Today’s Gospel (John 21:1-19) is one of my favorites. In John’s Gospel this is the third time that Jesus appears to the disciples after being raised from the dead. I believe it took all three appearances for the disciples to finally fully understand the significance of the resurrection for their lives.
Immediate conversions are rare, and so it was for the disciples. Their hearts were broken after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Their hopes for the future were dashed, leaving them confused and disillusioned. There was a process involved in which even the Risen Lord needed time to reassure the disciples that he indeed now lives and that his mission is now theirs.
I believe it was in this time of confusion that Peter was questioning his own future and how he was to proceed. It is no wonder that he ‘falls back’ to what is familiar, and decides to go fishing. After an unsuccessful night of fishing the Risen Lord appears to them from the shore. The Lord gives direction to the disciples, and their obedience to him bears fruit, leading to a large catch of fish.
At this, John tells Peter: “It is the Lord.” Over-joyed at that news, Peter jumps into the sea and makes his way to shore to greet the Lord. As he approaches Jesus, he cannot help but notice the Lord is once again near a charcoal fire. This scene no doubt recalls that tragic night when near a charcoal fire, Peter denied Jesus the first time. (John 18:17-18) No doubt, this painful moment is still fresh in Peter’s mind, and the wound of his actions still stings his conscience.
After feeding the disciples, Jesus begins a loving and healing conversation with Peter. He asks him: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” To which Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks a second and third time the same question. Each time Peter responds affirmatively, “Lord, you know I love you.” And each time, Jesus responds with a corresponding commission: “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus is tending to a deep wound in Peter, as well as reminding him that he is not defined by his sins, but rather by his love for Jesus. We all know how our sins make us question our own love for Jesus. Even worse, the shame we experience when we deny Jesus by our sinful choices begins to gnaw at us, and we can quickly fall into a trap of believing that we are no longer worthy of being loved, and that our love for Jesus is fickle and weak.
Jesus is asking if Peter loves him not for his sake, but for Peter’s sake!
Our sins rob us of our human dignity. The Risen Jesus restores our dignity by his loving mercy. As Jesus helps Peter rediscover his love for him, he is restoring Peter to his true identity as a beloved child of God. With each instruction to ‘Tend my sheep.” Jesus is renewing Peter in the great mission that is his as the rock foundation and leader of this fledgling Church.
One can almost hear Jesus also asking Peter: “What are you doing back in that boat?! I gave you a new mission.” In this third appearance of the Risen Jesus, we are led to believe that Peter and the other disciples finally understand that the Risen Lord is always with them, and that their love for Jesus translates into practical service of others. That was what Jesus taught and modelled in his own ministry. Love as service is now their mission. This mission has continued as the fundamental mission of the Church down through the ages to each of us today.
As our Easter journey continues, let us continue to look for and expect to discover the Risen Lord in our lives. As Peter, let us renew our love for Jesus. As we renew our love for Jesus, we too can expect to rediscover our mission of loving service to God’s holy people.
We are the Church. Our mission is to serve Christ in others. Our mission is to bring others to Christ.
The significance of the resurrection for our lives is the same as Peter’s. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Yes, Lord, I will serve you in my brothers and sisters!”