PROFESSING FAITH 3rd Week of Easter
Introduction to Lectio Divina
The disciples returned to Galilee after their meeting with Jesus in Jerusalem, when the Risen Lord had to make himself seen and allow himself to be touched before they believed in him. Jesus had to return to Galilee and appear to them as the Risen Jesus, sharing his everyday life with them in order to convince them of the reality of his new life. This was necessary to enable them later to carry out their mission as his witnesses, with greater conviction and better arguments.
This apparently simple account arises from the two basic preoccupations of the author: first, to prove the truth of the resurrection of Jesus; and second, to put on record Peter’s office of service to the community. The detailed account of the miraculous catch of fish and the invitation of Jesus to the disciples to share a meal with him serves the first purpose. Peter’s role in the episode is evident. He may not have been the perfect disciple, but he was the one chosen to confirm the faith of the others. This is why his love for Jesus had to undergo public scrutiny. His repeated affirmation of love was necessary for him to be confirmed in his principal mission. It was not the disciple who was most loved, but the one who was most loving, who was given the responsibility of leading and caring for his brothers.
The mystery of the Church is founded upon weak men, who know that they have shared the life of the Lord whom they now preach, and who cannot doubt the love they have for him. Loving Christ imposes the obligation to transmit the faith among the brothers as a life-task. If it is a question of being accepted, it is not necessary to be perfect to become pastors of the community. We should not forget that ministry is obligatory for anyone who truly loves Christ.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
John 21 is actually an appendix to the gospel which has already ended (Jn 20, 30-31), a kind of epilogue. The story of Jesus ends at Jn 20, 31, but not the story of his disciples. Their story continues in John 21, with the return of the Risen Lord and new charges entrusted to them. It seems that a later editor added this chapter to ensure the preservation of traditional material known in the Jewish community about the fate of the beloved disciple. This chapter shows clearly the interest of the community of believers in the appointment of Peter as leader. Our gospel passage includes almost the whole of Chapter 21. It is divided into two parts. The first part (Jn 21, 1-14), reports the three apparitions of Jesus that took place in Galilee. He appeared first to seven disciples (Jn 21, 2), who, after an unproductive night’s fishing, had an abundant catch, and then shared a meal with Jesus (Jn 21, 12). The second part (21, 15-23) consists almost exclusively of the words of Jesus, renewing the task entrusted to Peter and giving him responsibility for the needs of the community. Despite the undeniable difference in content and style, the two scenes reflect a close unity. Jesus (Jn.21, 18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.16.17) and Peter dominate the entire account (21, 126.96.36.199.15.16.17.). Jesus is the main character and Peter his privileged partner, first in the miraculous catch of fish, and then in his destiny as shepherd of the flock of Jesus.
Jesus’ third apparition takes place, without prior notice, near the sea of Tiberias (cf Jn 6, 1). It seems that the disciples had returned to their former occupation. In the midst of this, during a hard day’s work, they experience the Risen Lord. The sea is their place of work. It is also the place of their meeting with Jesus. Night is the best time for fishing because of the darkness, but, in the absence of Jesus, the disciples had no success in the very thing they were good at, which was fishing!
After a night’s work, Jesus meets them at dawn (Jn 21, 4) but they do not recognise him. He speaks to them, as he did to Mary (Jn 20.10), and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, asking them in a familiar tone for some food (Jn 21, 5). He does not greet them, nor offer peace. Rather, he presents himself in need of their help. He asks them if they have anything to go with the bread (Lk 24, 43).
His request leads the disciples to recognise their poverty and the failure of their night’s fishing. They have nothing they can give him to eat. Jesus tells them to go back to work immediately, promising good results (Jn 21, 6). Obedience to the stranger leads to results beyond their highest expectations – the net is filled with fish. It is all due to the word of the stranger. In the apparition accounts, as in normal life, Jesus is not recognised unless he makes himself known (Jn 20.15; Lk 24, 16). Here the account is typical of the fourth evangelist: the beloved disciple recognises the Lord and tells Peter (Jn. 20, 7 cf.20, 8). Peter’s spontaneous and generous reaction serves to underline the leading role he plays throughout the scene. He is the one who decides to go fishing and the others join him (Jn 21, 3). He jumps into the water when he sees the Lord (Jn. 21, 7), while the other disciples bring the boat ashore (Jn.21, 8). Peter acts like the owner of the boat. He hauls the net ashore, and takes a large part of the catch. The number of fish, as the evangelist records with precision, was 153 large fish, but still the net was not broken (Jn 21, 11).
The disciples met the Lord and found a meal already prepared, grilled fish and bread (Jn 21, 9), typical food of the fishermen of Galilee. We are not told what they were thinking as they ate. They did not recognise the Risen Lord while they were at work, but they all recognised him during the meal as they ate with him (cf Lk 24, 35). They accepted his invitation (Jn 21, 12) but none of the disciples dared to ask him who he was. They knew very well that it was the Lord. (Jn 23, 13; cf 6, 11; Lk 24,30. 42.43).
When the meal was over, Jesus conferred on Peter the leadership of the community. The other disciples, apart from the one loved by Jesus, disappear from the account. The primacy of Peter is a theme recognised in the gospel tradition (Mt. 16, 17-19). It is significant that the fourth gospel which begins, in the first chapter, with the change of name to Peter (Jn1, 42) concludes with the conferral of his new mission (Jn. 21, 15. 16,17).
There are two parts to the episode – the imposition of his pastoral duty (Jn 21,15-17) and the foretelling of his witnessing by his blood (Jn 21,18-23). Jesus begins by examining Peter’s love and then imposes a mission which is given only to Peter (Jn.10, 1-21). The conversation is brief and reduced to the essentials. It follows a fixed scheme: three times the same question is asked, three times it evokes the same reaction and each time the same task is imposed. Jesus’ question (Jn 21, 15.16.17) is followed by an affirmative response from Peter (Jn 21, 15.16.17), which in turn leads to the conferring of the task to be done (Jn 21, 15.16.17). The triple questioning by Jesus saddens Peter so much (Jn 21, 17) that he has recourse to Jesus’ omniscience to convince him of his love. Jesus had begun the conversation asking for a greater love. It does not seem however, in spite of what we may think, that Jesus was testing the fidelity of the only disciple who had denied him three times (Jn18, 15-28.15-27). Jesus rehabilitates him, not so much for the sake of sharing his life, but for the mission. Peter does not return to the company of Jesus. He is sent to his brothers (Lk 22, 32).
The scene does not focus on the recovery of personal fidelity by the disciple who had denied him, although that is included. The emphasis is on his investiture, the conferring of pastoral ministry on Peter. He will have to take care of Jesus’ flock, but only later, after he has declared his love for Jesus and his dedication to him. It is true, however, that Peter was rehabilitated publicly by declaring publicly his love for Jesus, and his sadness at having to repeat it.
In the synoptics, Jesus is impressed by Peter’s faith (Mk 8, 27-29). In John, however, Jesus is convinced only by his profession of love. Pastoral ministry is, first and foremost, an exercise of love for Jesus. Loving Christ implies being made responsible for others. Jesus does not entrust the pastoral government of the community to one who promises a lot (Jn 13, 13, 36-37), nor to the one who was most loved and first to believe (Jn 21,7). He entrusted it three times to Peter who had to confirm his love three times. The flock follows the message of Jesus. Peter must be the one to guide and care for it. Ownership of the flock does not change. Pastoral responsibility for it lies on the one who must love. It is not by chance that Peter’s investiture as Shepherd is joined to the prediction of his martyrdom. The one who shares with Jesus the role of Shepherd (Jn 10, 11-18) must also share his destiny (Jn 15, 13). Only in this way can he guarantee the truth of his appointment. Jesus’ mandate, which must be followed, imposes on Peter a sad end, and makes it inevitable, for he knows he must follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Following Jesus proved impossible for Peter when Jesus was alive (Jn.13, 36). Now it is imperative: follow me! Peter must remain in solidarity with Jesus, a solidarity that culminates in his pastoral mission. It does not require that Peter give his life for others (Jn 10,11.17-18) but that he give it for his Lord (Jn 13,37).
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
According to what the gospel tells us, the disciples were too busy with their work, busy with what they already knew, instead of being busy witnessing to Jesus and bringing his peace to the world. They were more concerned with earning their daily living and having food to eat, than with their obligation to preach the gospel. Like Peter, who brought the others out for their night’s fishing, there are many believers today who worry about work, and forget the mission entrusted to them by Jesus. We have just celebrated the resurrection in recent days. Like Peter, we know that Jesus is alive, but, instead of carrying out the mission Jesus entrusted to us, we are busy about many things that are less demanding and seem more useful. It is not that Peter did anything wrong by going fishing, nor do we do wrong when we seek to provide the necessities of life, but it is wrong to remain silent about Jesus when we know that he is truly alive. If we keep quiet about the Risen Lord, we allow others to go on believing that he is dead.
What Peter was doing was good, but he was not doing the will of the Risen Lord, and consequently all his work was in vain. That night they caught nothing, the gospel tells us. No job, no work, no effort can bear fruit, if it is not the consequence of the vocation which each one has received from God. Anyone who knows that Jesus is alive, even if most people think he is dead, or many are simply not interested, cannot keep quiet about his experience and go on with work that is not part of his principal mission. It is not enough to do no wrong. If we do not tell the world what we know, we will continue to live useless lives, working all night by the sweat of our brow, but neglecting to proclaim with our lives what we know about Jesus – that he is alive, and that we live to bear witness to the world that Christ is our life.
Jesus spoke to his disciples again and sent them out to fish, at a time that was not right for fishing. Jesus acted in a strange way. He did not get angry with his disciples for not doing what they should have been doing, but he sent them out to do something that was quite unusual. The disciples, who had ignored the command of the Risen Lord, needed to learn that it is obedience that makes their daily life fruitful. They were told to throw out their nets when it was time to gather them in, and yet their nets came back full of fish. It was contrary to all logic! With Jesus, the outcome was assured, even if they had to go against their own experience. Without him, all effort was in vain. The disciple who knew that Jesus loved him, was better able to see that the stranger was, in fact, the Lord, and so he was the first of the apostles to recognise him. Love is the best way to sense the presence of a friend in a stranger. The one who is most loved, finds it easiest to believe.
We should not worry about the difficulties we have in becoming convinced of the presence of God and his help. We are already believers, and yet we are incapable of believing that we are loved by God. We look for proof, because we are not sure of God, of his power and his love. Unlike the beloved disciple, the one who was first to believe at the empty tomb, and the first to recognise the Lord after the miraculous catch, we are not sure of his love. We cannot believe that he truly loves us. We have had so many failures and disappointments, so many nights spent working alone, without seeing the results we were hoping for, that nothing can convince us that he is with us, trying to make himself known to us. If we obey him, and trust in his word, we will return to our activities with enthusiasm, knowing once more that he is with us.
We can, at least, react like Peter who was unable at first to recognise the Lord. On hearing the Lord’s voice, however, he threw himself half-naked into the sea, without any thought whatsoever of the risk he was taking. That sea, which the night before had yielded nothing, was the same sea he walked through to meet the Lord. His previous misfortune did not make him afraid. On hearing the Lord’s voice, he threw himself into the water.
How will we know today that the Lord is with us to help us, if we do not go fishing at night in the Sea of Galilee, as the disciples did? The gospel gives us the answer: they knew that it was the Lord when he invited them to eat with him. Receiving bread and fish from his hands convinced them that it was the Lord, and none of them dared to ask him who he was.
If they had not heard the stranger’s invitation to share bread with him and allowed him to calm their fears, they would not have recognised him. However, they knew that Jesus, their true Master, had often shown concern for them when they were hungry, and so they recognised his voice and the invitation to eat with him. If that is what we desire – to recognise him in our lives – we need to listen today to his invitation to share bread with him, and allow him to satisfy our needs. If we do not recognise him in our midst, we will pay no heed to his invitation to share his bread and his body. This is not merely by chance, indeed quite the opposite: it is difficult for us to believe, and all the more so if we do not receive him into our lives through the Eucharist. If we do not approach his table, how will we know that he is alive and that he cares for us? We will be like the disciples who, even though they knew he was alive, went off fishing, working in the dark, little knowing that the next day he would give them the assurance of his presence and the success of their efforts.
In spite of everything, the example of Peter should encourage us. He was not the one most loved by Jesus, but he longed with all his heart to love the Lord, even to the point of jumping into the sea. He knew well that Jesus loved the other disciple more, but he let Jesus ask him in public if he loved him more than the others. And because he took the risk of proclaiming repeatedly that he loved the Lord, he was the one chosen to lead the other disciples. Strangely, Jesus did not choose the one whom he loved most, and who was first to recognise him, but Peter, the disciple who had denied him three times, but also promised him three times that he loved him. Following Jesus is not about being better than others, nor about knowing that you are his best friend, but about being sure of your love for him and having the courage to proclaim it before the world. We can all promise him our love and, like Peter, we can all be chosen.