This coming Sunday as we observe the Third Sunday in the Easter Season, we will read from one of my favorite chapters in the Bible—John 21:1-19. It is the post-resurrection account of Jesus meeting up with his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias (aka, Sea of Galilee) and of Jesus’ threefold question to Peter—“Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21:15-17).
Every time I sit with this passage I am struck by the dynamics at play. For one, you have Peter deciding to go fishing. It seems innocent enough, but it begs the real question: “Peter, what are you trying to run away from?” What we see Peter doing is something we all can do, regress back into old habits that really lead nowhere, but in which we have a false sense of security.
If we recall Jesus’ words to Peter when he invited him to become his disciple, it was seemingly clear cut—“Come after me” (in some translations, “Follow me”) (see Mk 1:17; Mt 4:19; Lk 5:11). What Peter is wrestling with even in the light of Jesus’ resurrection—notice that John the Evangelist does note that “Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples” (Jn 21:1)—is the temptation to start doing things his own way again. The proverbial, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Interestingly, the results are apparent almost immediately in the Gospel passage—“that night they caught nothing” (Jn 21:3). For me, it is noteworthy that Peter’s action transpires under the cloak of darkness, gets others to join him, and is void of any results (see Jn 21:3).
Into this mix enters the Risen Lord Jesus though he is not immediately recognized. Notice that he is standing on the shore which calls to mind not only the original call of Peter, James and John, but also the stormy times at sea and who grounds them … who gets them to shore … in the tempest (see Jn 6:21). Jesus shows his concern by asking them if they have “caught anything to eat” (Jn 21:5). There is a bit of humor in the moment because Jesus does call them “Children” when asking the question. In my mind, it represents God’s parental concern for each one of us, but it suggests also that Jesus was cajoling them a bit about the way the disciples were acting—like children who apparently weren’t getting their way.
Nonetheless, reminiscent of the call story of Peter in Luke’s Gospel, where he had “worked hard all night and caught nothing” (Lk 5:5), Peter and his companions are invited to cast their net “over the right side of the boat” and the haul they receive is so great that the fishermen can’t pull it in. A couple of details worth noting in this scene is the fact that unlike the original call story in Luke, this time they do not have to cast into the deep—actually the fishermen are quite close to the shore as the Gospel notes (see Jn 21:8). Second, it is from Jesus’ right side that “blood and water flowed out” (see Jn 19:34) indicative of the flood of God’s mercy and new life that would make all things new (see Rv 21:5).
Interestingly, it is in this moment that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” recognizes the Risen Lord in their midst. I find Peter’s reaction interesting because in that moment he recognizes his nakedness before the Lord—the last time such a detail is noted is in the story of Adam and Eve after the Fall (see Gn 3:10-11)—so he tucks in his garment and jumps into the sea! Yes, Jesus Christ does turn things for us upside down! Peter himself will testify to this fact when he is crucified upside down rather than in the traditional Roman manner.
As the disciples step onto the shore, they find that breakfast awaits them. In the words of Psalm 145—“The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” What a testimony to the fact that God meets you and me where we are at in life! Even more, he invites us to share life with him as indicated by the invitation to bring to the repast some of the fish just caught. I invite us to notice the new energy that a simple encounter with Jesus instills in Peter who hauls the same net in alone (see v. 11) vs. the other disciples who had been dragging it before (see v. 8).
The evangelist notes that the disciples did not have to ask him who he was—they knew it (see v. 12). This leads me to another whole reflection that if we as Church are called to be the living body of Christ in the world what is making him so difficult to be seen in our world today, especially in nations where Christian houses of worship dot the land and in which the Risen Lord Jesus is made present in the breaking of bread?
This leads me to the second major scene in this Gospel passage—Jesus questioning Peter about his love for him. In a certain sense, it is quite natural since Peter just tried to run away from following Jesus again and it was not long ago that he even denied Jesus! But in light of the question I wrote in the previous paragraph, Jesus’ questioning of Peter takes on new meaning. If we look closely at the first question Jesus poses to Peter, it is not simply “do you love me?” but rather “do you love me more than these” (v. 15)? Again, it might at first seem that Jesus is trying to exact a loyalty oath from Peter, but what if the question is really directed toward Peter’s willingness to love as Jesus loves?! Not just to love by the world’s standards, but by Jesus’!
Scripture scholars note that in the first question Jesus poses to Peter, the Greek word used is “agape” indicating “to love as God loves.” In his response, Peter uses the Greek word “phileo” which is indicative of friendship, but not as totally self-giving as “agape.” I take two lessons from this distinction: First, God is calling us to a love that mirrors God’s love for the human race. Second, God works with us when we find it difficult to make such an abandonment into God’s hands. Yet, if we note the last words of this post-resurrection encounter, the call, the invitation, remains the same: “Follow me” (Jn 21:19).
So how does all this apply to today’s world? One area I see this operative in my life is my attitude toward the ongoing violence and war in Ukraine and other parts of the world. What got me thinking was in a couple of prayer services for peace in Australia, I observed Ukrainian Catholic priests and Russian Orthodox priests praying together. Truthfully, without much thinking, part of me wanted to take up the age-old rant, “But they’re the enemy!” Then I caught what I was thinking and began to examine my own attitude toward those I disagreed with on various matters. I began to ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”
For me, this is where this coming Sunday’s Gospel is leading me: to asking myself what would Jesus do?—in terms of peace between nations and people, in terms of the environment and our common home, in terms of the unity of the Church today and our adherence to the teachings of Jesus. “Do you love me more than these?” How willing am I to love as God loves? “Oh Lord, keep feeding me and don’t give up on me. Amen.”