The Third Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
In last week’s Gospel, we had two separate appearances of Jesus to his Apostles: First, the evening of the resurrection, but Thomas wasn’t with them. And then a week later, on the Second Sunday of Easter, and this time Thomas saw and believed. And Jesus blesses those who haven’t seen, yet believe. And then we had what sounded very much like the ending of the Gospel book.
But wait—there’s more. About half way through today’s gospel reading, it says, “This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.” The first half of the reading, before that line, and the second half after it, can be looked at separately, so that’s what we’re going to do.
At the beginning of the reading, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’” Some people read that to mean Peter had given up and decided to go back to his former way of life. That just doesn’t make sense. We should remember that they just saw the resurrected Jesus, twice. Now, they were in Galilee, waiting for Jesus, as they were told. And while they were waiting, Peter decides, “We’re just here waiting. I’m gonna go fishing.” And they all say, “Yeah, ok. We’ll go with you.”
As usual, it seems, they spend all night fishing, and catch nothing. Then this stranger on the shore shouts out, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” That’s a weird thing, maybe a little flag. He called them, “Children,” but they just answer, “No.” He tells them to throw the net over the right side of the boat, and they immediately catch so many fish they can’t even pull the net back into the boat. And that’s when it clicks for John, who remembers something like this happening before, after fishing all night unsuccessfully, this strange man gives them a strange suggestion, and on doing so, they catch a super-abundance of fish… way back when Jesus had first stepped into Peter’s boat. John turns to the others “Duh! Guys, it’s Jesus!” (That’s a more modern translation!) Peter jumps in the water, while the rest bring the boat and the net ashore. Apparently, Jesus must have seemed different somehow, or why would it say, “And none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’” I don’t think it would say that if his resurrected body were exactly the same as he was before. But clearly, they knew that indeed he was himself. Then, after the miraculous catch of fish he had just given them, he gave them a meal of loaves and fishes. Yep, that’s Jesus.
Then, more importantly, we have the second half of our reading. First, notice that it very specifically says that Jesus was next to a charcoal fire. The Greek word for charcoal fire, anthrakian, appears only twice in the whole bible: here, and the charcoal fire Peter was warming himself by when he denied Christ three times. When did Jesus predict that Peter was going to deny him three times? When, at the Last Supper, Peter had said to Jesus that even if all the other disciples were to abandon him, Peter would never abandon him; that he loved him so much he would lay down his life for him. Now, next to a charcoal fire, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?“ Wow. I can’t imagine how this must have been for Peter, to have Jesus so sharply call to mind that shared moment of betrayal: both his prediction of his betrayal, and Peter’s very moment of betrayal, by a charcoal fire, just as their eyes met, as the cock crowed.
Actually, Jesus doesn’t ask, “Do you love me.” He asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” More than these what? Does Jesus mean… Do you love me more than you love these other people? (Do you love me above all other persons in your life?) Or does he mean… Do you love me more than you love these fish? (Do you love me more than your way of life, your “comfort zone,” the pleasures and comforts that this world offers?) Or does he mean… Do you love me more than these other men do? Do you have greater love for me than others do? Do you excel in Christian love, so as to be ready to excel also in Christian authority? I would say that Jesus meant all of that, in his simple question. Simon, son of John, do you “agape” me? Do you love me with the sacrificial, self-giving, love that I have shown for you?
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’” I “phileo” you.” I don’t love you with your agape love, but I love you with all my phileo love. Not like God, but like my teacher, my mentor, my brother, my dearest friend. Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” Nourish my hungry people, give them the living water to quench their thirst, and the bread of heaven to feed their souls.
Second time, same thing: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Do you agape me? Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” I phileo you. Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” The Greek word isn’t quite as soft and fluffy. It’s “Shepherd my sheep.” Lead them, protect them, guide them, provide for them. Teach and train them. Including the other Apostles. I’m putting you in charge. I am the Good Shepherd, but I’m telling you to shepherd my sheep on my behalf.
Now the third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But this time Jesus lowers the bar, and uses Peter’s word, “phileo.” It says, “Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, do you love me?” Do you phileo me? And Peter said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” I phileo you. Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
When Judas had seen the effect of his betrayal of Jesus, he despaired of his forgiveness, and went out and hanged himself. When Peter had seen the effect of his betrayal of Jesus, he went out and wept, for having so offended the relationship he had with Jesus.
Now, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me,” in effect, forgiving and wiping away Peter’s betrayal. Now that Peter has experienced Jesus’ divine mercy and love for him, Jesus is inviting Peter to follow him not just as a disciple, but to follow him specifically in Jesus’ place as leader of the disciples, to be the Rock on which Jesus had said he would build his church. To be a Christian leader doesn’t mean great technical skill, or great administrative skill. It means great love. Peter, do you excel in Christian love, so as to be ready to excel also in Christian authority? Will you do what ever it takes, sacrificing your life, to love my people with my love for them? Jesus 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 Peter would glorify God [–crucifixion]. And when he had said this, he said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’”
Jesus is in effect saying to Peter, “For now, I will meet you where you are, and accept your love of friendship, your phileo love. But in the Holy Spirit, you will mature in your role, you will mature in your love and care for my dear little flock that I trust to your care. Peter, the Fisher of men, Peter the Shepherd of the sheep: you may not be there yet, but I will bring you to my agape sacrificial, divine love. And you willingly make good on that promise to lay down your life for love of me and my body, the Church.” That’s the Peter we see in the Acts of the Apostles.
Since I now don’t have time to get into the other readings, I’ll just end with this: that this love we’re talking about with Jesus and Peter is what we mean by the agape love between Christ and his Bride, the Church. Husbands, you are like Peter, striving to more perfectly love and honor your bride with Jesus’ love for her, and to lead her, by serving her, nourishing her, shepherding her toward heaven, stepping up as the spiritual head of the home, especially for your children. Wives, you are called—first, to choose a good man who wants your salvation more than you do (and so won’t ask you to jeopardize your salvation by sin)—and then to look to your husband as the Church looked to Peter: as an icon of Jesus, a man capable of noble character, who needs your prayers and love and encouragement to be the man that God is calling him to be for you. Husbands, you are an icon of the Bridegroom. Wives, you are an icon of the Bride. Your marriage is an icon of the faithful, forgiving, patient, abundant, unbreakable love between them. That’s the sacrament of Marriage, which is so much more than sex and companionship. It’s the agape self-giving love of the cross, by which you offer your life to each other, maturing in your love and care for each other. “My beloved, do you love me? Yes, you know that I love you.”