“Jesus said to Peter the third time: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was upset that He asked him the third time … he said, ‘Lord, You know everything: You know I love You.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed My sheep.’”
On this third Sunday of Easter, it would seem the disciples in their disappointment, despondency and despair have returned to their fishing duty, and are gradually beginning to accept their condition of losing their Master to the betrayal of a friend, the injustice of the people and the weakness of Pilate. They returned to what they were doing before Jesus met them. In the Gospel (John 21: 1-19), John narrates very dramatically the occasion of Jesus’ third appearance to His disciples since after His resurrection. It is very palpable that the disciples are still very confused at the reality of the Resurrection, or perhaps, still very uncertain what exactly was happening. “None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, ‘Who are you?’; they knew quite well it was the Lord” (John 21: 12). This unfolds the mind-set of the disciples here. As in the two previous cases, Jesus patiently takes His time to demonstrate another proof of His Resurrection in order to convince them of the fact that He is truly Risen and truly Alive! The unfolding episode is quite exciting as it is didactic.
“… caught nothing that night … It was light”: First, we notice the themes of light and darkness, which are very dominant in John’s Gospel come into play: “They went out and got into the boat but caught nothing that night” (John 21: 3). This may be John’s way of telling us that any venture undertaken in the dark will end in futility. Darkness here depicts the radical evil that is hidden in us that annihilates our efforts at establishing a union or bond with the Lord, Who shows Himself in the light: “It was light and there stood Jesus by the shore” (John 21: 4). In a sense, John is presenting the dichotomy between life in the Dark, which is futility; and life lived in the Light, which is life lived in its fullness: “I have come that they may life and have it in full” (John 10: 10). This may be one sense of what the net full of fish portrays. This is the richness of the Resurrection of Christ, that we are catapulted from darkness to light: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5: 8).
“One hundred and fifty-three fish and in spite of there being so many the net was not broken”: John is very specific here. Were the fish actually counted? Perhaps to share among the seven of them on the boat. There are other opinions that are more ingenious: St. Cyril of Alexandria opined that the number 153 is made up of three significant numbers: 100, 50 and 3. 100, he says, is the fullest number. The shepherd’s full flock is hundred (Matthew 18: 12). The 100 therefore, represents the fullness of the Gentiles who will be gathered in to Christ. 50 stands for the remnant of Israel who will be converted to Christ; and 3 stands for the Trinity to whose glory all things are done. The net full of fish is also conjectured by many scholars to refer to the universality of the Church. The unbroken net represents the tenacity, elasticity and universality of the Church and the boundless nature of the mission of the disciples, which we are privileged to be partakers by the virtue of our baptism. We too are called to be witnesses in a world that will certainly oppose us as they did Christ and the apostles. But our focal point and allegiance must always be God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. For, on this mission, “Obedience to God is better than obedience to man” (Acts 5: 27-32,40-41).
By A Charcoal Fire: Charcoal fire only just appeared twice in the New Testament and both connect to Peter and Jesus. At the first instance (John 18: 18), Peter’s love for Christ was tested while he stood by the “charcoal fire” warming himself on that Holy Thursday night, as his Master was going through the mockery of a trial before Pilate. It was there he denied his Master, whom he promised his unflinching love and support severally: “even if they all fall away, I will not” (Matthew 26: 33; Mark 14: 29); “Lord, I am ready to go with You to prison and to death” (Luke 22: 33) and “I will lay down my life for You” (John 13: 37). Here, again, by the charcoal fire, Peter is given the privilege to restore that which he renounced by the first charcoal fire. Where sin was committed, there forgiveness is offered; where love was lost, there it has to be found; where fear and timidity overwhelmed him, his bravery and courage are restored; where grace was lost, there mercy found him.
The Three Questions: By the first “charcoal fire” Peter was asked three times if he was not one of Jesus’ disciples: “Are not you also one of His disciples?” (John 18: 17, 25, 26). And three times he denied it: “I am not!” By the second “charcoal fire”, Peter stands face-to-face with his Master, whom he denied. Can you imagine the guilt, the gloominess, the downcast look of Peter when he heard those words fall from his Master’s lips: “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these? Peter’s answer does not have the initial audacity, flare and confidence that was characteristic of him, for here he answers: “Lord, You know, (You know everything) I love You.” One can easily sense the grieve here. He seems to be saying to Jesus, “Lord, You know I love You, but You know I am weak.” The reliance on Jesus for strength is palpable, that sense of dependence on Christ is forthright and this is what was lacking initially. Whenever, we rely on ourselves, trusting ourselves to be able to do it all, we are bound to fail. The task of feeding the Lord’s lamb and tending His sheep was to be carried out in total dependence on the grace of God. Jesus had to patiently bring Peter into this chamber of humility and reliance on God before He could be restored to His position of leadership – head of the apostolic college, the primus inter pares. This is the mercy of God in Christ, that when He forgives, He restores us to our initial position of grace. God does not deny us what He has given to us because we have sinned, but we deny ourselves those blessings when we refuse to ask His forgiveness and receive His mercy.
Follow Me: It is interesting that the entire scene seems to be a recast of the scene of the first call of the first apostles Peter and Andrew, James and John. The site is the same Sea of Galilea or Sea of Tiberias or Lake of Gennesaret, the lowest freshwater sea on earth and the second lowest lake on earth after the Dead Sea (Matthew 4: 18-22; Mark 1: 16-20; Luke 5: 1-11). Just as in the first instance, they were at their duty post fishing, for they were fishermen. As Luke reports, just as in this case, they “toiled all night but got nothing” (Luke 5: 5). Jesus appeared and asked them to “Put out into the deep and let down the nets for a catch” (Luke 5: 4); and like today, they did and had “a great shoal of fish.” And Jesus then asked them: “Follow Me, for I will make you fishers of men.” What is happening here? There is a renewal of the call. The first call had been ruptured and severed by betrayal and denial, doubt and despair, and now is the time for affirmation of the call, renewal of love vows, and restoration of trust. Now, the disciples are ready to carry out the mission of witnessing and evangelising to the ends of the earth (Acts 1: 8) in a spirit of selflessness, indefatigability and unbridled confidence.
This is the message of the resurrection that though we are sinners, God has loved us so much to send His Son to die for us, and raised Him from the dead, so that we may have our sins forgiven, and empowered by that same love and forgiveness to go out and do the same with all men and women around us. To this, we are witnesses.