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Recognising Jesus in the world

John 21:1-19

In this week’s text, Jesus appears to the disciples yet a third time, but significantly this time they are no longer fearfully hiding in the house. Rather, they are on the lake fishing. Simon Peter had returned to his life as a fisherman, and six of the other disciples decided that they would join him.

But when the fearful disciples try to return to their former lives, they find that their old patterns no longer work. Despite being on the boat and fishing throughout the night, John tells us, the disciples had “caught nothing.” Their old patterns no longer work for them, and they finish a long night tired and emptyhanded. It is an image not only of failure but also of scarcity. If they can catch nothing, how will the disciples feed themselves? How will they make a future for themselves?

It is at this point in John’s narrative that Jesus appears, telling them to “cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish]” (21:6). It is not that the disciples are bad fishermen (it is difficult to imagine that they had not even tried the other side of the boat) but rather that Jesus has miraculously provided fish for them. According to John, the failed patterns of the old life are transformed by the miraculous presence of the risen Jesus, in whose presence the fruitless toil of the long night yields to nets overflowing with abundance. It is the presence of the risen Christ that makes the difference.

Yet the story also introduces a critical complication into the narrative, which is that the disciples seem to find it nearly impossible to recognize Jesus when they encounter him in the world. This theme appears repeatedly in the Gospels. Only when Jesus multiplies the fish do the disciples begin to understand who he is. This detail is important, as it reminds us of the earlier times that Jesus has procured fish for hungry people, notably in the story of Jesus feeding of the 5,000, which occurs in all of the Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). Jesus’s capacity to feed the hungry is fundamental to his identity, not only in his earthly ministry but also in his resurrected existence. The connection is so clear that John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) immediately recognizes him. “It is the Lord!” he shouts. Peter, too, recognizes him, leaping into the water and swimming to meet him.

Yet the other disciples continue to struggle with recognizing Jesus. When they finally row to shore, Jesus has started a campfire and is already cooking some fish of his own, along with some bread. But Jesus does not simply feed them with food that he himself has brought, instead turning the gathering into a community meal. “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught,” he tells them. Together they make a meal for one another, of bread and fish, those that Jesus brought and those that the disciples caught. We imagine them together forming a little community of abundance as the toil-filled night yielding to the morning’s dawn. It is in that moment that the rest of the disciples recognize him (21:12).

If even his own closest disciples struggle to recognize him, how much more so must our faith communities offer unmistakable signs of Christ’s presence for those who are yet struggling in the night. Holding out possibilities of new life to those trapped fearfully in the failed patterns of the past .Sharing what we have with those in need, even if it is only a few fish and some bread, and inviting others to do the same. The disciples recognize Christ when he creates communities of abundance in the midst of scarcity. Our task is to do the same.

Adapted from a reflection by Robert Williamson Jr.