In today’s Gospel of Jesus’s appearance at the Sea of Tiberias, there are several movements which may shed light on our lives.
The first is the movement from restlessness to activity. We are familiar enough with that. Somehow, we are in a state of disquiet. Nothing may be happening, but nothing is settled. Or, everything may be happening, but we are not connected to it. It is hard to sit still. The remedy? The urgent action for relief? Do something! Anything! Like the restlessness which precedes eating with abandon. Or the restlessness which ends up with, “I’m going to a movie – any movie, just as long as it moves!” Peter and his companions were fishermen. The crucifixion and death of Jesus had been devastating. But now, the astonishing series of his appearances. Absent, then suddenly present. Present, then suddenly gone. Dead, now suddenly alive. A palpable presence, yet uneasiness in his absence. Restlessness. So the sudden decision to do just do something. Led by Peter, they went fishing.
The second movement is from frustration to success. They went fishing to relieve their restlessness. Like those of us who go to a coffee shop or go on a trip, driven by restlessness. We’re not particularly thirsty, nor really going anywhere. But we need our cup of Starbucks, and we need to go to Hong Kong. Sometimes this restlessness defines huge portions of our lives. I never liked the people in this club, yet I pay to be part of it. I am uncomfortable in this company, yet I suffer to remain part of it. I hate the drinking that I do habitually, but what else is there to do? The restlessness is activity without direction. At bottom, it accomplishes nothing, it catches no fish. Frustration only increases it. It is in this frustration that the Lord appears. “Throw your net on the right side!” he says. They do. Their catch is huge.
Their success, however, is clearly not because of their special skill in fishing. They had done everything they could have done on their own to earn success, to no avail. Their success was due to a stranger, totally other than they. Yet, standing there on the beach, he was strangely familiar and intimate. Otherwise, why would they have followed his prompt to cast the net to starboard? When the extraordinary catch occurred, it was John, the one beloved of Jesus in a special way, who said: “It is the Lord!” At which, Peter too recognized him, and overcome with excitement and joy, jumped into the sea to meet him. From non-recognition to recognition: it is the post-resurrection pattern of Jesus’ interaction with us all. As was the case with Mary Magdalene and the Gardener. Or the case with the the disciples on the way to Emmaus and the Stranger along the way. Unexpected, he comes while our eyes, too used to seeing only what we normally see, are held. Then he prepares us for insight. And awe.
The third movement is from the Breaking of the Bread to theophany, from the familiar action of Jesus taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and sharing it, to the graced insight of recognition as at Emmaus, or the graced declaration of faith as at the Sea of Tiberias, “It is the Lord!” Here, John intends that we recall the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish; there, Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distribute them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” (Jn. 6:11) and all of Jesus’ teaching on himself as the Bread of Life: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6 48). “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6: 52-55). Here, Jesus offers himself as the food to still our deepest hunger. We know our deepest hungers are not stilled by even the most expensive of foods. Only Jesus stills this hunger in offering himself as the Bread of Life. It is a self-offering that cannot be separated from his Cross and Resurrection, his redeeming love that is the Paschal Mystery. In the Breaking of the Bread, divinity breaks into human history on the Cross.
The fourth movement is from sin to love. It begins here with the emotional consideration of Peter’s sin (cf. Mk. 14: 66-72). He had said that he would die for the Lord, but when the chips were down, he caved in. When Jesus was arrested, he had followed him despite his fears. But when recognized as a companion of Jesus, he denied it. When recognized again by a servant girl, he denied it. When recognized a third time by bystanders, he declared: “I do not know the man you are talking about.” He denied knowing Jesus at all. He denied him thrice, then the cock crowed twice, as Jesus had predicted. Having betrayed his Master and friend, “he broke down and wept.”
His sin was certainly a weight on his conscience and part of his restlessness, his being unable to sit still with himself, and his compulsion to do just anything to still the restlessness. With his sin forgiven on the Cross and in the Resurrection, Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” For every time Peter sinned, Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” As in the same context, he continues to ask us, “Do you love me?” Are you convinced of my love. In your busy schedule, in your need to build up your world and build out your influence, in your duty to provide well for your family and children and pay your taxes as well, have you even noticed my love? If in your restlessness, you haven’t, the invitation to look at the Cross, at Jesus hanging from his Cross, at Jesus looking into your eyes from the Cross. He says, “You, you I love.” Sin is man’s happy fault that calls forth the love of our suffering redeemer. It is his love which calls forth ours.
Finally, the movement from love to mission. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks. If so, “Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep” (cf. Jn. 21: 15-19). As you have been fed with the Bread of Life, notice the hunger of others needing to be stilled. This is first and foremost simple material hunger: the hunger for rice, for bread, for vegetables and food which still basic hunger. But notice also their deeper hungers: their hunger for respect, for dignity, for freedom, for beauty, for music, for friendship, for love. “Do you love me? If so, I send you. Take care of my sheep.” This includes today those who are hungry and deny it, those who are hungry and stuff themselves to obesity with all the wrong things, so that they remain hungry. It includes those who feed their hunger with cynicism, anger, exasperation and despair.
The post-resurrection restlessness is there. St. Augustine’s prayer was profound, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord. And our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Meanwhile, when this restlessness takes us to prayer, instead of to a movie, or takes us to Mass, instead of to Hong Kong, we might more easily open ourselves to awe when we experience the priest taking bread into his hands and saying:
“…on the night he was betrayed
he himself took bread,
and, giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:
“Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
for this is my Body,
which will be given up for you.” …
… “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”