One unhelpful way to look at history is to find there a series of disconnected events, to be casually noted and recalled as a series of passing curiosities. One way to make history more alive is to place ourselves in the picture. For example, we can sometimes make more sense of what we encounter in history when we to use our own experiences to come closer to understanding why characters in the narration behaved as they did, perhaps even seeing our motives and even weaknesses reflected in the choices and actions of others.
For example why did a war break out? Why did a religion start to go wrong? Because we are no strangers to greed, desire for power, fear of those who are different and so on – finding evidence which relates these motives to what happens may help us get a feeling for why certain events took place. When it comes to Bible history it is not different. Our weaknesses help us understand the weaknesses of the main characters.
We would also do well to remember that the history was being set down for the intended audience with the idea that there they might find meaning in the path travelled by those who had gone before – and what was set down was often chosen as encouragement for the challenges that lay on the uncertain path ahead. This process was never intended as non participatory observation.
John Dominic Crossan once suggested that we search for parable in gospel narrative, because as he explained it, regardless of the degree of literal truth or alternately symbolic intention in the record, the events have been at least partly chosen and recorded for the principles they illustrate. If we follow Dom’s suggestion, when we read about Jesus’ post resurrection appearances for their contained parable nature, we may find there some hints and challenges for our own future decision making.
There is much of potential symbolism here. Peter says “I am going fishing“. Despite the recent events of great significance – and if we follow the gospel narrative, despite Peter previously encountering the risen Christ, now he is apparently reluctant to allow it to make any difference to his life. (Imagine learning about Jesus and then living as if it makes no difference…..hmmm…..) So Peter wants to return to his everyday familiar world. The others join him. Peter’s attitude is obviously shared. But they catch nothing. I wonder if it is taking it too far to wonder if this is John reminding us that the way of the world can’t really deliver what we want it to deliver?
But as dawn breaks, the situation changes… Here we find an echo of the prologue of John’s gospel…. “the real light that enlightens men was even then coming into the world”.
Then Jesus is seen on the beach. He is not recognised. This should be unexpected in itself, because he has already appeared twice to the disciples, and yet it seems always he is hard to recognise. He talked with Mary Magdalene and she did not recognise him at first.(20:14) He appeared to his disciples – yet it was not his general appearance that helped them recognise him – it was the nature of his wounds. Thomas met and spoke with him – and again did not recognise Jesus at first. Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had an extended conversation with Jesus and yet did not recognise him until they were prepared to share food with this stranger. Are the gospel writers then reminding us that the risen Christ is not readily recognisable but may be discovered in chance encounters with those who seem ordinary?
Even the fishing setting in today’s gospel may draw us into the story to wonder if the catch Jesus directed the disciples to take that morning might symbolically remind them of disciple-making as a potentially great harvest. Remember in another context with a virtually identical miracle Jesus was said to have introduced the notion of disciples being fishers of men, and the parallel with the other earlier miracle of showing the disciples where to fish seems more than a little coincidental.
Certainly this was different in that it was an encounter with the risen Christ. But notice it was not an “other-worldly” encounter. Jesus typically appeared reluctant to communicate via a so-called religious setting and instead found meaning in the ordinary. The farmer sowing seed, the gathering for a wedding feast, the act of baking bread, the shared meal, the fishermen at their tasks, breakfast on the beach, these were Jesus’ vehicles for the divine.
Our religious thinking is traditionally very different. For many, religious thinking is reserved for the artificial setting of a Church service. There we set up our religious formulae. We may for example think that because Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and somehow put everything right this was presumably why he got resurrected? So does this mean all we have to do is believe that this wonder of resurrection happened and humankind is somehow saved? Surely it does not take a degree in theology to notice that in the intervening years all is not well with the world. Peace has not mysteriously broken out and if anything some of the wars are worse than they were in Jesus’ day. Disease is not a thing of the past particularly with the current fear of pandemics, environmental degradation is already contributing to localised famine and as a consequence we can now witness the relatively new phenomenon of large scale displacement of environmental refugees. If we are honest we should also admit that sin, even amongst Christians, is still a serious concern.
Well as it happens, we do not find the risen Jesus saying to Peter everything is now OK.
Remember the background. Even when Peter first recognised Jesus as the Messiah Jesus had warned him that he was going to fail at the critical time. (John 13: 36 -38) Peter, presumably and quite understandably is reported as trying to avoid being associated with Jesus after he had been taken for trial. Three times he had denied Jesus in accordance with Jesus’ claim that despite his protestations this was what he would be going to do. (18: 25 -27) And who could blame him. With the authorities out to silence Jesus and his supporters, it takes a particular type of courage to speak up when danger threatens.
So what does Jesus do? He provides a charcoal fire-this time for fish. Last time Peter was at a charcoal fire it was in the courtyard, the evening of Jesus’ trial, when Peter had been asked if he was a friend and supporter of Jesus. Please notice Jesus doesn’t now say everything is now OK. His three times repeated question “Do you love me?” is presumably intended to remind Peter of this three-fold denial – and we might at least understand Peter becoming very uncomfortable at the way the conversation was going. But notice Jesus is not so much forgiving Peter as giving him the challenge of a three-fold commission.
Nearly every time Jesus is recorded as appearing to his followers after the resurrection event there is a commission of some sort involved. So if Peter is genuine about his claim to love Jesus, we can understand Jesus saying by implication….. in that case you need to feed my lambs, tend my sheep and feed my sheep. Clearly Jesus is charging Peter with the commission to show caring leadership in the turbulent times ahead.
But notice too that to receive the call is not the same as to arrive at “mission accomplished”. Peter’s career as leader of the early Church was not all smooth sailing. I suspect the reason why his nature resonates with so many today is that Peter had a very human set of genuine strengths and serious weaknesses. Thus we find that Peter and Paul did not work smoothly together, so we find Paul identifying some of Peter’s areas of failure and weakness. The other significant leader of the early Church, James, eventually found Peter so frustrating that he moved him sideways in leadership.
Tradition finds Peter eventually sorting himself out and a number of the early Church writings have Peter dying for his faith in Rome.
Because we too sometimes find ourselves challenged into new areas, it is helpful to remind ourselves that in practice commissions are not always accepted, and even when they are accepted they are by no means all carried through. The Roman Church has always made a great deal of the Papal succession which they see as traced back to Peter. Yet history shows that, like with Peter himself, there is a mixture of success and failure in this succession. Some of the Popes were terrible, with age old weaknesses for power seeking, greed and even lust. The Borgias with their penchant for murder and corruption were hardly leading in the same sense of sense of Jesus’ commission to Peter. Yet at its best we can also see the potential of wise, humble and compassionate leadership.
In the coming months it will be interesting to note how the newly appointed Pope works to focus on his very Christian sounding goals. He has made a good start in his efforts to refocus the Church on the teaching of Jesus. It will also be interesting to observe how many in his Church will be inspired to join him in his mission and how many will refuse to be moved from a position of defiant immobility. Just because a leader gets it right it does not followers that his or her followers will do the same.
Notice too Peter’s commission was encountered in Peter’s every day world of fishing. Although our respective challenges will not necessarily be the same as that given to Peter, as with Peter our personal challenge is likely to start in our own setting.
We don’t have to restrict ourselves to theologians and Church leaders to gain insight into what it might mean to respond. But notice for Peter the tasks are not proscribed in detail. The commission may indeed be based on an older form of life and there is nothing wrong with that. New shoots can come off an old root. But the direction of growth will depend on where the source of light is to be found. … or as John put it, “the real light that enlightens”.
The other day I was introduced to the writing of Professor John Schaar from the University of California who identified one important human principle in the following:
“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created–created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination”.
The one with the commission for our journey into that future may be the one standing there on the beach in dawn’s early light. Perhaps he is yet to be recognised.