On this Third Sunday of Easter, the Church turns to St. John’s account of when “Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.” John begins by setting the scene: seven disciples, including John himself, at the suggestion of Simon Peter decide to go fishing – as if they are still fishermen, as if they have not seen the Risen Lord. We know that they have met the Resurrected Christ at least twice: when he appeared to the disciples on Easter night (cf. Jn 20:19-23), and when he came again a week later, when Thomas was with them (Jn 20:24-29). But here they are, seemingly back where they started. Even Thomas, whose declaration of faith was so stirring – “My Lord and my God!” – goes out fishing again.
John tells us that it was “already dawn” when Jesus appeared on the shore. The arrival of Jesus is like the dawn. He is the Light that overcomes all darkness. He comes to men who have spent the whole night in darkness. Their spiritual darkness, that is, their failure to take in the impact of the Resurrection, is symbolized by the futility of their efforts at fishing; they are sitting in an empty boat. When we are sitting in darkness of any kind, experiencing emptiness in our lives, Jesus comes to us like the breaking of the dawn.
Even though Jesus is present, we do not necessarily recognize him. The seven discouraged disciples do not realize who is standing on the shore. Jesus patiently helps them, calling them “children,” a surprisingly intimate way of addressing them. Perhaps he is trying to remind them of the tender intimacy they shared during his public ministry – the shared laughter and meals, tears and disappointments. Then Jesus instructs them to make another attempt at fishing – as he had done at the very beginning of their life as his disciples (cf. Lk 5:4). The staggering result makes it obvious, first to the beloved disciple, and then to all of them, that this is no stranger; “It is the Lord!” When we recognize the Lord, the right response is to draw nearer to him – as soon as we can – even if it means jumping out of the comfort and safety of our “boat”!
The disciples drag the fish to shore, but they learn that the huge catch is not so important; it is merely a sign to remind them that doing the Lord’s will is what makes their efforts fruitful. They do not need the fish after all because Jesus already has fish and bread prepared for them. He invites them to partake of a meal with him: “Come, have breakfast.” The last meal they had shared before the crucifixion was a supper, the Last Supper, where Jesus lovingly served them by washing their feet. Now it is time for breakfast, a sign that a new day, the new era of Risen Life, has dawned.
The evangelist takes careful note of the food items that Jesus serves: bread and fish. These have symbolic meaning. Bread clearly refers to Holy Communion, the Bread of Life that is broken and shared in the Christian community. The fish also symbolizes Christ. The early Christians used the Greek word for fish, ichthys, as a clever acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Facing brutal persecution, they went underground and used the fish symbol to identify the houses where they could safely gather in secret.
After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside for a personal interview. The Lord knows it is not for lack of love that Peter went back to fishing; rather, Peter feels unworthy to serve the One whom he three times denied knowing. Jesus mercifully and tenderly gives Peter an opportunity to reverse his three denials by three renewed affirmations of love. And Jesus renews Peter’s commission three times: Peter is now a shepherd, not a fisherman. The Lord believes in Peter’s love enough to entrust to him his sheep, the flock of the Church.
Jesus also gives Peter a prophetic indication of how he will glorify God by his martyrdom; it will be a precious result of his renewed dedication to following Jesus. After this, Peter is truly ready for the mission Jesus has given him. He will not deny the Lord again! We can take a lesson from his experience: when we remain preoccupied with our own guilt, we are tempted to conclude that we have nothing worth offering to the Lord. The antidote is to listen to what the Lord has to say. When we listen in prayer, we discover that he still loves us and has a mission for us.
In the first reading, Peter shows us how to stride forward in confident faith after we have been crushed by guilt and remorse. With absolute trust in God, he and the other Apostles have gone forth and “have filled Jerusalem with [their] teaching.” It is a very dangerous time to speak in Jesus’ Name – which they have been explicitly ordered not to do – but they are willing to risk their lives, overjoyed with the message that Jesus is our salvation. No human authority or threat of danger can stop Peter because he knows the love of the Lord. He would rather die than betray him again. He boldly declares, “We must obey God rather than men!” He is able to say this, and to live by this conviction, because he is no longer relying on the power of his human nature; he is living in the Spirit, allowing the power of God’s grace to work in him.
When I experience spiritual darkness, how does the Risen Lord break into this darkness? How does remaining in the safety of my “boat” hinder me from recognizing the Lord? How does living in the Spirit enable me to allow the power of God to work in me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.