“At that time,” begins today’s Gospel reading from the final chapter of the fourth and final Gospel, “Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples … .” The Greek root word (phanerós) is a complex one, meaning to reveal, manifest, shine forth, make apparent and show. It was not just a matter of Jesus saying, “Hey, guys, it’s me!” Rather, the Master who had spent three years living with the disciples and teaching them daily about the kingdom was revealing to them his identity as the Resurrected Lord, the One who had conquered death by death.
“He revealed himself in this way,” writes St. John. In what way, exactly? We might expect a dramatic story involving thunder, lightning and dazzling displays of supernatural power. Instead, Jesus came to the disciples at the place where he had first called many of them, the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee (see Mt 4:18-23). In the aftermath of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples had tried to return to normality. “I am going fishing,” said Simon Peter, and the rest joined him, “but that night they caught nothing.” Not only did they apparently have nothing to show for their three years with Jesus, they had nothing to show for their efforts simply to catch some fish!
At dawn, at the start of a new day, the Light of the world stood on the shore, waiting for them. John bookends this section by writing, first, that “the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus” (Jn 21:4) and then, after they had caught fish by following his directive, “they realized it was the Lord” (Jn 21:12). The word used here (eido) is also rich with meaning, referring to understanding in a transforming way.
Pope Francis, in his first general audience, said, “God did not wait for us to go to him, but he moved towards us, without calculation, without measures. This is how God is: He is always the first, he moves towards us.” This is an essential truth: God initiates the life of grace, for he became man and thus became grace personified. He comes to the disciples when they are empty-handed. He comes to the shore when we are in the boat with empty nets, wondering, “What am I doing?”
A beautiful aspect of today’s Gospel is the love evident between John, the beloved disciple, and Peter, the head apostle. It was John who said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” John was not interested in showing off his knowledge, but wished to give it to the entire Church, and he did so by acknowledging the primacy given to the first pope. Then Peter, having been offered this gift by John, took action and jumped into the water to meet Jesus. He led the way, despite his faults and his failings; he was called to serve by leading.
And that, of course, is the point of Jesus’ questions to Peter. Sitting at a charcoal fire — the same sort of fire that had witnessed Peter’s denial (Jn 18:18) — the Good Shepherd asked Peter a key question three times: “Do you love me?” When Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus directed the head apostle to feed and tend his sheep. It was a reiteration and affirmation of the authority Jesus gave to Peter in granting him the keys of the kingdom (Mt 16:16-20). Later, when giving witness before the Sandhedrin, Peter and the apostles were told again to stop teaching “in that name.” Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men.” Why? Because of fear? No, because of love — a love revealed by the One who is perfect love.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.