Our gospel reading for this morning picks up right on the heels of the gospel reading we read last week, which is actually kind of odd. Last week, we read the story of “doubting” Thomas from John 20, a story that ends with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John then goes on to write,
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.
Now, that really sounds like it’s the end of the story, doesn’t it? It sounds like it should be the end of the book of John. All it’s missing is “and they lived happily ever after, the end.” So it’s kind of surprising then to turn the page and realize that John actually goes on for a whole other chapter.
Chapter 21 of John is almost like an epilogue to the rest of the gospel. John shows us one more post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Only this time, instead of quickly disappearing, Jesus invites his disciples to sit down with him to enjoy a nice breakfast on the beach. It’s easy to imagine that they had lots of questions to ask him. And we see over the course of this story that there are some loose ends that still need to be tied up. For starters, the disciples don’t really seem to have a clue what to do next now that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And after all that has happened, some of his followers have been left in kind of a rough place. We saw how Thomas had the chance to reconcile with Jesus after his experience of doubt. But Peter, on the other hand, has not really had that opportunity.
Peter’s ears surely still echoed with the sound of that rooster crowing. His heart was still heavy with guilt for having denied even knowing Jesus not just once, but three times. So when he heard the news that Jesus might have actually risen from the dead, he was the first to run to see for himself whether it was really true. But this is the first time he’s actually gotten the chance to sit and talk with Jesus. And the words that Jesus has for him sting. He says to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This is the confrontation that Peter has probably been dreading. And he responds to Jesus, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus asks him again, a second time and a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And each time, Simon Peter responds the same way, finally crying out, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!”
And maybe Peter realized in that moment what Jesus was doing – or maybe it didn’t fully sink in until later – but each time Jesus asks him that question, he gives Peter a chance to give the right answer to the question he had gotten so wrong three times before. Jesus knows Peter loves him. And he knows that Peter will even one day die for him. And so he charges Peter – along with the other disciples – to tend his flock, to carry on his mission and be his witnesses.
It’s an awesome story of redemption and transformation that is later echoed in Acts, in the story of Paul, which we read in our first reading. Saul was an overly zealous man who had gained a fearsome reputation among early Christ-followers as a persecutor of the church. The first time we see him in the bible, he is presiding over the brutal execution of Stephen. But Jesus seeks him out and meets him on the road in a heavenly vision. Paul’s encounter with Jesus stops him cold in his tracks. And in just 20 verses, Saul is transformed from someone “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” into a joyful apostle proclaiming Jesus to the whole world.
In each of these cases – both Peter and Paul, and for that matter, Thomas – they had just assumed that Jesus was done. Good or bad, they assumed that Jesus’ work was finished and that he was gone. But they were wrong about that. Jesus wasn’t gone and he wasn’t done. Even after it seems like the story is over, Jesus keeps coming back. He keeps showing up in unexpected ways. Jesus keeps turning up in the midst of whatever assumptions or expectations people have about the way things are and turns those things completely on their head.
That’s why John doesn’t end his gospel account with the neatly wrapped up ending of chapter 20. Instead, the actual ending of the gospel of John is at the end of chapter 21, where he writes:
…there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
The world cannot even contain the whole story of Christ. And the truth is that the books are still being written – because Jesus’ story still isn’t over. We still see Christ at work throughout the rest of the scriptural witness that follows these readings. Christ shows up in unexpected ways again and again over the centuries in the church and in the world. And Christ continues to surprise us now, bringing about redemption and transformation when we least expect it.
We are the Pauls, Sauls, Thomases, Simons, and Peters now. We have inherited the same mission – and we have inherited the same joyful hope that Jesus shows up in our lives and works change that we thought was impossible. Maybe you can even think of times in your own lives when that has happened, when you have felt Christ’s presence, or when God brought about redemption and renewal that you didn’t even think were possible. I know I can think of some moments in mine.
And that fills me with hope. It gives me hope even when terrible things happen like the shooting at the Poway synagogue last Saturday. It gives me hope even when I see the many families fleeing across our southern border because their homes aren’t safe. It gives me hope even when I see the way our political climate dehumanizes and divides us. I feel hopeful even when things seem most bleak because I know that Christ is not done yet. I know that he is at work in and among us to bring transformation that right now often seems impossible. And I feel hope because I believe that we are called to be agents of that transformation, to be witnesses of God at work in the world.
Jesus isn’t done yet. Just like he showed up in ordinary places like the road to Damascus – or at Peter’s literal day job – Jesus still shows up now, in our ordinary places. Every day is a new opportunity for us to be surprised by grace. Every day is a new chance for Christ to add another chapter to the books – because the story’s not over yet.