A reading of John 21 shows us that six of Jesus’ disciples returned to their nets after three years of living life under his teaching. They returned to fishing after his crucifixion, after his resurrection and after his glorified appearance to them.
After their initial obedience to Jesus’ call to “follow me,” they went back to all which was familiar.
Jesus knew they would. He knew where they could be found, and he went to them. Early one morning — still in his glorified state before his ascension — he stood upon the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He shouted to them, “Haven’t you any fish?” They had caught nothing all night. Of course not. Their familiar, comfortable routine did not bring success. They had already been called to devote themselves to being fishers of men. All else, apart from Jesus, would be fruitless if they chose to turn away.
Jesus instructed them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. He then called them back to the shore to eat with them, enjoying together some of the fish he had just commanded leap into their nets.
When they had finished eating on the beach at dawn, the crackling fire still lit for warmth, Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Do you still love me, more than these?”
He was referring to the fish, the nets and the boat. The fish signified many years of Peter’s work to provide for his family; it was his sustenance. His rough hands mended and cleaned the nets to keep his outfit in pristine order. Perhaps by now, after all his years of hard work, the boat belonged to him. Peter had invested and learned his trade well. It meant something to him.
Jesus inquired. “Do you still (after experiencing the ways I have conducted my life and ministry in a manner that may have displeased you –after all, I did not save your people from Roman rule and make you one of my political advisors! – in fact, I made many enemies and brought division and demanded death to self), do you still love me more than these?”
Or would you like to return exclusively to your boat? Can you forget my calling, forget our history?
It’s a question that comes to us periodically, especially when we are discouraged, tired, or unsure.
Do we still love Jesus, even after all these years when he has not behaved in the ways we expected him to, in our lives and in the lives of others?
Do we still love him when our ministries, our relationships, and our efforts do not produce the fruit for which we’ve hoped?
What if the calling feels too big, too hard, too confusing?
What if it would be more comfortable to stick to what worked before, what is familiar, what we’ve already built up?
What if staying in a boat and dealing with fish is far more comfortable for us than walking around on land all day among people?
“Then feed my lambs,” is the reply of Jesus. He asks Peter two more times if he loves him, to which Peter replies, “of course, I love you.” Then “take care of my sheep,” and “feed them” is the response of Jesus.
“Do all of this,” Jesus speaks, “because you love me.”
Not because those sheep are always going to want to be cared for, nor will they hold open their mouths eager for nourishing food at all times. Not because you are capable. Not because you see any results. Or receive any recognition or gratitude. Not because you make a good return on your investments. Not because all the stories will end well. Not because you have any guarantees whatsoever.
Simply, because of love.
It is love first, then action. Love is to motivate the action.
Those who love him obey him. It’s that simple and that hard.
Jesus and Peter take a stroll together, the gentle waves lapping up to touch their toes. Jesus abruptly turns and says to Peter, as he did three years ago when they first met, by the same boat and the same nets, “Follow me!”
He re-issues the call.
Peter hears the sound of someone approaching from behind and turns to see John coming their way. Because Jesus had also just given Peter a glimpse into his future (vs. 18-19), he couldn’t resist the urge to ask, “Lord, and what about this, man?”
Jesus gives a gentle rebuke: “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
We cannot understand God’s dealings with anyone else but ourselves. No one is told another’s story. No person can ever have the same faith or the qualifications to live another’s calling. Jesus would lead John in the path that fits him perfectly and fulfilled the purposes for his life, just as he would Peter.
Jesus, we love you. More than our nets. More than our fears. More than our understandings. We’ll continue to follow you and say “yes” to your call. We’ll feed your sheep. We’ll care for those you care for and nourish them with what you’ve given us. We’ll follow you with no concern about the next person insofar as we stop to make comparisons or to wonder why you have not required of them what you have of us. You are worthy. We obey because we love. And may it be said of us that we loved well.