An Unexpected Guest

John 20:1-19

What would do you do if someone were to show up unexpectedly on your doorstep? It might be a parent or in-law, a long lost friend, or a mentor. You’re not expecting them to come to your house, so you have no way of preparing ahead of time. In such a case, how do you respond? Are you hospitable and welcoming? Are you apologetic? Or do you just shut the door?
Now, let me push this scenario a bit further: When the unexpected guest arrives at your doorstep are you ready for them to change the course of your life? Sort of like the late Ed McMahon showing up on your doorstep with a Publisher’s Clearing House check? Now, that would change your life, wouldn’t it?
This is a question that’s often raised in the biblical story. Consider the strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah while they are camping at the Oaks of Mamre. As was appropriate in their culture, Abraham invites the strangers in, offering them a place of rest and refreshment. In return, the travelers offer Abraham and Sarah a promise – they will have a child in their old age, and this child will fulfill the promise that God had made in covenanting with Abraham and Sarah, in their descendants God will bless the nations (Genesis 18:1-15).
Then, in Luke we read about a stranger who joins up with two disciples of Jesus, as they head for Emmaus. This stranger explains to them the gospel, but only later as they share a meal, do they realize that it was the risen Jesus who had been explaining the things of God to them (Luke 24:13ff).
Finally, there’s the story of strangers who show up on Peter’s doorstep, even as he is experiencing a vision. These visitors represent a Roman centurion named Cornelius. As a result of their visit, Peter hears the call to extend the gospel to the Gentile world (Acts 10-11).
So, who are the unexpected guests who have impacted your lives with their witness? Can you say, that you were willing to receive their witness? These are questions that are posed to us in the closing chapter of John’s Gospel.
1. Going Fishing
The story begins with seven men sitting on a beach along the Lake of Tiberias. It’s a familiar story, because when we become discouraged or anxious about the direction of our lives, we tend to return to what we know best. Peter was a fisherman, and along with six of his fellow disciples, all Galileans, he had returned home to the only life he’d known before he had encountered Jesus. In his anxiety, he simply says to his friends: “I’m going fishing.” And they respond: “We’ll go with you.” This might not be the response you’d expect from people who had seen the risen Christ and had received the Spirit of God from Jesus (John 20). Indeed, in the prior chapter, Thomas has his own doubts assuaged by Jesus, but now things seem much less certain than they appear at the end of chapter 20, where we read a very fitting conclusion to the Gospel:
“But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31).
That sounds so final, and yet someone decided to add an epilogue, another story to tidy things up. And in this epilogue, we encounter an unexpected guest with an unexpected word for us. After spending the night out on the lake, casting their nets in all of their favorite fishing holes, they return to the shore at daybreak empty-handed. Can you identify with these disciples? Have you busied yourself with other things, because you’re uncertain as to where God is leading? And when you do this, do you find yourself returning home empty-handed? Can you identify with their frustration?
2. Recognition of the Unexpected Guest
The story continues, and when the boat nears the shore the group of fishermen see someone standing on the beach, waving at them. They weren’t expecting anyone to be there to greet them on the beach, and so they’re even more surprised when the man yells out at them and tells this tired and disappointed group of fishermen to throw their nets out one more time, but this time on the right side of the boat. If you were one of the disciples, would you follow these directions given to you by a stranger? Or, would you laugh off the suggestion? I mean, why would they be more successful on the right of the boat than the left? But, as silly as it seems, they follow the stranger’s advice, and to their amazement, they pull in so many fish that they barely stay afloat. It’s such a big haul that you’d think the net would break, and yet it doesn’t.
In their moment of surprise, the Beloved Disciple recognizes the man on the shore, and he cries out: “It’s the Lord!” How does he know? How else could such a thing have happened? But, while the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize Jesus, it’s Peter who acts upon this recognition. Peter is a man of action, and so he pulls on his clothes, which he has shed in the course of his work, and jumps into the water, and swims to shore, abandoning the catch. Peter seems to understand that his life no longer involves catching these kinds of fish. As he arrives, he discovers the stranger, busy building a fire and preparing breakfast. Yes, in a twist upon the usual story, it’s the unexpected guest, who offers hospitality – in this case a meal of fish and bread.
As the disciples eat this meal, they dare not ask who it is who has welcomed them, for they all recognized him. As with Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples heading toward Emmaus, recognition seems to happen as Jesus breaks and distributes bread. What is interesting is that John’s gospel doesn’t have an explicit description of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. But, you will find instances where Jesus speaks of bread and fish and wine, and in each case, Jesus reveals something about himself to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see what God is doing in their midst. As you ponder this scene, do you hear a word about what happens when we break bread together at the Table. Do you begin to recognize the presence of Jesus at the Table, offering his life to you in the symbols of bread and cup?
Yes, where do you see Jesus present? Is he present in the meals we share with one another? Is he present in the stranger we encounter on the street? Do you see him in the person crying out in pain and suffering? This is the question of the hour – how do we recognize the Lord in our midst?
3. A Commission
This epilogue is not simply a story of recognition. It is also the story of a commissioning to service. John’s gospel closes with one of the most famous scenes in Scripture. Jesus enters into an intense conversation with Peter, who had denied knowing Jesus three different times on the night of his trial. Peter had promised to stand by him, to the bitter end, but he couldn’t fulfill his promise. Fear got the better of him, and now guilt and shame are eating at his soul. Knowing Peter’s heart, Jesus asks Peter three times, whether Peter loves him. Each time Jesus asks the question, Peter answers, “Yes Lord, You know I love you” And each time Jesus responds with a commission – “tend my sheep.” There is pain in Peter’s voice, but Jesus is offering forgiveness and healing so that Peter might fulfill his calling.
As we read this conversation, we might see in it the basis for commissioning pastors and elders to care for the flock. That would be an appropriate application. Jesus says to those who are called to leadership – if you love me then tend to my sheep. But is this word directed only to those called to church leadership? Or is it a word to all of us?
Remember the context here. According to the story, Peter has denied Jesus three times, and in this threefold call and response, Jesus heals Peter’s soul and restores him to fellowship. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks of Peter and us. In that question, Jesus acknowledges that Peter has denied him, even as we deny him, whether it is in word or in deeds. And each time that Peter responds with an acknowledgment of his love, Jesus reminds him of his calling.
Peter needed this word of assurance and reminder. After all, having been called to be a fisher of people, he had returned to a life of fishing for fish. He did this because he believed that his denials had compromised his ability to fulfill his calling. And while John’s gospel doesn’t include the commission to fish for people, I believe it’s appropriate to hear in this exchange a sense of that calling. Peter won’t be going back to his old life. Jesus has something else in store for him and for us.
Yes, the unexpected guest, who is standing by the lakeshore, is asking us: Do you love me? If we answer yes, then his response will be: then “feed my sheep.” Or, to put it a bit differently, Jesus is answering the question Cain posed to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And, the answer is: “Yes, you are, if you love me.”