by Jerry Morrissey
Jesus appears to his disciples. At his word they catch a huge amount of fish. They share a meal that Jesus prepared. Then Jesus commissions Peter as pastor of his Church and prophesies his martyrdom.
Although the Gospel seems to have ended with chapter twenty, especially verses thirty and thirty-one. Chapter twenty-one, has been appended and gives more resurrection appearances, now in Galilee, and yet another conclusion in verses twenty-four and twenty-five. There are two scenes here. The first one is about fish, catching them as a symbol for missionary success.
The second scene is about sheep, leading them as a symbol of Peter being not only a missionary apostle fisherman, but a model for pastoral care shepherd.
In verses one to fourteen, the Miraculous Catch of Fish reveals Peter the Fisher of Men.
In verse one, Jesus revealed himself again: This is the third appearance to his disciples according to John. It takes place in Galilee. The disciples have apparently returned to their former occupation of fishing. Jesus appears to them in the course of their daily work.
In verse three, that night they caught nothing; night was considered the best time for fishing and the fish would be fresh for the market in the morning. Night is also a symbol for spiritual distress and need.
In verse four, 4 Jesus was standing; Jesus simply materializes suddenly as he does in several of the post-resurrectional narratives.
Disciples did not realize that it was Jesus: On one level, the physical, they do not recognize Jesus because his glorified body has changed his outward appearance to some degree. On another level, the spiritual, Jesus can only be truly seen with the eyes of faith. Gradual recognition of Jesus is an important theme in John.
In verse five, children; this word, like “kids” in our language, implies the master-disciple, teacher-student relationship.
In verse six, they cast the net; the success of the fisherman on level one, that is, the earthly and physical, there is the catch of fish and on level two, missionary success is entirely dependent on their obedience to Jesus’ word.
In verse seven, it is the Lord; as in chapter twenty verses one to ten, the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize Jesus because of his love for him. Peter, on the other hand, literally “jumps in the lake” to hasten to shore. There he will learn the lesson of love from Jesus himself.
In verse nine, fish and bread; as the story goes Jesus already had some fish on the fire before the disciples could bring the freshly caught ones. This meal is a quasi-Eucharist. Jesus takes the initiative because he is the giver of spiritual food, which is Himself. Fish was a frequent symbol of the Eucharist along with bread, of course.
In verses eleven to thirteen, 153 large fish; the catch of fish symbolizes the mission of the Church. The un-torn net symbolizes the unity of the Church and the 153 represents totality. It is not possible to trace the exact meaning to which the number 153 refers, perhaps it was well known to the disciples, but we are not told.
In verse thirteen, “Come, have breakfast.” The breakfast is an act of communion with the Lord who is known by faith. It also sets the precedent for celebrating the Eucharist outside the supper context, even early in the morning.
In verse fourteen, this is now the third time, the reference is to chapter twenty verses nineteen and twenty six.
In verses fifteen to seventeen, Peter the Shepherd.
In chapter ten, Jesus was the one good shepherd. Now, he transfers that function to Peter. The scene has been prepared for by the theme of feeding in verses one to fourteen. Jesus puts three questions to Peter, corresponding to his triple denial. He had claimed he had sacrificial love for Jesus. He had not. In the Greek there are two different words for “love” being used. In the first question Jesus asks Peter if he has agape, sacrificial love, “laying down one’s life for the sheep” love. Peter honestly answers that he has philia, affectionate, human, friendship love. In the second question Jesus drops “more than these,” a boastful claim Peter made at the Last Supper. Any agape at all will do. It need not be more than others. Peter admits again the human and limited quality of his love. The third question “distresses” Peter because Jesus changes verbs and asks him if he has philia love for him. Peter says that Jesus really knows him, “knows everything,” and that he certainly has that kind of love. Having broken through Peter’s conceit and gotten him to admit the true quality of his love, Jesus gives him pastoral authority of the Good Shepherd. Peter did not need to start out perfect. He would get there, but his honesty about his motivations would be enough for Jesus. It would open the way for grace to empower Peter to one day die a martyr’s death, lay down his life in agape love. Agape love was the distinguishing characteristic of the Beloved, Greek agapetos, Disciple throughout his life with Jesus. Peter would end up that way, but begin with only philia love.
In verses eighteen to nineteen, Peter the Martyr.
In verse eighteen, this saying of Jesus is probably based on a proverb that goes something like “in youth a man goes freely, wherever he likes; in old age, a man must let himself be taken where he does not wish to go.” The point is that the decision to go, that is, to follow Jesus, must be taken while there is freedom of action; if left until later, it may be too late. It also means that Peter will die a martyr’s death at the hands of enemies, as did Jesus.
In verse nineteen, follow me, at last the real point of the narrative is reached. Peter is to live and die just as Jesus did, in imitation of him, reproducing the act by which Jesus most fully revealed the Father’s glory and character. True discipleship continues Jesus’ mission and is based on agape love. Peter will feed the flock in the same way Jesus did, ultimately by laying down his life-freely-for them. In that respect Peter will have to catch up to the Beloved Disciple. However, Jesus will go on to point out that bloody martyrdom is not the only martyrdom. The Beloved Disciple will die a natural death, but live a life of supernatural love. That is martyrdom too.
Although Peter appears too be the “star” of today’s gospel lesson, the Beloved Disciple, the hero of the author of this gospel, is the model to be imitated. The author recognizes Peter’s authority and leadership role, but he admires and wants all to emulate the Beloved Disciple. In the end, even Peter, the symbol of authority in the Church, must emulate the love of the Beloved Disciple. As the author develops the relationship between Peter who represents, authority, and the Beloved Disciple who represents, love, authority is always behind love and must always catch up. Love is much more sensitive to the presence of Jesus than is authority and structural leadership. The leadership of love is something all Christians should exercise. It is broader and will be longer lasting, more pervasive and penetrating than any authoritative stance, teaching, posture or position. It may not seem so at times, but this is still Christ’s Church. He set it up and he knows what makes it work and last. It is love. Authority has its legitimate place and is to be honored, but love is to be imitated. Authority, at least, structural authority, is a necessary component of Christ’s Church, but not the only one, nor is it the central one.
There is no hint that Peter abused the legitimate authority entrusted to him by Christ. Certainly in this text, Peter is showing no signs of being an overlord or being overbearing. So, the primacy of love over the primacy of authority does not just apply to authoritarianism, but also to those exercising authority legitimately and properly.
We do not need to hold a church office as Pastor or congregational president, in order to exercise authority. We all exercise authority over our own lives. We are, after all, in charge of ourselves, though not in control of ourselves. And we are, in most cases, in charge, though not in control, of others. It might only be baby-sitting. It might be parenting or teaching or managing. It might be at home, at work, or even at play, as when we are coaching. One minute I might be the one in charge, example, driving the grandchildren around; the next minute I might be in a more subservient position, example, sitting at a meeting with the Bishop presiding. In whatever situation we are challenged to balance authority with love. Authority wants to get it right and do it correctly. This only makes sense. Doing things right results in progress and peace. Love, however, wants to do the right thing. That is really leadership, whereas doing things right is really just good management. Doing things right need not take into account the human being or human beings involved, their feelings, their preferences and abilities and their disabilities. Love tempers authority and shapes its exercise. Authority is based on knowledge, or should be, knowing what and knowing that. Love is based on wisdom, knowing when and knowing how, when to act and when not to, knowing how to relate to a person and how not to. Even the legitimate and proper exercise of our authority can violate the sanctity of another person unnecessarily. Love prevents that.
When Jesus called Peter aside to speak with him privately, he gave us all an example of how we pass on the gospel in one-on-one situations. Indeed, most of our preaching, teaching, and counseling is one-on-one. The duly authorized preachers and teachers find themselves speaking to groups, but most of us spread the gospel much more informally and privately. We might have expected Jesus to read Peter the riot act, berate him for denying him, threatening him that if it happens again he would be fired as an apostle. Instead, Jesus forgives him and promotes him to chief shepherd! However, his forgiveness is preceded by teaching, teaching him, albeit gently, where he went wrong, how he overestimated the quality and purity of his love for Jesus. Peter needed to learn humility, honesty really, if he was going to become open to the grace of forgiveness Jesus was prepared to give. Like tough love, this was tough forgiveness, not the blanket, namby-pamby kind that passes for the real thing.
Like Peter, we too are warned not to be so fast in claiming the purity of our love. Honestly admitting to ourselves, to the Lord, and to others that we do not love Jesus for who he is, for himself, but only for what he has done and can do for us opens us to his grace, the grace to love him for himself. When that happens we can rise above our limited ability to love and love unconditionally and risk our lives unconditionally, indeed live our lives in daily martyrdom.
Recognition of the risen Lord’s presence in our midst requires eyes of faith and hearts of love.
Trusting in the Lord enhances success in work and in love.
Every meal is an opportunity to recall the Eucharist and the Lord as its provider and presider.
Being right is important; doing right is even more so.
The Lord forgives where others would not.
If we learn from our sins the Lord trusts us with greater responsibilities.
Being a Missionary: All Christians have the same mission; all are missionaries. We think of people going off to foreign lands and preaching the gospel. Of course, they are Christian missionaries. However, so are we. We see Jesus preaching to large groups, both in his home region and Galilee as well as in the region of the Ten Cities and in the southern part of the country. He preached both home and abroad. We see him teaching smaller groups at greater length, especially his disciples. However, we also see him talking to, counseling, one person at a time. That is what he is doing to Peter in this text. All Christians do this one-on-one preaching, teaching, counseling, conversing and thus all are missionaries. We always bring Christ into our conversations, even if we do not specifically mention his name. He is always the guide and gauge of our words, our “sermons,” if you will. Jesus did not preach at Peter. He conversed with him. Christians who talk to others in a “one-on-one” about Christ as though there were a whole crowd of people there are using the wrong model for communicating. And they may be coming across to the other person more like a pompous Bishop rather than a humble fisherman or shepherd. The authority of the message may be shouted so loudly that the love within it can be drowned out. Being a missionary of Christ’s and for Christ requires no letter of authorization other than Baptism and no program or procedure other than Christian love.
Love, Love and Love: There are three different words in Greek that are translated into English as the same word, “love.” The Greek eros, “love,” stands for romantic, erotic, sexual love. God created that kind of love. It is good. However, Jesus does not command we all be “in love” with everyone else. In fact, that is impossible. The Greek philia, “love” stands for friendship love. We can be friends with a whole lot more people than we will ever be “in love” with. However, Jesus does not command that we be friends with everyone either. Peter admitted he was a friend of Jesus, but that is as far as he could or would go after he had denied even knowing him three times in public. Like “in love” love, friendship love is mutual, we cannot really be in love or friends with someone who is not also in love with us or also our friend, reciprocal being in love or friends involves a reciprocity of actions, and affective, we feel good about our beloved or friend. The Greek agape, love,” stands for God’s kind of loving. It differs from “in love” love and friendship love in that it is one-way, that is, God loves us whether we love him back, it does not require that we reciprocate. That is the kind of love Jesus commands. Good feeling love cannot be commanded. This text and others make it clear that Jesus has nothing against emotional love, be it friendship love or “in love” love, both created by God and quite often blessed by God. Indeed, both can exist along with divine agape love. Moreover, divine love, love for God and the love of God for others, does have that emotional element within it, though it is not primary or required. It is when it is stripped down, like Peter was, and seen all by itself, separated from the clothing of friendship or romantic love, that its presence and strength is revealed or it is absence. Peter had to admit that his love for Jesus was of the garden-variety human kind and was not strong enough to allow him to risk, lay down, his life for Jesus’ and integrity sake. He could only receive, never acquire on his own, that love from Jesus, THE lover, who gives it when the person is humble enough to admit that he or she does not have it. Then Jesus will enter and work miracles, transforming the fear into courage, the hatred into love, the sadness into joy.
We are taught that honesty is enough for Jesus. If we honestly admit that we love Jesus for the good things he does for us and not for him alone, we can begin to grow by his grace into that pure love which will empower us to lay down our lives. That power-to lay down one’s life-does not only kick in at death as a sort of proof, but it plays out in life. To have this kind of love is to be free beyond the limits of death, torture, suffering and certainly inconvenience. It frees us to be truly missionary in the sense taught in the beginning of this text.
In the midst of our daily occupations, especially when experiencing failure, we can sense-through love, like the Beloved Disciple did-the presence of Jesus. He just materializes before our very, faith, eyes. We listen to him. We do what he says, no matter how seemingly absurd or impossible, and we experience success. We let him feed us at breakfast, lunch and or supper, both materially and sacramentally, and we grow step by step from selfish love to selfless love. We move from the authoritarian mode-the mode of lording it over others, controlling them, manipulating them-to the loving mode-letting Jesus act in us to free them and us, to save them and us, to be with them and us. Yes, in the midst of daily occupations and life we find the Lord, we feel the Lord’s presence and love, and we love the Lord and others. This is following him through life and through death to life again in eternity.
Salvation, experience of Jesus, does not happen by being transported into the clouds or entrance into an ethereal realm. It happens by Jesus entering into our fleshly lives, lives lived in the dailiness of routine. Then, amidst ordinariness, we experience the abundance of a 153 fish-catch, the joy of camaraderie with Jesus and our fellow believers and the impulse to go forth and bring in others. The resurrected Lord is found in our lives just as he was found in theirs-on the edges and shores, in the seas, at meals, alone in conversation and personal teaching and on the crosses of life.
People in authority must grapple with what Peter faced. He had to learn the hard way that his love of Christ was on the human plane alone. That is fine as far as it goes, but it will not go far enough. It took Peter to the courtyard of denial. Love, agape love, laying down one’s life love, sacrificial love took him to the graveyard of self-denial. In the courtyard he temporarily escaped judgment, the judgment of humans. In the graveyard of martyrdom he escaped real death. His story is told not just to throw cold water on the conceits of those in church authority, but to challenge all of us, as to the quality of our love for Christ. Amen.
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