John 21:1-19 – Breakfast in the Liminal Space

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by John Reilly, 1978

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So, they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So, Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again, Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (New International Version)

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Belgian artist Erik Tanghe

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, it takes a bit of time to wrap both our heads and our hearts around a new reality. After all, if you’ve been used to operating a particular way for a long time, it can be hard to come around to embracing something different – even if that change is really good.

Good ol’ Peter, bless his heart, you’ve got to love him. The Lord Jesus is risen from death and he, along with some of the other disciple fishermen, are not quite up to speed on resurrection. Christ is alive, the disciples have already seen him on two separate occasions, yet they seem like a dog who has chased a rabbit and now don’t know what to do with it once they’ve surprisingly gotten it cornered.

So, Peter goes fishing. Yep, when all else seems upside-down and topsy-turvy, just go fishing. The problem is: Peter and the boys are going back to a life that doesn’t exist anymore. And that’s pretty much what we all tend to do when we are stuck in a liminal space (to be at the threshold of something new, but not quite there yet) caught in a situation of uncertainty without much of a clue what to do. We simply go back to what we’ve always done and hope we catch some fish.

But we can’t catch fish. It isn’t the same anymore. There’s a new reality. The resurrection of Jesus has completely upended the world. There is no going back to any sort of pre-resurrection days. All has changed. I’m not sure if the disciples believed they were going to catch any fish, or not. Seems they just had to go do something familiar.

Unbeknown to them, the rules changed. The old way of fishing won’t work, anymore. While they’re off trying to live from the familiar confines of the old life, Jesus shows up on shore. The disciples don’t realize its him. So, they don’t anticipate that when Jesus calls out and encourages them that they’ll end up with a nice haul of fish.

While the old life yields nothing, the new life with Christ brings abundance, blessing, and fellowship. After the big catch of fish, here are the disciples now eating breakfast with the King of Kings, yet they’re still scratching their heads. What’s going on? Who is it? Well, of course, it’s Jesus, but is it? What’s the plan? I’m so confused.

In the passage and through the journey from one reality to another – the place of familiarity to a place of a future we’ve never seen – there is both the shadow of doubt which makes everything feel so uncertain and the confidence of faith which keeps us going forward.

In this middle passage, this liminal space, there is a continual vacillating between doubt and faith. Rarely is there ever a black-and-white existence. Instead, it’s wise to become friends with the gray because most lessons we learn come while inhabiting this weird in-between space.

When the disciples encountered Christ in today’s Gospel story, it was an experience of Jesus in the middle – a six-week time between resurrection and ascension. It was also an experience of the disciples in the middle. There was no going back to a pre-resurrection time of walking and talking with Jesus as they had done before. And there is also no future where they can live in the past or pick up the fishing business just like before.

Although we have the advantage of knowing how the story shakes-out with Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and a robustly bold group of disciples going out to change the world – the disciples cannot picture that future in their present liminal space on the beach.

This is why Jesus helps and coaxes Peter along with three consecutive questions – enabling this Rock of a disciple to move through his own liminal space to a new place of the bold and confident apostle that we find in the book of Acts.

We, too, inhabit a middle space. We are in-between the two advents of Christ. This truly is an awkward time in which we, along with disciples, experience a mix of belief and doubt because we are not yet at the end of the story.

So, a strange combination of worship and wondering exists in the here-and-now. Jesus did not chide the disciples for sometimes believing and sometimes not. And, what’s more, our Lord isn’t exasperated with us. That’s because one of the certainties for the Christian is that grace overcomes and overwhelms literally everything. Sitting down with Word and Meal creates a new space where we can begin to make sense of our sometimes very nonsensical lives.

Great God of Resurrection, help me to embrace both the meaning and the mystery of faith as I negotiate and interpret every situation in my life through the light of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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