Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

First Sunday After New Sunday (2nd Sunday After Easter)

Sermon / Homily on John 21:1-14

The Scapegoat: Sermon on John 21:1-19

by Prof. Dr. David Zersen

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tibe'ri-as; and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathan'a-el of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zeb'edee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you. They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing.

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Friends, have you any fish?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net on 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, for the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang 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, but about a hundred yards off.

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
W. Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat (1854)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, "Follow me." (RSV)


The major news in the United States this week is that a well-known radio and TV personality, Don Imus, was fired from his posts because he called the female players on a Rutgers' female basketball team "nappy headed hos." Imus has long been known for vocabulary that dances on the edge between comedic and crude. In this case, most fair-minded people agree that he went too far and implied things about respectable athletes that were inappropriate. More to the point, and digging a bit deeper, however, a popular columnist in the Austin-American Statesman, John Kelso, writes (4/13/07): "If these companies (who fired Imus) are going to go around hiring people, pushing them on stage, and saying, ‘Go for it. Insult them till they bleed. Attract a lot of listeners for us. Boost our ratings,' then they should be held accountable by the only thing they understand: their wallets."

What Kelso is saying is that Imus was made the scapegoat, the fall guy, the patsie for media execs who were all too happy to accept the $50 million he raised for them through advertising in the past year. And the advertisers were all too happy to dump Imus' programs so as not be seen as sharing in guilt by association. And Jesse Jackson, who has his own list of peccadilloes to which he's pleaded guilty, was all too happy to lead the charge against the immoral Imus. The point is not that Imus used bad judgement. He did. The point is that these indiscretions happen again and again, and critics like to point the finger in the hope that it will point away from them. And if they get by with their finger-pointing at others, the question is whether their guilty consciences will excuse them for long. Imus did the right thing. He held a meeting with the girls and apologized to them personally (although the governor of New Jersey who was to mediate the session was critically wounded in a car accident on the way to the meeting and never got there). The question is whether the media execs and the advertisers and the protest leaders and the general public all of whom not only tolerated but seemed to enjoy Imus' rough language over the years (consider the ratings of his shows and that Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential leaders in the U.S.) are accepting their complicity in the wrongdoing?

Today's Gospel lesson allows us to explore this same theme from an interesting perspective. This is a less a miracle story about catching fish and a remarkable post-resurrection experience than it is a story about scapegoats and finger-pointing, about guilt and redemption. Here we have not only Jesus and Peter, but also James and John, Thomas and Nathaniel, and two other unnamed disciples. On the one hand, Peter can be considered the fall guy. Every dramatic and controversial situation needs a good fall guy. Peter was the one who that evening at Jesus' capture in the garden denied that he had any knowledge of or ties to the captive. Next to the great betrayer, he was the great denier! Of course, the others were clearly not innocent. Did they reprimand Peter? Did they tell the guards that Peter was a Galilean just as they all were?

And on the other hand, there is more here than Peter "the fall guy." The disciples as a whole let Jesus be the ultimate fall guy. He who had done no wrong was not defended or justified by anyone. Guards took him away in the presence of mute followers who were unwilling to acknowledge that they shared Jesus' view. They said to no one that if Jesus were a dissenter in the community of the self-proclaimed righteous of their day, so were they all. They shared his guilt. More, they were the only guilty ones.

Overwhelming and dramatic as that incident was, it is now in the past. The disciples are now back in their boat on the Sea of Galilee, doing what they know best, trying to catch fish. Life goes on. Or does it? One can wonder what they thought as they sat together in the boat. Perhaps they didn't say it out loud. Surely, there were deeply painful acknowledgements in their inner thoughts. "If only we had spoken up?" "If only Peter wouldn't have shot off his mouth so quickly?" "If we only would have taken seriously the loyalty we had pledged to our Master?" "Is it too late now?" "Of course, it's too late." "Who can change this around?"

Let's just take a moment to reflect on what else the disciples knew. Perhaps you have heard of the ancient practice of "scape-goating" which was a part of the Yom Kippur celebration in Judaism. The priests brought two goats to the temple. One was sacrificed, and the high priest placed his hands on the head of the other while he confessed the sins of the people. Then this goat, with a scarlet band on his head representing the sins of the people, was taken out into the wilderness. This was the scapegoat, the fall guy, and the one who took upon himself the sins of the people. This concept took on Messianic meaning when in Isaiah (53:4), it is said of the Suffering Servant:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. (NIV)

Certainly, on the back burners of their faith and understanding as Jews, this concept was real to the disciples in the boat. Sin and guilt, even human deceit and betrayal could be absolved. Even the cheap shots, the all-too-willing frame-ups in which we make others our patsies, can be forgiven in some way. Somehow, someone can take this guilt and release it into the wilderness. But how is this done? And can it still be done? And where is this goat?

Suddenly, as the disciples are sitting in the boat, early in the morning, they hear a voice: "Friends, have you any fish?" And Peter says-- Peter who usually talks too much but has been rather quiet because of his burden of guilt-- "It is the Lord." One thing leads to another; there is a breakfast by the seaside, a little meal of fish and bread over the fire, a kind of celebration meal, and then a little conversation. It is the conversation that everyone is dreading.

Will there be accusations, criticisms, and denunciations? Will we finally get what's coming to us? What transpires is quite different, however. Jesus keeps asking Peter if he loves him, if he loves him more than he loves his other friends and companions. And to Peter's initial tentative but ultimately bold affirmation, Jesus says, "Feed my sheep." Jesus, in other words, forgives him, affirms him and re-commissions him. Jesus provides an alternative approach to the all too human approach to sin and guilt. Whereas we typically need to say, when there has been some kind of transgression, "somebody's got to pay," There has to be a scapegoat! Yet Jesus shows us another way. He, who has every right to be hurt, resentful, angry, and judgmental, embraces the offender and gives him a new lease on life. Where is the justice in this? What kind of justice is this?

Rene Girard provides a theological and psychoanalytic analysis of this interaction in his concept of mimetic desire. The human nature in all of us wants what others have, authority, power, wealth, intelligence. This desire creates a struggle that puts the community's stability at risk. The solution, as things get tense, is to expel (or in extreme cases, kill) someone, restoring the order people need or want. However, the cycle continues the next time there is another confrontation because of who we are. Girard's view is that this explains the crucifixion of Jesus, the expulsion of the one whose wisdom, humility, and righteousness is a threat to others, especially those who have claimed such virtues for themselves. However, the resurrection that follows demonstrates that we are always wrong in the one whom we expel or even kill. Those of us who practice scapegoating, and don't we all, sooner or later have to come to grips with the fact that is our problem. To make matters even worse, the innocent one that we seek to destroy is the very one who is capable of freeing us from our problem and making us whole.

This has a very meaningful application for us. Many are the situations in our personal lives or our work lives when tensions and struggles make it difficult for us to acknowledge our complicity with wrongdoing. The easiest solution is to point the finger of blame. When we have not learned how to reconcile differences, when at personal or public levels we refuse to talk to someone, when we start a rumor to focus attention away from us, when we rally antagonists or when we initiate a war-we are on a witch hunt to frame a fall guy. Do I need to put the names on those to whom we have done this?

The Christian story is very powerful because it is real. It helps us to see ourselves for what we are, the ones who are responsible, and if not totally, then certainly partially, for the troubles and wrongs that rise up around us. And when we come to grips with our own failures and shortcomings, and agonize over the guilt that is uniquely ours, we are stunned to learn of the one who was sent to the cross by the finger-pointers as a scapegoat for others. And as we tremble in fear over the judgement and denouncement that could rightly be ours, we hear with joy the good news about the resurrected Christ, who is waiting to forgive us, to affirm us and to re-commission us.

Fall guys can make us feel guiltier than we really are because in addition to our wrongdoing we have placed the blame on someone else. How do we face people to whom we have done this?

And how do we face people who have done this to us? Jesus shows us a new way. He asks us how much we love him, and then he sets us free. In Jesus' love, there is no revenge, payback, or punishment. In Jesus' love there is only emancipation, freedom and new beginnings.

I'm so happy to have found a fall guy who accepts me in all my shortcomings and failures and who sets me free to try again. And I want to find someone today with whom I can share that kind of love. Don't you? Who will it be? Is it someone you have blamed or who has blamed you? What is his/her name? Can we remember them together in prayer now?

Dear Lord God, thank you so much for the love which you have shared with us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Help us now to find those whom we have alienated and blamed for wrongs that were our own. Give us the courage and the joy to share your love with those who have made us their own scapegoats so that they can be free to live anew. Let this day provide us with new beginnings and a fresh start. Help us to feed your lambs and restore your sheep.

In the name of Jesus, our Lord, Amen

Prof. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin
Austin, Texas

See Also:

Sermon of the Week for the Second Sunday After Easter
by Rev. Dr. V. Kurian Thomas, Valiyaparambil

From Augustine's Tractates on John: Tractate 122

Happy to Find a Fall Guy
by Hubert Beck

Sermons and Commentaries for the First Sunday after New Sunday

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