Today’s Gospel is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. I remember that years ago a somewhat irreverent fellow ordinand described it as “the barbecue on the beach.” I rather like that description. It tells of seven disciples doing what for some of them had been routine work in the years before they were called to follow Jesus and having that everyday routine transformed by their encounter with the Risen Christ. I also like it because the sharing of bread and fish hints at the Eucharistic sharing to which Christ the host invites us as his guests. But the main importance of this passage is the encounter between Jesus and Peter.
St John’s Gospel includes the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus. The next time we see him, he and the beloved disciple are racing towards the tomb on the first Easter morning. The Beloved Disciple gets there ahead of him, but it is Peter who goes into the tomb first and examines the folded graveclothes. Peter is not mentioned by name in the accounts of Jesus’ first two appearances to the disciples, so the issue of his denial of Jesus remains unresolved until the final chapter of the Gospel and the verses which we have just shared.
The resolution happens in surroundings which, for Peter, were familiar and workaday. After a long and unsuccessful night’s fishing, a stranger calls out to them from the shore, and suggests that they cast their nets in a different place. It is only after their net is full of fish that the Beloved Disciple realizes that the stranger is Jesus, and Peter hastily puts on some clothes and leaps into the water to wade ashore.
We can infer a great deal about Peter, and about his experience of the Resurrection, from this behaviour. He had denied Jesus and therefore had plenty to be ashamed of, yet there was no question of his hiding from Jesus. He already understood that he was forgiven. His confidence and enthusiasm were restored, as was his characteristic impetuosity. He had been the first to enter the empty tomb, and now he was determined to be the first on shore to greet Jesus.
After breakfast, Jesus questions Peter closely, and questions him three times. It must have been a challenging experience for Peter, for the threefold questioning was surely a reminder of his threefold denial of Jesus. The English language cannot convey the subtleties of this passage, for in translation Jesus appears to ask exactly the same question – “Do you love me?” – three times – and Peter appears to give the same answer three times.
But there’s more to this question-and-answer session than English translations suggest. On the first two occasions when Jesus asks: “Do you love me?” the Greek verb that the Gospel writer uses is the same one that Jesus used when he said to the disciples: “This is my new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is not talking about affection or friendship, he is talking about unreserved, unconditional, and unwavering love – the kind of love that involves complete commitment to the needs of another person.
And when Peter replies, he uses a different word for love. A literal translation of their first exchange would be:
“Jesus said to Simon Peter “Are you more fully devoted and committed to me than these people”. He said to him: “Yes, Lord, you know that I am your friend.”
So his answer sounds rather lame; it lacks the level of commitment for which Jesus seems to be calling.
At the second asking, Jesus slightly lowers the stakes. The second question is simply:
“Are you fully devoted and committed to me.” And once again Peter replies: “I am your friend.” For Jesus, that answer, although it fell short, is sufficient. On the third time of asking, he rephrases the question and simply says: “Are you my friend?” and when Peter says that he is, gives him the Apostolic commission: “Feed my sheep.”
It is possible – I think it is likely - that Jesus was testing Peter. The first two questions offered Peter the opportunity to assert a degree of love and commitment which he did not yet have. Peter passed the test – he remembered how on the last night of Jesus’ life he had boldly declared that he would lay down his life for Jesus, only to deny all knowledge of him a few hours later. He therefore did not claim more than he honestly could claim at that moment, and the friendship he was able to offer was a foundation on which his Apostleship and the martyrdom to which Jesus obliquely refers at the end of today’s Gospel were built.
For us it is an encouraging story. It shows us that God is with us in the everyday, and that God welcomes us to share in the Eucharistic celebration of the Resurrection. Most encouraging of all, it shows God’s willingness to accept what we have to offer, however limited that may be, and to work with it and with us and draw out more from us.
When preaching on John’s Gospel, once I have worked through the scholarly commentaries, I always turn to Archbishop William Temple’s Readings in St John’s Gospel. Of today’s passage, Archbishop Temple wrote these words:
“Peter is an unfailing spring of encouragement to all of us. The example of Paul is of little use to me; I am not a hero. The example of John is of but little more use; my love is so feeble. But Peter is source of constant encouragement, for his weakness is so manifest, yet because he was truly the friend of his Lord, he became the Prince of the Apostles and glorified God by his death.”