Years ago, not long after entering the Church, I called into a local radio program hosted by two evangelical Protestant teachers. They had been discussing Catholicism and making some claims that were, frankly, very dubious in nature.
In the course of our conversation, the topic arose of a great apostasy in the early Church. They insisted the Church had “apostatized” within years — perhaps just months! — of Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
One reason for this belief was the assumption that the first Christians soon began embracing “Romanish” structures and doctrines. Rather than deal with the historical record, these sincere, intelligent men deemed it better to skip ahead to the present day, seeking to restore the Church they thought Jesus really meant to establish. They made it clear they would not follow a pope.
That incident came to mind as I considered today’s readings. The readings during Easter make numerous connections between the authority, mission and power of the risen Lord and the position and actions of the apostles. There is a clear and consistent connection between the person of Jesus Christ and the people who took up “the Way” (Acts 9:2) and who were eventually called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). And this connection included structure and authority.
This basic and fundamental fact is routinely denied by those who try to uproot Jesus from his historical moorings and detach him from the establishment of Church structure and use of ecclesial authority.
Today’s readings depict something different, however, from this rather anarchic interpretation. The Gospel reading is especially instructive. It describes a key encounter between the risen Christ and the apostles, focusing on Peter. Days earlier, the rash fisherman had denied Jesus three times while huddled near a charcoal fire (see Jn 18:18-27). Now he came from his boat to a charcoal fire started by his Master.
The Good Shepherd asked Peter a single question three times: “Do you love me?”
In responding to Peter’s affirmative replies, Jesus did not say, “Be good” or “Hang in there!” Rather, he directed him to feed and tend his sheep. This is a reiteration and affirmation of the authority Jesus gave to Peter in granting him the keys of the Kingdom (see Mt 16:16-20). It builds upon an important and lengthy discourse by Jesus about his identity as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10). We are familiar with the image of the loving shepherd, but we sometimes overlook how this image is as much about royal authority and messianic identity as it is about pastoral care.
Jesus’ discourse was based in part on a prophecy given through Ezekiel: “I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:23). Jesus is the Davidic King, and he established a kingdom that exceeds the wildest dreams of any earthly king.
But if Jesus is the one shepherd, why appoint Peter to also be a shepherd? Because the Vicar of Christ, the apostles, and the bishops, are “partakers of his consecration and his mission” ( Lumen Gentium , No. 28). They have a specific place in the Body of Christ, a vocation to pastor and feed the one flock of the one true God. And so Jesus, after asking his three questions of Peter, simply said, “Follow me.” Why? So we can find, receive and follow him.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.