When is a Thing not a Thing?
In the cabinet to right and above the stove, are four Ball Mason jars, two wide mouth and two regular, each quart sized. They are what you would commonly think of if you thought of a Mason Jar, transparent glass with the word ‘Mason’ imprinted on the bottom and the word ‘Kerr’ in script above it. Normally, my wife and I drink water out of them, trying to stay hydrated the best we can by making sure we get around two jars a day. Occasionally, they get used for craft projects for the children or as flower vases if we happen to bring in wildflowers.
And yet the Mason jar is more than a simple drinking jar; it is a series of memories and cultural affectations, born of a lifetime of experiences. It is drinking sweet tea in the backyard of a particularly humid evening at the parsonage in Thomaston. It is seeing my aunt Louise’s cellar at Possum Trot on the Berry College campus filled with summer vegetables to be eaten at family dinners in the fall or winter. It is an afternoon of painting random things on typing paper with my children or the centerpiece to a table set for neighbors at seminary in Kentucky.
It is a drinking jar and yet, it is much more than that. It is a reminder of home and the things that make home, well, home. It is a connection to something deep, meaningful, a sense of belonging that comes with the combination of memory and experience. That drinking jar is a sign, a significant marker of an emotional bond existing beyond the time and space of its birth.
Each of us could probably think of something that we see or use in a similar fashion. And the truth is it can be anything from a physical object to a certain smell to a certain feeling you have. All of these things can be signs that bind us to people, places, and moments in time.
A definition of Semiotic theology
When we read biblical literature, we find texts filled with allusions to signs, things which are representative of something other than themselves. I say signs rather than symbols because signs are part of a system called codes, a series signs that are put together to send out direct and meaningful communication. It’s like developing a language using not only words and thoughts but gestures and movements, all done for a particular circumstance.
For instance, say you went to a college football game. How would we know that a particular person was a fan of a particular team? The stadium will be filled with colors, those of the home team and those of the visiting team. Let’s say the home team is red and the visitors are blue. A man wearing a red shirt is standing just outside, watching people walk into the stadium. Is the red shirt a definite giveaway that he is for the home team? Not really. He could just like red and be standing there to see what all the commotion is about. But what if add a red hat to go with the shirt? It’s still not enough to say for sure that the man is interested in the home team. What if I told you it was Saturday and you were in Athens, Georgia, outside Sanford Stadium? Almost there, but still not quite. One final crucial touch, one more sign is necessary to make the code complete, and that sign is the letter G. The G on the shirt would be the definitive sign to make the code complete or at least make it close enough to reasonably assume so.
All of these signs – the red shirt, the red hat, the location, the crowd – point in the direction of a certain thing but it requires one crucial sign, the G, to let you know with some certainty that the man is a fan of the home team. When all those signs come together, we call that a code, which is kind of like a language for a specific circumstance. In this case the language is made up of clothing that is a certain color, a location that has specific purpose, a certain day of the week, and an insignia on the clothing. This is the language of college football and any fan in the south would have recognized with just a few of those signs the language or code being spoken.
John chapter 21 is actually an addendum, like the first part of chapter 1. Most scholars believe it was added later after the basic manuscript was finished[i] and our job is to look at the signs and see what code they point to, to try to find out why it might have been added and for what purpose, kind of like being spiritual code breakers.
Fishing as a sign
Peter, as several other disciples, was a fisherman. As our story begins in chapter 21, Peter goes back to doing what he had always done, what he knew how to do: fish. Given that Peter could not handle the boat and nets alone, he enlisted the help of his fellow disciples.[ii] The disciples go fishing and find nothing all night for their troubles, not a solitary fish for the effort. The next morning, exhausted physically from the work and mentally from recent events, they head in to shore. Waiting there on the shore as they head in is a man they do not recognize who refers to them as children and asks if they caught anything. They say no and the stranger tells them to throw the net out to the other side of the boat where they find ‘so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net.’[iii] Peter recognizes Jesus and impetuously jumps into the water, swimming to shore while the others bring in the boat and the net. Once ashore, they find Jesus sitting there at a fire, waiting with bread which he gives them to go with the fish (a common menu reminiscent of John 6:1-15). The writer of the addendum notes that Jesus has now appeared three times to the group since his death.
Fishing, according to one theologian, might represent bringing to light those things in your subconscious that you have previously not wanted to deal with. Eating also has subconscious overtones, in this case to begin to assimilate or accept things that you have previously not wanted to accept.[iv] In the disciple’s case, they are having to deal concretely, with the death and consequent resurrection of their master and friend. So, this fishing episode may well be a sign to point to their acceptance of Jesus death and resurrection.
Asking Simon “Do you love me?” three times as a sign
The second part takes place after breakfast, as Jesus asks a very pointed question to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” This question plays on two things: Peter’s tendency to react quickly or impetuously and Peter’s internal desire to set himself above the other disciples. We see this throughout the gospel of John as Peter is often the one of the group to speak up, out, and often too much for and in the situation.[v] The words used for ‘love’ are different in Jesus question and Peter’s answer. Jesus says, ‘do you agape me?’ and Peter responds ‘I phileo you’. This is an important distinction in that the words are translated into English as the same but have very different meanings. Mixed in with this is Jesus admonition to take care of the other followers: “Feed my lambs”, “Take care of my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”. This repetition is similar to the repetition of Peter’s denial in John 18 and points Peter back to a time when he had said, “I’ll give up my life for you”.[vi]
Agape is best understood in light of the meal that the disciples share with Peter, a meal reminiscent of the Eucharist or love feast meals of the early church. This idea of agape is the idea of love of man for God and God for man. It is akin to the idea of a complete, unreserved feeling of affection for another.[vii] Phileo on the other hand, is a lesser expression, which has to do with have feelings of fondness or to treat someone with kindness and affection. Phileo is more a surface expression of affinity for something where agape goes to the bone, a deep, intense connection.
The second sign seems to be that Peter will be tasked with a responsibility for the ‘sheep’ of Jesus’ flock and that Peter will be expected to love as Jesus loved and most likely die as Jesus died.
The disciple Jesus loved as a sign
After their discussion, Peter looks and sees ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ – who many presume to be John the son of Zebedee – and asks, “what about him?” In other words, Peter is saying, ‘you are giving me all this stuff to do but what is he going to be up to.’ It reminds me of my kids doing chores when one of them is doing something and the other is doing something they regard as easier. “Why does he/she only have to do that?”
Within this passage, the Greek gets a little technical. Suffice it to say, the point is about whether the beloved disciple will remain alive until Jesus returns as is mentioned in Mark 9:1. Jesus makes it clear that this is irrelevant in the grander scheme of things, saying to Peter, “It doesn’t matter what he does. You know what you have to do.” Ultimately, the point is the point I make to my children, “You each have things to do. Now, go do them.” Jesus is saying that each disciple will be tasked with something according the direction that the Spirit of God give them.
As a sign, we might regard this as a commissioning of sorts, with each disciple having a God-given responsibility in the years to come.
The code for the signs
If we were putting these signs together into a code, a collection of signs that point to a singular idea or expression of something, it might look something like this. The disciples, having faced their grief over Jesus death and shock over his resurrection are now being given individual tasks to live into going forward. The code for this might be that this future assembly of followers will also have to come to grips with the death and resurrection of Jesus as they who follow the followers and the follower’s followers learn how to live into the life that God calls them to through the work of Jesus.
So, what do you think?
Barthes, R. (1977). Elements of Semiology. New York: HIll and Wang Publishing.
Danesi, M. (2008). Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things (2nd ed.). New York, NY, USA: Palgrave MacMillan.
Eco, U. (1979). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Haenchen, E. (1984). John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 7-21. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Richards, I. (1965). The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford Universtiy Press.
Sanford, J. A. (2000). Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
Spong, J. S. (2013). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
[i] (Sanford, 2000, p. 332)
[ii] (Haenchen, 1984, p. 230)
[iii] John 21:6
[iv] (Sanford, 2000, p. 333)
[v] John 6, 13, 18, 20, 21
[vi] John 13:36-38