10 April 2016
Third Sunday of Easter
Easter 3C (RCL)
Propers like this Sunday’s present an embarrassment of riches. There is too much to preach on in one sermon.
The Gospel reading is an intriguing story, and has fascinated commentators through the ages. It appears to be appended to John’s Gospel. John 20:30-31 seem to provide a logical conclusion to the Gospel: these things have been written that you may come to believe and believing may have life. And then this story pops up. It’s not the first time John’s Gospel has done this. John 14:31b (Rise, let us go hence) seems to provide a perfectly logical conclusion for the last supper discourse, which then goes on for two more chapters!
If this reading is an appendix, it must have been added to address some situation that arose for the Johannine community after the Gospel had been finished. If one reads vv. 20-23, it seems that the crisis in the community might have been the death of the beloved disciple, although the likely dating of the Gospel as a whole makes it seem a stretch that the disciple would have lived that long. In any event, the passage contains a rehabilitation of Peter, and perhaps the precipitating crisis was the absorption of the Johannine community into the Petrine community.
The story bears resemblance to the story of the miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5, though in that instance, Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, and Peter falls at his feet. It also bears a certain echo of Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14. I believe the story of Peter walking on the water is Matthew’s way of relating the incident at Antioch related by Paul in Galatians 2, when Peter at first had courage to eat with Gentiles, but then when certain people sent by James arrived, he withdrew and would only eat with Jews. If John is making reference to that episode here, the fact that Peter throws himself into the water has some significance. He takes the risk on his own.
Vocabulary presents an interesting problem in this passage. John uses several different words which all get translated “fish.” When Jesus asks if the disciples have any “fish,” the word in Greek is prosphagion, which means something like a sandwich — something eaten with bread. When the disciples have thrown the net off the right side of the boat, they catch fish (ichtus). The same word is used for the 153 fish in the net. But when they arrive at the shore and see the charcoal fire, it is laid with bread and opsarion. Again, opsarion means something like a relish with bread, although in Attic, that accompaniment is usually fish (think sardines). This is the word John uses for the two fish held by the lad with the five loaves, so he clearly wants us to refer back to the feeding of the 5000 (John is the only Gospel writer to use these two words). I suspect an agape meal or eucharist of bread and fish relish lay behind this story. Interestingly, fish is not flesh that can be sacrificed (it is not domesticable).
When, after breakfast, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he uses the word agapao. When Peter answers, he uses the word phileo. Agape, at least in christian circles, implied a kind of unconditional love, or charity (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). Philos implied friendship. Twice Jesus asks Peter of loves him (agape) and twice Peter answers that he loves him (phileo). The third time, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he uses the verb phileo. Peter is pained by this. Perhaps, after his three denials, Peter has come to recognize his own limitations and knows that he cannot (yet) love Jesus with agape, so Jesus meets him where he is. In each instance, however, Peter is instructed to feed or tend (pastor) Jesus’ sheep or lambs.
In the last supper discourse, Peter had averred that he was ready to lay down his life for Jesus (13:36-38). Jesus predicts his denial, which is how the story turned out. Here, Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him, one for each denial. Peter, perhaps chastened by his denials, answer Jesus with only what he is capable of (philos), and now Jesus assures him that he will indeed die to glorify God. Peter’s humility in this instance will serve him well. I wonder if the 153 fish are the remnants of the Johannine community and Peter (or the Petrine community) is able to bring them in without breaking the nets. These are, then, the lambs Peter is instructed to feed. Peter is now ready to accept this task (leaping out of the boat into the water on his own, and not withdrawing for fear).
The story of Paul’s conversion is also very rich. Luke certainly captures Paul’s sense of the Church as the Body of Christ. When Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus answers, “Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This makes that identity in a powerful, narrative way. The person I most sympathize with in the story, though, is Ananias. He knows full well that Saul has come to Damascus to find and bind Christians, and yet here is Jesus asking him to go to Saul and invite him into the very community he is persecuting. His task will require a great deal of courage.
Both of these stories relate a post-resurrection shift in the Church’s mission. Both require courage and humility. Both require recognizing the risen Lord in new places. I find it a fascinating detail in the account in John, that none of the disciples dared ask Jesus who he was, because they knew it was the Lord. The Lord apparently comes in many guises, and we can be certain it is the Lord, even when we don’t dare ask. I think the church is often in this position, of having to follow our Lord’s promptings without being able to ask. Ananias has to take Jesus’ word that this is what he is to do, even though ti means stepping into completely uncharted water.