From Despondency to Boldness

Friday in the Octave of Easter: Acts of the Apostles 4:1-12, John 21:1-14.

Today’s readings show us Peter and John revisiting places that were instrumental in Jesus’s ministry before His death. One scene is marked with despondency and ineptitude, while the other is filled with boldness and perfection. How do they manage to make this change from inept acolytes to masters in faith? The answer lies in an often-overlooked aspect of the gospels: Jesus’s ministry does not end in the Resurrection; He guides the fledgling Church in the days between the Resurrection and Ascension. 

Fresco of the Miraculous Catch of Fish (unknown date and author) on the walls of the Church of the Holy Apostles, a Greek Orthodox monastery at Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee | photo from reneeriley.wordpress.com.

First, let’s look at the gospel reading. We hear that the disciples are back at the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus first met them. This is curious. After the astounding fact of the empty tomb and the appearance of the risen Lord to the disciples in Jerusalem, what are they doing back in Galilee? For lack of something better to do, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’
They said to him, ‘We also will come with you.'” Is this the great work of evangelization that will grow the Church immeasurably? Not at all — they have retreated back to what they used to do, as if the reality Jesus brought into the world hasn’t changed them. Pope Francis notes,

They seem to take a step backwards; Peter takes up the nets he had left behind for Jesus. The weight of suffering, disappointment, and of betrayal had become like a stone blocking the hearts of the disciples. They were still burdened with pain and guilt, and the good news of the resurrection had not taken root in their hearts … This is the tomb psychology that tinges everything with dejection and leads us to indulge in a soothing sense of self-pity that, like a moth, eats away at all our hope. Then the worst thing that can happen to any community begins to appear – the grim pragmatism of a life in which everything appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.  (Sunday Mass homily, May 5, 2019)

But, as Pope Francis notes, “it was at the very moment of Peter’s failure that Jesus appears.” They had caught nothing during an entire night of fishing, and there, Jesus on the shore asks them a double-edged question: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Of course, the original Greek is a bit more enlightening. Jesus first calls out their immaturity by calling them παιδία (paidia), which is a diminutive form of child, i.e., “little child” (the only time in the New Testament, incidentally, that Jesus calls his apostles paidia). He then asks if they hadn’t any προσφάγιον (prosphagion), which is properly translated as “anything eaten with bread” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). What is He saying here? Clearly, there’s the literal meaning “haven’t you caught anything?” but the words He chooses point to something more. He notes that their development as his followers is not yet mature (they are paidia). Case in point, they are looking for something “to eat with bread;” this, coming from the Bread of Life Himself who had just instituted the great sacrament of Eucharist with them. All they need is the bread He gives them, but they don’t yet comprehend the power of His Spirit in the sacrament and in the world.

Appearance on Lake Tiberias (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna | Wikimedia Commons.

Evidently, they need another lesson, signified by the miracle of a net suddenly full beyond belief with fish. Once again, God bestows lavishly, both in patience and gifts for His beloved Church. John recognizes the man behind the miracle and Peter reacts. As St. John Chrysostom writes, “when they recognized Him, the disciples Peter and John again exhibited the peculiarities of their several tempers. The one was more fervent, the other more lofty; the one more keen, the other more clear-sighted. On this account John first recognized Jesus, Peter first came to Him” (Homily 87 on the Gospel of John, 2). Here, they are re-enacting their roles as we see them throughout the gospels but Jesus needs them to move beyond and become new people who establish the new Church.

They meet him on the shore and “saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.” This bit of detail from John is important. It establishes that Jesus is truly a man resurrected, not a ghost or vision. He can partake in physical food. Symbolically, it presents something new with something familiar. We might expect to see the bread, through which Jesus sacramentally gives us His Body, but what to make of the fish over the fire? Let’s consider the other times Jesus refers to fish and fishing. The first miraculous catch of fish here on the Sea of Galilee happened when Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to become His disciples. As St. Matthew writes, Jesus counsels an astounded Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10b). Fishing is the work of evangelization. Fish are people. Here, once again, the disciples catch an overwhelming quantity of fish when they obey Jesus, only this time his call is different — it’s not to follow Him throughout Judea but to bring Him fish. A second interpretive key for this passage comes from Jesus’s words recorded in the gospel of St. Matthew: “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age” (Mt 13:47-49a). Jesus shows them that He is the purifier of men, He tends to the fire that purifies the fish, making them good food. Before the “end of the age” when the good will be separated from the bad, the apostles’ work is to catch fish in His name so that they can be purified in His love.

Detail from Breakfast at Dawn (2012), Mike Moyers | image from fineartamerica.com.

To move them beyond an incapacitating dependency upon Him, like the disciples in Emmaus who say, “Stay with us,” Jesus again chooses to accomplish this through a meal. We will read the verses after today’s gospel, “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?'” Jesus’s threefold questioning leads to the directive to feed his sheep (like Jesus) and to follow Jesus (in the way of the Cross). Jesus is passing a heavy baton to Peter, who will no longer wonder what to do with himself nor go back to his old ways.

The courage and the fire to accomplish Jesus’s directive comes to the apostles at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit, the One whom Jesus promised, descends upon them in the fervor of their prayer and immediately they are given the boldness and means to accomplish the work of Christ. This is, after all, Christ’s very Spirit, ushering them to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And it is after Pentecost that the events found in the first reading happen. We are in the midst of the great story of the Acts of the Apostles that is being read over consecutive days in the first reading at Mass. Note the difference in Peter and John. They heal a lifelong cripple in the temple like Jesus once did and they claim no credit, having done it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amazed Jews gather around them in Solomon’s Portico and Peter explains how the miracle of healing happened: “But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong” (Acts 3:14-16a). He establishes their culpability in the Messiah’s death, the fact of the Resurrection, and the fact of the unending power of the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. What’s more, Peter presents them with an open call to join His Body, the Church, “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away, and that the Lord may grant you times of refreshment and send you the Christ already appointed for you, Jesus” (Acts 3:19-20). In these moments, they have become the fishers of men that Jesus has asked them to be. 

Healing of the Lame Man (c.1516), Raphael | image from artbible.info. Raphael’s design intended for a tapestry in the Sistine Chapel, painted on sheets of paper.

But their words garner the attention of the Sadducees, who do not believe in resurrection, and the chief priests, who had just “succeeded” in killing Jesus. Peter and John are arrested, but their fishing has begun: “But many of those who heard the word came to believe and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” The cast of evil characters is present again the next morning to interrogate them (thinking of you, Caiaphas and Annas), but “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answered them.” We glean not a speck of fear or apology in his words. He boldly proclaims not just the righteousness of their act of healing the crippled man but the name of the one these people recently crucified:

all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.

There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.

Just imagine them standing there, under temple arrest in front of the chief priests, proclaiming the divinity and power of Jesus, quoting scripture, and teaching about salvation of the world. We hear this brave and powerful voice of the Spirit emerge time and time again from the great martyrs in our tradition. We will see tomorrow that this bold elocution from “uneducated, ordinary men” will leave the leaders, elders, and scribes amazed and speechless. The power of the Spirit is the gift that Jesus gives His Church for which secular authorities have no answer. The Spirit dwelling within the Church enables its members to ascend to the Kingdom, to inhabit a world that dominates the world below in its love and power.

 

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