Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the Mass readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 1.)

“The Lord is risen! alleluia, alleluia!”

“He is risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia!”

Our celebration of Easter continues on this Third Sunday of Easter. The Gospel passage for the liturgy recalls another appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection. This time Jesus appears to Peter, James, John, Thomas and Nathaniel by the Sea of Galilee.

The encounter is packed with meaning, central of which is that Jesus is risen in the flesh. He is alive. St. John tells the story: Peter wants to go fishing, the others join him. They have a bad night and catch nothing.

Meanwhile, Jesus has arrived and is on the shore tending a fire. He calls out to them as they move closer to shore and tells them to “lower the nets.” They do not recognize Jesus at first, but they lower the nets and haul in a great catch. The Beloved Disciple now perceives that it is Jesus on the shore. They rush to meet him. Jesus then asks them to bring some of the fish so they can eat. “Come, have breakfast,” he says.

The disciples are experiencing two great miracles here, Jesus risen from the dead and the great catch of fish. The magnificence of light dawning this early morning provides the setting. Jesus is the light that conquers darkness. The glory of God has broken through transcendence to be made, once again, visible.

Jesus quickly brings things “back to earth,” so to speak, by inviting the disciples to “come, have breakfast.” This is important for several reasons. As he eats and drinks with them again, it is clear that he is risen in the flesh; he is not a ghost or spirit. Jesus is the one who provides the meal for them. They caught the fish, but it is clear that it was because of Jesus they could do so. There is a collaboration here: God is working with human beings to accomplish a simple task; Jesus and his Apostles are working together.

As Jesus invites them to breakfast, he shares bread with them along with the fish. The “bread and fish” may bring to mind an earlier episode from the public ministry where Jesus fed the five thousand with “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (John 6:8). We also see a divine-human cooperation evident here as well, since it was the Apostles who had to assist Jesus. The work will continue as Jesus invites Peter to “feed my lambs.”

The Apostles are still present, but Jesus focuses his attention on Peter. Jesus asks him three times: “Peter, do you love me?” The triple question recalls Peter’s three denials of Jesus during the Passion, not too long ago. Peter had been asked, “Do you know him?” “No,” was the answer.

Jesus’ questioning is seen here as an opportunity for Peter to say “yes.” Jesus had forgiven Peter, which was evident in the first post-Resurrection appearance to the Apostles when Jesus greeted them with “Peace be with you,” a greeting he uses three times in the Gospel passage. Here he extends to Peter a further opportunity for healing. Peter needs to express his fidelity and love, even though he may not fully understand this, as is evident when the evangelist tells us that, after the third time Jesus questioned him, Peter was distressed. Regardless, the healing is taking place. Peter’s profession of love is greeted with a trifold commission: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Peter’s love of Jesus will now take flesh in his care for the flock uniting the love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus’ instructions to feed and tend pull together elements from the public ministry which set the course for Peter, the Apostles and the church.

When Jesus says “feed my lambs,” one might ask “with what?” Food is an important image here as we have seen in the sharing of the breakfast. The bread becomes all the more meaningful when we think back to the public ministry and Jesus’ many references to bread: “I am the bread of life,” (John 6:5); “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world,” (John 6:51); “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” (John 6:56-57); as well as “man does not live on bread alone but every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4); and “the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

When Jesus says “tend my sheep,” we might also ponder the following passages: “I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15); “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:1); and “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13-14).

Peter is commissioned to love as Jesus loved. He is to tend the flock, which is the church. Peter also represents the church as its leader. He will walk, as all in the church are called, in the footsteps of Christ.

Jesus concludes the exchange with a prediction of Peter’s death. He will share in the passion of Jesus in a very real and particular manner. Jesus concludes by speaking again to the whole group when he says to them, “Follow me.”

Jesus’ resurrection brings life to all. The encounter recalled today invites us to consider our role in sharing this great life of love. Jesus feeds us with himself in word and sacrament, he loves with the greatest love, he forgives and heals. Each of us, in a unique and particular way based on the situation of our lives, hear today the invitation to follow and to share.

We follow Jesus as his disciples. We share in his ministry of love and mercy. And we proclaim to all, by the way we live, “The Lord is risen, alleluia, alleluia — he is risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.