PETER’S CHANCE OF REDEMPTION
HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER, YEAR C. Readings: Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14 and John 21:1-19.
Today’s liturgy presents to us testimonies of the Apostles bearing witness to the Risen Lord and Christ himself, manifesting his presence in the lives of the early Christian community. There is also a personal encounter with Peter, which will be our focus in this reflection.
In John 20:30-31, the Fourth Evangelist stated the purpose of his Gospel account and concluded (that it was written that we may believe and have life). So, today’s gospel from John 21:1-19 is generally accepted by scholars as a later addition to the gospel, which has the aim of rescuing the image of Peter who had exhibited his weaknesses to Christ on several occasions. The gospel presents to us the third appearance of Jesus after his resurrection by the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. In the Jewish culture, the sea represents hostility, provocation, and aggressive forces towards God. It also represents a battleground with the difficulty of fishing. And in this battle, Peter’s weakness becomes obvious.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples did not know what to do and so, they went back to what they were familiar with, and they returned to their normal activities as fishermen. They returned to the sea with the leadership of Peter, “I am going fishing” (v. 30). Could it be that by returning to their fishing boats, these disciples are turning their backs on their responsibilities as ‘fishers of men?’ Did the disciples disobey the command of Christ at this point? We recall that Christ asked them to go to Galilee, where they will see him (Mt 28:7, 10). Where is Galilee? Their old place of occupation or somewhere else? While some scholars believe that Peter was wrong by going back to fishing, some others believe it was in his obedience to return to Galilee as requested by Jesus, so he was not wrong.
They fished throughout the night and caught nothing. They were supposed to be taking care of the Lord’s business but instead, went back to their own business and so, they became weary, hungry, hopeless, and as the day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach, yet the disciples did not know it was Jesus. Just as Mary Magdalene failed to recognize him (Jn 20:15) and the two disciples on their way to Emmaus failed until at the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:16, 31), so did Peter and the others with him. After the miraculous catch of fish, it was John the beloved, [ the one who entered the tomb and believed in the resurrection on Easter Sunday (Jn 20:8) ], who said to them, “It is the Lord” (v.7). At the tomb, John helped Peter to believe in the resurrection; and in today’s Gospel, he helped Peter to recognize the Risen Christ. Like John, how do we help others to believe in Christ and to recognize his presence in their day-to-day activities?
In the account of the Synoptics on the miraculous catch of fish, Peter said to Jesus, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water… and indeed he walked on the sea and when he realized he was a sinner, he began to sink. There Jesus affirmed the weakness of Peter as a man of little faith with the question: why did he doubt?” (Mt 14:28-31). Peter’s weakness is also noticeable during the passion of Christ where he denied Christ three times. With these incidences, Christ needed Peter to reconstruct his past with a profound interrogation and affirmation of his love for him. Christ offered him three chances to redeem himself by asking him three times, “Peter, do you love (agape) me more than these? (v.15) and Peter responded with affection (philo). The love Christ demands from Peter is stronger than affection (philo). It is a love as demanding as it is sacrificial. The third time Christ asked him, he became annoyed and Christ reminded Peter, he had earlier made a bold claim saying, “I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37), which prompted Christ to tell him he would deny Him three times before the cock crows. This third question reminded him of his weakness. Now Peter is more conscious and hesitating to claim more than the affection or brotherly love. He understood that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself. Jesus did not ask Peter, “Are you sorry?” nor did he ask “Will you promise not to do that again?” He rather challenged Peter to love. Same way Christ requests us to love him above every other thing.
In the Synoptics, Jesus gives Peter an evangelistic role, promising to make him a fisher of men (Mt 4:19; Mark 1:17). Now he gives Peter a pastoral role to “feed my lambs and tend my sheep” (vv. 15-17). Regarding the shift between “feed” and “tend,” shepherds “feed” sheep, but tend implies a broader kind of care: a concern for every aspect of the sheep’s health, safety and life. As regards the shift between “lambs” and “sheep,” a lamb is a young sheep, still dependent on his mother for its care and feeding. Meanwhile, all sheep are vulnerable but lambs are more vulnerable. So, in this dialogue, Christ commissioned Peter essentially to the ministry of love and service to his lambs/sheep. Are we feeding the lambs and tending the sheep entrusted to us or do we contribute to devouring them?
After the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and Peter, Peter and the other disciples began to witness boldly and fearlessly to the Risen Lord despite the difficulties in the early Christian community as seen in the first reading. They were banned from feeding the lambs and tending the sheep by their teaching in the name of Christ, but they did not give up. They had to stand firm to resist the ancient ecclesiastical traditions and defy the Jewish authorities, the Old Testament institution of the priesthood. Notably, there was an ecclesiastical conflict between the old and new Church, when the Apostles resolutely told the high priest “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). It was a new ecclesiological level of witness: that God raised Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Saviour. They are now confident that they will overcome death as Christ did, and no longer live in fear but boldly testify: We and the Holy Spirit are witnesses to this.
Dear friends in Christ, we are also called to bear witness to the Risen Lord like the Apostles, no matter what it would cost us, let us do it with love, faith, and courage.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ