Lectionary 48, Gospel John 21: 1-19
Having basked in the glow of Easter joy for two weeks we are presented today with a great challenge to focus us clearly on our way through the remainder of the Church year. The apostles had already encountered the risen Lord twice by the time today’s gospel events unfold, and they had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, as we heard last Sunday. However, they eventually returned to their home areas and resumed a relatively normal pattern of life after all of the upheaval, tragedy, and triumph of the Paschal Triduum and Easter.
Peter, James, John, Thomas, and several other disciples were laboring at the Sea of Galilee trying to earn a living by fishing as they had before they began following Jesus. As avid fishers know, sometimes good luck strikes and sometimes one comes up empty-handed, and the latter was the case on this particular night. Peter and the others were exasperated at having caught nothing and they are ready to call it a night when the Lord appears to them, although they failed to recognize him. After obeying the command to lower their nets one more time, John finally sees that it was Jesus who was speaking with them, and the others’ recognition of him follows.
Here comes the challenge: after offering his disciples a meal of fish and bread, Jesus next singles out Peter and asks him three times “Do you love me?” Peter is understandably flustered and he responds with increasing surprise and even a note of defensiveness to the repeated question. After having seen that Peter is truly seeking to be a devoted disciple Jesus issues an invitation to him: “Follow me”. We might expect these words near the beginning of the gospel, and indeed we do find them there (see John 1:39, 43), yet at the end they seem odd; after all, what have Peter and the others been doing all the time they accompanied Jesus if not following him?
What the chief of the apostles had to learn that day is the same lesson we all must take to heart if our faith in Christ is to be real: that our following Jesus is vindicated gloriously on Easter Sunday, but does not end there. Easter, Peter learns, is really only the beginning of his personal journey of faith in Christ and the extraordinary demands it will make upon him—and the same is true in a different way for the rest of us. Peter would be put to the test in a far more challenging situation than most of us will ever meet, as Jesus himself anticipates: “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” (John 21:18).
In today’s world the test of how authentically we follow the Lord rarely takes the form of the sort of dramatic martyrdom that Peter faced—though this does still happen, as the recent murder of four Missionaries of Charity in Yemen proves. Rather, we more often endure the daily trials of subtle cultural opposition, discouragement on account of scandals, tension within a multi-creedal family, or plain disinterest that can slowly smother our desire to earnestly and joyfully walk in the footsteps of Jesus, leading us to relegate our Catholicism to a circumscribed hour on Sundays and a few other moments throughout the year.
In spite of all these things Christ’s summons to Peter and to us still rings out clearly this Easter season: “Follow me”. He who asks this of us never fails to give us every gift of strength and grace we need to answer the call, even if we fall many times along the way. With the example of Peter as our inspiration let us resolve to deepen our love for Jesus this Easter and beyond, so that we may faithfully follow him wherever he leads us.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.