Fr. Paul's Homily
A visitor to a small town watched an old man fishing quietly in a shallow stream. For a half hour there was no sign of activity. Finally the visitor walked over and said, "It doesn't look as though there are any fish in this stream."
"Nope," said the old fellow, "there ain't."
"Then what's the object of fishing here?" the visitor said.
"The object," replied the old man, "is to show my wife I have no time to peel potatoes."
I am not a fisherman, but I have always been fascinated by the enthusiasm of a real fisherman. For one thing, they don’t have to catch fish!! This has amazed me since it would seem that catching fish was the whole purpose behind the endeavor. But a true fisherman will talk about the peace and joy of being in a boat during early morning hours with the mist rising and a coolness in the air. Like a hunter will talk about being in a tree stand before dawn and watching the woods come alive with color and activity. As one hunter told me, “If a deer comes along, that is a bonus!” Peter was a fisherman the first half of his life and today, he goes fishing. Let’s talk about this.
This is Jesus’ third appearance before his disciples. He has appeared in the upper room in Jerusalem twice and now the disciples have gone back to their native area of the Sea of Galilee. Even though they have experienced the resurrection of Jesus it has still left them with many questions: where are we going? What is my life about? How does Jesus fit into my future? When our lives are in turmoil, we often return to something we understand and we know how to do. For Peter this would be fishing.
What do you do? When too much of your life is a mess and you can’t control much, if any of it, what do you do? Some of you will go into your back yard and start gardening. Messing in the dirt… planting, weeding…all make sense when other parts of your life do not make sense. Some of you might start reading a book or crocheting or go cut the grass. When we find that our lives are filled with chaos that we cannot control, we like to do something that is concrete and controllable. For Peter, this was fishing on a lake that he knew like the back of his hand.
As the story goes, they do not catch anything all night. Maybe that bothered Peter, maybe not. I suspect that he knew that fishing was not always successful. Regardless of the success, he probably felt good being in the boat, throwing the net, talking with his friends quietly.
In the morning, they see a man standing on the shore who asked, “Have you caught anything?” Not an unusual question to ask a bunch of fishermen. But when they respond that they have not caught any, the man’s answer is unusual; “Cast the net over the right side of the boat.” Peter’s memory antenna should have gone up since at the very beginning of time with Jesus, the same command was made…which resulted in a huge miraculous catch of fish. Again in this story, there is a huge catch, causing one of the disciples to cry out, “It is the Lord.”
What did Peter do? “He tucked in his garments and jumped into the sea!!” An older translation said, “He put on his clothes and jumped into the sea.” Seems strange if one is going to jump into the water, that one puts ON clothes! Yet, it emphasizes how excited Peter was to see the Lord. He cannot wait to get the boat to shore; he wants to see the Lord immediately.
The Scripture story continues with the large catch of fish being brought to shore, breakfast being eaten with Jesus, followed by a pointed conversation between Jesus and Peter. Three times Jesus ask, “Peter, do you love me?” Each time Peter answers in the affirmative with Jesus saying, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Many scripture scholars would say that the three questions were needed because Peter denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. His lack of faith and love, needed to be overcome by his commitment to faith and love in Jesus.
There is an interesting part of this story that is only recognized if you look at the original Greek. The Greeks had many words for ‘love’. One Greek word for love is ‘philios” which means to have affection for another. Philios involves the feelings of love that one might have, whether that is a wife to a husband, or a grandmother to a grandchild…this is philios. Another Greek word for love is ‘Agape’ which is that act of giving of yourself for the sake of the other. Agape is the willingness to die for another person.
I remember a father if six children telling me one day, “Father, I love my wife, but I never knew what it meant to be willing to die for someone until I became a parent.” Such love is ‘Agape’.
In this Gospel story when Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” he is using the Greek word, ‘Agape’ the first two times. Peter’s response is “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” but Peter is using the word ‘Philios’ (feelings). It seems that Jesus is asking Peter, “Peter, are you willing to love me by laying down your life for me?” And Peter is responding, “Jesus, you know that I love you like a brother.” Jesus is asking for self-sacrificing Love and Peter is offering emotional connectedness. While what Peter is offering is good, Jesus is asking so much more.
Have you been there, either as Jesus or as Peter? A young man says to a young woman, “I love you.” What does he mean by that? Probably he means, “I have feelings for you.” Wonder if she asked, “Are you willing to commit the rest of your life to our relationship?” I bet he would hesitate! Philios is a wonderful experience…feeling love for another person. But agape is more powerful and more demanding and Jesus is asking Peter for agape, self-giving love.
What is surprising is that on the third question, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus moves to the word, philios. It is Jesus who moves, not Peter, who again responded a third time with philios. It seems that Jesus is accepting Peter where he is at, realizing that he is not ready to offer agape. Jesus accepts Peter’s gift, even though he knows that the future will demand a more profound love from Peter.
This gives me great courage and consolation. Sometimes my faith, sometimes my love for the Lord, sometimes my generosity of spirit, is not what I know God ask of me. Amy I really willing to put God first? Am I really willing to love my neighbor? Am I really willing to trust always? Too often I fall short of the fullness of Christian living. I am just not there yet. And from the example of Jesus with Peter, he accepts my imperfections, my hesitations and loves me where I am at. Jesus comes to me and with him by my side, he inches me forward in faith, love and generosity.
The Gospel ends with Jesus telling Peter that the day will come, when he is older, that his hands will be tied and someone will lead him where he does not wish to go. In other words, Jesus is telling Peter that someday, you will love me with true, self-sacrificing love. Someday, you will die for me. Someday, your philios will grow much deeper and you will agape, die for me.
And Jesus says to us, just as he did with Peter…knowing all his imperfections…”Follow me.”