For reasons I have no time or space to discuss now, someone (either the original author or a new writer) added chapter 21 to John’s original 20 chapters. In so doing, he or she fortunately preserved and passed on one of the earliest accounts of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.
Unlike Luke, who depicts Jesus’ followers staying in Jerusalem for almost two months after his resurrection, the author of John 21 has them obey the message of Mark and Matthew’s tomb angel: “He’s going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.” They immediately go back to Capernaum.
The seven disciples at the center of today’s pericope seem to know little or nothing about angelic announcements of resurrection, nor have they yet experienced the risen Jesus. After a disastrous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they hastily returned to their homes on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, occupying most of their days just sitting around, speculating on what could have been had that horrible Friday not happened.
Simon Peter eventually announces, “I’m going out to fish.” Scholars contend he’s actually saying, “I’m going back to fishing.” That’s what the seven did for a living, but obviously weren’t doing now.
One of the most important points Elisabeth Kubler Ross stressed in her death and dying workshops I attended more than 30 years ago was that eventually everyone must “go back to work” after a loved one’s death. Initially, out of loyalty to the person who died, we’re tempted never to return to doing the things we did while he or she was with us. Things simply can’t ever be the same again.
Yet, as Ross stressed, only when we force ourselves to again do those things that are part of our normal lives will we experience the presence of our deceased loved one in a new way. In this earliest tradition of the disciples experiencing the risen Jesus, this is exactly what happens. Only when they go back to work do they recognize Jesus present to them in a different way than he had been present before Good Friday.
Once Jesus’ first followers accept his death and return to fishing they gradually begin to experience him in his risen form. Of course, these situations in which they encounter him don’t always present him in black and white contrast. He has to be “recognized.” That’s why it’s important that the risen Jesus engage in an activity that often occupied the historical Jesus: in this case, eating a meal with his friends.
Notice also, once the author of chapter 21 attached this earlier episode to the previously written 20 chapters, he or she had to supply several connecting links: phrases or words like “again,” or “the third time.” Originally none of these phrases or words were in the tradition the writer received and passed on.
In our Acts passage, Luke tells us that, after Jesus’ disciples begin to experience him in his changed form; their “work” also begins to change. Now, instead of fishing, they’ve become preachers of the same good news the historical Jesus preached. The only difference between their preaching and his is that they now put him at the center of their proclamation. As the revered Rudolph Bultmann so succinctly put it, “The preacher became the preached.” Though the members of the Sanhedrin believe the case is closed once the disciples are commanded “not to speak again about the name of Jesus,” we, the readers, just smile at their naiveté.
Even if the author of Revelations bases his writing on personal heavenly revelation, Jesus, the Lamb, is still at the heart of those messages.
Because many of us often get bogged down in the minutiae of organized religion, it’s essential to remember that the only reason such institutions exist is to help us experience the risen Jesus in our daily lives, no matter how or where we “work.”