, Jump Out of the Boat
Today we read the breakfast on the beach, a surprisingly earthy and physical text for John to give us.
One way of describing the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, vs. John, the strange, outlier mystical gospel is that the synoptics tell us what Jesus did, and John tells us what Jesus means.
This text is rich with symbolism and meaning, so let’s explore it a bit.
First, we look at the numbers in the story.
The disciples, perhaps a bit overwhelmed with the recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, return to what they know best: fishing.
But remember what fishing symbolizes in the gospels: evangelism.
“Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” Jesus says.
And so the disciples fish all night, but they catch nothing. Without Jesus, their labors are in vain.
And then, in the morning, Jesus comes to them.
He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and suddenly it is near to breaking with the weight of the fish.
And John tells us exactly how many of them there were: 153.
153 was thought in those days to be the total number of species of fish that existed in the world, and Jesus had helped the disciples catch every single one of them.
This is meant to remind us that on our own, our evangelism efforts are fruitless, but with Jesus, we can touch the soul of every single person that we meet, by trusting in him and following his commandments.
153 is the first important number in this gospel, and 3 is the second important number.
Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and each time Peter says that he does. This of course is to counter and redeem Peter’s three denials of Jesus.
Peter insisted three separate times that he did not know Jesus, and here Jesus offers him three separate chances to find redemption, to center himself in the truth that Jesus is his greatest love, and proclaim it to the world.
Jesus constantly offers us this chance.
Jesus knows how often we deny him in our everyday lives, through small compromises of integrity or compassion or patience, and every time, he will ask us the question: “Do you love me?”
Every time we make a mistake, he offers us the chance to accept his redemption and forgiveness, to make our next action one of love, generosity, goodwill.
Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”, and each time we say yes, he says, “Feed my sheep.” That means, make the next action you take one of love to someone else.
We often think of this dialogue between Jesus and Peter as Peter’s moment of redemption. Peter first denied Jesus three times, and here he proclaims he loves Jesus three times.
But talk is cheap. Peter has proved that himself more than once.
I think Peter’s moment of redemption comes a bit earlier in this story.
I think Peter’s moment of redemption is when he leaps out of the boat.
Let me explain.
Consider how Peter must have been feeling that moment before Jesus showed up.
Jesus was actually probably the last person Peter wanted to see.
He has failed his friend and teacher comprehensively.
He denied him three times, disappointed him by cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave, proving he hadn’t understood anything Jesus was trying to teach him, and ran away and hid while Jesus was being crucified, not brave enough or strong enough to stay by his side.
Then he hid with the others in the Upper Room, and according to Luke, he and the others didn’t believe the women’s story of the resurrection, but called it an idle tale.
Peter has been put to the test, and Peter has failed with flying colors.
Think about the greatest regrets and failures of your life.
Look back on those moments—can you feel the cringing shame and aching remorse of having made the wrong choice, having given in to your own weakness and not being able to fix it?
This is how Peter felt.
And so he goes back to what he knows.
He goes out to fish, goes back to his old life before Jesus came. Maybe he crashed and burned as a disciple, but he can still be a good fisherman.
Except he’s not.
He and the others are out there all night and don’t catch anything.
If I were Peter, I would be crushed down with failure and guilt, and I know I wouldn’t be able to look Jesus in the eye when he showed up. In fact, I’d probably jump out of the other side of the boat and try to swim away.
When he sees Jesus, he is so overjoyed that he leaps into the water and swims ashore to get to him.
He can’t wait for them to row the boat back in, he has to get to Jesus right now.
Can you see how remarkable this is? How counter to how we would expect Peter to behave?
We would expect him to hide his face, and blush with shame, and hang back at the edge of the group, hoping Jesus doesn’t notice him and remember the awful things he has done.
But Peter rushes toward Jesus with all of his strength, and this reaction of faith and trust, this bone deep knowledge of Peter’s that Jesus will accept him and love him and cherish him—to me, this display is the moment of Peter’s redemption.
When he jumps into that water and takes off toward Jesus as fast as he can, he shows, once and for all, that he has been transformed by Jesus.
Even though he struggles to get the right words out of his mouth, even though he screws up again and again, even though he stumbles and falls over and over, at his heart, he knows Jesus loves him and will always love him.
He does not hesitate for an instant.
And so we know that underneath Peter’s mixed-up exterior is the heart of a man redeemed and changed by God.
He has a diamond-hard core of truth at his center that knows that Jesus loves him, no matter what.
That is what we need.
That is what we should pray for and open ourselves to finding within ourselves: a truth that must lie deeper than anything else in our lives.
It is the final foundation of our world.
It is more real than gravity, more real than the passing of time, more real than death.
Underneath every superficial shame and triumph, underneath the passing identities that we swap on and off like so many masks, what is most real about us is the truth that Jesus loves us.
And the more we live into that reality, the more likely we are to be like Peter.
This is the person Jesus chooses to build his church on: Peter, who after the greatest shame and failure of his entire life, rushes to Jesus to embrace him, utterly confident that Jesus will receive him with love.
This is what we’re searching for.
This is what we’re doing here.
And let me tell you what happens when you really start to know that Jesus loves you.
All those superficial failures and successes start to mean less and less.
You are no longer so elated by the approval of others and cast down by their dislike or disagreement.
Getting gold stars doesn’t matter anymore, and falling flat on your face no longer cripples you with shame and remorse.
Because you know that the truth lies deeper than all of that, and the truth is that you are Jesus’ true love.
Do you hear me? You are Jesus’ true love.
Remember the last time Peter came out on the water to Jesus?
Jesus came walking toward them on the sea in the storm.
At that point, Peter was still trying to be a “good disciple,” trying to show Jesus that he can obey him, trying to be a leader among his cohort.
And when he goes out onto the water, he falters, fearful, hesitant.
He is self-conscious, and he begins to sink.
But now, here, Peter has had to give up any pretense of success or leadership or faithfulness.
There is no possible way he could have screwed up any worse than he already has.
And he is freed by that.
He’s already hit bottom and discovered that Jesus loves him there, exactly as he is.
And so the water is not scary any more.
He leaps out of the boat and starts swimming toward Jesus for all he’s worth, because success and failure no longer have any meaning for him.
All that matters is Jesus, and going to him and his love.
This is what redemption looks like.
This is the gift of our frail and faltering humanity.
This is the slow process of conversion to the gospel, the storms of success and failure slowly meaning less and less to us, until one day we realize that Jesus has been waiting for us all along.
So try it right now.
Just leap out of the boat and leave everything else behind, everything you think makes you good and everything you think makes you bad.
The question is here, from Jesus’ own lips: “Do you love me?”
Jump out of the boat and tell him yes.
You are the love of his life, and he’s waiting for you.
If you liked, please share!