The restoring Jesus remembers failings and failure, rightly
The restoring Jesus begins where relationship is denied, where people are forgotten, and where the known has become unrecognisable (Jn. 21:4). Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus, with multiple allusions, begins ‘just after daybreak’ in dark places (Jn. 21:4) because ‘the actual selfrevelation of Jesus begins early in the morning’.9 Peter is on a familiar beach (Sea of Tiberias), doing familiar things (fishing). Some commentators judge Peter’s actions harshly. Brown concludes that in returning to what he knows best, the scene is ‘one of aimless activity undertaken in desperation’. How does Peter remember his courtyard denial? Is fishing a convenient way to forget? More crucially, how might Peter remember his allegiance to Jesus, his acceptance of the call, and his authentic role as leader?
Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No’. He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some’. So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
The biblical narrative focusses on the miraculous catch of fish. Those who believe this text in John Chapter 21 to be the same events as recorded in Luke Chapter 5 are incredulous. For example, Brown asks, how Peter could go through the same situation and much of the same dialogue as on the earlier occasion, without recognizing Jesus? There is ample evidence in the Johannine text that this is a different event as noted by Carson:
‘the fact that the narrator’s perspective stays with the boat, instead of diverting to the encounter between Jesus and Peter, is a small indication of eyewitness integrity’.10
Jesus, wronged by Peter in the courtyard (wronged by humanity on the cross), takes the initiative (Jn. 21:4-5). While the reader knows it is Jesus who invites, Jesus who instructs, and Jesus who inspires, ‘the disciples did not know that it was Jesus’ (Jn. 21:5). Leaving to one side the scholarly debates about the two gospel accounts, the contours of the restorative encounter are elucidated. First, the restoring Jesus addresses the disciples as paidia (children). Most scholars note this is not the common way for Jesus to address the disciples, particularly in John’s writings, but some dismiss its significance.11 Howard-Brooks captures the gentle critique of paidia, noting that ‘paidion refers to immaturity of age or development, while teknon largely connotes the sense of progeny’ in his comments that the restoring
Jesus [is] speaking to the group not in the sense of‘children of God’ but in the sense of those recently born and not yet capable of full understanding. But it is an affectionate, not a critical, title and introduces Jesus to the scene with positive regard for those in the boat.12
The diminutive paidia names the awkward, childlike forgetfulness and failure of disciples on the boat. The revealing Jesus is speaking to them from the shore but remains unrecognised. The remembering Jesus—now risen—is encountering them while they are fishing. Surely his familiar voice should jog their memory? Yet the restoring Jesus appears neither impatient nor irritated by their slowness. He simply calls them what they are: children, incapable of understanding and insight. This is clearly a rebuke, but the tone is affectionate. John then recalls how a vague sense of familiarity solidifies: first the familiar voice when fishing, then the familiar instructions of a teacher (‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some’), followed by the miraculous (‘they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish’). Had the disciples returned to their fishing boats because they were seeking to remember or trying to forget?
If, as I am suggesting, John’s account is the original—a post-resurrection encounter with the risen Jesus—then detailed exploration of how history, memory, and forgetting are connected must first be established. How do
The restoring Jesus: Scripture 105 pastoral workers remember their own failings and failure? Conversely, how should churches, employers, and agencies remember the failure and failings inflicted on them? Remembering rightly, therefore, is not only about the past but the future. The re-membering of the last two chapters is particularly significant in light of pastoral failures and failings. Safe in the memory of God, through the remembering Jesus, is freedom from ‘the tyranny [of] the unalterable past’.13 The remembering Jesus is also the restoring Jesus because, in the words of Volf, ‘God does not take away our past; God gives it back to us’.14 This is the gift of the restoring Jesus to the apostle Peter on the beach: true redemption and true reconciliation:
that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred vards off.
In John’s account, Jesus is heard and obeyed (Jn. 21:5-6) but it is not until John’s recognition (Jn. 21:7) and Peter’s reaction that they remember who he is—‘the Lord’—and who they are—his disciples. Recognising the risen Jesus (Lk. 24) is necessary for re-membering. The apostle Peter, here in John 21 after his threefold failure, requires more than recognising who Jesus is and remembering his own identity. Peter encounters the restoring Jesus.