When to the number of 10, representing the Law, we add the Holy Spirit as represented by 7, we have 17. And when this number is used to adding together of every serial number it contains, from 1 up to itself, the sum comes to 153. [. . .] All who are sharers in such grace are symbolized by this number, that is, are symbolically represented. — Augustine
There are ever so many themes and questions in this epilog to the Gospel of John.
First, we have the matter of Peter returning to the boat and the net. After all that he has seen and experienced in the last three years, and especially the last 8 days, he is caught here giving the life before his call another try. The fathers of the church are willing to give Peter much slack here. To them it is a reaffirmation that the disciple will, can, and ought to earn a living by honest work. Ambrose is quick to add though that Matthew did not return to with the IRS.
Second, there is the matter of the charcoal fires. Yes, fires. One here and one in 18:18 where the betrayal of Jesus by Peter took place. This one has unknown origin while the last one was set by the soldiers who would eventually kill Jesus just to keep warm. This one is cooking fish and baking bread. We are guessing that Jesus set it. Further, what are fish and bread doing on that fire? It reminds us of the feeding of the multitudes where again fish and bread are featured.
Third, There is the miraculous catch of fish. 153 really large ones. So large that the net could not be lifted but somehow the net does not break. Why 153? An amateur bible scholar in my friend John Hannah’s congregation once undertook the arduous task of cataloging all the questions that are asked of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The number is: you guessed it. The questions were asked but the net does not break from them. Augustine has a few numerological answers that might amuse as well as the opening quote shows.
Fourth, Peter again: Why does he jump into the sea instead of coming to shore in what must certainly be his own boat? It could be a baptismal symbol I suspect but in John, baptism is already implied in the narrative since Jesus himself baptizes folks as early as chapter 3, though it does not come up again after that. It is not clear to me why this is necessary. And, as the boat comes close, Peter is again featured as the one who brings the net ashore. It this John’s version of saying to Peter you will be a fisher of people from now on?
Fifth, there are the three questions to be considered, each of them a version of: “Do you love me?” It seems fitting that three are asked since Peter denied Jesus three times as well. It is often rightly called the reinstatement of Peter and not only that, it seems to be the commissioning of Peter as he is now ordered to feed Jesus’ sheep. Last time we heard about sheep was in chapter 10, where Jesus was the Good Shepherd. There, the hireling is a problem because he does not care enough to defend the sheep. Is Peter called to a higher calling?
Sixth, there is the foretelling to Peter’s martyrdom. (21:19) By his death — not recorded anywhere in the bible but apparently known to John — Peter would “glorify” God. “When you were young, you did as you wished, now that you are commissioned as my chief under-shepherd, you will lay down your life for the sheep as I have done before you. You are no longer your own,” the episode says and thereby, perhaps, answers the final temptation of Peter: the attempt to return to his old life. Again chapter 10 looms. Jesus has died for Peter. Peter will now have to glorify God by giving it all for Lord and church.
Seventh — and I will stop at seven since that would be a Johanian thing to do — What will we make of the beloved disciple? We now have all the pieces that paint the picture of him together since we are at the end of the Gospel. What does his life and presence teach us?
He shows up in: 13:23-24 where he sits next to Jesus and asks questions on behalf of Peter; 18:15-16 where he knows the gatekeeper at Annas’ house; 19:26-27 where he takes Mary as mother and becomes her son; 20:2-8 where he outruns Peter to the tomb; sees it empty and believes; unlike Peter and Mary, 21:7 where he points out to Peter that the Lord is standing on the shore; 21:20-24 where the question is asked about him: “What about him?” and Jesus says: “What is that to you,” and this is the disciple who writes these things.
Somehow, in some angle of view he is the ultimate believer, maybe the unknown believer of all times and all places. His mother is the church — Mary — and Mary — the church — is somehow as precious to him as if she was indeed his own reason for being. As such he reclines with Jesus at the holy feast, the Eucharist and his requests are heard as the requests of a beloved child. He is brave. Brave enough to go to dangerous places like Annas’ courtyard where they know him and perhaps even know his allegiance to Jesus. He believes, stays loyal, in times when all seems lost. What about him indeed?
Somehow there will be Beloved Disciples until the day the Lord returns. You on the other hand, you need to follow Jesus. Why the counterpoint? Maybe because being too amazed by the good faith of the Beloved Disciple one misses that one must be fearlessly loyal even if the Beloved is not standing there to model it. In the end faith is something we work out in fear trembling to paraphrase Paul. Saints are good. Saints are our friends. Cars are good too. They, unlike saints, will take us to the airport, but we will have to leave them in the lot and walk in ourselves.
The church is indeed one body, but it is made up of many members. There is no body without members and vice versa. To have community there has to be individuals all of whom are committed to it and that only happens when all of them are focused on the one who is the Lord of it: Jesus.