Back to the Future – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter

041313The gospel today, is really quite remarkable. For, despite the fact that the apostles seeing Jesus risen from the dead several times now, we see in them a kind of retreat into the past. They’re going backwards, and Jesus must summon them, if you pardon the expression, “Back to the Future.”

Plainly stated, they were going back to fishing, but the Lord had called them away from fishing, and pointed them to the future, a future that included going to all the nations and summoning them to saving faith.

Thus, this is a critical gospel that shows us that Jesus summoning them back to their crucial call, a call that has its focus not in the past but in the future. Indeed, fellow believer, if this gospel had not gone right, your faith and mine might well have been in jeopardy. To make it plain, you and I are the future the Jesus sought to preserve in this crucial gospel. Our own coming to the faith depends on whether Jesus is able to summon Peter and the other apostles back to the future.

Lets look at this gospel in four stages.

I. Regrettable Reversal–the text says, At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Now let us be clear, Peter had no business going back to fishing. The Lord had called him away from fishing. For example, Back in Matthew’s Gospel, we read, And he said to them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately, they left their nets and followed him. (Mat 4:19)

But here, we see Peter going back to commercial fishing. And lets be clear, this is not some sort of recreational fishing, their commercial nets are out! It is astonishing to think that after having seen Jesus risen from the dead on at least two occasions, possibly more, that they’re going back to fishing!

We often think that if we were to see miracles, our faith would be strong. But, there is very little evidence for this. Many who see signs and wonders, wonder if what they have seen can be topped. Their fascination is engaged, but not their faith. Ultimately, faith produces miracles, it is not the result of it.

Peter’s return to fishing, is not only regrettable, it is scandalous. For in so doing, others say to him, “We will also go with you.” Too often, when we backslide, we bring others with us. More positively, if we grow in holiness, we will also bring others with us. Sadly, Peter is backslidden, and others follow him. As we shall see, the Lord will not abandon his church.

And while we may wonder at St. Peter. The fact is, we too easily backslide. We praise Jesus with our mouth, and yet from the same mouth come curses and gossip. We claim that we belong to Christ, are one body with him, are a Temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet, too often, from the same body comes forth fornication and other sexual impurity. We say that God is love, and yet from us to easily come anger and hatred and a lack of love for the poor and the troubled.

The things we have been called away from, we too easily run back to. The Lord points forward, but we run backward.

So often, as with the disciples in this gospel, the Lord must stand on the shore of our baptismal waters, and call us out of the past, and back into the future, a future of holiness and perfection. Too easily we run from this. But the Lord is faithful, and as we shall see, stands on the shore and calls us back. Would that we could say, in the words of an old Gospel song:  Goodbye world, I stay no longer with you, goodbye pleasures of sin, I stayed along with you! I’ve made up my mind to go God’s way the rest of my life! Another old gospel song from the 1940s says, No more, no more! I’ll never turn back no more! I’m going to keep on crossing till I reach the other shore. Rains may come, floods may roar, storms may race, and winds may blow, but I’ll never turn back, no more!

Would that this were the case,. But as it is, and as we shall see, the Lord keeps calling calling from the shore,  out onto the waves of our discontent.

II. Redeeming reminder – the text says, When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.

The Lord stands on the shore and rehearses for them what he had done for them some three years earlier, when he called them from fishing to evangelizing. He does not excoriate them, call them fools or some other epitaph. He calls out to them, “Children…have you caught anything?!” And rather than rebuke them, he asked them to assess the data, whether the course of action they have chosen has yielded anything at all. They admit that they’ve caught nothing.

And yet, strangely, this whole incident seems familiar! For the Lord tells him to cast the net elsewhere and that they would find something. And suddenly the nets are full! Oh how this spoke to their hearts! It was just when it happened three years ago! Scripture says,

And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:4ff)

St. John draws the obvious conclusion, “It is the Lord!”  The Lord has given them a redeeming reminder. He does not rebuke them, he has only reminded them. In effect, he says “Come out of the past! Remember the future to which I have summoned you, a future of going forth to the nations in announcing the Gospel for all to hear. Your life is not about fish, is about humanity!”

What reminders has the Lord put you in your life? How has he stood on the shore and called to you with some reminder? Perhaps it was a tattered old Bible, or perhaps an old hymn that you heard. Perhaps it was grandmother’s old rosary beads stored away in a dresser drawer. Perhaps you are summoned to a funeral or wedding.

Somehow, in moments like these, the Lord stands on the shore of  life and calls to you. He reminds you of your call, and wonders whether your present course is done anything for you whatsoever. Usually, it has not. Perhaps there is fleeting wealth or momentary popularity, but otherwise little else to show for it.

And thus, the Lord calls. He calls us back to the future, a future and a present oriented toward heaven. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, rather than the earth below (Colossians 3:1).

Yes, Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. See on  the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me; Come home, come home! Ye who are weary come home! Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling oh sinner come home!  

Here then, is a redeeming reminder Jesus calling, softly and tenderly: come out of the past, come away from commercial fishing, look to future, the future of saving souls!

III. Reorienting Repast– the text says, When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Now in this somewhat lengthy passage, notice three basic elements whereby the Lord uses a meal, or a repast, to reorient them. To “reorient,” literally, means to turn someone back to the East, back toward the rising of the sun (Son), back toward the light and away from the dark. Re (again) +  oriens (East) = back to the East, back to the light.

Note first, the FISH are in is are plentiful numbers. But the number, 153, has significance more for humanity, then for fish. While much ink has been spilled on the significance of this number, the most likely explanation seems to be that this was the number of known nations at the time. And hence, that 153 fish are caught exactly, seems to be the Lord’s way of saying, “Not fish, but humanity, all the nations!” Hence we see that God can even use our sins, our backsliding, and turn it to  something he is called us away from, yes he can use our sins to be a teachable moment.

Notice next, the FIRE. As Peter comes onshore, we note that he sees a fire. And though the text is silent, it must’ve unnerved him! For here was a charcoal fire, the same sort of fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest wherein Peter had denied the Lord (Jn 18:18). Hurt, and unnerved by what he had done, or rather, failed to do,  Peter felt unworthy, and was still deeply troubled by the sin he committed in denying the Lord. Yes, this fire reminded him.

And yet, even his repentance is somewhat egocentric. It would seem, he wonders, “How could I have done this, I who promise the Lord to be with him even if all should rage against him!” And yet, in moment of cowardice, Peter denied the Lord. Oh yes, this fire, this charcoal fire, is bothersome indeed! The Lord stands next to it it looks to Peter much as he had done in the courtyard of Caiaphas when, after Peter denied him for the third time, the text says that Jesus turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). How this fire bothered him!

And the FRANKNESS – But now ensues a tender, poignant, and powerful conversation. To us to read only English, the conversation focuses on the fact that three times, the Lord asked Peter, “Do you love me?” But in Greek, there are subtleties that we easily miss.

For the Lord does not ask Peter simply, “Do you love me?” And Peter answers, “Yes Lord, I love you.” No, the Greek text is more subtle and more specific. In Greek, the Lord asked Peter, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων (Simon Joannou agapas me pleon touton? – Simon Son of John, do you Love (agapas) me more than these? ). Note therefore the request for agape love. But Peter replies, in the Greek text, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. (Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se – Lord, you know that I have brotherly (philo) love for you.

And thus we see, that the Lord asked for a agape love, a love that is the highest love, wherein we love God above all things, and above all people, including ourselves. But Peter does not answer, with agape love, but rather says, that he loves the Lord in a brotherly (phileo) sort of a way. And this is far short of what the Lord asked. (I realize there are debates about the Greek here, but am convinced that the two different verb forms are significant. More on the debate here: Agape vs Philo in John 21).

But despite this, the Lord has still has something important for St. Peter to do so. He says to him, despite his imperfect love, “Feed my lambs!”

A second time, the same dialogue sets up wherein the Lord asked Peter, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με (Simon son of John, do you love (agapas) me?   Peter  responds, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε (Lord you know that I have affectionate (philo = bortherly) love for you.”  But here too, the Lord had asked for unconditional, an ultimate love, but Peter can only return a lesser love, a brotherly love, a sort of affection. Yet again, the Lord does not reject Peter. He accepts what Peter has, and says to him still “Tend my sheep.”

Yet in the third  occasion, Jesus, accepting what Peter is able to offer ask him the third time, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; (Simon, son of John, do you have affection (phileis) for me?  The third question,  which strikes Peter to the heart, causes him to exclaim that he  (only) has brotherly love. Yet again the Lord does not reject him, but rather assigns him, saying once again, feed my lambs.”

Here, is perhaps one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looking with love to a disciple, asking them for the highest love, and that disciple honestly answering, “I have only imperfect love to offer you.” For the first time in his life, perhaps, Peter is being absolutely honest. No more posing here, no more bragging. Only an honest answer, born in sober appreciation of his human lapses. There is nothing more beautiful than honest prayer. For honesty is a prelude to healing. Jesus accepts what Peter can offer, and as we shall see, promises him his heart will expand so that, one day, Peter will love the Lord totally, unconditionally, above all things, and above all people.

How about you? Are you hones with the Lord? Have you experienced his love in spite of your sin? Do you know he can use you even in your weakness if you are will to be hones with him?

IV–Required Remedy– the text says  Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

In this whole conversation, the Lord’s purpose is not to stalk Peter, or to badger him. Rather it is to lead him toward a necessary remedy, and point him back toward the future, a future filled with evangelical fervor, and sacrificial love. He  is week now, but the Lord will give him strength and, within ten days after his Ascension, the Holy Spirit will come and Peter will be quickened, strengthened in the faith.

But even here, the work the Lord needs to do is not finished, for the Lord speaks of the day, when Peter will finally have the grace to accept martyrdom. It will be a day, when someone will tie him fast and lead him off to where he would rather not go. But he will go! And he will die for Christ.

Finally Peter will be able to say, without any simulation or exaggeration, I love you Lord totally, with agape love, I love you above all things, above all people, and above my own very life.

For now, he is not ready, but the Lord will lead him by stages, and get him ready. Peter will one day be able to say I love you with agape, with total, with unconditional love, above all things, above all people, above my very self!

How will Peter get there? How will we get there?  The Lord says simply, “Follow me.”

So, fellow disciple, the Lord leads you to deeper love, to unconditional love, to love above all other loves! Only the Lord can do this. He did it for Peter, a hard case actually, and he can do it for you!

For now, He is standing on the shore and calling us to a richer future:

12 Replies to “Back to the Future – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter”

        1. Another one I heard is that Aristotle had classified 153 different species of fish, so the fish represented one from every tribe of mankind.

  1. 153 could mean different things, until now we are uncertain of this important figure. However, what is important is the realization that in present time, God wants more fishers of men to join Him in his crusade to catch many souls away from the webs of evils.

  2. “Here, is perhaps one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looking with love to a disciple, asking them for the highest love, and that disciple honestly answering, “I have only imperfect love to offer you.” For the first time in his life, perhaps, Peter is being absolutely honest.”
    But I’m not sure Peter realized his failure. I think only later in Acts and in his letters does he figure this out. He finally knows what agape love means. Cf. the references to the discipline who had agape for the Lord.

  3. Monsignor,why does Jesus refer to Peter as “Simon son of John” since he already changed his name? (Matthew 16)…and why does St. John refer to Peter as Simon Peter? Why the distinction even though St John is referring to St. Peter?

    Thank you

  4. Msgr. Pope, while I can appreciate your estimation of Peter’s going back to fishing, I like better the in the Magnificat magazine’s meditation of the day for Sunday, April 14. It is by the Cistercian Dom Mauro Giuseppe Lepori.

    “Peter pushed the boat out onto the lake, rowed out, and cast the net-and then realized that he was doing this not because he wanted to fish but because he wanted Jesus. One day he had encountered the Master while casting his nets; he had encountered him in accepting to row back out onto the lake; he had encountered him on this same boat, doing the things he was doing now. He now realized that he could do nothing, experience nothing without desiring that Jesus be present with him, in their midst….”

    This is, I think, where I am in my own life: without feelings of fervor, I can only witness to Jesus when He puts the words in my mouth, without my actually planning what to say. I feel unsure of what He wants of me – I feel I have been left to my own devices, unable to pray as deeply as I could, unable to feel His presence – and so, to keep from brooding and fretting, I have taken up again some of the little mundane (not sinful) occupations I had given up, in my more zealous days. I hope He will come to me here. He has done so before.

    1. Well, of course, biblical interpretation admits of these sorts of differences since we are ultimately reading the shadows of Peter’s heart and must seek to interpret his actions. But in defense of my own position Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Namely the fish and the career that goes with it. Further, if he really abandoned his boat and nets, what is he suddenly doing with a boat and nets? And why does Jesus seem to re-emphasize that Peter should feed the sheep and tend the Lambs etc. Thus, I interpret, based on the whole context and the nature of the dialogue that follows that Jesus is raising concerns with Peter’s action of going back to fishing.

      The author the Magnificat reflection might wish to answer this possible objection to their theory. But, as I state, there no officially required conclusion to assessing Peter’s acts. Take what you like and leave the rest.

      I have never heard of Dom Lepori, but I suspect he and I are on equal footing when it comes to interpreting a text like this, since it is open to interpretation and does not speak to doctrinal matters or to something the Church has officially interpreted for us.

      You are free to take liberties too in interpreting the text, and your view or that of Dom Lepori is not invalid. However, I might caution against simply concluding based on “where I am in my life” today. Perhaps that works in purely private lectio, but as a priest I could not make that the mere basis for a sermon. I am trying to interpret what I think the text is actually presenting to us. Thus I would differ with Dom Lepori, but accept that he and you are free to hold this conclusion, though I think the evidence for such a view of Peter’s is lacking.

  5. Msgr., I thought Jesus was referring to the other Apostles with Peter when he asked Peter if he loved him more than these. “These” referring to the fish and given their number of 153 creates for me a new understanding of the text. One of our Deacons at Mass Sunday reflected as Dom Lepori interpreted this passage. I however like your interpretation especially unpacking the agape vs. brotherly love aspect, and I thank you.

Comments are closed.