Jesus Does Pandemic Pastoral Visitation
by Victor Lee | 7 December 2021 |
So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already made and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” So Simon Peter went up and hauled the net to land, full of large fish, and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to inquire of Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. John 21:9-14
It wasn’t a COVID lockdown, or any virus-related epidemic, like our current crisis. But for the disciples of Jesus it may have been worse:
There was a bounty on them for alleged tomb robbery.
And it was no ordinary tomb either. It had been a body snatching at the grave of the condemned and crucified self-proclaimed King of the Jews. The Jewish religious governing body had even bribed the military of pagan Rome to bear false witness against innocent Galilean fishermen.
But this narrative, commonly raised during the Easter preaching calendar, has deep implications for the current prolonged shelter-in-place circumstances we have been subjected to.
For you see, in that moment of crisis, the disciples had scurried back home. 180 kilometers north. Probably hugging the shadows by night and staying out of sight by day till they reached the security of their Galilean villages and kinsmen. They went back to doing what fishermen do, and even while doing that, they remained shrouded in the darkness of night. Rowing quietly, with minds elsewhere, in silent brooding over the crisis that is now their collective experience.
Perhaps they fear the risk of another suicidal anguish, of turning against each other, or even turning away from their calling to Messianic witness.
But along came the risen Jesus! Again! For the third time, says John. And he called out to them through both the fogs of the morning and their miserable disposition.
“Children (KJV) [Friends (NIV); Syrs (Geneva 1587, Tyndale 1526)], you do not have any fish to eat, do you?”
They answered him, “No.”
Pause. Break it down.
Both “friends” and “syrs” (or “sirs”) are not the best attempts at translating the word used in the Greek paidia, which is the word for a “little child” or “infant”. But even these are awkward.
My biblical languages mentor, Richard Litke, would often advise that when we cannot determine the word from the Greek, try it in a Semitic language, which more commonly starts with Hebrew and Aramaic. Since Mel Gibson has informed/reminded the global audience that Jesus spoke Aramaic, in the Aramaic the most common word is yalad, which is a child or small infant. But you also have another word which is a play on the Hebrew. Jesus may have used talitha (from the root word tela), rather than yalad. Talitha, in Aramaic, means a child, but in Hebrew means “a wounded lamb.” Jesus was skillful at word-play, and his use of talitha would make sense since there would be high probability the disciples understood Hebrew, especially as it was used as a ceremonial language (the way Latin was commonly used in the Catholic Church).
So, if “wounded lambs” it is, now we have a double (and maybe triple) entendre. The disciples, led by Peter, were wounded lambs. They went through a great disappointment and now are marked men. Peter would have been in deep emotional agony after thrice denying his Master. Now they were all marked men, in the crosshairs of Rome’s assassins.
And, later on, of a Pharisee. (“The name is Tarsus… Saul of Tarsus.” The spy who stones you.)
But there, in the quietness of solace, it was not yet time to die.
It must be him!
Jump to the part where their empty nets filled up again, and muscle memory kicks in: feelings of deja vu followed by that serendipitous breath, and finally, the all-too-often cry of the human soul,
Let it please be him, oh dear God
It must be him, it must be him
or I shall die, or I shall die
Oh hello, hello my dear God
It must be him … 
Fully clothed and dripping wet, Peter approaches the risen Lord, with a perfectly timed charcoal fire ready for outdoor cooking. And again a communal act of eating takes place, a common meal in which Jesus participated. And what a pastoral visit that was for “wounded lambs”! They would now be able to identify much more mindfully with the Lamb that was slain.
And Peter son of Jonah would now face the challenge of Christ’s agape request to feed and shepherd the Savior’s sheep and lambs. Would he willingly go as Apostle to the Gentiles, to feed lambs of the remnants of Ninevites, Amalekites, Vegemites, and even Marmites?
And what if a Roman citizen, blinded assassin, wounded lamb from Gamaliel’s HQ, comes knocking at the door? (Galatians 1:17-19)
During our COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, there are church members, families, youth and children, whose lives are disrupted. While people are on the whole resilient, adaptive and survivors, God desires far more than mere human survival adaptation, which often manifests itself in defensive, angry, ungracious, aggressive, relational strategies. Husbands and wives, having to tolerate the imposed, unanticipated 24/7 under the same roof (throw in the children and spaghetti on the wall), may find it very tricky (and sticky).
And then, there are families separated by travel restrictions, some internationally, still some even for months and years. They missed birthdays, weddings, emergency cases, funerals and the pastoral ministries, as well as church fellowship support that accompanies the priesthood of all believers.
Before I left my local church congregation, a young pastor arrived. I was there to hear him cast his vision for ministry. What stood out to me at that meeting was his emphasis on being well dressed; we as men should follow his example to wear shirt and tie (even in tropical heat)—mainly, I gathered, to set us apart from other denominations who have relaxed standards of their outer appearances. Currently, the outstanding feature in that church’s social media account is the attendance record of online meetings organized by the pastor.
I’m sure these things are highly valuable to his performance, and institutional KPIs*. But I’m rather bewildered why there has not been a phone call, or an email, or even a text message to either my wife or myself from the pastor himself? What is the relevant equivalent to Jesus’ asking, “How is the fishing? You guys been eating?”
And I guess, absent personal pastoral care during pandemics, we turn to others who are willing to provide it—or failing that, to minister to ourselves. How does a husband feed his wife spiritually and emotionally when all he has is a wifi connection? (Wifi for the wifey.) How does he feed his children for every aspect of their growth, in grace and graciousness, in favor with God and humankind?
Going fishing as Peter bar Jonas and his Jonas brothers did, is not the way. The Master is around the corner. (Let the reader understand!)
I have an idea what it’s like to be separated from home and family, and church for a long time. That is my predicament over the past two years—separated across international borders. Is there anyone else out there experiencing a similar situation?
If so, then may we hear the voice of the True Shepherd, “Talitha koum!” Wounded lamb, arise! (Mark 5:41).
What was the ending to John’s gospel account? Christ’s pastoral visit was a call to action: “Follow me.”
*Key Performance Indicators
- Those like Joachim Jeremias who dedicated their lives to pursuing knowledge of Jesus’ native tongue caught wordplays that are simply lost to us. They help point out, for example, an added layer of Matthew 23:24 is that the Aramaic word for gnat is galma and the word for camel is gamla. Without those like Jeremias, this one would just fly over our heads.
- “It Must Be Him”, by Gilbert Francois Leopold Becaud / Mack David / Maurice Alfred Marie Vidalin
Victor Lee studied Theology at Avondale College, Political Science at Flinders University (Singapore Campus), and works in the new rubric of Agroecological Epigenetics developed at Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD). He was born in Indonesia, grew up in Sydney, Australia, and has made the mega biodiversity of Borneo his home for the past ten years.