When I was much younger, something troubled me about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Jesus turned water to wine, cleansed lepers, raised the dead, and even rose from the dead himself. But I wondered why he still had the nail wounds on his hands after the resurrection. If Jesus performed all those great miracles, why could he not just take away those wounds and come out without scars from the tomb? I recently got the answer to my question: Jesus left the wounds to tell us that the Jesus who went to the tomb is the same Jesus who came out of the tomb; he left the wounds to show a permanent connection between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Without one, there cannot be the other. As such, for us who follow and worship Jesus, we are called to follow and worship not only the Easter Sunday Jesus but also the Good Friday Jesus.
Today’s Gospel passage is the story of the third post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his apostles. After the events of the Passover Week in Jerusalem, the Apostles returned to what they were used to: the Sea of Galilee, fishing. They returned to where and what they did before receiving the call from Jesus. Peter was the one who led them back to where they started. He was probably doing well as a fisherman when Jesus called him to become a fisher of men and women. But he had just failed in that. He failed when he gave an answer that made Jesus tell him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He failed when he denied his Master three times. He was still recovering from Good Friday. Since he failed as a fisher of men/women, he decided to go back to his comfort zone, catching fish. But how successful was that? He toiled all night but caught nothing. Then Jesus showed up.
At the end of the story, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me…?” There are many commentaries on what is going on here. A prominent interpretation is that Jesus is allowing Peter to undo the three times he denied Jesus during his trial. Scott Hann points out that there are two charcoal fires mentioned in the Scripture. One was on Holy Thursday in the High Priest’s courtyard, where Peter denied knowing Jesus three times while he was warming himself along with some slave girl and guards. The other charcoal fire is in today’s Gospel passage, where the apostles came back to the shore to find fish and bread cooking on the fire. Peter sinned at the first charcoal fire, and at this second charcoal fire, Peter repents, and Jesus forgives him. Our God is the God of a second chance.
A few more details about the dialogue at the end of today’s passage: in the English rendition of this passage, Jesus asked, “…do you love me?” and Peter responds with “…I love you.” But in Greek, different words for love are used. The first two times, Jesus used the verb agapao, which refers to perfect and unconditional love, total self-giving, and inclusive. But in both cases, Peter responds with the verb phileo, which refers to the love of friends coming from natural emotions. At the third time, Jesus came down to Peter’s level and used phileo. (English has only one word for love, but to help our illustration, we can imagine something like this: For the first two times, Jesus asked, “…do you love me?” Peter responded, “…yes, I like you.” Jesus asked the third time, “…do you like me?” Then Peter replied, “…yes… I like you”). What is happening here? Peter must have learned from experience. You remember when Jesus predicted what would happen to him in Jerusalem, Peter had presumed how strong his love was. On the night of the Last Supper, Peter had told Jesus that he was ready to die for Jesus even if all the others failed. Now Peter remembers how he could not keep that promise. And so, as Jesus is asking him about love, he is humble enough to confess that he is not capable of perfectly loving as demanded by Jesus. After Peter acknowledges his limitations, Jesus then comes down to his level to ask with the verb phileo rather than agapao.
Here, Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon Son of John.” I don’t know about you, but when I was much younger, whenever my mom suddenly called me by my full name (Emmanuel Inedu Friday Sebastian Ochigbo), I knew there was trouble. Here what Jesus is doing is reminding Peter of his past as a natural man, especially his denial and failure. Then he invites Peter to move from nature to grace. As long as Peter relied on his natural strength and wisdom, Peter was sure to fail, but when he allowed the grace of God, he would be the perfect instrument. He worked all night and caught no fish, but when he listened to Jesus, he caught so many with one throw. Jesus then gave Peter the responsibility to feed his sheep. Yes, such a man like Peter, who fell and has come to terms with his fall, is the right man for the job; he has learned very well from his fall and can strengthen the weak sheep and feed the hungry ones. Then, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter is not the only one who failed. The other apostles also failed. Maybe some of us have fallen in several ways if not all of us. At times, everything seems to be moving fine, and then, we suddenly find ourselves back where we started. Perhaps, you were in a very promising relationship, and just at the point when you were expecting the great question, “Will you marry me?” then you are greeted with a break-up. It could be that weight loss program comprising exercise and a healthy diet, and suddenly, something happens, and you lose interest. Maybe you went to confession, and you seem to have fallen again. Jesus is on the shore; he is calling you. He has some fish and bread already warming up, but he also asks you to come with the fish you have caught, to come as you are. When he asked Peter three times about love, he also implied, “Peter, despite your failures, do you still know that you love me? Do you know I can work with your imperfection if you let me?” Jesus sees beyond our failures; he knows what is beneath our denial, just like he saw the potentials hidden in Peter’s weakness. What you are experiencing is either a blessing or a lesson. Do you see yourself as a failure? Jesus has a simple message for you, “Follow me.”
Remember, he does not call the qualified; he qualifies those he calls. A bad day is not equal to a bad life. You might have done something bad, but that does not mean you are a bad person. Remember, “Failing is not a disgrace unless you make it the last chapter of your book.”