Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Was Peter Fishing Naked?


“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘cast the net to 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 because there were so many 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 some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.” (John 21:4-8)

When we preach on this, the last of the Resurrection appearances in St. John’s Gospel, we rarely stop to ask the question, why was Peter fishing in the nude? After all, the story from which this short excerpt is taken contains so many wonderful images on which we might otherwise preach: the multitudinous catch of fish, the Beloved Disciple recognizing the Lord, the command of Jesus to Peter to feed his sheep, and the prediction of Peter’s own martyrdom. It is really no wonder that we pay scant attention to this obscure little detail.

However, when the Gospel is proclaimed in the midst of the people and this section of the passage is read, there are usually more than a few eyebrows raised, and one occasionally hears a chuckle or two. This past Sunday this led me to offer the throwaway comment at the outset of my homily, “I know you will all be greatly disappointed today, but I am not going to preach on why Peter was fishing in the nude.” I did promise, though, that I would supply a blog entry on the subject in the not-to-distant future.

So, why was Peter fishing naked? And why on earth would the Evangelist have included this little detail in the story? One of the things we often tell people in Bible study is to check out other English translations of the Bible when a passage seems obscure or confusing. I figured I should practice what I preach and turned to a few random versions of the Bible found on my own bookshelf.

The passage quoted above is from the New Revised Standard Version, the version that we read in public worship in the Anglican Church of Canada. Here is the line in question, once again:

“he put on some clothes, for he was naked” (NRSV).

I then turned to the precursor to the NRSV, the Revised Standard Version (RSV):

“he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work,” (RSV)

Next I checked the New International Version (NIV)

“he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off)” (NIV)

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) reads:

he put on his outer garment (for he was stripped for work)” (NASB)

Finally, I also consulted the old King James Version

"he girt his fishers coat unto him, (for he was naked)," (KJV)

What are we to make of all of this? The translations vary widely. Did he put on “clothes”, his “outer garment” or his “fisher’s coat”? Was he “naked” or “stripped for work?” Clearly there must be some ambiguity about how to translate the Greek text. Or is there some significant textual variant in the existing manuscript tradition that causes translators to opt for a different rendering?

The next order of business was to check the Greek text.

I consulted the NA27 (Nestle-Aland 27th edition), the critical edition of the Greek New Testament (a modern scholarly reconstruction of the Greek text based on all extant manuscript evidence) and there appears to be no significant manuscript variance. This means that there are no “competing versions” or “competing readings” of this passage. Fine, so how does the passage actually read in the Greek text? Here it is from NA27:

Ton ependytēn diezōsato, ēn gar gymnos

To deal with the second half of the sentence first, “ēn gar gymnos” is literally translated “for (gar) he was (ēn) naked (gymnos).” Both the KJV and the NRSV have opted for the most literal translation of the phrase. The NIV’s “for he had taken it off” interprets the phrase as referring back to the status of the garment in the first part of the passage, rather than a parenthetical comment on Peter’s status. Thus, it is a much looser, more periphrastic translation. It describes what has happened but is not a strict translation. The RSV and NASB’s “for he was stripped for work,” looks like an explanatory gloss on “naked” intended to provide a less offensive reading for more prudish eyes. Nevertheless, I considered it probably worth consulting a lexicon to determine the spectrum of meaning for the work “gymnos”.

The BAGD (Baur-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker) lexicon provides the primary definition of gymnos as “naked, stripped, bare.” However, a secondary definition attests a usage that could mean “without an outer garment.” A further definition is “poorly dressed”. So, it could have been that Peter was either naked, or simply wearing his “underclothing.” Given that ancient outer clothing might have been a bit more “billowy” that the outer clothing we wear today (no pants or button down shirts) it would be conceivable that those who engaged in various forms of manual labour might abandon their outer clothing for ease of movement. There is some evidence amongst ancient authors that this is precisely what sailors did. Perhaps this was the situation with Peter. Therefore, any translation that reads “naked,” or “stripped down,” or “without an outer garment” could be considered a plausible reading. That the RSV and NASB versions add the gloss “for work” is a helpful and probably an accurate explanation of why Peter was without clothing, but we should be aware that it is a gloss and not strictly part of the Greek text.

Now, returning to the first part of the sentence, the above translations don’t seem to be all that clear on what the garment was that Peter put on. Furthermore, there is some question as to how the garment is donned.

The Greek reads: ton ependytēn diezōsato. The garment in question is an “ependytēs”, and BAGD supplies the definition, an “outer garment,” or “outer coat.” That is clear enough. Peter was not wearing his “outer clothing.” The RSV and NRSV’s, “he put on some clothes” is perhaps lacking in precision as they fail to define what sort of clothing Peter “put on.” Therefore, in this case, the NIV (and NASB)’s “outer garment” is more precise and likely the most accurate. The KJV’s “fisher’s coat” is unfounded.

But by what means did Peter don this “outer garment?” The Greek verb is a form (aorist middle) of diazōnnymi, which means “to tie around,” or in the form here, to tie around oneself. Thus, the NIV’s “he wrapped his outer garment around him” most closely reflects the Greek in this case (the more antiquated KJV’s “girt himself” also illustrates the mode of dressing more clearly than other translations that simply imply that he “put on clothes). The significant thing is that he had to fasten his clothes about himself, perhaps by tying the garment itself, or fastening it with some kind of cincture.

Each of the translations cited above has something to commend them, but we note that none of them precisely translate the Greek text on their own. None of them are strictly wrong, as they all catch the sense of what was happening in the moment, namely, that Peter, stripped down because he was fishing, clothed himself and jumped into the water. However, if we were to seek a more precise reading out of a desire to get beyond merely the sense of the passage, we should probably translate the passage thus:

“He wrapped (or girded) his outer garment around himself, for he was naked (or stripped down).”

The above translation (or alternate translations provided in brackets) would be a very close translation to the Greek text. Of course, none of this answers the question as to why Peter needed to get dressed to jump into the water and go to the shore to meet Jesus. The most likely explanation is that while it was just fine to be “stripped down” or “semi-naked” to work, it would be inappropriate to engage in social relations in such a state. Thus, it is most likely that Peter got dressed simply because he was changing roles. He was leaving his work to meet and converse with another person, namely Jesus.

If you have followed me this far, and I congratulate you for persevering through the lesson in Bible translating, then we may still be wondering why the Evangelist would even bother to include this detail at all. Why does it matter? Would it not have been enough to have simply had Peter jump from the boat and come to meet Jesus? Why tell us that he was naked (or seriously stripped down) and got dressed? Why include this little detail that seems so unnecessary to the advancement of the story?

But is it unnecessary? I would suggest that there is something in this little detail of this final Resurrection story in the Gospel of John that makes it a very important part of the narrative. Let us recount some highlights of the narrative for a moment.

From the seashore, Jesus calls to his disciples, who are having a bad go of their fishing expedition, and tells them where to fish. The Beloved Disciple (that unnamed follower of Jesus, a crucial character in the Gospel of John), ever the astute observer, recognizes that the man on the seashore is the Risen Jesus. At this point, Simon Peter, who is naked (as are presumably the rest of the fishermen), girds his outer garment around himself and jumps into the sea and proceeds to the shore to meet Jesus. Note that none of the other disciples do this; rather, they remain attentive to their tasks and come in with their boats and the load of fish. After Jesus cooks them up a nice fish and bread breakfast over a charcoal fire, Jesus and Peter have a little chat. Thrice Jesus asks Peter to “feed his sheep.” This three-fold command and trust in Peter is clearly meant to parallel (and absolve) Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord before the crucifixion. Peter is hurt by Jesus’ pressing upon him in this way. He professed his faithfulness before his betrayal of Jesus, and now he professes it again. Perhaps, though, Jesus needs to help him understand a little more clearly what it will mean to shepherd his people, and tell him a little story, which goes something like this (according to the NRSV): “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18) Then the Evangelist has a little aside with the readers and reminds them that this was Jesus’ way of telling Peter how he would be martyred.

Interestingly enough, the verb used twice in 21:18 for “fasten” is zōnnymi (or zōnnyō), which shares the root of the verb diazōnnymi (from John 21:7, above). This leads me to wonder if Peter’s clothing of himself in 21:7 is an enactment of at least the first action of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s passion and death in 21:18. If I am correct, the Jesus’ words to Peter are an object lesson on his impetuosity and his all-too-readiness to go down a road he doesn’t quite understand. If I am indeed correct, the story reads something a little like this:

When Peter realizes that it is Jesus on the shore, with his usual impetuosity, he fastens his outer garment around himself and jumps into the water and heads to shore, leaving the other disciples to take up the slack by bringing in the boats and fish. Peter is right and ready to get back to following Jesus, and yet still he doesn’t understand what that means. When Jesus begins to explain Peter what leadership in about, he illustrates the contrast by way of Peter’s immediately prior behaviour. “Oh, Peter,” Jesus might have said, “you are so quick to gird yourself and plunge headlong into the task. That’s what we are like when we’re young, is it not? But the time will come when another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go. You won’t be wrapping your mantle about yourself so quickly then!” Or perhaps this is core of the message, “You rush to meet me now, but you do recall, don’t you, that following me is the way of the cross?”

I suppose this is all to say that the message Jesus speaks across the ages to us is that leadership in the Church is less about what we want (which is signified by Peter’s enthusiastic girding of himself with his outer garment and jumping forward to meet Jesus) and more about where the way of the Cross takes us (signified Peter being girded by others and being taken down a road that he would not otherwise traverse on his own). Indeed, Jesus reiterates to Peter (and the others, John 21:19, 22) after all is said and done, the same call he uttered first in John 1:43 at the outset of his ministry, “Follow me.” These words take us to a cross, but that cross is the glory of God. Christian leadership is fully realized in the glory of the cross. It is not a mantle that we tie about ourselves lightly.

If I am correct about these things, this is the reason that John tells us the story of why Peter was fishing naked (or at least in his underwear).

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"You are Witnesses to These Things" - A Reflection for Eastertide, 2010

Before Jesus ascends into heaven in the final verses of St. Luke’s Gospel, he sat with his disciples and had a little Bible Study. We are told that “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things.”

Just in case that had not fully understood, after following him through his ministry, after watching him be taken away to trial and execution, and then after seeing him appear to them not as a ghost, but in his physical body, he made it absolutely clear what his life, death, and resurrection meant (and continue to mean). The story of Jesus is about repentance and reconciliation, it is about facing our darkness that we might dwell in the light, it is about touching our brokenness that we might live in wholeness.

It is difficult for us to recognize within ourselves the need for repentance. It is much easier to look upon the sins and faults of others and call them to repentance. It is much easier to cry out “you have hurt me!” than to confess, “I know that I have hurt you.” It is much easier to look upon the darkness of this world and be thankful that I am not living in poverty or broken relationships, than to look at myself in the mirror and face my own spiritual and emotional poverty, or to really take stock of the relationships in my life that need mending. It is much easier for me give sympathy to those who are broken, in body mind or spirit, than to admit that I have much within my own life that needs healing. It is not easy claim our need to repent, to turn from darkness, and ask for healing.

This is what our Lenten journey has been about. It has been about doing that deep “shadow work” and bearing our souls to the light of Christ, that we might be transformed by the light. At the apex of if all is the moment when Christ, in deepest humility and profound vulnerability, hung on the cross. In that event, our shame was exposed before God and before the world.

I have often pondered why it took a few days for Jesus to rise from the dead? After all God could have done it in an instant. Why wait until Sunday? The Crucifixion-event is the moment in which human shame is exposed for all to see. Sometimes we need to sit with the shame of our failures exposed for a time. We need to weep before the cross of our brokenness and failure. Any one of us will know that transformation takes time. Healing takes time. When we recognize we are in need of healing, that is the first step. To live with what ails us is another. To expose our brokenness so that we might get help in our healing is yet another stage. I wonder if that period between mid-day on Good Friday and early dawn of Easter morning is the moment of exposure in which our tears flow that we might be washed thoroughly by God’s healing grace?

Then healing comes. Transformation comes. Christ is Risen! Then comes perspective. Jesus opens the Scriptures to his disciples and explains to them what it has all meant: recognizing brokenness, confessing that we need healing, exposing our wounds by seeking reconciliation, living for a moment in the nakedness of our shame and sadness, and then, in our vulnerability, finding our strength. The cross gives way to the risen life.

“You are witnesses to these things.”

We are not citizens of first century Judea, so no; we are not witnesses in that sense. But we are indeed witnesses. If we have hurt others and our Lord has turned that hurt into reconciliation, we are his witnesses. If we have felt overwhelmed by the darkness of the world only to realize that the light shines more brightly and casts away the darkness, then we are his witnesses. If we have hidden our brokenness -- physical, emotional or spiritual -- and later found that in unveiling our brokenness before the Great Physician, we have been healed, then we are his witnesses.

If we have, in moments of weakness, in our most fragile vulnerability, called upon the Lord and known his gentle healing touch, we are indeed his witnesses. And if we have not, it is never too late, for Christ Jesus, risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, is the enduring witness of God’s healing love.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sing, My Tongue, The Glorious Battle - A Reflection for Good Friday

The Good Friday liturgy is, without a doubt, the most solemn liturgy of the year. At the appointed hour the congregation assembles and the clergy enter the church in silence, dressed only in their black cassocks. The altar and chancel, having been stripped of all adornments the previous evening, appear stark and barren. The service begins with a solemn confession, without absolution. The absence of the absolution is striking and we might wonder where that particular liturgical event has gone, but as the liturgy unfolds, we come to understand that the entire liturgical enactment of our Lord’s passion is the absolution so desperately sought after by our wounded souls. Readings from Scripture then follow. First we hear of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53; next is chanted the words of the twenty-second psalm, the very cry of Jesus’ dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Next, come words from Hebrews, and finally, the long reading of St. John’s Passion. Following the homily, we pray the Solemn Intercession punctuated by moments of silence.

The drama of the liturgy heightens when a large wooden cross is carried in procession around the church while a hymn is sung. This procession often takes place to the singing of that well-beloved hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The cross is then placed before the people and all kneel in devotion as the meditation on the cross is sung. Our Book of Alternative Services, provides several anthems that may be sung, but the most powerful of these contains a series of solemn reproaches, literally a dialogue between God and God’s people reproaching us for the evil that we do, in which we in turn respond with the ancient words of the Trisagion, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal one, have mercy upon us.” The reproaches are harsh and elicit profound emotional and spiritual reflection on our own failings as a people, and as a species in spite of the infinite majesty, goodness, and love of God. The words of the confession at the opening of the service are most fully experienced and understood at this point. Few are not moved to tears. Nails may be driven into the wooden cross at this point in the service.

For many, this may be the most powerful liturgy of the Church Year as it draws us deep into the reality of our human brokenness and need of divine healing. It is in this liturgy that we face the demons of our existence. It is in this liturgy that we realize that it is we who have crucified our Saviour. All we like sheep have gone astray.

A strange thing happens just before the liturgy ends, though. The rubric in the liturgy then states, most assertively, that “the hymn ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,’ or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross” is to be sung. To my knowledge, this I the only place in the entire Book of Alternative Services in which a particular hymn is instructed to be sung. The ancient hymn, written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus, translated by the incomparable Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), and preferably sung to the triumphant tune “Oriel”, begins:

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
sing the ending of the fray;
now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,
as a victim, won the day.

The participant in the liturgy will then experience a striking dissonance with the rest of the liturgy. It may feel as if this solemn liturgy has been “wrecked” by this triumphant hymn. This dissonance is intended, for we are then drawn out of the darkness and hopelessness of our human condition by the proclamation that in the cross of Christ we are redeemed from al l that ails us. The instrument of death and shame has been transformed for us by God, into a sign of hope and new life. Thus, the cross is no longer seen as an insidious instrument of torture, but instead as the new tree of life. The third verse underscores this with these words,

Faithful cross, thou sign of triumph,
now for us the noblest tree,
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!

The tree of life can carry all the weight that we cannot carry, our personal failings, the failings of our systems and governments, and incomprehensible evil that men and women do. The tree of life takes it all and in spite of it all blossoms forth with the fruit of redemption, reconciliation and new life. This gives us reason to rejoice, even during the enactment of our most solemn liturgy. It does not wreck the mood of the day; rather, it transforms it, and proclaims the mystery of our faith. It pronounces the absolution that is missing at the opening of the liturgy. This is why this day “good” Friday and not “bad” Friday: The cross which should appear to be bad news is in fact Good News. We stay not under the condemnation of our brokenness but taste of the fruit of the tree of life.

Then, in faith we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us, and depart in silence, meditating on this joyous truth, and awaiting the promise of Easter.

c. 2010, The Rev. Daniel F. Graves