by Rev. James C. Hudgins
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
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 the 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 our 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."
In all the history of the church, there has never been a day of scandal worse than Good Friday. Eleven out of 12 apostles, the first bishops of the church, betrayed Jesus in his hour of greatest need. Peter, the first vicar of Christ, emphatically and unambiguously denied that he had ever known him — and not once, but three times. Since that day, there’s no record of any conversation between Peter and Jesus — until now.
Peter stands by the shore of the Sea of Galilee and announces, “I'm going fishing.” Peter hadn’t been fishing for three years. Jesus had called him to something higher. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). Jesus had called him to be head of the church: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). But after his triple betrayal, who knows what Peter was thinking? Perhaps Peter imagined all that was over. After how badly he had fallen, certainly Jesus would look for someone else. That’s how most of us think, isn’t it? Ever since the Garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve ran and hid from God after their sin, we’ve imagined that when we give up on God, God gives up on us. But God is full of surprises. Look what happens.
The Gospel of John is dense with symbolism and layers of meaning. Certain things are always meaningful in John: numbers, especially things that happen in threes and sevens; light and darkness, times of day and night, sunrises and sunsets; and deliberate repetition — seemingly insignificant details that are in fact quite deliberate because they link events together. John notes in the Gospel that while the apostles were fishing, Jesus builds a fire. But not just any fire, a “charcoal” fire. The last time John mentions a charcoal fire in his Gospel? The night before Good Friday. That night, when Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin, John notes that Peter stood beside a “charcoal” fire. There, he denies Jesus three times.
Now, once again beside a charcoal fire, in the first recorded conversation between Jesus and Peter since his passion and death, Jesus asks Peter a question. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” Imagine what Peter was thinking at that moment. “Here we go,” Peter may have thought to himself. “If I say ‘yes,’ then the Lord will ask me, ‘Well, if you love me, then why did you betray me?’” What astonishment Peter must have felt when Jesus instead says, “Feed my lambs.” Three times Peter betrayed Jesus. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus, of course, does this on purpose to show Peter the power of forgiveness. Not only has Jesus never revoked his love, but Jesus wishes Peter to know that, because of his triple failure and manifest human weakness, Peter has become the perfect spokesman for God's grace. He is more qualified than ever to lead souls to the mercy of God.
What happens to Peter by the fire is precisely what Jesus wants to happen to each of us. He wants us to know that we are forgiven for precisely that sin that has caused us the deepest remorse of our lives. There's a story I love from the life of St. Teresa of Avila. After St. Teresa would go to confession, she would stand outside the confessional and wait for all the sisters of her convent to also finish their confessions. As each sister came out, St. Teresa would greet each one, put her hands on her shoulders, look her in the eye and say, “Begin again. Begin again.”
In the Gospel this week, through the person of Peter, Jesus says the same words to you and me. Begin again.
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