John 21: Catching Fish, Feeding Sheep

John 21 takes us into the post-resurrection world of the church. Two metaphors – one acted, one spoken – depict the church’s activities following Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. One involves fishing, the other, sheep herding. Of the two, John’s greater emphasis seems to be on tending sheep.

Cast the Net

First, the church is “fishing” for people to become members of the community of faith. This is the language of Jesus’ call in the synoptic gospels. “Follow me,” Jesus told Peter and Andrew, “and I will make you fishers of people” (Mark 1:16-20, Matthew 4:18-22). The Gospel of John does not use “fishing for people” words, but the evangelist makes the same point with a story.

John 21:1-11 tells us that following Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and the disciples went fishing. They fished all night without results but, at daybreak, Jesus intervened. He told the disciples where to cast the net and with one cast, they hauled in a net brimming with fish. John even gives us the number of fish caught: 153.

Luke 5:4-11 relates a similar story, and then gives us the meaning of the event: “from now on, you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10).

In Luke’s version, which takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, there are so many fish that net began to tear and the boat began to sink. John, however, tells us “the net was not torn.” John is probably trying to emphasize a point that Jesus made repeatedly (e.g., 6:39, 10:28, 17:12 and 18:9): Jesus doesn’t lose anyone that the Father gives him.

Feed My Sheep

Second, the church feeds and tends the “sheep” by shepherding those who are members of the community of faith. Three times in John 21:15-17, Jesus gave Peter some variation of the “feed my sheep” imperative.  “Shepherding” was a common metaphor for leading, caring, defending and nurturing. More importantly, the 10th chapter of John’s gospel contains an extended discourse about Jesus, the good shepherd. The good shepherd knows the sheep by name. He goes ahead of his flock. The sheep follow the good shepherd because they trust him. He provides them with pasture. He is courageous in the face of threats. He protects the flock and keeps it together. He willingly lays down his life. When Jesus tells Peter, “feed my sheep,” he is asking Peter to take up Jesus’ own role as shepherd of the flock.

Fishing and Shepherding in John

If fishing represents the evangelistic activity of the church and shepherding the church’s pastoral activity, it seems to me that John puts much greater emphasis on the latter than the former. The miraculous catch of fish just happens. Apart from Jesus’ intervention, the disciples’ efforts had been fruitless. Jesus doesn’t so much say “Go find me some fish, and here’s how to do it” as “Here are the fish I’ve found for you; haul them in.” Yes, pulling in a net full of fish is difficult labor, but that’s not where the weight of the story falls in John’s telling. The fish just appear because the Lord has provided them.

If the emphasis in John’s fish story is on divine providence, the emphasis in Jesus’ shepherd speech is on human responsibility.

In Jesus’ earlier appearance he breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). That gift is certainly in the background of everything that follows, but there is very little “God does it” language in John 21:15-17. Three times Jesus said, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my little sheep.” The sheep are Jesus’ possession but Peter’s responsibility. Implicit within this structure is Peter’s accountability to owner of the flock. Jesus’ holds Peter (and the church) accountable for how the sheep are treated within the community of faith.

Perhaps John’s own community had no problem receiving new members. They considered the existence and growth of their little group to be a miraculous display of God’s power. Like the disciples, the church was hauling in the fish left and right, and it was all God’s doing.  Without evangelistic programs and outreach committees, the church was simply reaping the benefit of God’s marvelous work. The one lifted up from the earth was indeed drawing all people to himself (John 12:32).

The fish, once caught, however, were now sheep. Sheep need tending and feeding and protecting, and this may be where the church was falling down. Within John’s community, pastoral care may have been the pressing issue, not evangelistic outreach. Recruitment was going well; loving care was being neglected.

Thus, we find within John’s gospel little emphasis on “go out there and bring the people in” and repeated emphasis on humble service and love. Fishing was easy; shepherding was hard. It still is.