The Bridge to Freedom

We recently traveled in Normandy, France, to learn more about the events of D-Day and the days following. As we drove along the country roads winding through rural France, our guide paused beside a narrow, ancient bridge. Had she not pointed it out, we wouldn’t have noticed it. However, during the desperate weeks immediately following D-Day, as Gen. Patton struggled to carve a viable route for the 3rd Army (from the landing beaches to St. Lo, and thus into all of southern France) it soon became clear that this ancient, stone bridge stood at the center of his challenge. This bridge was the route between D-Day’s tiny foothold, and the thousands of battle-hardened Nazis entrenched across the river. Patton, and plenty of others, must have had grave doubts! But, astonishingly, beginning on July 31, 1944, and for 72 straight hours, Patton guided some 70,000 troops, along with their tanks, anti-aircraft guns and assorted heavy equipment over that 12thC, one-lane stone bridge… And it held. It stood, unshaken and steady, ultimately providing freedom and restoration for thousands in Europe. Even now, it is known locally as the “Bridge to Freedom.”

          Bridges are vital structures, which is worth noting as we look at this last chapter of John - a chapter which comes as a bit of a surprise when you look at it in context.

          John has essentially completed the Gospel story with the prior chapter. Resurrected and scared, Jesus had just appeared to the disciples, including Thomas, who declared Christ “My Lord and my God:” the strongest and culminating declaration of Jesus’ divinity in all Scripture. Christ has given His Disciples the Holy Spirit to be their Comforter. John has even written the climactic “purpose statement” for his entire Gospel in the final verse of chapter 20: “… these (signs) are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” Sounds like a pretty solid ending to me.

          But now, we get this final, seemingly extraneous chapter. Why did John include this coda event? What more needs to be said? Maybe that’s not the question. Perhaps, today’s question is: What more needs to be done? Which brings me back to that single bridge that carried 70,000 “freedom fighters” into desperate Europe.

          John 21 seems to provide both a spiritual and behavioral bridge, between the wildly unimaginable, cosmos-altering events of Easter morning, and Christ’s directive to His Disciples to become “Fishers of Men.” Today’s reading seems designed - through Christ’s actions with the Disciples - to model as it also equips His followers for the strange earthly mission that lies ahead. This is a bridge that moves from the risen Christ, into every believer across a sometimes formidable bridge question: “What now?” How do we respond to Christ’s resurrection? How are we to live as  “Fishers of Men”? “What now?…”

          The scene is set. The Disciples have left Jerusalem… where so many things had gone so shamefully wrong. In Jerusalem, Peter… well, none of them wanted to talk about what Peter had done! And, though the others had not actively betrayed Jesus, there was still plenty of guilt to go around! In Jerusalem, they had deserted Jesus, finally hiding in a locked room after He was crucified. Yes, seeing the risen Christ had amazed and transfixed them; He gave them the promised Holy Spirit, but what exactly did that mean? Surely they were wondering: “What now?”

          Like us, on this 3rd Sunday after Easter, time was moving on from the inexplicable events of Easter morning. They had left the Holy City, and returned home to Galilee. They needed to get back to work; they needed to eat! Things needed to get back to normal! So, weighted with all sorts of uncertainty, Peter (of course, Peter!) pipes up: “Well…I’m going fishing,” and the others jump into the boat with him. (Makes sense to me! I know lots of people who go fishing when things get complicated.)

          By morning, they were ravenous, and hadn’t had a nibble, when …they noticed a stranger on the beach who asks them a question they had been asked before (while standing in this same boat, on this same sea, some 3 years earlier): “Haven’t caught any fish, have you?” And just like on that earlier day (when they had laid down their nets to follow Jesus) when this man now tells them to “Cast the net to the right side of the boat,” …they can hardly manage the haul! Stunned, they instantly know “It is the Lord!”

          Look at what is happening here! Christ is demonstrating how “What now?” living works. Here, away from Jerusalem (where every good Jew would have expected to find God) Christ has come to them… right where they are, deep in the sticks of Galilee. Jesus is with them, even before they see Him. Christ’s presence assures them that (as “Fishers of Men”) they are not alone. 

          Jesus then provides what they need (in this case, a boatload of fish) and, more importantly, He shows them, once again, that they are pretty lousy fishermen on their own! Whatever this “Fishers of Men” call was, they could not do it on their own.  Without Jesus, their nets were empty, and they had no food (either physical or spiritual) … for themselves or anyone else. They needed Jesus to lead and equip their every effort.

          On the shore, Christ has prepared a hot meal for them - a universal sign of friendship and community. It seems “Fishers of Men” willingly offer practical (as well as spiritual) care. Jesus takes some fish and bread, breaks it, and feeds them, and He nourishes them - with Communion.

          In this one small exchange, Christ is simultaneously modeling and equipping His Disciples; He is placing foundation stones in the “What now” bridge between their risen Lord, and their earthly Call. Christ shows them that they are unable to become “Fishers of Men” without Him… but that He is always with His beloved disciples - ahead of them - providing for their needs, so they can also meet the needs of others. He will join, fill and refresh His beloved community, especially with His Holy restoring Communion. Christ’s Disciples, they learn, will be given what they need for the job.

          Interestingly, John tells us that the fire around which all of this has just happened, was specifically, a charcoal fire. This is an important detail we should not overlook. Peter certainly couldn’t have, for the last time we’d been told about a charcoal fire, was outside the palace of Caiaphas, when Peter had betrayed Jesus three times. Now, in the quiet that comes with a full belly, nothing needed to be said; the smoky air was laden with Peter’s guilty burden.

          Poking at the charcoal, Jesus turns to Peter: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know that I love you” he replies. Three times, Jesus asks the question, and three times Peter declares his love for Christ. Just as Peter had betrayed Jesus three times beside a charcoal fire, Jesus now forgives Peter three times, beside a charcoal fire. Then Christ does the most amazing thing: After each of Peter’s responses, Jesus re-commissions His disciple: “Feed my sheep. Tend my Sheep,” Christ says. This new command restores Peter’s call, breaks the heavy stones of guilt, and sets Peter free … to do the work Christ had given him to do. ——

          Once again (as He had throughout His earthly ministry) Jesus stresses the importance of “70 times 7” forgiveness. Even as He was dying on the cross, Christ asked His Father to forgive His killers. In the previous climatic chapter, Jesus perhaps links His gift of the Holy Spirit (which every Christian receives at Baptism) with the act of forgiveness: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

          It is hard to overstate the centrality of forgiveness to “What Now” Discipleship. Forgiveness is the essence of the Gospel and the arc of all Scripture, for it is Christ’s own costly footpath that bridges the gorge our Sin had caused. As believers, we have all been forgiven by God through Christ; how can we not forgive each other?

          Certainly, forgiving deep betrayal or cruelty can “take us where we do not want to go.” We humans can do unspeakable things to wound one another - and the decision to forgive an assaultive spouse or child molester does not mean we should return to a dangerous or unhealthy situation. However, there is a certain energy - even self-righteousness - that hanging onto our hurts and injustices can entrench… and as long as I hang onto some offense, no matter how grave, I don’t have to examine perhaps my own part in the damage done. Unforgiveness keeps us stuck as a “victim,” when it’s God’s desire that we should be free!

          The fact is (and here is the wonderful - divine - nature of forgiveness): when we forgive, we are set free! The Ones I forgive may have long since moved on - may not even remember what they did! Christ’s “bridge to freedom” for His “Fishers of Men” is paved with the costly stones of first God’s forgiveness of us, and our decision (and it is a decision) to forgive others. Our “freedom in Christ” stands on the arc of forgiveness.  ——       

          Today’s last chapter of John’s Gospel is, in many ways, Christ’s final, gracious gift to His earthly Disciples … set aside for us to ponder as we return from Easter’s mountaintop wonder to the sometimes harsh, unrepentant and dismissive world we live in, and are called to serve.  It takes awhile for Easter morning’s startling Grace to settle into any Disciple’s heart. Yet, even here - in the strange residual question: “What now?”- Jesus knows what we need, even before we can ask.

          Amazingly, as “Fishers of Men,” He shows us - gives us - what we need.  We need the assurance of His steadfast presence (knowing we can do nothing without Him.) We need the restoring companionship of communion with Him in His community. We need the promise that He will supply all our needs, so that we can supply the needs of others.  And we especially need His ultimate Gift of Forgiveness - both received and then offered … as the equipping bridge between the Perfection of our Risen Christ, and the sacred - freedom-call every Disciple receives to become “Fishers of Men.” What Grace we have just witnessed!

          And so, “after (all) this,” as the last chapter of the last Gospel closes, take comfort and hear Christ’s call to you, Beloved Disciples: “Follow Me,” He beckons. “Follow me” … across my narrow, ancient indestructible “Bridge to Freedom” and know that I am always with you!          

          Thanks be to God. Amen