Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Risen Lord Sends His Disciples On Mission

Homily on the 3rd Sunday of Easter
(John 21:1-19)
April 18

The Resurrection of Jesus is yearly celebrated at Easter, which is the oldest and most solemn Christian feast and considered the center of the Liturgical Year. But what is the meaning of the raising of Jesus from the dead? Admittedly, every New Testament writer has his own distinctive understanding of what the Resurrection of Jesus is all about, but in John, one of its meanings is mission. In John’s story of the Lord’s appearance on the shore of Tiberias (John 21:1-19), that significance derives, as in Luke 5:10, from the symbolism of the fishing scene. It may be recalled that before he was raised, Jesus promised that he would draw all women and men to himself (John 12:32). Since he has been lifted up, he could now fulfill his promise. If the Matthean Christ commanded the Eleven to make disciples of all the nations (Matt 28:19), that account has an equivalent in John in the instruction to throw the net. And the meaning of the symbolism of throwing the net is made clearer in another metaphor: the commissioning of Peter to feed the lambs/sheep (John 21:15-17).

Of course, the mission remains the risen Lord’s. The disciples are simply his instruments. Christ takes the initiative and sustains it. For this reason, the success of the mission does not depend on the quality and effort of the disciples. A doctorate degree, a high IQ, one’s being honed at Harvard Divinity School, the ability to attract huge crowd—all this does not guarantee automatic success. Rather, it rests entirely on their obedience to the word of the listen Lord. By their own effort the disciples could not catch fish (21:6). Which reminds us of Jesus’ saying that “without me you can do nothing” (15:5). One may work in the mission with much effort, but without the presence of the Lord, that mission would be fruitless. No wonder then that the disciples were able to experience a miraculous catch—the Lord called them to throw their nets and they obediently did so: “they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish” (21:6).

But what is the purpose of throwing the nets? If Jesus promised to draw all to himself, if he asked his disciples to cast the nets, the object was the form one community, one people coming from all nations. In this narrative, the net images the Church, and the fishermen stand for its leaders. The 350 kinds of fish represent all the races of men and therefore universalism. (In his commentary on Ezek 47:9-12, St Jerome says that according to the ancient naturalists there were 153 species of fish.) Thus, the mission of the Church is universal salvation. Which reminds us of Jesus’ words: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also must I lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16). His plan to gather all into one is reflected in the prophecy of Caiaphas, the high priest, “that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (11:32). (It goes without saying that to say that salvation is only for those who know the Bible, or who are born again or who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior is to misread John.) It is interesting to note that although the fish were numerous, the net was not broken (21:11). For John, this symbolizes the unity of diverse believers that is to be preserved by the leaders of the Church.

And how will the Church leaders accomplish the mission? If a shift in image may be permitted, it may be said that they will fulfill their mission by shepherding (Ps 80:2; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10) in love of Jesus. This is precisely the reason why Jesus asked Peter thrice: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” For without such love, the pastoral efforts of the shepherds or ministers of the Church (1 Pet 5:2-4; Act 20:28). will be in vain. As Paul puts it, “If I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:2-3). This implies that the exercise of power proper to secular society or to the military has no place in the Christian community. That Jesus repeatedly asked Peter the question about love—this was meant to show that he had a devoted love for Jesus (see Matt 26:33). Here, of course, Peter, far from declaring it, merely appealed to Jesus’ intimate knowledge: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). With this, John would have understood that freeing love for the sheep is the essence of shepherding. A priest who does not freely love his parishioners is scarcely worthy of his pastoral office. Peter’s love for the Lord was to be manifested in the taking care of the latter’s flock. Moreover, he also would shepherd them with love because he was a disciple who loved (John 13:37).

Out of his love for Jesus, Peter would have to deny his very self. In contrast to the shepherds who, following their wicked inclination, did not pasture the sheep with integrity (Ezek 34; Jer 3:15), he would not demand that they serve him. On the contrary, he would have to lay down his life for them: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). As Jesus was concerned with the good of the flock (John 10:3-4.14.27-30), so would Peter who must feed and shepherd Jesus’ sheep. That is why Peter could go where the unexpected awaited him (John 21:18). In the end, he proved his love by dying a martyr’s death under Nero. Such is the call of every ministers of the Lord: To testify to the mission of salvation by dying for it and for the sheep in love.

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