By Joshua M. Caler
“This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (John 21:14)
With his appearing comes the uncomfortable interruption of all the memories, regrets, and costs the disciples had hoped fishing would help them forget. “I am going fishing,” Peter said; he had finally decided to return to his old life, the life he knew before his brother Andrew told him that he “had found the Messiah” and brought Peter to see him. Peter had denied Christ three times before his Passion, but his decision to go fishing was the capstone on his denial.
To fish, even badly, was to put away Christ once and for all. And in the middle of it, Jesus himself showed up, undeniably. Sitting in silence on the shore, recalling the last time they broke bread with Jesus — remembering the abundance that once came from a boy’s two small fish — the Messiah became suddenly undeniable for the disciples.
After breakfast, Jesus told Peter that he was a lousy fisherman and had to become a shepherd instead. If fishing was an attempt to forget the Messiah and what it meant to be his disciple, then shepherding would be the means of remembering. A staff in place of nets; three professions of love in place of three denials. This would commit Peter to a course that made it impossible for him to deny the Messiah ever again, even and especially in his own death.
It turns out sheep and shepherds are surprisingly rare images in John’s Gospel. Right from the beginning, of course, Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But other than today’s Gospel, which comes at the very end, the only other time sheep and shepherds come up is in Jesus’ Good Shepherd parable. Surely, it would have echoed in Peter’s ears when Jesus told him, “Tend my sheep.”
In it, Jesus compares himself to the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.” He is the one who calls his sheep by name and leads them. The inference, then, is that Peter, in denying Christ, has behaved like the hired hand who runs away but is now being called to be a good shepherd himself; to feed and tend the flock in a manner patterned after Jesus — a pattern that will mean that he, too, will someday be asked to lay down his life for the sheep.
Today’s Gospel is characteristic of encounters with the risen Jesus. As with today’s epistle lesson, to face the resurrected Lord is not to learn something new about him, but rather to be interrupted and indelibly changed by him. Sometimes, it is to be knocked to the ground. Encounter with him is meeting life and truth itself in his resurrected body and having ourselves utterly transformed by him, our will and affections totally surrendered to him, such that we cannot but follow him. We are warned upfront that to do so will lead to both sublime joy and profound suffering.
Shakespeare tells us “what’s past is prologue,” but in the resurrection that’s only half of it. The past doesn’t simply set the stage for the risen Lord and our encounter with him. It is brought into the present — into his presence — and then made new. Jesus’ wounds were definitive signs that he was rejected and despised by the world, but in his resurrection, they become signs that point to his triumph over sin and death. They are not erased, but perfected: made beautiful by the power of God. Just as Jesus’ body is brought into the present, perfected, so all that has passed is brought into the present, redeemed.
This tells us not only what the resurrection is like, but also what the resurrection means for us. It is the very pattern by which God makes all things new, the form of God’s remembering — literally, his remaking. Jesus didn’t offer Peter an easy forgiveness that forgot or overlooked a broken past: as Peter finally admits, “Lord, you know everything.”
No, Jesus’ forgiveness came in the form of remembering and then remaking. It is precisely in remembering and not in forgetting that Peter’s threefold denial was transformed into a life of perpetual witness to the crucified and risen Son of God. This is the work of the resurrection; this is the forgiveness offered uniquely by the risen Lord. It is the same work that transformed Saul, a persecutor of the Church, into Paul, her missionary among the Gentiles.
It is the same work that transforms common bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord, broken for us. It is precisely this sense of remembering that we do in the Holy Eucharist: “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Jesus’ death and resurrection are made present for us to share in. We bring all that is broken to the altar rail — everything about us that denies Christ. Nothing is swept under the rug. And there, when we meet the broken body of Jesus, we are not chastised or shamed, but redeemed; made anew, remembered. This is what God’s forgiveness looks like.
But remember, to encounter the risen Lord in this way is not only to be forgiven, but also to be called to a life of witness, even and especially if that witness entails suffering for the sake of the gospel. As Flannery O’Connor, in the dialect of one of her characters, once wrote, “[Jesus] thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him.”
She’s right. The resurrection means an end to fishing, an end to forgetting. It means remembering that you are called by Jesus to be his disciple and being perpetually remembered yourself, little by little, day by day.
The Rev. Joshua M. Caler is rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Pottstown, Pennsylvania.