The Gospel today focuses on Peter and it is a most interesting one. This particular extract is sometimes used in the ceremony of the installation of a Pope. At his installation it is solemnly read to the new Pope as a sort of warning at the start of his important new ministry.
After the death of Jesus here in John’s Gospel the Apostles have returned to Galilee presumably out of desolation and a sense of defeat after the crucifixion. And they do what anyone else would do; they go back to what they know, and in their case that is fishing.
They return to the routine tasks, to the things they know so well. They return to the job that was their livelihood but which is so second nature to them that in desperate times to take it up again gives them a real sense of reassurance.
We shouldn’t interpret this return to Galilee as any sort of failure or believe that it demonstrates lack of faith. There are several mentions in the scriptures that Jesus stated that he would meet his disciples in Galilee and so it quite is reasonable to find them there.
As they go through these comforting and routine tasks in the boat, the Apostles see Jesus on the shore; though, as in so many of the resurrection appearances, at first they do not recognise him.
They do what the man on the shore tells them and find that they have a tremendous haul of fish. This, of course, takes them right back to another similar miraculous haul of fish and they begin to realise it can only be Jesus. Peter then makes his profession of faith and half-naked jumps out of the boat to greet Jesus.
Then follows what we can only call the rehabilitation of Peter. He is rehabilitated after the three-fold denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest and he is given confirmation of his role as Chief of the Apostles, but he is also given some clarification of what this role is to mean personally for him.
Jesus has cooked breakfast for the Apostles and this meal is full of Eucharistic overtones as for example in the words, ‘he took bread and gave it to them.’ This meal reminds them very clearly of the Last Supper.
But the little charcoal fire also has a role. It is a very potent reminder of the charcoal fire with which Peter warmed himself that fateful night and where he made his three-fold denial that he was one of Christ’s followers.
By this time even the slowest among the Apostles realises it is the Christ. Jesus then shows them what he is truly like and in that most beautiful passage he so gently and lovingly forgives Peter. But this forgiveness is not just gentle and loving it is also very thorough, he forgives him three times one for each of his denials. And with each of these absolutions he gives him a commission: ‘feed my lambs.’ He is to be the undisputed shepherd of Christ’s flock.
We can understand forgiveness but it is more difficult for us to do what Jesus does. We would forgive but still be cautious and we would probably want Peter to prove himself before giving him any sort of task, let alone confirming him in his role as Christ’s representative on earth.
But as Peter says, ‘It is the Lord,’ and we know that the Lord does things differently from us. But we also know that it is our task in life to learn the ways of the Lord, to do things as he does them; to appreciate his ways and to imitate them in our lives.
What he wants is our love; not because he commands it, not out of duty or for any personal benefit. No,0 he wants us to love him freely and without compulsion. He asks Peter three times, ‘Do you love me.’ By this he is not demanding anything of Peter but showing by this three-fold questioning the depth of his own love for Peter.
It is this tenderness, this depth of love that we see in Jesus that we want to imitate in our own lives. If we could only find it within us to react in such a way when we have experienced rejection what different people we would be.
I mentioned earlier that this particular text is sometimes the one chosen to be read to a new Pope at his installation. And on that occasion it is the last section that is the most poignant. ‘When you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.’
What is being referred to here is the binding of the hands of one who his to be crucified and then him being led to the place of execution. We know that this was to be the fate of Peter and that he was crucified in Rome right next to where St Peter’s Basilica now stands.
The last words of today’s text are the most devastating of all: ‘After this he said, “Follow me.”’ Peter was to follow Christ and dedicate his whole life to him and work tirelessly for the spread of the Gospel. But he was also to imitate Christ in his death. He was literally asked to give his life for Christ.
Martyrdom is unlikely to be asked of any one of us here, although one never knows. But there are many different kinds of martyrdom. Not all are asked to be nailed to a cross like Peter, to be beheaded like a Thomas More, or burned at the stake like a Joan of Arc. But we will all die. And at the moment of our death we can give ourselves to God, we can make it a sort of spiritual martyrdom, an ultimate surrender to the will of God. We pray each day asking Mary to be with us in the hour of our death and we do so with good reason for we know that is the most important hour of our lives; we know that it is literally the moment of truth for us all.
Peter was found wanting as he warmed himself by that charcoal fire on the night of Jesus’ arrest; I’m sure that he never felt so cold as he did through the humiliation he received that night. But never was there a fire so warming as that little pile of charcoal on the shore that morning in Galilee.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket