A corny story currently doing the rounds goes something like this. Three animals, two dogs and a cat, arrived one day at the Pearly Gates. God himself was sitting on a throne at the entrance. “Well my son”, He said to the labrador, “Have you been a good dog?”
“Oh yes. I eat all my tea and clean up all the scraps as well. I sit when told to sit and sleep quietly unless a farming programme is on TV when I help bark at the sheep.” “OK” said God.” That’s acceptable for a labrador. You’re in!”.
Then the retriever … “Have you been a good dog?” “Oh yes” said the retriever.” I run really hard to fetch sticks or balls and I suffer the little children to come unto me especially if they are carrying a biscuit that I can grab when they are not looking. I care about my itches and no flea ever remains unscratched. Oh yes – and I love going for walks and I always remember to stop and sniff every lamp post”. “Fair enough, said God. “You’re in too”.
Now the cat. “Well Cat, have you been a good cat?”
“Excuse me” said the cat, in a superior tone. “I believe you’re sitting in my chair”.
The reason why at least some of the pet owners amongst us can relate to this story may well be that such behaviour is pretty well expected and I guess we would expect such animals changing behaviour even if they knew heaven itself would be in their future. And to be brutally frank, despite all the agreement in our churches that Jesus made a difference through his teaching, and whatever happened that first Easter, can I suggest that many of us are not that much different.
So despite Jesus’ example of living his faith and knowing the stories of the resurrection sometimes even post Easter it is not a given that those who meet us will find those claiming to be his followers similarly transformed.
On these Sundays when we reflect back on Easter for example we might look back and wonder why the disciples – even Peter – as the leading disciple, took so long to realize that if Jesus was to live on in his Church which was to follow, those disciples with all their weaknesses were going to have to step up and be Christ to their world. But now that torch is passed on to us how are we in our turn doing in living out the gospel?
We might also do well to remember that with the gospel writers, the history was being set down for the intended audience with the idea that there they too might find their inspiration in the path travelled by those who had gone before –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 present and 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. (Could you imagine anyone learning about Jesus and then living as if it makes no difference…..hmmm…..) So Peter wants to return to his everyday familiar world and more to the point he can’t recognise Jesus in such a world.
One of the puzzles of modern versions of following Jesus is that so few seem to see Jesus as having anything to do with the world outside the Church building. Yes in Church for one hour on Sunday we seem to follow Jesus. But what guides us for the rest of the week?
Year after year we encounter a range of people who self identify as Christian and even describe themselves as born again Christians yet outside their Church services they want to follow potential leaders who are very unlike Jesus. Can you imagine a leading politician who doesn’t agree with forgiveness of enemies, who trashes peace treaties and does away with environmental protections, and who blocks refugees from entering his country? Well I can, and I know of self claimed born again Christians who vote for him.
Yet this is after Easter – so at least in one sense Jesus must still intrude. Remember for Peter as dawn breaks, the situation changes… Here we find an echo of the prologue of John’s gospel…. “the real light that enlightens men (and John should have said women too) was even then coming into the world”.
Then Jesus is seen on the beach. He is not recognized. This should be unexpected in itself, because he has already appeared twice to the disciples, and yet it seems always he is hard to recognize. He talked with Mary Magdalene and she did not recognize him at first.(20:14) He appeared to his disciples – yet it was not his general appearance that helped them recognize him – it was the nature of his wounds.
Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had an extended conversation with Jesus and yet did not recognize 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 recognizable but may be discovered in chance encounters with those who seem ordinary?
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 localized 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 recognized 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 . 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.
We need to acknowledge that 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. That 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.
I have been intrigued to see how Pope Francis has gone about working towards some very Christian sounding goals. But have you noticed, while some in his Church are clearly inspired to join him in his mission there are others who apparently 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.
Peter’s commission was encountered in Peter’s every day world of fishing and I guess our personal challenge is likely to start in our own setting.
May I quote Professor John Schaar from the University of California who once 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 recognized.