Modern pilgrims in Israel can quickly sense the contrast between the dry, dusty desert of Judea (where Jerusalem is) and the relatively lush, green of Galilee (where today’s Gospel story [John 21:1-19] is set). Renewed annually by winter’s life-giving rains, the land around the large lake the Gospel calls the Sea of Tiberias (more commonly called the Sea of Galilee) is at its lushest and greenest in spring. And so, it was to that place at this season of the year, that Peter and six other disciples returned. It had been from those familiar shores that Jesus had originally called them to follow him. Now they’d come home – back to what they knew best. They went fishing.
But this was to be no normal fishing expedition!
There’s a lovely little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this event. In front of the altar is a rock, traditionally venerated as the stone on which the risen Lord served his disciples a breakfast of bread and fish. Staples of the Galilean diet, bread and fish seem to be staples of the Gospel story itself! Just a short walk away is another church, marking the site where Jesus had (not so long before) fed 5000+ people with five loaves and a few fish. Presumably, the disciples would have well remembered that earlier meal. And surely we should as well, as we also assemble here at the table lovingly set for us by the risen Lord himself. Here, in this church on this hilltop, as surely as on that distant lakeshore, he feeds us with food we would never have gotten on our own. Here too he challenges us, as he challenged Peter, with the question: do you love me?
Peter was asked this critical question three times – obviously corresponding to the three times Peter had earlier denied Jesus. It’s as if – as one of our local Protestant pastors put it recently – as if Jesus were giving Peter an alternative set of memories, his triple profession of love replacing his triple denial.
Later in the story, we learn that another disciple was following Jesus and Peter as they walked along the shore. This conversation initially concerned primarily just Jesus and Peter; but, listening in with that other disciple, we learn that what started out as a fishing story has now turned into a shepherding story.
In relation to the world, Peter (and his fellow disciples) have been commissioned by Jesus to keep casting their nets, drawing people in – into the Church, which will continue the mission of the risen Lord in the world. But once inside, within the Church the dominant image is that of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who here shares that shepherding role in a special way with Peter. Others will share in shepherding the flock, of course, but Peter is particularly and specially called to follow Jesus in the role of the Church’s shepherd. Hence, that lovely little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this story is called “The Church of the Primacy of Peter.”
Proclaiming the primacy of Peter and his successors, the Second Vatican Council declared that Christ willed that the bishops, as successors of the apostles, “should be shepherds in his Church until the end of the world. In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided,” the Council continued, Christ “put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion.”
This mission of Peter and of his successor, the Pope, has been very much in the news these past two months, beginning with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and continuing with the election of Pope Francis, who just last Sunday formally took possession of the Lateran Basilica, the cathedral church of Rome, ceremonially signifying his office as Chief Shepherd of the Church, commissioned to tend Christ’s flock in the world.
Typically, in these gospel stories of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is the sense that, while this is certainly the same Jesus the disciples had followed in life and who had died on the Cross, something about him is now different. Hence, the dramatic moment when Jesus is recognized, as when the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” But recognizing the risen Christ is not the end of the story. It is but the beginning of a life lived in love, in a community of love. We learn that love by following the risen Lord. So, even before being formally entrusted with his special mission, Peter leads the way, dressing up for the occasion, jumping into the sea and swimming to Jesus ahead of the others.
As his role requires, Peter here is already leading his flock, leading here by example. His example illustrates for the rest of us what it means, first, to recognize the risen Lord and, then, actually to follow him.
Learning love is a lifelong process. So it was for Peter, as Jesus’ concluding words to him made clear – just as his words also make clear for us that we learn by doing, by following. If we keep Christ in the closet, confining him to at most only a corner of our lives, if we do nothing to bring his risen life anywhere to anyone else right here and now in the basic bread and fish of ordinary life, then well may Jesus have to ask each of us over and over again, do you love me?
And so, after everything else has been said, Jesus says to us, to each of us in his or her own way of life, in his or her particular role and vocation in the Church, just what he said to Peter: Follow me!
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 14, 2013.