(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
On this third Sunday of Easter we hear another Resurrection account from the Gospel of St. John. St. John's Gospel is full of signs. We can think about the signs in this Gospel reading and wonder what they tell us.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.
We find the disciples no longer in Jerusalem, but back in Galilee by the great lake, sometimes called the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias. There are seven of the disciples here. Seven, the perfect number. Seven, like all the days of our weeks—all of our time.
St. John names three of the disciples.
Thomas, we know, is the one to whom Jesus shows great mercy, coming to him in his doubt so that he can personally encounter the Lord. Perhaps that will happen again here.
Nathanael is hardly ever mentioned, but St. John is careful to tell us that he is from Cana. What do we remember about Cana? This is the place where Jesus performs his first miracle, turning a vast amount of water into wine, a sign of great abundance and joy. Perhaps that will happen again here.
And St. John mentions Simon Peter.
Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’
Why does Simon Peter go fishing? It seems like he does not know what else to do. Perhaps he does not know what Jesus expects of him. He returns to what he does know: fishing. The others follow his lead.
They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
Into the scene with seven people, an eighth person appears. Certainly this is a sign. Into our time of seven days, a person who is outside of time, arrives. The eighth day is eternity—God's time.
Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
Where there was nothing, now there is everything.
Where there were no fish, now there is a ridiculous amount of fish!
In God's time, there is abundance!
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’
Which one of the disciples is this? John does not tell us. All we know is that this disciple, like us, can read the signs. This disciple knows that the Lord is near. Knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and this disciple shares it with Peter.
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
One of the reasons why so many of us love Simon Peter is that he is so real. It does not make sense to jump into the water rather than come ashore with the others. It does not make sense to put on clothes to jump into the water. But Simon Peter is not thinking sensibly. He just acts. Like John the Baptist who leaps for joy within his mother's womb, Simon Peter leaps into the water to be with his Lord. If we were to see the Lord on the beach, would we not jump into the water with Simon Peter?
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’
Why does Jesus ask for the fish if he already has some cooking? We will see that he does not take any of the fish. This unusual detail may point to another sign.
So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
When the seven disciples first catch the fish in the net, St. John tells us that "they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish." Yet now, Simon Peter is able to haul the whole net all by himself. Where does he get this strength? Perhaps this is another sign. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is Fortitiude—strength in God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
With the sign of abundance there on the beach, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, feeds the disciples a meal he has prepared.
Do they remember another meal of bread that Jesus has given them?
Do they remember another meal with bread and fish and a sign of abundance?
They know that Jesus is the Lord.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’
We wonder if Simon Peter has been waiting for this. He has denied knowing Jesus three times. They have never spoken about it. We imagine that it has been weighing on Simon Peter's heart. He cannot erase what he has done.
He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the 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.
For each of Simon Peter's denials, Jesus gives him a chance to make things right. This is a beautiful example of the mercy of God.
An interesting aspect of this conversation is the words that Jesus uses. In the Greek language, there is more than one word meaning love. There is agape, which is the kind of love that gives itself for others, the way Jesus gives all of himself in the bread and the wine, how he gives all of himself on the cross. There is also philo which is the love between brothers and sisters, the love between friends. Twice Jesus asks Peter, "Do you agape me?" Once he asks, "Do you philo me?" Agape, agape, philo. Why does he change?
In fact, Jesus changes his words quite a bit in this conversation.
He uses two different words for his flock: twice he says sheep, once he says lambs. Lambs, sheep, sheep.
He uses two different words for caring for his flock: twice he says feed, once he says tend. Feed, tend, feed.
There is no pattern. Jesus keeps changing. But isn't he the parousia person, the person of the eighth day, the person of eternity? Should he not remain the same? This seems to bother Simon Peter. He is hurt.
Perhaps this is another sign. Perhaps St. John is trying to focus our attention on what remains the same. Throughout all these word changes, Simon Peter answers the same way every time. Always, always, he keeps Jesus first. You know that I love you.
And Jesus does know. He knows exactly how Peter loves.
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished
—like when you went fishing, waiting for me—
But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
Simon Peter will stretch out his hands, just like Jesus. He will learn to love, just like Jesus, giving all of himself.
In some ways, this Gospel passage is like the time we spend between Baptism and Confirmation. Like the disciples, we know Jesus is Risen. We have received the light of his Risen life in Baptism. Like the disciples, we are not sure what we are supposed to do now. We know we have a mission, we know we have a share in building the Kingdom of God, but the way forward is not quite clear. In the meantime, we do what we know. Jesus will meet us there.
We look for signs of the abundant life. We go to the meal where we can receive this abundance. When we sin, we ask forgiveness and receive the beautiful example of the mercy of God. And God gives us the way forward in the particular way God needs us to take care of the flock.
To all of us, God says,