Pilgrims in Israel can quickly sense the contrast between the dry desert of Judea (where Jerusalem is) and the relatively greener region of Galilee (where today’s Gospel story [John 21:1-19] is set). Renewed annually by winter’s life-giving rains, the land around the large lake the Gospel calls the Sea of Tiberias (more commonly called the Sea of Galilee) is (like California) at its freshest and greenest in the spring. And it was there, in this spring season sometime between the Jewish festivals of Passover and Pentecost, that Peter and several other disciples returned. It had been from those same familiar shores that Jesus had originally called them to follow him. Now they had come home. They had come back to what they knew best. They went fishing. But this was to be no normal fishing expedition!
There is a lovely little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this event. In it is a rock (photo), that is traditionally venerated as the stone on which the risen Lord served his disciples a breakfast of bread and fish. Staples of the Galilean diet, bread and fish seem to be staples of the Gospel story itself! Just a short walk away along the lakeshore is another church, marking the supposed site where Jesus had (not so long before) fed 5000+ people with five loaves and a few fish. Presumably, the disciples would have well remembered that earlier meal. And surely we should too, as we also assemble here at the table set for us by the risen Lord himself. Here, in this church on this hilltop, as surely as on that distant lakeshore, he feeds us with food we would never have gotten on our own. Here too he challenges us, as he challenged Peter, with the question: do you love me?
Peter was asked that question three times - obviously corresponding to (and symbolically undoing) the three times that Peter had earlier denied Jesus, his triple profession of love forever replacing his triple denial. Listening in on their conversation we are treated to a dramatic change in imagery as what started out as a fishing story has now turned into a shepherding story.
On the one hand, Peter and his fellow disciples have been commissioned by Jesus to keep casting their nets, drawing people in – into the Church, which will continue the mission of the risen Lord in this world. As members of that Church and beneficiaries of its mission, we have, all of us, been invited to set sail with Jesus, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter, the Church’s fisherman-in-chief. That is why the Pope’s ceremonial ring traditionally portrayed Saint Peter fishing and so has for centuries been called the Fisherman's Ring.
But once inside, within the community of the Church, another image dominates - that of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who here shares that shepherding role in a special way with Peter. Others will share in shepherding the flock, of course, but Peter is particularly and specially called to follow Jesus in the role of the Church’s shepherd. Hence, that lovely little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this story is called The Church of the Primacy of Peter.
Proclaiming the primacy of Peter and his successors, the Second Vatican Council declared that Christ “put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion.” This mission of Peter and of his successor, Pope Francis, has been very much in the news of late, thanks to the papal visit to the United States last September, followed by the papal pilgrimage to Mexico and the US border in February, and now with this week’s much-awaited release of Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, about which we will surely have much more to say in the weeks and months ahead.
Typically, in all these gospel stories of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is some dramatic moment when Jesus is recognized, as when the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” But recognizing the risen Christ is not the end of the story. It is but the beginning of one’s new life lived in the Church, where like Peter and with Peter we learn to love and follow the risen Lord. So, even before being formally entrusted with his special mission, Peter led the way, dressing up for the occasion, jumping into the sea and swimming to Jesus ahead of the others. As his role requires, Peter was already leading his flock, leading by example. His example illustrates for the rest of us what it means, first, to recognize the risen Lord and, then, actually to follow him.
Like – and with – Peter, we learn by doing, by loving and following. If we keep Christ in the closet, confining him to at most only a corner of our lives, if we do nothing to bring his risen life anywhere to anyone else in the here and now, in the basic bread and fish of ordinary life, then well may Jesus have to ask each of us over and over again, do you love me?
And so, after everything else has been said, Jesus says to us, to each of us in his or her own way of life, in his or her particular role and vocation in the Church, just what he said to Peter: Follow me!
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 10, 2016.