Sunday’s Gospel reading was from the book of John (the twenty-first chapter), in which the writer has an epilogue wherein the resurrected Jesus appears to seven of His disciples at the sea of Tiberius.The homily spoken at my local parish was about knowing Christ better, and knowing Him in the Eucharist, which I’ll be posting about soon (I promise!). But for today, I wanted to expand on and add my own thoughts on the reading as I felt led to return to this story and meditate on it further. While doing so, I began to wonder, just what was going on with the disciples at the time of this story taking place, and how does that apply to us today?
Behind Locked Doors
Picture it. The disciples are in hiding, fearful of the Jewish authority who had just had Jesus tried and killed. Despite evidence of His resurrection, they have been living behind locked doors. Perhaps the enemy is at work in their minds, making them doubt whether they really saw Jesus at all, if St. Thomas saw the nailmarks and touched His side. Now, Simon Peter, called by God to be the leader of this new Church, decides that he’s going to do something to break the cycle of fear and uncertainty.
“Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” (John 21:3, NAB)
While St. Peter may have been motivated by physical hunger, I picture him instead, longing for a return of normalicy. He was a fisherman before he was called to be a disciple. Many of them were.
With Jesus’ absence, it seemed only normal to return to the profession they first knew. And then I began to wonder, how many times, when we lack direction, do we become (like the disciples), immobilized by fear and doubt? And how often do we, when God seems absent, begin to drift back into old patterns — that which we find familiar, safe even?
But by the mercy of God, He is willing to meet us where we are! And Simon Peter, with those four little words, makes a decision that doing something, anything, is better than remaining in a life of fear. He refuses to continue living behind locked doors and his determination inspires the others to respond, “We also will come with you.”
As the story goes, they spent all night and found no fish. It calls to mind the times when I have attempted to force things out of my own strength, apart from God, and fail to bear any fruit. Earlier in the book of John (chapter 15), Jesus tells a parable about being the True Vine and they are the branches, and apart from Him, they can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). How often do we attempt things outside of God’s timing or provision, and fail? But Jesus, whom they don’t recognize as being present in their circumstances, is there waiting for them at the shore.
“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.” (John 21:5-6, NAB).
I love how abbreviated the disciples’ response is here: ‘No.” No complaining, it’s just almost a grunt of a reply, and maybe this is a little irreverent, but I almost sense a lack of charity in their voices. Perhaps they are thinking, ‘Can he not see that our nets hang limp and out boat is empty?’ They’ve been up all night, tired from their labors, feeling the frustration of failure and perhaps the pressure of being unable to provide for their families and anyone else they’re supporting. They will have nothing to take to market. They may even go hungry that day.
At this point, they still don’t recognize Jesus. Why not? Are they so caught up in their own problems that they are unable to see Him at work around them? It’s unspecified in the story but, I’d like to think, that maybe St. John the Apostle, the beloved disciple, had a head’s up that something unusual was at work here. Perhaps he was the one who encouraged them to give the stranger’s advice a try. Fruitfulness is always evidence of God at work in us. Immediately, when they reconnect with the True Vine, the whole situation changes. But only because they are willing to take this step of faith.
What steps of faith is God calling you to take in the midst of your situation? Where might you be encountering Christ and not recognize Him at work? St. John the Apostle — the one closest to Christ — immediately recognizes in this confirmation of fruitfulness that his Lord is at work. With four little words, he immediately tells Simon Peter.
“So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.” (Jn. 21:7, NAB).
I think it’s amazing that here again are four little words of faith, but how powerful are what they represent!
I love St. Peter in this story; the other disciples are reserved, or at least, willing to wait until the boat is docked to see Jesus. Even St. John the Apostle, who I picture has a serenity and a burning longing in his heart to be with Jesus, is content to wait until they arrive.
Not so, St. Peter!
St. Peter, whose passions are known to run hot, comes across as impetuous here. Upon hearing that it’s Jesus, he tucks in his clothing and swims to shore. One hundred yards! (For the mathematically-challenged, this is the length of an American football field, minus the end zones.) I recognize myself in St. Peter, eagerly desiring to love and do good, to please Jesus and make up for the times when I’ve denied Him and chosen the path of sin. The hearts of those who love God and are called according to His purposes run towards Him (or swim in this case), even when we have offended Him. We must always turn back to God.
What must St. Peter have been thinking of during that swim? Could he have ever envisioned that those four little words the night before would result in them encountering Christ? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think he was full of a joy and anticipation that filled him so completely, he couldn’t do anything else but rush to meet his Savior.
In the time it takes the others to catch up, Jesus already has a charcoal fire, and bread and fish upon it, to meet their physical hunger and provide for their needs. Spiritually, we can take from this also the analogy of God meeting our spiritual hunger in partaking of the Eucharist. Where Jesus is, there is always provision for our needs. Jesus does not merely meet their physical hunger however; He has provided the fish for them to take to market (thus, meeting their needs to help others); and He’s about to provide even more.
After breakfast, Jesus asks Simon Peter, three times, whether he loves Him. Why does Jesus ask him three times — isn’t once enough? The Bible tells us that St. Peter is pained by Jesus asking him three times whether He is loved by him.
“[…] Peter was distressed that he 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’.” (Jn. 21:17b, NAB)
Why was St. Peter in such anguish? Remember, that during the trial of Jesus, following His arrest, that Simon Peter was recognized as being one of His followers. When accused of being one of the disciples, Simon Peter rejected Christ three times. Despite Jesus’ resurrection, I think that Simon Peter was still living with the pain of those denials and needed addressing. He may not yet have realized it yet, but Jesus did! Like Simon Peter, perhaps we fail to recognize the areas where we are deeply hurt and still in need of those wounds being tended. What areas in our hearts need God’s healing today?
To be completely clear, Jesus didn’t need this confirmation from St. Peter for His own sake; this was totally about Peter. By asking Simon Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’, He was undoing the work of sin in St. Peter’s life, and offering him this heartbreakingly beautiful, poignant moment of healing. One affirmation of faith and fidelity, for every denial made in the grips of fear. How great a God we serve!
When we learn to recognize Christ in our circumstances, we can choose to join Him in His work. When we act in faith, we can encounter Him, and He not only gives us the provision to meet us needs, He equips us, gives us purpose, and calling us back to Himself, offering restoration.
Focusing on Your Own Walk
The final verses of the chapter (Jn. 21:20-23 specifically), we see Simon Peter asking Jesus what His plans are for the future of St. John the Apostle. Jesus offers Simon Peter the following rebuke:
“Jesus said to him, ‘What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (Jn. 21:22, NAB).
Poor Simon Peter, so soon restored to Christ, and he’s fallen again. I take encouragement from the inclusion of this passage because it confirms that we will continue to try and fall, even as we progress on our journey towards holiness and sanctification.
I am reminded too of an audiobook I’ve been listening to recently, in which Fr. Timothy Gallagher (who did that lecture on the Discernment of Spirits) talks about how while we should always strive to become as holy as possible, we should not become fixated upon the spiritual graces or giftings that God may reserve to give to others. And, I think, this is where St. Peter fell again. And so will we, fall that is, again and again. But God is always there to meet us where we are, and bring us back to restoration with Him. He is waiting on the shore, there at the Table.
Won’t you come and join Him?