Sunday reflection: John 21:1–19

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 21:1–19:

At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish. When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Just recently, this scene played on thousands of cinema screens around the country in the excellent film Risen, and provided one of the emotional high points of the movie. A Roman tribune named Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes, has tagged along with the apostles and sits in the boat with them when the man first calls out to them from the shore. It takes a few minutes for the apostles to realize that it is Jesus speaking to them, and they come ashore with great joy. Clavius also comes on shore, not filled so much with joy but with a compulsion to know the truth, and an undeniable thirst for the salvation of the risen Christ — even if Clavius cannot quite believe his own eyes.

Put aside the film for a moment, though, and consider what role someone like Clavius would have played at this event. Would he have been a seeker, like Clavius? A true believer from Jerusalem who witnessed the events of the Passion, and had already given his heart to Christ? Alternatively, it could be someone whose skepticism motivated him to tag along to look for reasons for disbelief. Perhaps such a traveling companion would simply have enjoyed the company of the apostles without necessarily having a primary interest in their philosophy or their particular mission. One might have been looking for work, a vocation of sorts, and hoped that the apostles might need some assistance in some manner that another traveler could provide.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should — and the last suggestion about vocations probably tipped most of you off already. This passage from John provides us with an analogy of our church, and we are those who come to it, just as the fictional Clavius does literally in Risen.

The apostles pilot their boat and attempt to fish, but without Christ do so to no avail. When Christ appears on the shore, He leads them by guiding their efforts, and they succeed in abundance. The nets bring in multitudes of fish — in fact far too many, or so they would think. Yet the nets do not tear and the apostles bring their multitudes to Jesus, who prepares a meal. Jesus gives them the bread in a Eucharistic parallel, and then the fish for their own care. They have been fishermen, but Christ fulfills his promise to make them “fishers of men,” and in its own way, this parallels the transformation that will shortly occur on Pentecost.

We see the fruits of that transformation in our first reading today from Acts 5. The apostles have succeeded so well in “fishing” people that the Sanhedrin sees them as a threat to their own power. They are brought before the council, accused of subversion, and threatened to stop “fishing,” as it were. Yet Peter refuses to be intimidated, and the council ends up offering nothing but mostly empty threats, and the apostles rejoice — the nets have not torn. Their recognition of Christ as the living leader of the Church and humility toward the Holy Spirit lifted the nascent church, for which the apostles rejoiced afterward.

It is this recognition and humility that transforms the church, and transforms each of us. On our own, we cannot hope to achieve salvation and eternal life, no matter how each of us comes to the church: philosopher, skeptic, friend, and so on. The Christian church satisfies all these impulses, but it cannot succeed without recognizing the imperative of Jesus Christ’s authority and leadership.

And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Jesus addresses this specifically to Peter in this passage, and that is also significant. This takes place after the risen Christ asks Peter to profess his devotion three times — a reversal of the three times Peter betrayed Jesus during the Passion. All three times, Jesus instructs Peter to care for his flock, but on the third time Jesus tells Peter that his life is no longer his own. The Holy Spirit will lead him “where you do not want to go,” and that Peter’s mission will always be to “follow me” in humility. Not Peter’s will, but the will of the Father through the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ will be done. And this time, with help of Christ, Peter will remain faithful to that mission unto death — and new life in the Kingdom.

The nets will not tear. The church will endure. And those who follow the apostles and succeed them will ensure that the church can embrace the wanderer, the philosopher, the skeptic, and those called to see for themselves the truth and beauty of the Word of God. When they do, we must find a way to welcome them with joy and hospitality, but remembering that we can only do that when we recognize Christ as the master, and at the center of our feast, just as the apostles did on the Sea of Galilee.

The front-page image is of a sculpture at the Church of the Primacy of Peter in Tabgha, Israel on the Sea of Galilee, the traditional location of this passage. From my own photo collection. 

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