11 Apr 3rd Sunday of Easter
The first thing that struck me about today’s gospel is the attention to detail. The fact that Peter had to tuck his clothes into his belt before he could swim ashore; the precise count of fish they caught, 153; the boat was 90 meters from the shore; the charcoal fire; the threefold play on words between Peter and Jesus. These are the kind of details that only an eyewitness would remember. The second thing that struck me was just how many ’invitations’ there are in this story. Before we look at these invitations let me say that I take it as a given that all of these invitations are addressed to us as well as to the disciples on the Sea of Tiberius.
The first invitation is from Peter, the first of the Apostles. “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing’. They said to him, ‘We will go with you’.” Now, this little group of apostles may have just wanted to fish for one night to cash in on the sales at the morning market, or, they may have thought that they were returning to their old life ‘before Jesus’. Is it even possible to go back to life ‘before Jesus’? Either way, they caught more than they bargained for, but not before they worked all night and caught nothing. Prior to the encounter with the Risen Lord we labour in darkness and our work comes to nothing. But then the unexpected happens; Jesus, although they do not yet recognize him, asks if they have caught any fish.
The second invitation follows. Jesus invites them to, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish].” They do, and the nets are almost bursting with more fish than they can hold. Immediately the Beloved disciple cries out, “It is the Lord.” For only love can recognize the Lord. Only now does Peter clue in, and in his impetuous eagerness, he can’t wait to encounter the Risen Lord, he tucks his outer garment into his belt, jumps in the water and swims for shore. We too, are asked to cast Peter’s net into the vast sea of humanity, to fill the nets to overflowing. Perhaps Peter’s impetuousness will be contagious and we too will not hesitate to jump into the deep in order to move more quickly to encounter the Risen Lord.
The next invitation is to break bread with Jesus. Jesus is cooking a shore breakfast for them of unleavened bread and fish, both of which resonate with Eucharistic meanings. We are even provided with the detail that Jesus is cooking over a charcoal fire; significant because the only other time a charcoal fire is mentioned is in the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest. Today, in this our Eucharist, Jesus cooks a shore breakfast for us as well, feeds us with his own body, bread of the finest wheat, ‘Jesus Christ Son of God and Saviour.’
The next part of our story is Jesus’ threefold invitation to Peter into a greater love. Peter has been in despair, around another charcoal fire he denied Jesus three times. Here, at this breakfast charcoal fire Jesus asks Peter three times about the level of his love and commitment to him. In this scene Peter is being restored to his Apostolic Mission, to his leadership role among the apostles, to his Petrine Office, to ‘feed the sheep’, ‘to tend the lambs’. But in the original Greek of the New Testament, there is a play on words going on that is easily missed when we read this conversation in English translation.
The English language is impoverished when it comes to the word ‘love’. We use the same word, ‘Love’, for a whole range of commitments and feelings. I can say, ‘I love my wife, my kids, my grandkids, my friends, my dog, Indian food, Downton Abbey, my car, , and God, all using the same word. All the while it is obvious that I mean something quite different when I say, ‘I love my wife’, than when I say, ‘I love my car’. Ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, was not so impoverished. There were at least four or five Greek words that we translate as ‘love’. In his conversation with Peter Jesus uses two of them, Peter in return uses only one. ‘Agape’ is the Greek word for a totally selfless love, a love that wills the good of the other without expecting anything in return. ‘Philos’ is the Greek word for the love between friends, a very high and noble love, full of affection and tender feelings, capable of great sacrifice and selflessness, but there is still a reciprocity that is part of the love between friends. A friendship that is not reciprocated will eventually fade.
Keep these definitions of Agape and Philos in mind as we listen in, once again, on the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, ‘Do you Agape me?”. Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that I Philos you.” Jesus asks a second time, “Simon, son of John, ‘Do you Agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord you know that I Philos you.” Jesus dosen’t let up, but the third time he asks the question, he uses different language. “Simon, son of John, ‘Do you Philos me?’. Peter is hurt, because Jesus is asking a third time, but also because Jesus is asking about a different kind of love, friendship or Philos, rather than the total love of Agape.
Friendship with Jesus is the foundation and sure starting point for moving into the greater love that is captured by the word Agape. Jesus even promises Peter that eventually Peter will love Jesus, and the sheep, with this greater love, the kind of love that God has for humanity, the love that Jesus has for Peter and for each one of us. Listen to Jesus speak your name even now. “ _________, do you love me? Hear your own heart answer, ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ May the tender heartedness of Jesus’ love for us lead us always through the intimacy of friendship with him, into the ever greater self-emptying love that God has for each one of us and for all of wounded humanity. In this way we will be faithful to Jesus’ final invitation in today’s gospel, “Follow Me”.