IN OUR Gospel reading, the risen Christ commissions Peter to both “tend” and “feed” his sheep. Jesus’s threefold questioning of Peter reminds him of his threefold denial. His abandonment of Jesus at the time of greatest trial has not led the Lord to abandon him. But his ministry as the shepherd of the flock, and as a witness to the resurrection, must begin with an honest acknowledgment of what has gone before.
In Already Within, Daniel O’Leary writes insightfully about the danger when Christian ministry is fuelled by unacknowledged guilt and fear: “We cover the hurts of the heart with the bandages of the mind,” and exhibit a “shallow compassion” that is rooted in the desire to prove ourselves. It is only when attempts at self-justification are abandoned, and inadequacy and sin are acknowledged, that ministry can, instead, become a channel for divine grace: it must be the crucified and risen Christ who ministers.
Peter is, no doubt, acutely aware of his failure. Jesus, therefore, treats him with compassion. He appears when Peter and his colleagues are back at work as fishermen. After a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus commands them to cast down their nets again. The ensuing miraculous catch echoes Luke 5.1-11. At the end of that episode, Jesus told the disciples that they would “fish for people”. Here, again, the miracle is followed by a commission.
Between the miracle and the commission of Peter, Jesus feeds his disciples. “This is not the same as the extraordinary event at Cana or the multiplication of bread and fish. Those events were seen by everybody. Here, Jesus is on the shore, and has prepared breakfast for these hungry, tired men” (Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John).
It is in this context of intimacy and care that Jesus gently brings Peter to confront his sin, the pattern of his questioning echoing that of Peter’s denial. Peter’s unfaithfulness at the time of trial has not cancelled out Jesus’s choice of him — both to “fish for people” and to be the “rock” on which the Church is built.
Peter is fed by Jesus before he is called to feed others. It is this pattern that the Church follows at every eucharist, in which Christ feeds us with his very self before he sends us out. We can only give what we have first received.
Jesus’s calling of Paul, recounted in our epistle, involves a more abrupt and confrontational call to repentance. Travelling to Damascus to continue his persecution of the Early Church, he is confronted by Christ in a vision with the words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” As Beverly Roberts Gaventa observes, “The verb ‘persecute’ (dioko) seldom occurs in Luke-Acts apart from its connection with Saul. Saul is, for Luke, the one who deserves the title ‘Persecutor’” (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Acts).
Saul must face the crushing realisation that the very acts that he understood to be ones of faithfulness to God were, in fact, persecuting his faithful servants — and, in them, persecuting Christ himself. Here, again, we see the gentleness of Christ; for, having confronted Saul with his sin, he commands the disciple Ananias to welcome and take care of him.
Ananias is understandably wary. As he points out, it is not only that Saul’s reputation goes before him, but, more specifically, “he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But God reveals that Saul is to be “an instrument whom I have chosen” to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. Ananias therefore not only welcomes him, but lays hands on him, curing him of his temporary blindness and filling him with the Holy Spirit.
The parallels between the calling of Peter and Paul are striking. While they need to be forgiven, to subdue their own egos, and to become channels of divine grace, that grace perfects and does not obliterate their nature.
Peter’s impetuosity and Paul’s violent zeal need to be tempered. But when these distinctive characteristics are thus disciplined, they enable both disciples to bear courageous witness even unto death. Dying to pride, they shine with a greater radiance. They are now filled with the power and the life of the risen Christ — and it is precisely through that process that they grow into the unique human beings who God created them to be.