Reflection - May 5, 2019

“When they climbed out on shore,
they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread...
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’
Simon Peter answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’
Simon Peter answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
Jesus said to him the third time,
‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him,
‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

The Evangelist of the fourth gospel (not to be confused with the modern term, an evangelist like Billy Graham, but used by Catholics to designate the writers of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) emphasizes the connection between love and mission. Being in relationship with Jesus requires action. Love requires service. Faith requires works. It is the same for Peter as it is for us, although the Evangelist takes great pains to establish the primacy of Peter among the disciples, even in the gospel that has such a high opinion of the Apostle John, the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. Peter plays a prominent role, enters the tomb first, even though John arrived before him, and is given charge here of feeding and tending Jesus’s sheep, the Church. This reflects the reality of Peter’s importance among the disciples and in the early Church. His role and authority, and by extension the role and authority of the pope, are founded on love. Love defines the mission. 


Details are important. For example, why does the Evangelist mention a charcoal fire? Most likely, the detail reflects the reality. The risen Jesus cooked some fish for his disciples over a charcoal fire. Great, but why does the Evangelist mention it? He could have left it out. Instead, he uses valuable ink and paper to record it. Why? Or, perhaps, it is worth asking if the Evangelist records any other times there is a charcoal fire. Would that shed any light? There is one other instance and setting where the Evangelist records a charcoal fire. It is on the night of Jesus’s arrest, in the courtyard of Caiaphas, the High Priest, where guards and slaves are warming themselves from the cold. You remember. Peter is also there, admitted to the courtyard through the efforts of the disciple whom Jesus loved. As predicted, when asked, Peter protects himself. “I am not...I am not...Again Peter denied it. And immediately the cock crowed.” Three times Peter denied he knew the Lord around a charcoal fire. 

Three times Peter affirms his love for the risen Jesus around another charcoal fire. These events are connected by the threefold denial and threefold affirmation, but to make it more clear, the Evangelist connects the two charcoal fires. In denying Jesus, Peter denies who he really is. In his love for Jesus, Peter once again finds his true identity and is given his true mission. The moment of his greatest failure is transformed by Jesus into the moment of his greatest purpose: feed my sheep. Faith needs works. Love needs service. Failure needs redemption. Death needs resurrection. Jesus’s question to Peter is leveled at us all, “Do you love me?” In it, we find our true identity and purpose. In the arc from one charcoal fire to the next, we are given new life. From our greatest failure to our greatest purpose, we rise with Jesus. “Do you love me?”