The gospel of this Sunday blends feelings and desires. Following the death of Jesus, the apostles are thinking about starting life afresh. What happens next? The twenty-first chapter of John highlights Peter’s mood and that of the other apostles within this circumstance. They ponder on their fate in the absence of their master. Peter says to them, “I am going fishing,” and they all join him spontaneously, “We also will come with you.” These disciples seem to be facing some goal-oriented crisis and confusion. Without Jesus they are confused, like sheep without a shepherd. The disciples’ response, “We’ll also go with you,” is like saying to Peter, “We’re up for whatever plans you come up with.”
This reminds me of our days in the high school. As we neared graduation, some of us were not sure of what plans and careers we would follow. As peers, we would occasionally sit down to talk about our next steps in life. Those who had concrete plans would describe them to others, how they had signed up to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, priests, pilots, etc. Simply because one person initiated the idea of becoming any of those, those who had no plans would echo responses like, “I also want to be a lawyer. I also want to be an engineer.”
When Peter says, “I am going fishing,” Peter speaks about a return to former profession as well as a place of escape amidst traumatic experience. The boss is dead, so “I am going fishing.” It means, “I am done, guys. Not sure what your plans are at this point.” It could also mean, "Guys, I need to do something different, to forget this horrible experience of the thoughts about the Lord's death." This is the lowest point in the lives of the apostles. And they all go fishing with Peter to start all over. However, Jesus already knew their next line of action. Scripture says, “Jesus revealed himself again to them at the Sea of Tiberias.” How come he knew they were going fishing? It is because he is the Lord.
The Sea of Tiberias in the Old Testament was called Sea of Chinnereth, and later it was called the Lake of Gennesaret. What happens here is significant in so many ways. The disciples catch nothing. Jesus stands on the shore. He inquiries about their fishing. He is aware of their lack of success. He directs them to throw their nets to the right. And they make a huge catch. Then he invites Peter into his love, commissions him, and asks him to follow him. Awesome!
The beloved disciple helps Peter to recognize Jesus and says to him, “It is the Lord.” There is a lot of parallel between this passage and Luke’s gospel (Ch. 5: 1-8), the early calling of the disciples. Here’s Luke’s account of the calling of the first disciples:
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
In this passage, Jesus comes specifically to call and strengthen Simon Peter. The Bible says in Luke's gospel, “Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (Lk. 5:11). At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Follow me” (Jn. 21:19).
The process of commissioning Peter and the disciples begins with a discovery of Jesus' identity by the beloved disciple. Then, Peter jumps into the sea, a ritual which scholars have interpreted to mean a form of self-baptism symbolizing a newly found commitment to the risen Lord. Peter cleanses himself of the denial. His first meeting with Jesus happened at the Sea of Gennesaret, so this second initiation appropriately takes place at the same river to remind Peter of the demands of leadership, “I will make you fishers of men.”
Jesus reaffirms Peter’s trust by probing his love. Jesus invites Peter to profess his faith, and three times, asks him, “Do you love me?” It does not matter if he denied him three times earlier, what matters is to entrust himself into the service of love for the sheep. Peter must recognize that the Lord has got his back at all times.
The statement, “It is the Lord,” ushers in hope as well as commitment. It is linked with the Eucharistic hospitality which Jesus offers to his diciples and to us. Jesus hosts a breakfast to show the apostles how much he cares for them. Peter sees Jesus in the midst of confusion and failed hard labor. Having worked all night and caught nothing can be frustrating, but the presence of the Lord rekindles hope. Peter must know that Jesus is Lord. Peter must identify him in order to shepherd his flock. Peter must understand his will.
My dear friends, it is important to recognize that Jesus is Lord in our lives at all moments, to have someone remind us that it is the Lord even when our efforts seem not to produce the desired result. What happens when you get to your sea of Tiberias? What happens when you have thrown in all your efforts into a project without being successful? What happens when you struggle with your faith, when it appears as if God is silent at your appeal? Do you have someone who can help you remember that he is the Lord?
The message in this gospel is that Jesus never abandons his people. He meets us at the Sea of Tiberias and transforms our helplessness. On his own part he prepares the table and invites you to dine with him in the Blessed Eucharist. On your own part, imagine Jesus looking at you in the eyes and asking you three times like Peter, “Do you love me? Do you love me more than you love anything else in your life?” You just have to love him as the Lord and God in your life.
Readings: 1st- Actsn5:27-32, 40-41; 2nd- Rev. 5:11-14; Gospel- Jn. 21:1-19