Friday of Week 7 of Easter – Gospel

Commentary on John 21:15-19

The Gospel reading is from the very end of John’s Gospel. The whole chapter is divided into three parts. In the first, seven of Jesus’ disciples are out fishing and have caught nothing. Then in the early dawn, as light breaks, a stranger on the shore tells them where to drop their nets. When they do so, they make a huge catch of fish and at that point the Beloved Disciple, the one with the deeper spiritual insight, realises that:

It is the Lord!

They then bring the catch ashore.

In the second part, after coming ashore, the disciples find that a fire has been lit and a meal is ready for them, a meal of bread and fish – a Eucharistic meal. The disciples are somewhat confused. Jesus, on the one hand, does not look familiar and yet they know it is he.

At the end of the meal, Jesus begins to speak with Peter, although he addresses him by his own name, Simon:

Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?

It sounds like a simple question, but in fact it makes Peter very uncomfortable. He has not forgotten the shameful moment during the trial of Jesus when he swore three times that he had never laid eyes on Jesus. And this on top of an earlier boast that, even if all the others betrayed Jesus, Peter never would. He was in effect saying that he loved Jesus more than his other companions.

But now, in this scene, it is a more humble and remorseful Peter. After betraying his Master he had wept bitterly, deeply regretting his cowardice. Earlier on, when they were in the boat and the Beloved Disciple had cried, “It is the Lord!”, Peter immediately dressed himself. Only the innocent can go naked (like our First Parents in the garden before their sin), and Peter was deeply aware of his failings. At the same time, his diving into the water to get to Jesus first was a sign that, sinner though he may have been, he deeply loved his Lord.

Now, in answer to Jesus’ painful question, he simply replies:

Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

And, of course, Jesus did know. The reconciliation then takes place and Peter is told:

Feed my sheep.

He is fully restored to his role as Peter, as the Rock on which the community will be built and to which he will be responsible.

But Jesus is not yet finished. Twice more he asks Peter if he loves his Master and twice more his leadership of the community is re-affirmed. Peter is all too conscious why he is being asked three times and it hurts:

Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.

And, of course, it was true.

The second half of the passage, while spoken about Peter, seems almost a poem about the course of anyone’s life:

Very truly I tell you,
when you were younger
you dressed yourself
and went where you wanted;
but when you are old
you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.

The Gospel writer interprets this poem saying:

Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.

Peter’s witness will cost him his life, but will also lead the Church forward to growth unimaginable to Jesus’ original disciples.

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