There’s a story in John 21 of Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection, and I’ve discovered recently, through the prompting of several reminders, how that story moves me in ways I can scarcely articulate or even comprehend.
My passion for that scene and what it entails was, to my best recollection, originally stirred by an essay from Frederick Buechner. I vaguely recall, in response to Buechner’s essay, sitting alone with his book in my hands and chuckling out loud at something in the imagery that shook my soul like an earthquake of joy.
Recently, my memory of that story was refreshed by a sermon from Alan Kraft, and although I see and apply some elements of the passage differently, I remember sitting next to my son, Will, in Zoe’s on a Sunday morning listening to Alan’s sermon while I scribbled frantically in my journal as the thoughts rushed through me, and I had to watch my volume as I whispered and chuckled with Will about the story to keep from disturbing the nearby parishioners.
Since then, I’ve had conversations with a few friends on the topic, and I even shared a bit about it on a recent trip to a small church meeting in Dickson, Tennessee, until at long last, I thought I had expunged myself of the affects of those images, having given them their due space to work in me and through me.
Then, early this morning, with coffee and conversation in her sitting room, my mother brought the words to mind again – my own words mingled with that story’s images back to haunt me again – and I nearly broke in two from their hammer-like impact all over again.
It seems so trivial in so many ways. The events before – a resurrection and the almost magical appearances – and the mesmerizing profundity of words and brief conversations following, shine like theological beacons, but that dark little understated passage of a few words in between seems so paltry a scenario. How could it mean so much to me?
The story goes that in those cautiously hopeful, yet strangely confusing days between the confirmed resurrection and the miracles of Pentecost, Peter, especially distraught and confused by the recent events, determines to do what he does best to fill unoccupied time: fishing. Several disciples find themselves inclined to join him.
After fishing all night, they have caught nothing. Their boat is empty of any fruit of their labor other than weary bodies and worn tackle. Then . . . oh! . . . then, at that moment of dawn, the beginning of a new day – just a day seemingly like any other day, a day of the same old frustratingly human-experience kind of reality, full of the knowledge and hope for more and the absolute inability to produce it, then – Jesus appears to them from the shore.
“Do you have any fish?” That’s what he asks them, or something like that, like one fisherman in a passing greeting to another. It’s so mundane, we almost skip it for lack of interest. They have no fish. Big deal. You’re Jesus, resurrected, glorified, empowered, invincible. Why do you care, anyway, about the fishing success of some second-rate crew?
I’ll stop there with the verse by verse exegesis, though. It’s too much, and too overwhelming for me to reiterate again. I’m old and fragile and words are too many and too dull. Suffice it to say, here’s what moves me today:
As Peter drags himself from the water and wades to the shore, dripping wet and struggling to catch his breath with his mouth open from the shock of what teary, wide-open eyes can’t quite believe, he finds Jesus, simply Jesus, squatting in front of an open flame. Jesus was cooking breakfast.
From only God knows where, in the darkness of that night, while those men toiled vainly in their tiny boat on the surface of that vast sea, Jesus came walking to that shore. In the dark of the night, I can see him sitting there with his knees up and feet crossed in front of him, scratching in the rough sand, and his arms wrapped around his shins, listening to the splashing and grunting and bantering of those men he loves. Quietly listening. Smiling. Fretting. Praying.
The stars of the night sky, whose names and substance he knows so intimately, shine in the myriads above him. Maybe, the moon rises in its fullest reflection there and he contemplates its naked contours invisible to the human eye. The crickets are chirping, and maybe the cicadas are singing, and small animals scurry around in the scrub while the wind rustles the leaves of nearby trees. He’s there, in the dark, present in the world he made, unknown to his closest friends, listening and taking in their agony with patience and empathy.
He gathered firewood and built a fire with a flint and stone he had carried in a satchel along with small utensils, some coarse flour and simple spices. He caught his own fish and cleaned them, as an appetizer to supplement the 153 large fish the unsuccessful crew would catch, in spite of themselves, too late for the first course. He stirred and kneaded the dough for bread and set it to baking on a hot stone near the fire. Maybe he was humming, maybe mouthing the words, maybe just a little off key, of his favorite of the psalms of David.
(Sure, maybe – of course, maybe – he just did that genie thing, folding his arms and blinking his eyes and everything appeared there for them. But why? Why would we not believe he found joy in handling the elements himself?)
In the twilight, he heard the morning song of the birds awakening with surprise at his presence. Then, when there was just enough light to make himself visible, he called out to the tiny boat and its sleepy occupants, not far from shore.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that after all he’d been through, and with everything there would be to say at such a critical moment in history, that the simple, mundane needs of a few haggard men would be secondary to everything else. You would think there would be so much to say and do, principles to deliver and notes to be taken, that he would waste no time with petty diversions. There he is, though, on the shore of that sea, quietly making himself known in ever so subtle ways to a few fishermen.
Peter stands there dripping, ashamed, elated, scared in his bones, desperate for . . . anything, any sign of affection and comfort, anything.
Jesus smiles up at him, with the odor of fish frying and fresh baked bread and the smoke of a wood fire wafting between them, and he simply says, “come and have some breakfast.”
Jesus served them breakfast. They “broke fast” together. They sat there filling their hungry bellies, laughing, belching, crying, drying off in shocked euphoria with the lover of their souls, the Bread of Life. He was there, with them, even when in their despair, they could not perceive him. He was preparing to serve them in the simplest ways, with abundance.
I reckon it’s just me, but that gets me every time. I really need a savior like that.