The final chapter of John is admittedly a little strange. Chapter 20 seems to provide the climax and the finality the story needs, and chapter 21’s focus on Peter feels almost too particular. There is a certain awkwardness to ending this way. (For a variety of reasons, many scholars doubt that ch. 21 is original to John, but that is not my concern. In dealing with the whole as we have it in canonical form, I merely want to note the nature of the composition.) How does the chapter fit?
A gritty realism is manifest in the return to Peter’s unresolved issues after the commission of 20:21, the realization of 20:28, and the formulaic conclusion of 20:31. Coming off the high of the resurrection, Peter seems to regress. In this, he may be as iconic as ever. We don’t know his motives for deciding to go fishing, whether simple pragmatism (money or food), some darker reason (disorientation or despair),
or something else altogether, but the ensuing scenes certainly point to his need for something more to get things on track.
Moreover, all along the way there have been hints that John is making an effort to supplement or spring from known accounts of the story (i.e., the other Gospels), and this is one of the clearest instances. If we compare Luke’s fishing story (Luke 5:1-11), it is evident that Peter’s vocation is at issue. The disciples were commissioned in 20:21, but Peter is struggling more fundamentally with his initial calling. His triple denial is still wreaking havoc on his psyche. It is wonderful to note, however, that at least some of the others were sticking with him. The simple exchange in 21:3 is more than terrible scripting for a felt-board reenactment.
“We will go with you,” for all its simplicity, can be read as a very powerful statement of solidarity.
It is the recapitulation of the initial call, miraculous catch and all, that sends Peter overboard with abandon. Jesus will yet make him a fisher of men. But this is not a “reinstatement;” it is much more personal than that. The meal with the disciples sets the tone. This is fellowship. This is them with him around a cook-fire, as they had undoubtedly been so many times before.
But something lingers in the air. Peter, the one who had gone all in, buckled when things got dicey. Will Jesus really send him—or any of them, for that matter—as God sent Jesus? After all, Jesus, the good shepherd, did actually lay down his life when the wolves came (10:11–18). Peter proved a coward. Not once but three times he denied Jesus to save his skin. And so not once but three times Jesus asks him the critical question: Do you love me? It is painful, but it is necessary to set Peter free for his vocation to be a good shepherd.
Forgiveness is not the problem. Peter’s weakness is not the problem. The problem is simply his unwillingness to accept that, despite himself, he still has a calling to fulfill, which love of Jesus must compel. Feed my sheep! Follow me! This side of the resurrection, we often need to hear the call again.