I’ve heard a dozen sermons on the final chapter of John. It’s funny to me that the general consensus among scholars is that Peter was in the boat that day running from his calling.
“Jesus died and Peter went fishing,” the preachers say. Abandoning the cause. Returning to the familiar. Doing exactly what he used to do before Jesus showed up and offered to teach him a new way to fish.
I’ve heard it enough times that I accepted it as fact. It makes sense, I suppose, that Peter would run back to that at the height of his despair. Only, it wasn’t exactly the height of his despair, was it? That famous breakfast on the beach was, in fact, the third time Jesus made an appearance to His disciples.
Peter didn’t go fishing when Jesus was dead; he went fishing after Jesus had already risen. Easter had come. Hallelujah.
So, if Jesus had proven Himself to be exactly what the disciples had hoped He would be, what was Peter running from?
Let’s rewind to Mark 14. You might remember that fateful night when Jesus tells His disciples that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep will be scattered.”
Peter, of course, faithful follower that he is, says, “Never will I ever,” and Jesus says, “Bro. You’re not just going to scatter, you’re going to deny me three times before sunrise, so just cool your jets.” (Paraphrase, obviously.)
But that’s not all Jesus said that night. Right before Peter interrupted with his ill-fated promise, Jesus made a promise of His own.
“But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”
Back to John 21. Here’s Peter, who has been to the empty tomb. Peter, who watched his friend Thomas skim his skeptical fingers over Jesus’ scars. Peter, whose wildest dreams have been realized, but who is drowning in shame.
He denied Jesus. He denied Him three times.
Is he really worthy of being called a disciple? Did he screw up too big? Did he scatter too far? Does Jesus still want him—Peter, who denied all association just to save his own skin?
I imagine him replaying that night in his mind. I envision the moment his reflections turn from his own broken promise to the one Jesus made.
It’s the place where Jesus first found him, yes, but maybe—just maybe—it’s the place where Jesus might meet him again.
So I imagine that when Peter said, “I’m going fishing,” it wasn’t an escape so much as a hope. Maybe he’s thinking of the day Jesus first called him, or maybe he just needs something to do with his hands, but Peter goes fishing. Peter goes fishing on the Sea of Galilee.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t go running from God in places I expect Him to be. I don’t crank up the worship music and say, “Oh. Fancy meeting You here.”
So I really can’t picture Peter as running here. Hopeless, maybe. Lost, for sure. But I think Peter went fishing that day because he was yearning to be found. Running back to the place where it all began, hoping to begin anew.
I think he set out in his little boat knowing Jesus would walk by. I think he was hoping to be chosen again, just like he was called the first time.
I think he was asking, “Do You still want me? Or are You going to leave me on these waters where I belong?”
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Jesus waited for that moment to reinstate Peter to his calling. He’d had the opportunity twice before, but passed it over, leaving Peter to doubt.
Now here He was, for the third time, asking Peter if he loved Him, not once, not twice, but three times.
“Yes, yes, You know I do!”
And then Jesus spoke the words I imagine Peter was longing to hear when he set out in that boat of his.
A pardon. An invitation.
“I wanted you then. I want you now. You haven’t screwed up too big. You’ll never scatter too far. Welcome back to the flock, my wayward Shepherd. Come, Follow Me.”