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Gospel Commentary: Begin again

GOSPEL COMMENTARY JN 21:1-19

 

In all the history of the church, there has never been a day of scandal worse than Good Friday. Eleven out of 12 apostles, the first bishops of the church, betrayed Jesus in his hour of greatest need. Peter, the first vicar of Christ, emphatically and unambiguously denied that he had ever known him — and not once, but three times. Since that day, there’s no record of any conversation between Peter and Jesus — until now.

 

Peter stands by the shore of the Sea of Galilee and announces, “I'm going fishing.” Peter hadn’t been fishing for three years. Jesus had called him to something higher. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). Jesus had called him to be head of the church: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). But after his triple betrayal, who knows what Peter was thinking? Perhaps Peter imagined all that was over. After how badly he had fallen, certainly Jesus would look for someone else. That’s how most of us think, isn’t it? Ever since the Garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve ran and hid from God after their sin, we’ve imagined that when we give up on God, God gives up on us. But God is full of surprises. Look what happens.

 

The Gospel of John is dense with symbolism and layers of meaning. Certain things are always meaningful in John: numbers, especially things that happen in threes and sevens; light and darkness, times of day and night, sunrises and sunsets; and deliberate repetition — seemingly insignificant details that are in fact quite deliberate because they link events together. John notes in the Gospel that while the apostles were fishing, Jesus builds a fire. But not just any fire, a “charcoal” fire. The last time John mentions a charcoal fire in his Gospel? The night before Good Friday. That night, when Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin, John notes that Peter stood beside a “charcoal” fire. There, he denies Jesus three times.

 

Now, once again beside a charcoal fire, in the first recorded conversation between Jesus and Peter since his passion and death, Jesus asks Peter a question. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” Imagine what Peter was thinking at that moment. “Here we go,” Peter may have thought to himself. “If I say ‘yes,’ then the Lord will ask me, ‘Well, if you love me, then why did you betray me?’” What astonishment Peter must have felt when Jesus instead says, “Feed my lambs.” Three times Peter betrayed Jesus. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus, of course, does this on purpose to show Peter the power of forgiveness. Not only has Jesus never revoked his love, but Jesus wishes Peter to know that, because of his triple failure and manifest human weakness, Peter has become the perfect spokesman for God's grace. He is more qualified than ever to lead souls to the mercy of God.

 

What happens to Peter by the fire is precisely what Jesus wants to happen to each of us. He wants us to know that we are forgiven for precisely that sin that has caused us the deepest remorse of our lives. There's a story I love from the life of St. Teresa of Avila. After St. Teresa would go to confession, she would stand outside the confessional and wait for all the sisters of her convent to also finish their confessions. As each sister came out, St. Teresa would greet each one, put her hands on her shoulders, look her in the eye and say, “Begin again. Begin again.”

 

In the Gospel this week, through the person of Peter, Jesus says the same words to you and me. Begin again.

 

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.

 

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019