Commentary to the Third Sunday of Easter: Feed My Sheep
Today's Gospel reading contains a wonderful resurrection scene at the conclusion of the Gospel of John. The disciples had returned to fishing. Why were they back in the boat? Had they given up on Jesus? Or were they merely making a living for their families until they heard from the Lord? We really don't know. But like the first time Jesus called out to them, actually in the Synoptics, Matthew Mark and Luke, they were not very successful until the Lord told them to cast their nets off to the right side of the boat. They didn't recognize the Lord until they saw the results of listening to Him. They caught 153 large fish. Why 153? Remember in the Synoptics, Jesus said, "I will make you fishers of men.” Well, some writers have posited that 153 was the number of nations known to exist.
"It is the Lord,” John said to Peter. Peter then tucked in his clothes and jumped into the water to be with Jesus. This is backward. People usually get rid of their clothing when they jump into the water. Peter secured his. Why? He was going before the Holy One. He was swimming to the Presence. Out of respect, he needed to be dressed appropriately. The vast majority of us do the same thing when we come to Church on the weekends. We dress properly out of respect for the Presence we are coming before.
When Peter and the other disciples in the boat came upon Jesus, they found Him sitting at a fire. He offered them breakfast. He ate with them. Jesus was not a ghost. Ghosts do not eat. There is no place for the food to go. Jesus had a resurrected body. It was holy, but a real human body. He told them to join Him in the meal. Then we come to that wonderful dialogue between Jesus and Peter demanding the triple affirmation from Peter as a negation of his triple denial on Good Friday. "Do you love me, Simon Peter?” "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” "Then feed my sheep.”
Jesus was not about to let Peter wallow in his own guilt and self-pity. Peter had done a terrible thing. He had denied the Lord. It is clear that Peter sought the Lord's forgiveness. The gospels say that he wept bitterly after he heard the cock crow. In the Gospel of Luke, 22:61, after the third denial Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Their eyes met. I can only imagine that Jesus would have had forgiveness in His eyes. Now, after the Resurrection, there were more important things to consider: Peter, would remain the head of the apostles. He would be the point man in the establishment of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not ask Peter to do anything all that extraordinary to prove his love. He just asked him to feed the Lord's sheep. The rest of Peter's life would be spent feeding the Lord's sheep.
There is a section missing in the first reading for this Sunday. Peter and John were on trial for proclaiming Christ, in trial before the same people that Peter cowered from a few weeks earlier on that horrible Friday that was also very good. In a complete reversal from the coward who lied on Good Friday, Peter tells the Sanhedrin that he will listen to the Lord rather than them.
The missing sections was that Peter and John were flogged. They left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they had suffered dishonor for the sake of the name of Jesus. We know that Peter would eventually go to Rome and, as the Roman historian Tertullian states, endure a passion like his Lord's. The Christian theologian, Origen, as well as others wrote that Peter was crucified, head downward. This happened in the Ager Vaticanus, the area on the west bank of the Tiber where Nero had constructed an arena. Christians would eventually build a Church over the burial spot, and then a basilica, the Basilica of St. Peter. The truth of Jesus would continue to nourish the people from Peter and those who stood in his place, the popes. George Weigel mentions in Letters to Young Catholics that the large obelisk in the center of the Piazza San Pietro was brought to Rome from Egypt by the Emperor Nero and was placed in the arena where Peter was martyred. It was most likely one of the last things that Peter saw before he died. This obelisk is directly in a new Pope's line of vision when he looks out at the crowds in the Piazza San Pietro immediately after his election. Pope Francis could not help but see it with those 200,000 people milling around it. Like the first Peter, Pope Francis must feed the Lord's sheep no matter what personal cost this might entail.
And so must we. Others are depending on us. A whole world is looking to us. We have a mission to complete with our lives. We are members of the Body of Christ. We need to fulfill our function within the Body for the good of the world. We must proclaim Jesus Christ with our lives.
Jesus was raised from the dead so we can share in His life, and so we can give this life to others.
"Show your love for me, Simon Peter, by feeding my sheep,” the Lord said. "Show your love for me, faithful Christians, by feeding my sheep,” the Lord says to us.
Jesus has much work for us to do