Understanding John’s Gospel Chapter 21


Scripture: John 21: 15-23 Nigel Bunce

Today’s homily is about understanding John’s Gospel Chapter21. I think of John’s Gospel Chapter 21 as a post-script to the rest of the book. 

I don’t think that I have ever preached on today’s passage before. It follows the “Barbecue on the beach” that Jan preached on two weeks ago.

John’s Gospel Chapter 21, a P.S.

Actually, the whole of John’s Gospel Chapter 21 is rather odd. Chapter 20 ends with the statement about why the author wrote his Gospel. It seems as if the author was writing “The End”. Then Chapter 21 adds new stories about Jesus. So, what’s the context, and what’s its significance for us today?

There are several reasons for thinking that someone other than the original author John wrote these “extra” stories. Both the writing style and the author’s interests are different from the rest of the book. What’s more, that someone had a very different idea about who Jesus was.

Up to Chapter 20, John’s Gospel presents a very other-worldly Jesus. He repeatedly identifies himself with the Father. Right from Chapter 1, he is the eternal Christ figure rather than an earthly Messiah. But the new author seems closer to the traditions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

In fact, the breakfast on the beach story is almost identical to Luke’s account of how Jesus recruited his first disciples, the fishermen [Luke 5: 1-11]. Hence, the BBQ on the beach shows a very human Jesus eating with the disciples. Quite different from the ethereal figure who appeared in a locked room in the Thomas story.

Jesus’ threefold challenge to Peter

Now, specifically to this morning’s Gospel passage. Three times, Jesus challenges Peter with the words, “Do you love me?” By the third time, Peter felt hurt. Understandably. He replied, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” What he really meant was, ”You don’t trust me.”

This threefold exchange is the counterpart to when Peter denied Jesus three times the night of Jesus’ arrest.

By the time John’s Gospel appeared, Peter had become the Bishop of Rome. Peter needed rehabilitation in the Christian community. He had also suffered execution. Hence, the comment about the kind of death that Peter would face.

Which “last supper”?

The exchange about the Beloved Disciple could confuse people. It reads, “He was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper …” Actually, this supper wasn’t the Passover meal that Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe.

In John’s Gospel, the timing of the Passion story is different. There, Jesus’ last supper wasn’t the Passover meal. It was the occasion when Jesus washed their feet [John 13]. That’s when the Beloved Disciple reclined with Jesus.


The famous Leonardo da Vinci painting shows the Beloved Disciple at the last supper of bread and wine.

According to John, Jesus never ate the Passover meal with the disciples. His arrest, trial, and crucifixion all occurred on the Day of Preparation [John 19:31]. That is, the day before Passover.

Why John’s timing makes sense

In some ways, this makes sense. Surely, the Temple authorities (all devout Jews) wouldn’t have conducted a trial on such a holy day as Passover. Perhaps John was trying to rewrite the story to make that point clear.

But, the meal of bread and fish, eaten on the shore, is indeed Eucharistic. However, it harks back to the Feeding of the Five Thousand [John 6: 1-14] not to the Last Supper.

If we had only John’s Gospel to guide us, our Eucharistic celebrations would involve bread and fish, not bread and wine. Perhaps that’s why some early Christians celebrated bread and fish Eucharists in the catacombs under the City of Rome. But that idea never caught on more generally!

Am I a sheep when I follow Jesus?

Let me take off my teaching hat – or get on a different soap box. In a sense, today’s Gospel follows on from last week, with its reference to sheep. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. So it might seem reasonable for him to tell Peter to feed Jesus’ sheep.

Indeed, twice in today’s reading, Jesus says, “Follow me!” It echoes what he said when he recruited the fishermen. But I feel a bit uncomfortable in linking “Follow me” with being a sheep. Because, I don’t usually think of sheep as very thoughtful creatures.

The main characteristic of sheep is that the flock mindlessly follows a leader. The leader can be another sheep, or a shepherd, as in the 23rd Psalm. In the past, slaughterhouses kept a specially trained sheep to lead the “lambs to the slaughter.”

But which Jesus do I try to follow?

So, how should we interpret the Gospel command, “Follow me”? It’s in both today’s passage and when Jesus recruited the disciples. Who is the Jesus that I find in Scripture, the one that I try to follow, however imperfectly?

That Jesus is compassionate and inclusive. He follows the ancient precepts to love God and neighbour. As a prophet, he speaks out, when necessary, against injustice. But he also says, about those who were putting him to death. “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

That compassion leads us into difficult territory. Prophet Jesus would surely speak out against the injustice shown to George Floyd and other unarmed Black men killed by police. But would he say that Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s convicted murderer, is forgivable? Probably, like many of you, I have difficulty with that question.

Would I feel differently if Chauvin showed remorse? I simply raise the question to try and explain why I find it so difficult to know. When should I put on the prophet hat? And when should I replace it with the compassion hat?

Justice and kindness can sometimes be in conflict

Jesus told the first disciples, “Follow me.”  In John’s Gospel Chapter 21, he uses the same words to Simon Peter after challenging Peter, “Do you love me?” It’s easy to recite the words of the prophet Micah. Love justice, do kindness, walk humbly. Yet, it’s not always obvious which path is the right one. When love justice seems to conflict with do kindness. In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges Peter, “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me.” But maybe sheep are not the most thoughtful model of “followership”.  And that’s why I don’t think that “Follow me” is helpful if Jesus thinks I am a sheep.