This morning’s Gospel reading is John 21:1–19:
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. 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. 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. 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.”
We take names seriously in human society, and perhaps especially so in terms of faith. We often talk about the need to preserve our “good name,” for instance. Families rise and fall on the reputation of their names. Personally, we expect a certain respect toward our names and don’t take it kindly when others denigrate or diminish it. Names are identities, after all, even if just considering material interactions between each other.
In faith, the issue becomes even more acute. We know the Lord takes it so seriously that He defended His own name in the Ten Commandments. The Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:7) warns us that “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” One can interpret the first three commandments which precede that (Exodus 20:2-6) as essentially the same commandment. Not only are we to treat the Lord’s name with respect, we are to acknowledge His lordship and call nothing else a “God,” nor replace Him with material creations of our own hand. Perhaps even the sixth commandment to honor one’s mother and father can be interpreted as a defense of names and/or stations.
This becomes an important consideration in our first reading from Acts, but that’s closer to the end of the story than the beginning. Let’s look at today’s Gospel from the beginning, which isn’t found in this reading but instead in the Passion. The Gospel of Matthew (26:69-75) tells us about how Peter denied Christ three times after His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Gospels of Luke and John tell a similar story in less detail. Jesus had warned Peter that he would indeed betray him three times during that night, and indeed Peter three times disclaimed any knowledge of the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
This was Peter’s most profound moment of weakness, and Peter knew it (he “wept bitterly” in both Matthew and Luke). But how do we know it? This story had to come from Peter himself to the Gospel authors. Peter was attempting to keep his distance while observing what transpired with Jesus and the Sanhedrin, after all, and wouldn’t have been in a group with the other disciples. The only way this could come to us, especially in this detail, would be from Peter himself.
And so we come to the question of why. What purpose does this confession of failure in faith serve? We get that answer in today’s Gospel reading. By the time of Jesus’ appearance on the shore, Peter and the other disciples have seen him in the flesh more than once already, but Jesus needed to prepare them for their true mission in the world. Jesus has to heal Peter for his task of leading the new church and its Great Commission to make disciples of the world. He allows Peter to proclaim his love three times in answer for his three betrayals. Each time, Jesus emphasizes that to demonstrate love for Him, Peter has to become a true shepherd for His flock. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, a command not only for Peter but for all of us.
This is still not the end of the story, however. In our first reading in Acts of the Apostles, we see how this has transformed Peter and the other apostles. The Sanhedrin, still a powerful entity in Jerusalem, had forbidden anyone to preach in the name of Jesus, warning of dire consequences. Once again, Peter gets accused in public of being a follower of Christ and risks ridicule and physical torment — or worse, as Saint Stephen and others would suffer at the hands of Saul. This time, however, Peter refuses to deny Jesus and insists that he will remain true to his Lord and profess the truth in His name. The Sanhedrin rejects them, apparently expelling them from the community, as this passage suggests:
The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them. So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
Just a few weeks earlier, Peter had been so concerned about maintaining an illusion of honor around his own name that he betrayed Christ three times. With Jesus’ forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter became strengthened enough to see where true honor and love leads. Indeed, Peter and the apostles welcomed the “dishonor” as a way to demonstrate their devotion to Christ, a kind of martyrdom that would only foreshadow the eventual fates of most of the Apostles and their successors.
We know this story because Peter wanted us to know it. Why? Because Peter and the Gospel authors understood that all of us would stumble, and that many of us would quail before the onslaught of public ridicule over the faith. A stumble and fall is not the end of Peter’s story, and it need not be the end of ours either. When we fail by valuing our name over Jesus’, we need to come to Him and seek forgiveness — and then find ways to go out and tend His flock, just as Peter did. We need to strengthen ourselves and put the Gospel ahead of our vanity and security, and have faith in the security of Christ’s love instead.
Peter rediscovered that on the shore of Galilee, and went on to do amazing things. Imagine what we all could do in following Peter’s example in the name of Jesus.
The front page image is a detail from “Christ’s Charge to Peter” by Raphael, 1515. On display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.