by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time “Do you love me?” and said to Jesus: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” John 21, 1-19
The last few verses of chapter 20 of John’s Gospel read as though the writer was bringing his work to an end. In fact, the Jerusalem Bible puts these verses under the heading of Conclusion: “There were many other signs that Jesus worked, and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” (John 20, 30-31). Chapter 21 is headed Appendix. Scripture scholars tell us that this chapter was added at a later date, for the purpose of correcting the views of some of the members of the early Christian community who had doubts about the physical resurrection of Jesus. They believed that what the disciples saw, when they supposedly encountered the risen Jesus, were hallucinations or figments of their imagination. Chapter 21 presents the risen Jesus lighting a fire and cooking, serving and eating freshly-caught fish.
Today’s gospel-reading puts the focus on Simon Peter, the disciple who, only a few days before, had three times denied having any connection with Jesus. His weakness was underlined by the fact that those who had recognised him as belonging to supporters of Jesus, were hardly threatening. They were a servant-girl and two curious onlookers. They had little or no connection with the people in authority who would be satisfied with nothing but the death of Jesus. We are told that, when Peter realised the gravity of his denials, he went off and wept bitterly. If the risen Jesus had not turned up and intervened, we might not have heard of Peter again.
It is worth noting the context in which the writer of this appended chapter sets the story of Peter’s forgiveness and restoration. Of significance is the fact that Jesus invites the disciples to breakfast around a charcoal fire, the same kind of fire around which Peter was warming himself when he denied Jesus. And echoing the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus broke bread and fish and handed it around to the disciples as they came ashore. It is in this setting that Jesus turns to Peter and asks three times: “Peter, do you love me?” But there was nothing vindictive about the questioning. Jesus was certainly not trying to even the score by rubbing Peter’s nose into his recent failures. In inviting Peter to tend the lambs and feed the sheep who belonged to the community around him, Jesus was restoring him to his role of leadership and affirming his confidence in Peter.
In that action by Jesus, there is a message for all of us: Despite the fact that we have all been inspired by Jesus at some time or other, and despite the fact that we have all committed ourselves to walk in his footsteps, we still fail, we still deny him in one way or another. As often as not, we choose to give up on ourselves, telling ourselves that being connected to Jesus was good while it lasted. But it might be better if we got back to doing what we used to do before we ever got caught up with him. That’s what Peter did. When Jesus was executed and buried, he did what many people do when they lose someone dear to them. He tried to pick up the pieces by getting involved in an activity with which he was familiar. Moreover, he said to the other disciples: “I’m going fishing.” And they responded to the cue he gave them. But their efforts were decidedly unsuccessful. They caught nothing. Peter failed not only as a disciple but discovered quickly that he had forgotten how to catch fish.
This story, of course, calls to mind Luke’s account (Luke 5, 1-11) of how, after a fruitless night of hard work, Jesus turned up unexpectedly and urged Peter and his companions to put down their nets in a most unlikely spot. The large haul led Peter to say to Jesus: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”. And the response from Jesus was one of reassurance: “From now onwards, you will be catching people”. And now, that same man who had so recently demonstrated his sinfulness in his denial of Jesus, is lifted out of his shame and failure and encouraged to get on with the job of reaching out to those in need.
And the message for us? When we dare to acknowledge our sinfulness and confront the reality of our fragility and failure, we open ourselves up to discovering that the love God has for us is far deeper than any denial of ours, and the invitation from God to reach out to others is far stronger and more persistent than any failure on our part to accept that invitation.
One person who heard and responded to that invitation from the risen Jesus was William Sloane Coffin (1924 – 2006), a Presbyterian minister who, in the turbulent late 1960s when student unrest on university campuses was at its height, became chaplain to Yale University. An outspoken civil rights and antiwar campaigner, this man put social activism at the centre of his ministry as a pastor. That earned him bitter criticism from many of the politicians of his day. He was not deterred. In a homily on today’s gospel-reading, which he once delivered at the Riverside Church in New York, he commented: “Christ is risen to convert us, not from this life to some other life, but from something less than life to the possibility of full life. What makes Easter so exciting is the cosmic quality of it. For Easter has less to do with one person’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power. Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathise with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the risen one. That means an end to all loyalties to all people and to all institutions that crucify. For example, I don’t see how we can proclaim allegiance to the Risen Lord and remain indifferent to our government’s, and the world’s, intention not to abolish nuclear weapons. Or how can we think that the Risen Lord would applaud an economic system that reverses the priorities of Mary’s Magnificat. – filling the rich with good things and sending the poor away empty?”
“Do you love me, Peter, Christine, Brian, Emily, Jason, Sandra…?” “Lord, you know I love you!” “Then stop wallowing in the memory of your failures, and get on with feeding my lambs and tending my sheep!”