THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 5: 27-32, 40f. Rev 5:11-14 Jn 21:1-19 (or 1-14).. Joyful Growth through Suffering
The Reality of the Resurrection; Peter the Head of the Church; The Universality of the Church.
It was there that day today’s Gospel story of seven disciples, led by St Peter, took place. The scene began at night, considered the best time for fishing. The boat would glide smoothly over the lake, torch blazing; the men would stare into the water until they saw a school of fish, and then, quick as lighting, skillfully throw their net or spear. Often, though, the tried fishermen would return to the dock in the morning with nothing to show for their work.
In today’s story, something in the modus operandi of the man standing on the shore caused St John to recognize the risen Lord. That wasn’t as easy as it may sound. Jesus’ body was the resurrected one, not the resuscitated one. His appearance was different from when they had known him before; for example, he might not have cast a shadow. When John pointed out Jesus’ identity, Peter, wanting to show Jesus he eagerness, became impatient with the slow-moving boat. He couldn’t wait to tie his loose shirt so it wouldn’t float when he jumped into water. For a Jew of that time, to offer a greeting was, after all, a religious act, and for it a man must be properly clothed. Though the other disciples came quickly in the boat, it was Peter who assumed the lead. He was beginning to grow into becoming a “rock”.
On shore, the fire, the fish, and the bread were another surprise. Because of the heavenly glory that was now Christ’s, his presence gave a solemnity to the scene. Nevertheless, the Apostles took the time to abide by their routine of counting their fish, the usual purpose of which was to divide the catch equitably. Many Scripture scholars have used the number of fish and the unbroken net to symbolize that the Church can hold a great number of people of all kinds without the loss of her unity.
To show the universality of the Church was, in fact, one of John’s purposes in writing this chapter of his Gospel. The other was to show – again – the reality of Jesus’ resurrection – to insist that the Risen Christ was not a hallucination or a spirit, but a real person. A hallucination or a spirit wasn’t likely to kindle a fire on a seashore or to cook a meal and share in eating it. The words John used for the meal – Jesus took the bread and gave it to them – allude to the Eucharist.
After the meal, the scene changed to Jesus’ dialog with Peter. He began by asking Peter three times whether Peter loved him. Not only is that a central question of every Christian’s life; Jesus’ followers are to be led by love and Jesus’ presence is recognizable only by love. Peter was full of sadness and confusion. Was Jesus alluding to his past sin of denying him three times and asking, “Do you love me now, at last?” Or was Jesus asking, “Do you love me more than you love the nets, the boat, and a catch of fish? Or was he asking, “Do you love me more than your fellow disciples do?”
Perhaps we recognize something of ourselves in the story of the Apostle Peter. In many ways, he is just like us. He was so simple, and yet so complex! When life got perplexing and too much for him, his strategy was direct, with his simple announcement, “I am going fishing.”
He was aware that he had often left much to be desired. When, for example, Jesus had given him permission to walk on water, and then Peter saw the first difficulty coming his way in the form of a wave, his faith began to leave and he began to sink. And there were other incidents – when he had stupid chided Jesus at the Lord’s prediction of his passion, when he had selfishly wanted to stay forever at Jesus’ transfiguration, when he had childishly wanted to know how many times to forgive injuries, when at the Last Supper he didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, when in the Garden of Gethsemane he had slept and then impulsively cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, when he had a glorious side, too, which was the reason for his ability to grow in fidelity and loyalty. Peter’s potential was the reason for Jesus’ asking him the leader of the Church.
Even today, though, Peter seems insensitive. When he met Jesus – met him after having denied him – he acted as if nothing significant had happened. As if nothing required comment or apology, he quickly ate his breakfast. But next to this charcoal fire on which fish had been cooked, perhaps he was thinking of that other fire – that charcoal fire at which he warmed himself during Jesus’ trial, warmed himself while he denied Jesus.
But Peter would no longer dare to say anything that would put him above the rest – no bold claims, no rash promises. He couldn’t even answer with the same word for “love” that Jesus used. Jesus’ word – agapas in the Greek of John’s Gospel – involved sacrifice, and Peter remembered that, after his previous grandiose promise to lay down his life for Jesus, he had denied Jesus three times. So, unsure of whether he was capable of that highest kind of love, he answered by affirming, again in the Gospel’s original Greek, philo, a love of feeling, of sentiment, of affection, and of attachment. Of those he was sure.
Upon Peter’s reply, the consequences of true love followed – responsibility and sacrifice. Jesus indicated Peter’s responsibility by directing him to “feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep.” He was making Peter his great shepherd. Then there was sacrifice. In Peter’s case, Jesus predicted that Peter’s love would involve the greatest sacrifice of all – his life. Then Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” Jesus’ work was finished. And Peter could truly “follow” the Lord fully. Peter was not capable, like John, of lofty writings that soared like an eagle or, like Paul able to travel to the ends of the known world for Christ – but his determination to follow the Lord and to lead the Apostles enabled him to be the first head of the Church.
And Peter went on from greatness to greatness. His growth, like most of ours, was not a perceptible, continuous, eternal march upward, but a saw – toothed progress. Today’s First Reading records one of his five sermons in the Acts of the Apostles. In it, Peter for the first time used the word “savior” (v. 31), that precious word referring to Jesus as the liberator of Israel and the forgiver of people’s sins. To the Sanhedrin, the powerful leaders of the Jews before whom Peter spoke, this made Peter a heretic. To them, Peter and the Apostles were also a threat, because they were potential disturbers of the peace. If there were an uprising, Rome would come in to reestablish order and in the process would eliminate the Sanhedrin’s prestige. The proud members of the Sanhedrin were not about to let that happen.
The response of Peter and the Apostles showed them for what they were – men of courage, no longer aiming at “playing it safe”; men of principle, putting obedience to God’s word before everything else; and men with a clear idea of their duty, which was to witness for Christ. Peter’s response must always be ours. Better for us to obey God rather than people! The Sanhedrin, after giving some words of warning, dismissed the Apostles. For their part, the apostle left the Sanhedrin “full of joy”. Joy is the one unfailing sign of the Spirit’s presence, and the greatest sentiment of this Easter season. Here the Apostles were full of joy because they had an opportunity to share in Christ’s suffering.
This kind of love and joy provide the vision of heaven recounted in today’s passage from St John’s Book of Revelation. John’s heavenly vision contrasts with the anxiety of the court scene of Peter and the Apostles. John frequently took his language in this book from the Jewish Scriptures. In today’s section, the hymn is to “the Lamb that was slain”, that most powerful central image in the vision of John. The symbol recalled the bloody sacrifice of the Hebrews all right, but more compellingly Jesus in his death. The animal known for its meekness is now the conqueror, In John’s hymns to the Lord’s glory, the universal chorus of praise swells to a symphony. It reaches throughout the breadth of creation; it can’t go any farther. And it goes to the very height of John’s concept of Jesus – that Jesus now sits by the side of God.
For us, as for Peter, recognition of Jesus often comes slowly, sometimes in and through contact with others. We have all, like Peter and the other Apostles, responded in love. That often involves self-sacrifice, and perhaps suffering. Our modern opponents have discovered that killing people makes memorable martyrs of them, so the tactic of our day is condescending ridicule – the deception that the Church looks silly, unrealistic, decadent, and completely unworthy of the belief of a reasonable person.
We should accept that suffering – not in despair and self-pity, but “full of joy”. One job of reverses like suffering is to make sure we don’t get to comfortable and fall asleep and miss our life. Jesus’ resurrection shows that through suffering and death one can achieve triumph. A little girl, upon finding a butterfly cocoon, brought it home. She waited with eager expectation until the day for the butterfly to come out finally arrived. A tiny head appeared, munching its way through the gray, paper-thin wall. She viewed the little creature with love, but was not prepared for how long it would take and how difficult a time the butterfly would have. With a small stick, ever so carefully, she decided to help the butterfly. Within moments instead of hours the butterfly was free. Then it tried to fly, but when it stretched its wings, it fell and died. “What happened?” the little girl pleaded, teary-eyed, to her father. “I even helped.” “The butterfly needed that struggle,” her father answered. “Without that, it was never able to strengthen its wings enough to fly.”
This basic principle of the Christian life is conveyed by the Apostles’ joy at suffering for Jesus’ sake (today’s First Reading), by John the Evangelist’s comment on Jesus’ word to Peter about his death (Gospel) and by the vision of the victorious Lamb that was slain (Second Reading). As in all these images, we are to be sensitive to coming to recognize his presence in family, friendships, community, and work.