Love comes First

Gospel John 21:1-19 

The Liturgy of this Third Sunday in Easter reminds us that the Christian community has the mission of bearing witness to and carrying out the liberating project that Jesus began; and that Jesus, living and risen, will always accompany His Church on mission.

The first reading presents the witness borne by the Jerusalem community to the risen Jesus. Although the world opposes Jesus’ liberating plan as witnessed by His disciples, the Christian must obey God rather than men.

The second reading presents Jesus, the slain ‘lamb’ who conquered death and brought definitive liberation to people; in the liturgical context, the author sets the whole creation to manifest its joy and praise before the victorious ‘lamb’.

In the Gospel, Chapter 21 is an appendix. The text is clearly divided into two parts. The first part (verses 1-14) is a parable about the mission of the community. It begins by introducing the disciples: there are seven of them, which represents the totality (“seven”) of the Church, engaged in mission and open to all nations and peoples.

This community is presented as fishing: The image of fishing represents the mission that Jesus entrusts to His disciples to set free all those who live in the sea of suffering and slavery. The nets represent the image of the church.

The fishing takes place during the night. Night is the time of darkness, of gloom: it signifies the absence of Jesus. (“I am the light of the world” – Jn 9:4-5). The result of the disciples’ action (in the night, without Jesus) is a resounding failure (“without me you can do nothing” – Jn 15:5).

Concentrated in their useless effort, the disciples do not even recognize Jesus when He appears. The group is disoriented and disappointed by their failure, but Jesus gives them directions and the nets fill up with fish: the fruit is due to the docility with which the disciples follow Jesus’ directions. It is emphasised that the success of the mission is not due to human effort, but to the Living Presence and the Word of the Risen Lord. Those who are leaders of the communities need to become beloved Disciples of Christ.

The beloved disciple – is the one who is always close to Jesus, in tune with Jesus and who intensely experiences the love of Jesus: only the one who has this experience is able to read the signs that identify Jesus and perceive His presence behind the life that springs forth from the action of the community in mission.

The number of fish caught in the net (153) is difficult to explain. It is a triangular number that results from the sum of the numbers which shall give us 9 which is a dominant number, meaning that with Christ we will always have enough of what we need, completeness and universality. Saint Jerome distinguished 153 species of fish: thus, the number would allude to the totality of humanity, gathered together in the same Church. In any case, it means totality and universality.

In the second part of the text (verses 15-19), Peter confesses three times his love for Jesus (during the Passion, the same disciple denied Jesus three times, refusing in this way to “embark” with the “master” on the adventure of the love that becomes gift). By reasoning in terms of superiority and authority, Peter showed that he had not yet understood that the supreme law of Jesus’ community is total love, the love that becomes service and goes as far as giving one’s life. Jesus clearly told Peter that whoever has a mentality of domination and authority has no place in the Christian community (cf. Jn 13:6-9).

The threefold confession of love asked of Peter by Jesus corresponds, therefore, to an invitation to a definitive change of mentality. Peter is invited to understand that in the community of Jesus the fundamental value is love; there is no true adherence to Jesus if one is not disposed to follow that path of love.

At the same time, Jesus entrusts Peter with the mission of presiding over the community and animating it; but He also invites him to understand where, in the Christian community, the true source of authority lies: only those who love greatly and accept the logic of service and of the gift of life will be able to preside over the community of Jesus.

For the community of Saint Patrick: The fundamental message that flows from this text invites us to note the centrality of Christ, living and risen, in the mission entrusted to us. We can make great efforts and dedicate every hour of the day to the effort to change the world; but if Christ is not present, if we do not listen to His voice, if we do not hear His proposals, if we are not attentive to the Word that He continually addresses to us, our efforts will make no sense and will have no lasting success. We must be clearly aware that the success of the Christian mission does not depend on human effort, but on the living presence of the Lord Jesus.

We must also be aware of the care and love of the Lord who constantly accompanies our efforts, encourages them, guides them and shares with us the bread of life. When tiredness, suffering and discouragement take hold of us, He will be there, giving us the nourishment that strengthens us.

The figure of the “beloved disciple”, who recognises the Lord is the signs of vitality that spring forth from the community mission, invites us to be sensitive to the signs of hope and new life that are happening around us and to read in them the saving and life-giving presence of the Risen One. He is present, alive and risen, wherever there is love, sharing, giving that generates new life.

Jesus’ final dialogue with Peter draws attention to an essential dimension of discipleship: to “follow” the “master” is to love Him very much and, therefore, to be capable, like Him, of travelling the path of total love and of giving one’s life.

In the Christian community, what is essential is not the display of authority but the love that becomes service, in the manner of Jesus. Do you serve in the community?