The Easter season is upon us, a time that is meant to be joyful and hopeful. For some of us, though, joy and hope may feel hard to come by these days. Whether we are suffering from personal hardship, or struggling with the pain of injustice and abuse in our church, it may be hard to enter into a spirit of “good news.”
Even our Gospel readings these past few weeks show us the first witnesses of the resurrection filled with discomfort and uncertainty. For Mary Magdalene, the encounter with the risen Jesus brought about confusion; for Thomas, news of the resurrection brought about doubt. In each of these stories, Jesus’ friends and disciples are still reeling from the trauma of seeing their friend and teacher executed, the grief of losing him, the fear of being persecuted as his followers, and the shock of learning that he has risen from the dead. They’re not sure what this resurrection means for them.
This is particularly true for Peter, the main figure of today’s Gospel passage. On Good Friday, he denied Jesus... three times. Now Jesus is back – certainly good news – but where does that leave Peter? And where does it leave us?
Peter announces that he’s going fishing, and the others choose to join him. They spend all night in the boat-- and catch nothing. We aren’t told if they keep casting their nets unsuccessfully, or if they simply leave them out and wait. But either way – no fish. Perhaps this feeling is familiar to us –trying or waiting for long stretches of time, with nothing to show for it. Paralyzed by grief, stubbornness, or inaction. Stuck.
But then Jesus appears on the shore, unrecognized by the disciples. He suggests that they try something new – cast the net over the right side of the boat. And immediately, the haul of fish is overwhelming. From emptiness to abundance. Our first glimpse of good news – the resurrected Jesus offers a new way of seeing things, a new way of doing things. We are not stuck.
Peter doesn’t realize that it’s Jesus until the beloved disciple tells him. He’s not the most perceptive, nor the one with all the answers. And here’s my favorite moment, where we see Peter at his best: As soon as he DOES learn that it’s Jesus, he throws on some clothes, leaps into the sea, and rushes to meet Jesus as quickly as possible. He can’t even wait for the boat to make it the short distance to shore – he is bold, and joyful, and totally open to Jesus’ invitation. And this invitation is a loving, intimate meal among disciples – “come, have breakfast.” More good news – community is restored.
And then Jesus addresses Peter’s worst fear head on. Remember the denial? Now Jesus asks him three times: “Do you love me?” And with each response of “yes Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
We hear that Peter is “distressed” when Jesus asks a third time. Perhaps he’s feeling defensive. None of us like to be reminded of our failures, the times we were at our worst. But Jesus does not hold Peter in that place of shame. He also doesn’t pretend that the denial didn’t happen. I think this is perhaps the most important good news of all. Jesus invites Peter to new life in the exact place of his greatest failure. And that’s how resurrection works.
We’ve seen the ways that the figure of Peter, the “rock” on whom Jesus builds his church, has been misused in some Catholic circles: to encourage blind deference to authority, to perpetuate exclusionary practices, and to make excuses for incompetent leadership. We’ve seen those that claim their authority in direct lineage from Peter continue to deny Jesus out of some combination of self-preservation and terror. This is a distortion of the Gospel – it is not good news, and it has not borne good fruit. It is an utter rejection of Jesus’ command, “feed my lambs.”
But today’s reading from John IS good news because it can empower us. The risen Jesus sets Peter free from his shame by tasking him with the concrete care of his lambs.
Where can we as Church heed Jesus’ invitation to cast our nets differently when our present practices aren’t working? Where can we joyfully, boldly rush out to meet Jesus on the shore? How can we call our Church to repent of our shameful denial of Jesus, and, in an affirmation of our love for him, feed his sheep?
The good news of the resurrection isn’t something that we receive passively, it’s God calling us to action. The hope and joy of the Easter season comes from our realization that we are not stuck. Jesus sets us free so that we can share in his work: feeding his lambs and proclaiming the resurrection to a hungry world.
Mary Kate Holman
Mary Kate Holman is a PhD candidate and Senior Teaching Fellow in Fordham University's Department of Theology. She also holds a BA in English from Georgetown University and an MTS from Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. Her research areas include ecclesiology, feminist theology, and the history of the nouvelle théologie. She is currently completing a dissertation on the notion of “the signs of the times” in the life and thought of Marie-Dominique Chenu, the French Dominican theologian, historian, and social activist. She feels lucky that her work occasionally brings her to Chenu’s archives in Paris.
At Fordham, Mary Kate teaches the undergraduate courses Faith and Critical Reason and Church in Controversy. Her reflections on justice-oriented pedagogy and Catholic identity have recently been published in Commonweal and Conversations in Jesuit Higher Education.
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