Third Sunday in Easter: Jn. 21:1-14
The gospels do not present faith in Jesus as blind or irrational. Rather, Jesus and His disciples present “signs” as evidence of who Jesus is and for the reality of His resurrection. These signs are the evidence that the Spirit uses to convince people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and have life in His name. These signs are an invitation into another kind of community where the resurrection is being constantly witnessed and proven.
The Text: John has just explained the outline of His gospel, structured around “signs” (Jn. 20:30) that are recorded to drive his readers to faith in Jesus and life in His name (Jn. 20:31). John told us at the beginning of his gospel what the signs were for: to manifest His glory and compel belief (Jn. 2:11). This “glory” was first introduced in the prologue, the “glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). What does this mean? John told us: it means all things were made through Him (Jn. 1:3), it means in Him is life and He is the life of men (Jn. 1:4), and it means that the darkness doesn’t understand Him (Jn. 1:5). The signs in John’s gospel point to Jesus being the Creator and Life-giver of all things. Here, at the end of the gospel, John is dropping not so subtle reminders of those signs. First, the disciples are fishing at the Sea of Tiberias, which is the Sea of Galilee (Jn. 6:1) where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes and then went for a midnight stroll in the storm, walking on the sea (Jn. 6:5-21). Then, while listing the seven disciples out fishing, John reminds us of the calling of Nathanael and Jesus’ first sign at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (Jn. 21:2, cf. 1:43-2:11). Given what happens, it seems that this third appearance of the risen Jesus (cf. Jn. 21:14) is meant to echo those signs in particular. Here, we have a fruitless fishing trip yielding no food (Jn. 21:3-5), Jesus displays His authority over the sea, commanding even the fish, and miraculously provides plenty of food, and of course, it’s a meal of bread and fish (Jn. 21:6, 9-13). This replication of signs indicates that this is the same Jesus, and the signs of Jesus’ glory continue to be displayed when the disciples of Jesus gather together (Jn. 20:19, 26). The evidence of the resurrection is displayed in the community of disciples where Jesus glorifies water, feeds the hungry, and walks in our storms.
Two or Three Witnesses
In Deuteronomy, Moses established the requirement that conviction for crimes must be based on the testimony of two or three witnesses (Dt. 17:6). This standard applies not only to capital crimes but to any accusation of sin or wrongdoing (Dt. 19:15). Jesus clearly affirms this standard in His instructions for confronting a brother in sin (Mt. 18:15-16), and Paul applies this standard to accusations brought against elders (1 Tim. 5:19). Paul follows the same pattern in his dealings with the Corinthians (2 Cor. 13:1), specifically tying this to the resurrection of Jesus, claiming that his judicious dealings with the Corinthians are proof that Jesus is alive (2 Cor. 13:2-4). This principle indicates first of all a high standard for establishing truth, especially when it might imply serious repercussions (e.g. Dt. 19:16). But it also establishes an epistemological principle that truth is found in community (Mt. 18:19).
Truth in Communion
It is the postmodern false gospel that proclaims that meaning is only found in “communities of discourse.” This is only a shiny veneer for the deadly poison of relativism – “that’s true for you because of your community,” but as with all lies, there is a grain of truth to it. We are embodied creatures with stories, and we do interpret reality through the stories we inhabit. This is God’s intended means of revealing the truth to us (not obscuring it). We see this in the incarnation in particular: it is by the particularity of God’s presence dwelling with us in Jesus that we come to know the Way, the Truth and the Life in Him. The postmodernists are right, that meaning is found in community, but they are wrong because they supposed that there is no underlying Logos, no unifying Word of the Father. Communities of unbelief are ultimately built on lies, but the community adds credibility to the false claims. But the claim of the gospel is that despite the messiness of the Church, it is a supernatural community filled with the life of the risen Jesus.
It is not merely an interesting curiosity that John includes this final episode in His gospel. What we have here is a third witness that Jesus really was alive after He had died. In the two previous instances, He displayed His hands and side to be examined and touched as evidence that it was really Him and that His body was real. In this instance, Jesus asks for food. Jesus has a real body that needs to eat. But food is never merely a matter of sustenance; it is also always simultaneously an invitation to community, to communion, and therefore to truth. Do you want to know Jesus? Then you must eat with Him.
How do we know what we know? How did the disciples know that Jesus was really raised from the dead? They knew because they saw Him, they touched Him, and they ate with Him. While Jesus clearly indicates that touching and seeing Him physically is coming to end with the first eye-witnesses (Jn. 20:17, 29), John is presenting his account so that we might believe. In other words, John’s invitation to believe in the resurrection and to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is an invitation to consider these signs, hear the story of these witnesses, to join this conversation, and come and eat with the community of believers. It is certainly not the community that makes the resurrection true, but it is the community of believers, gathered around a table that testifies to the truth of the resurrection, and in real time, it illustrates the coherence of the story and the signs. We see this especially in the Church’s love and discipline: Jesus prayed that the world would know Him though His disciples’ love for one another (Jn. 13:35, 17:20-23). And Paul told the Corinthians: there is something about the ongoing life of the Church, even the fierce confrontational love of her ministers, that is itself proof that Jesus is alive (2 Cor. 13:1-4).