Peter & John Before the Sanhedrin, Clayton and Bell, John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK.
….the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” John 21:7
Last Sunday’s gospel told the story of Thomas’ unbelief in the risen Lord, only to be confronted by Jesus who invited him to witness the wounds inflicted by his terrible crucifixion. Thomas’ reaction was to address Jesus as “My Lord and my God”, the only time Jesus was so addressed in Scripture. That same gospel also stated twice that the disciples were behind locked doors, presumably afraid that they too would be crucified because of their association with Jesus. Today, however, we have a first reading which has Peter standing in front of the very same group of religious leaders who had condemned Jesus to death, proclaiming the very same message that had resulted in that dread decision. So what had happened to change them? Well, we have to wait for 50 days from Passover to Pentecost to understand that, because they had to wait for the Holy Spirit of God to descend upon them to give them the courage to walk abroad once more. In the meantime they huddled in terror of being discovered and executed. There isn’t much to say about that time, hence we have a post-Pentecost first reading and gospel, and a way past Pentecost second reading, with John locked up in Patmos years later, recording his revelations of the endtime which were to become the book of the same name. Which makes today’s gospel very odd. Jesus ascended into heaven before Pentecost, leaving strict instructions that no-one was to leave Jerusalem until the Spirit had come upon them (Acts 1:4). Yet he appears to Peter and the others at Lake Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. Not exactly the same! We have to remember that the first three gospels are very similar to each other, so much so they are called the “synoptic” gospels, meaning they have a similar perspective. John is different to them in many ways, and today is a clear example. Traditionally it was the last to be written down, hence years after the events it describes. It takes a much broader perspective, beginning before time (“In the beginning was the Word….”) and ending with the end of time, the last verses of the Book of Revelation, traditionally by the same author as the gospel of John. So I think that today’s gospel is another way of looking at a bunch of men with little idea of who they are, where to go and what to do. Their leader had been killed; they believed in him totally; they were at a complete loss. That parallels the synoptic gospels where some were running away (to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35) hence Jesus’ command to stay in Jerusalem. So in John’s view they had reverted to type: Peter was once a fisherman. So they were gently led back to their mission by the risen Lord, clearly seen in the longer version today, where Peter is challenged by the man, Jesus, he had betrayed in the courtyard of the high priest when Jesus was being accused and condemned. Peter’s life’s work was to feed the Lord’s sheep, not catch fish… The result is seen in today’s first reading, and in the second reading with the evangelist John as an old man still doing the Lord’s work despite banishment and imprisonment.
So where is the lesson for us today? Well, we are not hiding away in dread fear of being crucified, so in a way the synoptics are not so helpful in that respect. But John is. Slipping back into comfortable habit where there is no significant presence of God could well be a recognized state of mind. Treading water instead of being Christ to the world, the vocation of every Christian, might well be a familiar condition to some of us. Not sinful, but not what the Lord wants of us. Are we being Christ to the world in what we say and do? Or are we just sliding by, not challenging anything, especially that which is contrary to God’s will even if we are not guilty of it? I think that might be the message of today’s gospel. Jesus does not condemn, but gently challenges us to return to the God-given vocation we all have; and just as he fed those lost fishermen, he feeds us from his table today, strengthening our spirits, and in that way strengthening our resolve and our vocations.
Appearance on Lake Tiberias, Duccio, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.