[Father Riley's Episcopal class continues this Sunday (April 17) at 9am in the Parish Hall.]
EASTER III - C - 16 JOHN 21:1-19
“Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias…”
St. John makes it clear that once the disciples had been surprised by the risen Lord in the upper room, where they had been hiding for fear of the Jews, they no longer did so and were not afraid to venture out. Today’s gospel is a case in point. Simon Peter decides to go fishing, to resume, as it were, his former profession that he has laid aside for some three years now after having decided to follow Jesus of Nazareth.
The other disciples who were in his presence, some who were fishermen, and some who were not, decide to go with him. St. John says, they all went out and got into the boat and fished all night coming up empty handed. As they were returning to shore at daybreak, a man on the beach hailed them “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”
Whether he was a fisherman or not he talked like one and suggested that they cast their net one more time. Surprisingly they did, and were amazed by the size of the catch. So numerous were the fish, 153 in all St. John reports, that they were unable to haul it in without fear of tearing the net.
The “beloved” disciple was the first to perceive that the man on the beach was the risen Lord, and announces Jesus’ presence. It was his love for Christ that brought spiritual insight. Impulsive Peter, who was stripped for work, in his excitement puts on his clothes before plunging into the water and swimming and wading some one hundred yards to greet the Lord.
The others, remain in the boat, dragging the net behind until they too reach the shore and join the dripping wet Peter and risen Lord next to a charcoal fire where fish and bread await them. Jesus says, “bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Peter returns to the boat and drags the net ashore all by himself.
Obviously there was something different about this resurrection appearance of the crucified Jesus. He did not appear to the disciples as he had in the upper room on that first Easter eve. Because Christ’s resurrected body was transfigured and incorruptible, it was not visible unless he willingly “showed” himself.
His form was altered in a way that amazed them. Yet, not one of them asked “Who are you?” for in their hearts they knew it was He.
St. John says, this was the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he had risen from the dead.
The real crux of today’s gospel, however, comes after breakfast when the risen Christ takes Peter aside and asks him if he loves him. Peter is Christ’s chosen leader of the disciples, and has been from the moment Jesus first called him to “follow me.” Thus, Peter has to be the first one to profess his love for the Lord.
Jesus’ question to Peter could be his question to any one of us, “Do you love me?” However, Jesus’ question surprised Peter. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” It surprised Peter on two accounts. First, Peter has met the risen Lord on two previous occasions (the upper room) and on neither of those occasions did Jesus ask him if he loved him.
Secondly, Peter is surprised and somewhat puzzled that Christ would ask him three times if he loved him. In the Greek there are three words for love. The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Christ uses the Greek word for “agape” love, that is, the highest form of sacrificial, and self-emptying love, the kind of love God has for man, and that man can only develop through maturing in God’s grace.
Each time Peter responds with “philo” a form of brotherly affection, being unable to claim such a lofty love. The third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Christ uses the same form of the word for love as Peter, condescending to Peter’s weakness and accepting whatever love Peter is able to give at the present moment.
For Christ knows Peter will develop “agape” love for him, as Peter will eventually accept martyrdom for Christ’ sake under Nero (AD 67) and even choose to be crucified up side down not deeming himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord.
What matters is that the question was asked and answered, and even more, that with each question and answer comes a fresh challenge; a new commission: “feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” With each “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter is able to give, Christ issues a forgiveness that negates his earlier denials and calls forth a reaffirmation of Peter to follow Him.
Christ restores Peter with a three-fold confession of love. Peter is now to share in Jesus’ work; the work of the good shepherd. On the beach, Peter is elevated from fisherman to pastor. No more nets for Peter, from now on he will lead and feed Christ’ lambs and sheep, as shepherd.
Within today’s gospel lies the secret, as N.T. Wright calls it, of all our Christian ministry, lay and ordained, yours and mine, full time and part time. If we are to do anything for Jesus it has to be based on Love. We all know how often we have let him down, yet He continues to call forth our love for Him, giving us a chance to express it.
He forgives us and in His forgiveness challenges us with new work to do, not only as a means of expressing our Love for Him, but a reaffirmation of our willingness to “follow” him.
With each “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” we offer the risen Christ what love we have at the moment, resting our case on Jesus’ knowledge of what is in our hearts, and praying that one day, with God’s grace, we will be able to Love Him as He Loves us. AMEN+