Reflection on Jn 21.1-19

This is my favourite story of Jesus after the Resurrection, because for me it is just so full of a sense of the deep love and friendship he feels for his disciples. He meets them by the Sea of Galilee, fixes them breakfast, and is reconciled with Peter, whose sense of anxiety about meeting Jesus again is palpable. It's good to be reminded that even the risen Lord was still a man and a friend, as well as Son of God and Saviour, and it is as a friend that he meets these disciples by the familiar lake. There is no more specific location given, but given that Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee, who were all apparently from Capernaum, were there and able to easily get a boat, it seems likely that they were all at Capernaum. It was natural for them to retreat north to Galilee and regroup there, where they had been told they would see Jesus again.

Jesus found them in the early morning, worn out with the night's frustrating work, for they had not taken any fish. As once before, he told them where to find fish to fill the net and they followed the suggestion from the shore: they did not recognise Jesus at this point, but what did they have to lose? When they felt the net full of fish, at least one of the men in the boat, the Beloved Disciple, did realise who the man on the shore was. When he told Peter, Peter characteristically and impulsively belted on his clothes and jumped in the water to go to Jesus. Perhaps he wanted to get there before the others and have some private conversation with Jesus but if so he did not get it then. The lakeshore was alive with the bustle of the arriving fishermen and Peter found himself bringing the catch in and counting the fish.

The meal was simple, just bread and fish grilled over a fire: they must have shared many meals like it in their months of teaching, healing, and exorcising, especially while they were in that region. But afterward came the moment whose coming Peter must both have wanted and dreaded: a one-on-one conversation with Jesus. On that terrible night when Jesus was arrested and their fellowship was broken by Judas' betrayal at Gethsemane, Peter's behaviour was little better. He fulfilled Jesus' prediction about him by vehemently denying any connection with or knowledge of Jesus, not once but three times. Fear ruled Peter that night. We know that he managed to overcome that fear, but it can't have been easy. Especially in these first few weeks after the Resurrection when everyone must have been reeling from the shock first of Jesus' betrayal and death and then of his resurrection. Facing the other disciples, especially others of the Twelve, must have been so hard. He needed to talk with Jesus about what had happened.

And Jesus wanted to talk with him - he needed Peter to "cowboy up" and lead the disciples in witnessing to the Resurrection. So he reached out to Peter, seeking reconciliation with his friend. He asked Peter if Peter loved him. Three times. And three times Peter said yes, of course I do. Finally he said, "[Y]ou know everything! You know I love you." The significance of the three repetitions was not lost on Peter, and he was hurt all over again by the realisation of what he had done. But there was no recrimination from Jesus, no anger. Just the opportunity for Peter to bear witness to his love of Jesus as many times as he had denied him that night. More than that, Jesus invited Peter to share with him in the task of shepherding his people. In response to the three-fold question about whether Peter loved him, Jesus gave him three commands. That fits with what Jesus tells his disciples elsewhere in John's Gospel, that if they love him, they will observe his commands.

All three commands harkened back to the lessons of Jesus' words earlier in John about the genuine shepherd, who will care for the sheep even at the risk of his life. To the first assertion by Peter of his love, Jesus replied, "Pasture my lambs!", to the second, "Shepherd my sheep!", and to the third, "Pasture my sheep!" He then predicted how Peter will die a martyr's death, which would be reassuring in a way, since it likely indicated that Peter would act like a true shepherd, as indeed we know he did.

This story shows us Jesus as a friend to his disciples, even to Peter who hadn't acted very much like a friend to Jesus on that awful night. We, his later disciples, can take heart at this. Surely Jesus will also be a friend to us as we continue on our journey, even when we don't always act very much like a friend. The important thing is to acknowledge your shortcomings, pick yourself up, and keep on trying. That is what Peter did, and that is why Jesus wants to be reconciled with him, wants to reaffirm their friendship, not just to Peter but to the others that were present.

Song: Peter, Do You Love Me? (Daniel B. Williamson)

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