Peter’s Betrayal Forgiven

The readings for Sunday, April 10, 2016, Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle C, are
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelation 5:11-14; and John 21:1-19.

This Sunday’s Gospel includes most of John 21, which could be called the postscript to the rest of John’s Gospel. The primary purpose of the chapter is to justify the role of Simon Peter as head of the Christian Community and the continuation of that role after Peter’s death. The disciples are no longer in Jerusalem, where John 20 left them in Jesus’ presence after his second post-resurrection appearance. Chapter 21 takes place in Galilee, on and by the Sea of Galilee. John calls it the Sea of Tiberias, so-named after a Roman Emperor about sixty years before John wrote his Gospel. In the first scene of the drama Simon Peter announces a fishing excursion. These disciples of Jesus accompany him: Thomas Didymus, Nathanael (of whom we have heard nothing since chapter one), the sons of Zebedee, (referring to James and John, up to now not mentioned in John’s gospel), and two other disciples.

They launched their boat into the inland sea. After a whole night’s attempt, they had caught nothing. As dawn was breaking, Jesus was standing on the shore. This is a post-resurrection story, therefore a resurrected body enjoying a freedom we do not have — free of the laws of physics. The men in the boat had not recognized him. Jesus addresses them in what seems like a diminutive sense in John’s Greek, Paidia. The usual translation is “children.” If Jesus had not used this unusual address for the disciples, it would hardly have been preserved in the tradition and recalled sixty years later. Here perhaps it was used in the sense of “Boys.” Thus Jerome’s translation into Latin, “Pueri.” So Jesus says, “Boys, have you caught anything to eat?” The curt answer to this stranger on the shore betrays some impatience, “NO!”

The Creator of the fish apparently knows where the fish hang out, and says, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat, and you will find something.” Why the “right” side? Even though Church Fathers of the early centuries made much of the “right side” in Jesus’ command, it may be nothing more than that is where the fish were…. Jesus by his more than natural knowledge knew this, just as John often points out that Jesus knew what people were thinking before they spoke.The catch of fish was so large that they were unable to pull the net into the boat. Probably the author has some intention of demonstrating that success comes only through the help of Jesus. He may have in mind another tradition not mentioned in John — the call of the first four fishermen from Galilee in Mark and Matt, and the saying of Jesus in that story,”… from now on you will be catching men.”

The author throws in a little sidebar — a favor to the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” He was one of the sources behind this written Gospel, as we are told in John 21:24. Whoever he was, it is love that recognizes the Beloved. With that recognition this mysterious disciple informs Simon Peter, who had failed so severely recently. Peter still had to profess publicly his love for Jesus to be reinstated. Simon Peter, impulsive as ever, and stark naked, jumps into the sea. We are told by observers that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee often work “without.” The other disciples came to shore in the boat, dragging the net full of fish behind them. John informs readers that there were 153 large fish.

In the next scene Jesus displays his culinary skills. “When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.” The creator of all things provides, but he also invites the disciples to contribute the fruits of their own labor. The author adds a vignette that gives further insight to the busy personality of Simon Peter, “He went over and dragged the net ashore.” Jesus invites them to breakfast and hands out bread and roasted fish. Thus ends the fishing story. The symbolism is about to change from fishing to shepherding, from fish to mutton. Breakfast is over. Peter’s triple denial has yet to be dealt with so that Jesus can restore him to first place or first servant among the disciples. Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, do you love me more than these (others)?” Then twice more, “Do you love me?” Twice the fallen apostle answers, “Lord, you know that I love you.” The third question is almost too much for Peter. In mental anguish he answers, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” The triple denial is undone by a triple affirmation of love. Jesus accepts Peter’s affirmation of love by a triple commissioning (or job description), “Shepherd (or feed) my lambs (sheep).”