THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER. 1st MAY 2022.
Readings: Revelation 5: 11-end and John 21: 1-19.
Last week, as we were thinking about the account of the disciples meeting in the Upper Room after the Resurrection, we were saying that there was a ‘what next?’ or ‘where to start’ feel about some of these passages covering the events after Jesus rose from the dead.
In today’s gospel, we have the disciples back in their old stamping-ground and doing what came naturally to them. Peter says, “I am going fishing.” The others respond “We will go with you.” Some commentators have found all this a bit odd. The disciples have seen the risen Jesus, who appeared at least twice to them, and said, on the second occasion, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ You would think they would be fired-up with enthusiasm for spreading news about Jesus, but instead they retreat to Galilee and seem to take up their old way of life. So is this a lack of faith, a desire to return to the old ways, to find comfort in doing something they were good at – or were they just hungry and needed to go fishing? Or were they so overwhelmed by the immensity of the resurrection that they needed some ‘ordinary’ time together with normal conversation?
Whatever the truth might be, we’re reminded that it was by the sea of Galilee, and in the context of fishing, that they first met Jesus. And now they hear the same summons again, as Jesus calls them from the shore. One thinks of the famous words of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, where spiritual explorers find at the end of their journey that they have returned to the place where their journey began, and know it for the first time. But if those first encounters with the disciples were recording a kind of honeymoon period with Jesus, what today’s passage emphasizes is the calling to a deep commitment ‘till death us do part.’ I what follows Jesus offers forgiveness, challenge and commission.
But first, we delight in the account of the great haul of fish. How specific the gospel writer is – 153 of them caught once the disciples had cast the net on the right hand side of the boat. We’re probably being told something here about the future of the Church. The Church will be as abundant as a fisherman’s haul. And the Church is one with those in heaven who join in the great song of praise recorded in today’s vision from Revelation. The irony is that in the triumph of Easter, the Lamb that was slaughtered becomes the one truly worthy of honour and glory and blessing, and that every creature in heaven and on earth will join in the worship. There seems to be something important about the Lamb’s slaughtered status, because Jesus stays with the lamb and sheep theme in giving Peter his special commission as shepherd of the flock.
Peter, of course, let Jesus down with his three-fold denial on the night of Jesus’ resurrection. But here is a second chance. When the disciples cast the net on the right hand side of the boat, and immediately come across a great shoal of fish, the disciple whom Jesus loved – John, we imagine – tells Peter ‘It is the Lord.’ Without a moment’s hesitation Peter leaps into the water to get to Jesus first. We remember a similar scene where Jesus bids Peter to come to him across the water, and he foundered. This time, Peter is successful. You could say that Peter ‘takes the plunge’. We are invited also to take the plunge, not because we are rash, but because Jesus beckons us to join him in a new life of adventure and hope.
But for Peter, there is a truth to be faced. After breakfast, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to say that he loves him – three times. Each time he replies ‘yes’ Jesus gives him a task. Scholars have spent years analysing the three commands Jesus gave Peter: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. But perhaps it is enough for us to understand that Peter is being given instruction to show pastoral care for Jesus’ flock. In this task, Peter has to learn that the loving of Jesus is also about giving, not just about getting.
And there is a bit of a sting in the tail, for that giving will lead Peter to a place where he does not wish to go, when he will be bound and taken. Did Peter stop to remember how he had said to Jesus at the Last Supper that he was ready to die for him, only to desert him hours later? There is in the traditions of the early Church the story of ‘Quo Vadis’ which some of you may know. Peter was fleeing from Rome during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero, and he met Christ on the Appian Way, outside Rome. Peter asked Jesus “Quo Vadis, Domine?” – Where are you going, Lord? Jesus replied “To Rome, to be crucified again.” Jesus then vanished, leaving his footprints in the road’s flagstone. Whereupon Peter turned round and went back to the city, eventually meeting his martyrdom there. A church was built on the site, known as the ‘Quo Vadis’.
So Peter was caught up in this cycle of forgiveness, challenge and commission throughout his life of discipleship. And so it should be for us. We’re challenged to do something with this great news of the resurrection and of new life in Jesus. Every time we fail, forgiveness is there for us, and a renewal of vision. St. Paul tells us that in this life, as our outer nature is wasting away, our inner life is being renewed, because the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with him.
The story is told that, when Jesus returned to heaven, the Archangel Michael barred his way. The archangel said, “How can you return to heaven? Your work is not yet completed. There are many who do not know about or who have not heard of your saving acts.’ Jesus said, ‘I have left my friends to complete what I have begun.’ The Archangel was amazed, ‘Do you mean those puny, often straying humans?’ ‘Yes,’ said Jesus, ‘I trust them and I know that through following me they will bring my gospel to all the world.’
May we be equal to that expectation. A closing prayer:
Forgiving Lord, may I grow to love you with the certainty of Peter; and with the courage that this love brings may I be willing to go where I may not wish to go, to feed your sheep and care for your people. In the strength of your Spirit.
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