Psalm 30; Acts 9.1-20; John 21.1-19
“In my prosperity I said, ‘I shall never be moved.
You, Lord, of your goodness, have made my hill so strong.’
Then you hid your face from me,
and I was utterly dismayed.”
If you’re anything like me, these words from our psalm will have struck a familiar chord. Many of us experience a rather bumpy life of faith. Our joy in our relationship with God can tip over into a feeling of personal invulnerability. That will get punctured sooner or later, and send us back humbly entreating God’s forgiveness.
Our readings give us three pictures of misplaced self-confidence transformed through painful self-knowledge into trust in God. The conversion of St Paul is the most dramatic. Paul had spent his life seeking to earn God’s favour by his rigorous observance of the Law and his zeal in trying to suppress what he believed to be the heresy of Christianity. His vision of Jesus and subsequent temporary blindness bring him sharply to a sense of his spiritual blindness and utter dependence on God and on members of the Christian community. This is necessary before he can begin to be transformed into the great Apostle to the Gentiles.
The Gospel reading is part of the wonderful “coda” to St John’s Gospel, following the original ending of the book, which we heard last Sunday. It is full of significant echoes of earlier incidents in the disciples’ relationship with Jesus. This whole scene at sunrise beside the lake is shot through with a sense of wonder and new creation and new possibilities.
John tells us that this is the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection: we heard of the first two last Sunday. So after that initial joy in the Upper Room, the disciples now seem to be in a state of uncertainty as to what to do next. They’re back in Galilee, and Peter suggests a return to their old occupation of fishing. It’s tempting to see this fishing trip (fruitless until Jesus directs them where to cast their nets) as taking them back to the very beginning of their discipleship when they first responded to Christ’s call; but that would ignore the integrity of John’s Gospel. It’s Luke who places the Miraculous Draft of Fishes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; and it’s Mark, Matthew and Luke, but again not John, who tell of Jesus promising to make Peter and the others “fishers of people”.
Instead, the incident in John’s Gospel that is recalled here is the last time that he described them all together by the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus multiplied the Loaves and Fishes. On both occasions, the disciples are able to do little or nothing without his help, but they are asked to bring their contribution to the feast. On both occasions the food is the same (bread and fish); and both the meals carry connotations of the Eucharist.
The exact number of fish caught (153) is thought to be the number of species of fish known at the time, and to symbolise all the nations of the world, pointing forward to the worldwide Church which will develop from the disciples’ missionary activity, and that of their successors.
Peter must have been both wanting and dreading a private conversation with Jesus. He was painfully conscious of unfinished business between them. The charcoal fire would bring back the night of his denial with unbearable clarity. After breakfast, they walk away from the others along the shore. Jesus addresses Simon Peter, not by the new name of Peter (the Rock) that he had given him, but by his original name, “Simon son of John”. The only other time he addressed him in this way was at their first meeting. The interview is conducted with profound psychological skill, for it takes Peter back to the beginning and allows him to undo his threefold denial. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” it’s not clear whether he’s referring to Peter’s ordinary pursuits (such as fishing) or to the other disciples. If it’s the latter, it reminds us of Peter’s boastfully competitive claims of loyalty and self-sacrifice at the Last Supper. The word Jesus uses for “love” in his first two questions is “agapan”, the highest, most selfless form of love. The chastened Peter now only claims “philein” – deep affection; and the third time Jesus puts his question, he uses the same word as Peter.
But at each stage, Jesus shows Peter that he is forgiven by giving him a commission: “Feed my sheep.” He is to have pastoral responsibility for the growing body of believers. The imagery has changed from fishing as a metaphor for evangelism, to shepherding – supporting the Christian community. Peter is to continue the work of the Good Shepherd.
So our two New Testament Readings portray the commissioning of the two great leaders of the early Church, Peter and Paul. Both of them had to be brought to recognise their own utter incapacity to serve God effectively without his help. And it’s a lesson most of us have to keep re-learning. But if our confidence is in God and the power of his Spirit, rather than in ourselves, it’s astonishing what he may do through us.
“Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”