Commentaries on the Readings: Acts 5:27b-32,40b-41; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
WE CONTINUE TO LOOK at the experience the disciples had of the Risen Jesus. The readings speak of the meaning of discipleship both in our internal attitudes and in our relating with other people. The Gospel and, to some extent, the Second Reading speak of recognising the presence of God and of Jesus in our daily life while the Second Reading calls us to witness to our faith with consistency and courage. One flows from the other. To be a genuine disciple of Jesus, it is not enough just to be “holy”, to be good but to have the courage, when the call comes, to do difficult things and perhaps even to suffer. In sharing the suffering of Jesus we also share in his glory.
Back to old ways?
Let us look at the Gospel first in which the Risen Jesus reveals himself to his disciples. Jesus, some days previously, had died on the Cross. His followers, including Peter who had made such great protestations of loyalty, had fled. As far as they were concerned it was all over and they themselves were in danger. Today’s Gospel implies that they had left Jerusalem and gone all the way back to their native Galilee to resume their former way of life as fishermen. The previous three years had been an interesting and even exciting interlude in their lives but now they were back to what they had always been doing.
It is early morning. They are all tired and disappointed. After a whole night’s fishing, they had caught absolutely nothing. They had forgotten the words of Jesus: “Without me, you can do nothing.” Suddenly, a stranger on the shore, a shadowy outline in the morning’s half-light, begins a dialogue. “Have you caught anything?” Reluctantly the fishermen (you know what fishermen are like!) admit they have got nothing. “Drop your nets on the right side of the boat and you’ll find something,” they are told. They did so and they were overwhelmed. There were so many fish that they simply could not be taken into the boat.
The moment of in-sight
It is at that moment that the disciple whom Jesus loves, reading the meaning of what has just happened, cries out: “It is the Lord!” He says this not because he has suddenly recognised the face of the stranger on the shore but because he has recognised the hand of God and of Jesus in what has just taken place. (It is the same Disciple who, after looking into the empty tomb on Easter morning, “saw and he believed”. The arrangement of the burial cloths told him something that Peter did not recognise.)
Traditionally, the “disciple whom Jesus loves” is identified with John. But, in this Easter context, it can be understood especially to refer to anyone who has a close relationship with Jesus. In the symbolism of the gospels, the boat and those in it represent the church, the community in Christ. And it is this “beloved” disciple, who is particularly close to Jesus, who can recognise his presence.
Peter and the others now also realise that Jesus is present. And, totally in character, the impetuous Peter jumps into the shallow water to go to Jesus. But not before putting on some clothes for he was naked. In the circumstances, this would have been quite normal and perhaps none of the others were wearing clothes either. But, in Peter’s situation, it had a different meaning. Nakedness implies innocence but Peter is not innocent. He still has the shadow of his denial hanging over him. Like our first parents in the garden, he is covered with shameful guilt in the presence of his Lord. It is not until after they go ashore that he will be fully reconciled with the Jesus he betrayed.
Meanwhile, the other disciples are left to bring in the boat and the catch.
Sharing bread with the Lord
When they come ashore they find the stranger-Lord is preparing a meal for them of bread and roasted fish. “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” The fish “you” have caught? Yes, they had pulled them in but without the Lord they would never have found them. “Without me, you can do nothing.”
There are all the elements of a Eucharist here. They are in the presence of Jesus, the Word of God, and listening to him. “Come and have breakfast,” not unlike “Take, all of you, and eat together.” They and he are sharing what they have and eating in unity and community. Such a simple scene which is a beautiful picture of the Church.
Who is he?
At the same time, there is what may seem a strange comment. “None of the
disciples was bold enough to ask, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew quite well it was the Lord.” This is something they have to learn. The Risen Jesus does not look as he used to look. He now takes on many forms but, with faith, they are sure it is he.
Jesus from now on has many faces: my friend’s, my enemy’s, my rich neighbour, my poor neighbour. He is especially to be found and recognised in the poor, the exploited, the handicapped, the weak, the uneducated, the stranger, the foreigner… Jesus has a Jewish face, a Chinese face, an Indian face, a Filipino face, a Nigerian face, an Arab face, an American face… Christianity must never become a religion of insiders because it is precisely in the outsider that Jesus is to be found.
Hymn to the Creator
Like the disciples, too, we must come to recognise him not just at privileged moments of high spiritual experiences but in the most mundane moments of our daily work.
In doing so we are simply being one with all creation, which by its very existence, is a hymn to the Creator as expressed in today’s Second Reading: “I heard all living things in creation – everything that lives in the air, and on the ground, and under the ground, and in the sea, crying, ‘To the One who is sitting on the throne and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever’.”
As the “beloved disciple” was the first to recognise the Lord in the shadowy stranger, so we too will have Jesus in our lives pointed out to us. It is our responsibility, too, to help others recognise the presence of Jesus and the Lord at work in their daily experiences. It can have such a liberating effect on people and it is a real form of evangelisation which anyone can do.
Being Christ for others
There is, however, a further step demanded of us. It is not enough for us, in our own lives, to be aware of God’s presence among us. That realisation calls for a response on our part to make that presence a felt reality, a genuine experience for those around us as well. The disciples could not simply stay in the upper room relishing the joy of knowing that Jesus, their Lord and friend, was risen. Their encounter on the lakeside made them realise that they could no longer go back to their boats and live for themselves.
And so, after the meal with Jesus, we have the touching scene between him and Peter. Within one dialogue it combines two things. On the one hand, there is the reconciliation between Jesus and Peter. Despite all his posturings during the Last Supper about his being more faithful than all the others, it was Peter and Peter alone who denied on oath three times that he had ever anything to do with Jesus. Now, in the gentlest of ways, the Risen Lord asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter has learnt his lesson. The bravado is gone. He does not dare to compare himself with his fellow-disciples. Now he only speaks for himself: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Three times he is asked the same question just as three times he had denied. It hurts him and finally he says: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
A special moment
And, of course, it was true. It was always true, even when out of fear for his own safety, he denied Jesus. He had wept bitterly at that time, realising how he had betrayed his best friend. Some sins are a total rejection of God and mean a definitive turning away. Perhaps Judas was like that. But most of our sins are moments of weakness and do not represent a real turning away. Our going to confession is proof enough of that.
However, the dialogue is more than a moment of reconciliation. It is also the passing of the baton. Jesus now hands over to Peter and to his companions the mission he himself had been given by the Father. “Feed my sheep.” This is the responsibility of the Church and, as members of that Church, a responsibility that rests in varying degrees on every one of us. It is not just bishops, priests, religious who have this responsibility. It is also that of parents, teachers and even simply as brothers and sisters to each other.
Back to Jerusalem
The disciples now had to go back to Jerusalem where they began to proclaim what Jesus’ life, words, actions, suffering, death and rising to life meant for them and for everyone else as well. This we see recorded in the First Reading from the Acts. The joy they had, the new meaning that had come into their lives because of their encounter with Jesus simply had to be shared with others.
However, it was a message that not everyone wanted to hear. In fact, they were warned by civil and religious leaders to stop what they were doing. But they could not stop because they were guided by something deeper than human authority, the authority of God’s Truth and Love. Not even when they were arrested, punished, imprisoned could they stop. On the contrary, the scars of their beatings became badges of pride because they had shared in the humiliation and sufferings of Jesus their Lord.
An unpopular message
If we are to be truly disciples of Jesus, if we are to proclaim our faith in its fullness, we can expect that we will be misunderstood, that we may be pitied or despised, that some may want to get rid of us – even violently. Thousands of our brothers and sisters, in many parts of the world and in our own lifetime, have had this experience. They do not regret it. Because of them, the message of Christ, the message of Truth and Love, lives on.
A prayer to live by
Perhaps we could finish with the words of a prayer of Cardinal John Henry
Newman (slightly adapted), which beautifully expresses what we have been
help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly
that all my life may be only a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me and be so in me
that every person I come in contact with
will feel your presence in me.
Let them look up and see,
not only me, but also Jesus.”