May 5, 2019: 3rd Sunday of Easter (C)

1st Reading – Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41

When the captain and the court officers had brought the apostles in
and made them stand before the Sanhedrin,
the high priest questioned them,
“We gave you strict orders, did we not,
to stop teaching in that name?
Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching
and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
But Peter and the apostles said in reply,
“We must obey God rather than men.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles
to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them.
So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin,
rejoicing that they had been found worthy
to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.

The court scene depicted in today’s first reading shows apostles who are courageous witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.

When the captain and the court officers had brought the apostles in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin,

The Sanhedrin was the supreme legislative council and the highest religious and secular tribunal of the Jews.

the high priest questioned them, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name?

The high priest, who presides over this court, rebukes them for having disregarded a previous injunction to refrain from teaching in the name of Jesus.

Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

The apostles have apparently been quite successful in their preaching; so successful, in fact, that the high priest is concerned that the people may turn on the authorities and blame the authorities for Jesus’ death.

But Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men.

Peter, spokesperson of the apostles, replies and launches into a short sermon on the fundamental apostolic proclamation.

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree. 

Peter situates Jesus squarely within the tradition of Israel by identifying the God who raised him as the God “of our ancestors.”

God exalted him at his right hand 

God has reversed the plans of those who put Jesus to death. They brought dishonor upon Jesus by crucifying him (Deuteronomy 21:23: Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree), but God raised him from the dead and exalted him in a place of honor at God’s own right hand.

as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. 

The exalted Jesus is leader and savior, two roles traditionally played by Moses.

We are witnesses of these things, as is the Holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him.”

Peter concludes by insisting that the truth of their message is confirmed by the witness of the Holy Spirit.

The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them. So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.

The apostles’ response to being set free is unusual: rather than celebrating their dismissal, they rejoice in having suffered dishonor in Jesus’ name.  This isn’t because dishonor itself is something to be sought, but because they now share the dishonor Jesus suffered.

This calls to mind Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven (Matthew 5:7-8).

2nd Reading – Revelation 5:11-14

I, John, looked and heard the voices of many angels
who surrounded the throne
and the living creatures and the elders.
They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain 
to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
honor and glory and blessing.”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth
and under the earth and in the sea,
everything in the universe, cry out:
“To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor, glory and might,
forever and ever.”
The four living creatures answered, “Amen,”
and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Last week Saint John described his vision the Christ as the heavenly high priest, the Alpha and Omega, who was dead and lives forever and has authority over death and Hades.

Today’s reading is a vision of the heavenly throne room where angels, living creatures, and elders surround the throne of God.

I, John, looked and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne

There is no indication whether these angels were the cherubim, depicted as part human and part animal, who guarded the sanctuaries, or seraphim, the brilliant flaming fires that symbolized the purity and power of the heavenly court.  Either of these or a combination of the two would have represented the magnificence of the scene.

and the living creatures

We know much more about the living creatures.  In Revelation 4, John describes them as being four in number, each with six wings and covered with eyes in front and back.  They had the same likenesses as the four creatures in the vision of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:4-13): a lion, an ox, a man, and a soaring eagle.

Through the centuries, many explanations of these figures have been advanced.  They may be reminiscent of the complex-featured figures that stood guard at the entrance of temples.  They may simply represent the excellence of all created beings: the most exalted of the wild (lion), the domesticated (ox), and the winged (eagle) animals, along with a human being.

The exact identity of these four creatures is not crucial for our appreciation of their importance.  We simply need to appreciate the long Israelite tradition that stations them near God during extraordinary theophanies.

and the elders.

Revelation 4:4 tells us that there were twenty-four elders.  As with the nature of the living creatures, there are several non-conclusive theories about the importance of the number twenty-four.  Some think they stand for the twelve tribes (Old Israel) and the twelve apostles (New Israel).  Others think they represent twenty-four priestly or Levitical orders.  They may simply represent a large number of Christians who have distinguished themselves by faithful service.

They were countless in number,

Knowing that there are four living creatures and twenty-four elders, we can deduce that it is the “many angels” from the opening verse that are countless in number.

and they cried out in a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.”

The song is a doxology in the form of an acclamation.  The seven prerogatives listed reflect a kind of royal investiture.  These characteristics will be conferred upon the Lamb, because the Lamb has been found worthy of them.

Each of these qualities belongs by right to God, but God bestows it on others (usually kings) to enable them to rule as God would rule.  Since this investiture takes place in heaven, and the witnesses around the throne represent all of creation, one can conclude that the rule conferred upon the Lamb is cosmic and universal.

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”

Note the inclusiveness of the assembly which cries out in praise: in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea.  There are no distinctions of culture or even of species: all together, the living and the dead (under the earth) acclaim the one who sits on the heavenly throne and the Lamb.

Note that God is seated on the throne and the Lamb is not, nor is the Lamb identified with God.  Further, the divine attributes the Lamb possesses have been given by God.  Worship of and devotion to Christ must be understood in terms of his relationship with God.

The four living creatures answered, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

To this amazing scene, all living creatures cry out “Amen!” and the elders assume the posture of submission and homage.

Gospel – John 21:1-19

At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.
He revealed himself in this way.
Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus,
Nathanael from Cana in Galilee,
Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”
They said to him, “We also will come with you.”
So they went out and got into the boat,
but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore;
but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat
and you will find something.”
So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in
because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord,
he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad,
and jumped into the sea.
The other disciples came in the boat,
for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards,
dragging the net with the fish.
When they climbed out on shore,
they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.”
So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore
full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.
Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.”
And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”
because they realized it was the Lord.
Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them,
and in like manner the fish.
This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples
after being raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

In last week’s gospel reading we heard of Jesus’ first two appearances to the apostles; today we hear about his third. This story is thought by many commentators to be an appendix added to the gospel conclusion (chapter 20) we heard last week.  It appears to be a composite of distinct episodes that have been brought together as one.

At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.

The Sea of Galilee.

He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

Even those who had been Jesus’ intimate companions did not recognize the Lord in his risen state (e.g., Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20:15), the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:14-15)).

Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”

Jesus calls them children (paidía), a term of affection that also signals a sense of undeveloped understanding.

They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.”

This isn’t that unusual; a person on shore could spot fish which might be invisible to those in the boat.

So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.

Recall Luke 5:4-7, when Peter and his partners are recruited: “I will make you fishers of men.”  Here, they lower their nets at Jesus’ command and bring in an extraordinary catch.  The work of the Church until the end of the age is to gather in soul and bring them to Christ at the end of time.

So the disciple whom Jesus loved

i.e., John.

said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”

Recognition comes through Jesus’ actions, not his words.

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. 

Peter tucks in his garment, which he has presumably removed in order to work.  The Jews were sensitive about performing greetings without being properly dressed. He then jumps into the sea to swim and/or wade to shore in haste (versus waiting to come with the others in the boat).  It is a scene of unbridled enthusiasm to be with Jesus.

The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.

The rest of the group follows Peter to shore, in the boat.

When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.”

There are reasons to think that the portion of the story about the meal is a separate event, woven together here.  First, the story of the miraculous catch is complete without it; secondly, the net captures a multitude of fish (íchthús in verses 6, 8, and 11) but Jesus prepares other fish (ópsárion in verses 9 and 13).

As we will see, there are many links between this story and Peter’s earlier denial of Christ.  The charcoal fire (ánthrakiàn) Jesus prepared is the same kind of fire near which Peter warmed himself while denying knowing Jesus.  These are the only two times in scripture a charcoal fire is mentioned.

So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.

It is said that numbers are never accidental in the gospel of John, and many theories about the meaning of one hundred fifty-three fish have been proposed.  Saint Augustine argued that according to the science of that time, there were 153 species of fish in the sea, and therefore this extraordinary number is meant to signal the universality of the Church’s salvific mission.  In other words, the disciples will “fish” for every kind of men.

Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord.

Everyone in the group recognizes Jesus, although their temptation to confirm by asking his identity indicates some kind of fundamental difference in his appearance or state.

Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.

A meal prepared by Jesus, especially the risen Jesus, certainly has eucharistic connotations.  As with the Last Supper and the Feeding of the Five Thousand, there is no indication that Jesus ate.

This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.

This verse ties the story to the ones in the preceding chapter of John’s gospel, when Jesus twice appeared in the Upper Room.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

The Greek word here for “love” is agápē, self-sacrificing love, the highest of the virtues.

It is unclear whether Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than he loves the others in the group (his closest friends), or if Peter loves Jesus more than the others love Jesus.

He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Interestingly, Peter’s reply uses a different Greek word for love.  Here it is philía, the lifelong love between siblings and closest friends.

Recall that at the Last Supper, before Jesus’ arrest, Peter overestimated his ability to love:  Even though all may fall away because of you, I will never fall away… Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you.  (Matthew 26:33-35)  That very night he denied even knowing Jesus three times, as Jesus had predicted.

Note that he sidesteps the specific inquiry about loving “more than these.”  Regardless of the exact nature of the question, Peter has clearly been humbled by his previous failure to love.

He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

This episode between Jesus and Peter is unfolding as a scene of rehabilitation, forgiveness, and confirmation of Peter’s role in the church.  His denial of Christ is being forgiven and he will continue in his office as shepherd of the church, ruler of the flock.

He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Again, agápē.

Did you notice that Jesus is using Peter’s old name, “Simon, son of John”?  It’s as if Jesus is going back in time, before he had given Peter his new name (and new mission), and giving him a fresh start.

He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Again, philía.  Jesus is repeatedly asking for true, self-sacrificing love, but Peter is unable to make this commitment of love — at this point on his journey, he can only offer the deep brotherly love of a best friend.  A deeply humbling experience.

He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

The third time Jesus asks, he asks only for philía.  Human love pales in comparison to the supernatural agápē love Christ has for us, but Jesus accepts what Peter is capable of offering.  As with the Incarnation itself, he adapts himself to our weakness — an amazing display of unbounded grace.

Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Peter is troubled by this repeated questioning; he cannot yet see that this triple affirmation beside the charcoal fire is a reversal of his three-fold denial beside another charcoal fire.  In doing this, Jesus enables Peter to make reparation.  He uses Peter’s own failure and contrition to give him a deeper love.

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

From the First Vatican Council: “We therefore teach and decree that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to Blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ our Lord… And it was upon Simon Peter alone that Jesus after His resurrection bestowed the jurisdiction of chief pastor and ruler over all His fold in the words: ‘Feed may lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.’”

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

This was originally probably a proverb about old age, now used as a figurative reference to the crucifixion of Peter.  He will fulfill his earlier promise to follow Jesus even to death (John 13:37-38).

He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.

Given that Peter was crucified for the faith, we know that he ultimately achieved the agápē love that Christ asked of him.

And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

An echo — and perhaps an intentional reminder — of Jesus’ first calling of Peter (Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  Matthew 4:19).

“Follow me” also reminds us that Jesus calls for complete self-surrender, sometimes, as in Peter’s case, following Christ all the way to the cross (Luke 9:23).

Connections and Themes

Continuing the theme of the manifestations of the risen Lord begun last week, today we concentrate on the different ways the witness of the community of faith manifests the Lord.  We see it in the apostolic witness of service in leadership, in the witness of preaching and teaching, and in the witness of a life lived faithfully despite the high cost that such living might exact.

Service in leadership. The apostolic witness of leadership and service accomplished by the various ministries within the Church is an example of the living presence of Christ.  While today’s gospel singles out Peters as a leader within the community, in no way does this mean that such providential care for the Church, the flock of God, is the sole responsibility of authorized leaders.  Rather, it is the responsibility of all the baptized.  The flock of the Lord is under the care of the shepherding community.  All are called to feed and to tend the flock of God.  However, some are given the added responsibility of overseeing this ministry.  This is true of bishops, pastors, and all pastoral ministers.

In the world in which we live, a world of extensive dehumanizing poverty, of terrifying and continual violence, of the exploitation and criminal abuse of the defenseless, the Church is rightfully judged by the character and extent of the care it provides for the most vulnerable.  Those called to this service, as Peter was called, should respond out of the same humble love Peter did, for they should know it is only the saving power of God that enables them to persevere.  Without it, they too might deny they even know Christ.

Preaching and teaching.  The apostles have crossed a threshold and through their preaching and teaching have led others across as well.  They moved from one understanding of God’s presence and activity in the midst of the people to another.  This new understanding had the death and resurrection of Jesus at its core.  The light of the resurrection had illumined their former religious convictions and aspirations and they were undeterred in their commitment to spread this good news, this new word, this transforming light.

We are in a situation in the Church today that bears some resemblance to this earlier period.  Our religious convictions and aspirations seem to be floundering, sometimes even languishing.  The rapid pace of social change has caused many to relinquish any sense of religious purpose.  The number of people not raised within a religious culture has increased sharply.  There may be more need today for effective preaching and enlightened teaching than in the recent past.  In a very real sense, the risen Lord is made manifest in the preaching and teaching and catechizing of committed Christians, women and men who take seriously their baptismal responsibilities, as did the early Christians.

Witness (Mártys). A martyr is a witness.  The Greed word suggests that a martyr is not so much one who dies for the faith as one who lives it so completely that that person is willing to suffer any consequence, even death, in order to be faithful.  In the first reading, the apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin because they refused to desist from proclaiming the good news.  They rejoice that they have been found worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of the name of Jesus.  In the second reading, the Lamb who is exalted is the one who was slain.  In fact, it is precisely in being slain that the Lamb is exalted.  In the gospel, Peter is told that, like his master, he will pay for his commitment with his life.  Even the responsorial psalm alludes to the suffering that must be endured by those who have chosen to be faithful.  This kind of steadfastness has always been a persuasive witness.  The presence of the risen Lord is always loudly announced by the witness of those who persevere even unto death.  As Tertullian wrote in the second century, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Our day has known its share of martyrs, brave women and men who have been silenced because they have cried out against injustice, against war, against poverty.  There is the young priest who was murdered because he worked for land reform; they laywoman who was brutalized because she taught native women to cook and sew.  There are people who have suffered the indignities of prison because they oppose war or nuclear weapons.  We may not be called to this degree of martyrdom, but we must honestly ask ourselves, What price are we willing to pay for our convictions and aspirations?  Will the risen Lord be made manifest in our witness?

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