'It is the Lord' (Jn 21:1-14)
The reading from Acts (5:27-32,40-41) and the gospel of
the Third Sunday of Easter are a witness for Jesus Christ, a witness for
his resurrection. They are not telling us the disciples' imagined
ideas, for in that case it would have been presumptuous to pitch this
witness as the will of God against the will of men and women. In that
case it would also have been quite unnecessary to take imprisonment and
beatings on oneself for the sake of this witness. It would equally have
made no sense to rejoice in the shame they had suffered in public if
there were not hidden in this shame a higher glory, the glory of God and
the glory of the truth.
God has answered
Testimony that consists only of words does not carry a lot of
weight: it can even be false witness. But when with the witness of
suffering life itself becomes testimony then other considerations are
involved. The apostles bear witness to Jesus with their life because he
himself is living, is life, and because they are completely certain of
this. The testimony of life applies to him whom they have seen as
Thus the real message of this day runs: God has answered. God is
really God. God has power over the world, power over our life and power
even over our dying. God is God. He has power, and his power is the
goodness that bestows life – real life. Because the apostles knew this
not just as theory but had it burnt into their souls as a living
perception, they were full of joy.
The aim of the Church's liturgy is to lead us to receiving this
joy, the joy of the redeemed. We receive it to the extent that we
perceive Christ, to the extent that we become certain that he is living,
that he is truly risen.
The reading and the gospel are therefore testimonies to Christ.
He is the real subject of these texts, just as he is the true subject of
our liturgy. But in this way, with reference to Christ, the texts of
this day also give us a picture of the witness of Jesus Christ.
What is demanded of a witness?
What is demanded of a witness? The first basic condition becomes
clear in the story of the draught of fishes: the apostles return home.
On the bank an unknown person is standing. The disciple whom
Jesus loved recognizes him: 'It is the Lord.' Peter gets up, puts his
clothes back on and jumps into the water to hurry to meet him. The first
condition is therefore that whoever wants to be a witness of Jesus must
have seen him himself, must know him. How does that come about? Love
knows him, the gospel tells us. Jesus stands on the bank; at first we do
not recognize him, but through the voice of the Church we hear: 'It's
him.' It is up to us to make a start, to look for him and to approach
him. In listening to scripture, in living with the sacraments, in the
encounter with him in personal prayer, in the encounter with those whose
life is filled with Jesus, in a variety of experiences in our life and
in a variety of ways we encounter him, he seeks us, and thus we learn to
To come closer to him in a variety of ways, to learn to see him:
that is the primary task of the study of theology. This study speaks
fundamentally of nothing at all if the ideas of science are not related
to the reality of our life. The more we recognize him himself, the more
all the words of tradition begin to speak to us, the more they become
ways to him and from him to men and women.
The witness must therefore first of all be something before he
or she does something; he or she must become a friend of Jesus Christ so
that he or she is not just handing on knowledge at second hand but is
really a witness.
What should the witness do?
But then the question arises: what should the witness do? The
gospel gives us three answers which are really all a single answer.
Before Peter is entrusted with the office of shepherd Jesus asks him:
'Do you love me?' He must love Jesus. Then he is told: 'Feed my lambs.'
He must fulfil the duties of a shepherd. And finally he is told: Before,
you went your own way. Now another will determine your way and lead
you; it is no longer your will that decides where you go but the will of
someone else. He must follow: following in discipleship belongs to the
ministry of the disciple, and this ministry is a way.
Loving, feeding, following: these three keywords are used by the
gospel to describe the essential nature of the apostolic office and
thus too the essential nature of the priestly ministry. Because loving
is the core of everything else, we can content ourselves with reflecting
a little more closely on the two other fundamental actions.
Let us begin with feeding and tending. The word refers back to
Israel's nomadic period in which it had been above all a people of
herdsmen. In today's gospel we find the same thing but illuminated from a
different starting point. Jesus's disciples whom he had collected at
the Sea of Galilee had originally been fishermen, and it was thus on
this basis that he disclosed to them their future calling. 'Henceforth
you will be catching men,' Jesus said to Peter the morning he called him
Of all the interpretations of this saying that I have
encountered the one that has most impressed me is that of St Jerome.
What he says is more or less as follows. When the fish is drawn out of
the water it means for it that it has lost the element essential for its
life. It can no longer breathe and perishes. But for us men and women
what happens in baptism, in becoming a Christian, is the opposite.
Hitherto we have been imprisoned in the salt water of the world. We
cannot see the light, God's light. We cannot see the expanse of the
world. Our sight is shut in by the darkness of the water and pointed
downwards, and our life is sunk in the death-world of the salt water.
But when in baptism we are drawn out of it then we begin to see the
light and then we begin really to live.
I think it is not at all difficult to recognize today how true
that is. Life without God and against God, which at first seemed so
enticing and liberating, has created in reality only great sadness and
increasing anger. Man rages against society, against the world, against
himself and against the others; his life seems to him like botched
handiwork, man like a mistake on the part of evolution. He has lost the
element that is really essential for his life, and everything tastes
like salt to him – of death and bitterness. Man is destined to breathe
the infinity of eternal love – if he cannot he is in prison and deprived
of light. It is only faith that leads us out into the open, as the
What then does 'catching men' mean? It means to lead people out
into the open, into the broad expanse of God, into the element essential
to their life that is intended for them. Admittedly anyone who is torn
away from his or her habitual surroundings always puts up a fight
against it, as Plato so vividly described for us in his myth of the
cave. Someone who has become used to the sea thinks first of all that
his or her life is being taken away if he or she is brought into the
light. He or she has fallen in love with the darkness. So being a fisher
of men is no comfortable undertaking – but the most wonderful and,
humanly speaking, the finest there can be. Certainly it includes many
unsuccessful expeditions. But nevertheless it is a wonderful task to
accompany people on the way to the light, to the open air, and to teach
them to know God's light and openness. When thirty-five years ago I
started out on this I was afraid about how it would go. But very soon I
found out and went on finding out how true the Lord's promise is that
even in this world he returns one's investment a hundredfold – with
difficulties, admittedly, but he keeps his word (cf. Mk 10:29-30).
Of course there is still one thing we need to consider: the real
core of the art of catching men. In today's gospel Jesus gives the
disciples bread and fish to eat. Both symbolize himself. Just as he
became the grain of wheat that dies, so he has become the fish. He
himself sank into the depths of the sea. With his whole life he
fulfilled the sign of Jonah, letting himself be swallowed up by the
belly of the sea. Only someone who gives himself or herself can be a
witness, we said earlier. Only someone who like Jesus himself becomes a
'fish' can be a fisher of men.
But with this we have already reached the question of following
Jesus in discipleship. Stripped of images what that means is quite
simply that the core of feeding and tending the sheep, of the ministry
of the shepherd, is following Jesus in discipleship. The shepherd goes
ahead, St John's gospel tells us. Only if we ourselves go ahead do we
find pasture for the others. And we only go ahead, we only move forward,
if we follow him who has gone ahead of all of us, Jesus Christ.
Precisely in connection with the figure of Peter the gospels
give us various indications in which it becomes clear what discipleship
means. One of the most vivid scenes takes place immediately after
Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ with which the history of
the primacy begins. The Lord explained what was special about his
kingdom by forecasting his own suffering. And whereas formerly it was
more than flesh and blood that spoke through Peter, now flesh and blood
speak out quite forcefully when Peter reproaches the Lord for what he
said. Jesus's answer is unusually harsh: 'Get behind me, Satan!' (Mk
8:33). Peter had wanted to take the lead, to determine the path Jesus
was to follow. Discipleship means no longer finding for oneself the way
one is to follow. It means surrendering one's own will to that of Jesus
and genuinely letting him take the lead.
Another aspect becomes clear in our story: Peter is on the lake,
Jesus on the shore. To reach him Peter quickly hurls himself decisively
into the water. Related to this is the uniquely wonderful story of how
Peter got out of the boat to go to meet the Lord whom he saw walking on
the water. As long as his gaze was fixed on Jesus all was well. The
moment he directed his attention to the wind and the waves he began to
sink (cf. Mt 14:28¬-32). He is following a path that defies gravity. He
can follow it as long as he lets himself be supported by the new and
stronger gravity of the presence of Jesus Christ, in keeping with the
saying: 'Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world' (Jn 16:33).
Gravity and grace are fighting against each other here.
Following Jesus Christ in discipleship means that we must and
can follow a path that is directed against the force of gravity of our
natures, against the gravity of egoism, the hankering after what is
purely material and after the maximum pleasure that is confused with
happiness. Following Jesus in discipleship is a path through the waves
whipped up by the storm that we can only follow if we are within the
gravitational field of the love of Jesus Christ with our gaze fixed on
him, and thus borne up by the new gravity of grace which makes possible
for us the path to truth and to God that we would not be able to follow
with our own resources. For this reason following Christ in discipleship
is more than agreement with a definite programme, more than sympathy
and solidarity with a human being whom we regard as a model. We are not
just following Jesus, a human being; we are following Christ, the son of
the living God. We are following a divine path.
Where does Jesus's path go to? It goes to the resurrection, to
the right hand of the Father. It is this entire path that is meant when
we talk of following Christ in discipleship. It is only with this that
the entire vocation of man is described, that we really reach the goal
of undivided and indestructible happiness. And it is only on this basis
that one understands why the cross belongs to following Christ (cf. Mk
8:34); one cannot come to the resurrection, to the community of God, by
any other way. We must follow this entire path if we want to be the
servants and witnesses of Jesus Christ. And every single step is
different according to whether one accepts the entire way or is merely
carving out for oneself a kind of human party programme. One can only
come to Christ if one has the courage to walk on the water and trust
oneself to his gravity, the gravity of grace.
Being led where you do not wish to go
Finally right at the end of our story there comes yet another
surprising image for following Christ in discipleship: 'You will stretch
out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do
not wish to go' (Jn 21:18). Probably this is a reference to the death on
the cross that Peter will suffer in imitation of Jesus; his hands were
stretched out and bound. What was first indicated in the quarrel between
Peter and Jesus after the latter's forecast of his passion is here made
completely clear: Peter must renounce his own will; no longer does he
decide what happens to him. Another girds him.
This story always recalls to my mind a detail that affected me
profoundly at my ordination. At that time after one's hands had been
anointed they were bound together, and it was with one's hands bound
together that one took the chalice. The chalice – that recalled to my
mind Jesus's question to the brothers James and John: 'Are you able to
drink the cup that I drink?' (Mk 10:38).
The eucharistic chalice, core of the priestly life, always
recalls this saying. And then the hands bound together, anointed with
the Messianic ointment of the chrism. The hands are an expression of the
power we have to dispose of our own lives; with them we can grab
things, take possession of things, defend ourselves. The hands bound
together are an expression of powerlessness, of the renunciation of
power. They are placed in his hands; they are placed on the chalice. One
could say that this shows simply that the eucharist is the core of the
priestly life. But the eucharist is more than a rite, than liturgy. It
is a form of life. The hands are bound together; I no longer belong to
myself. I belong to him and through him to the others. Following Christ
in discipleship is a readiness to be bound conclusively – just as he
bound himself conclusively to us. The hands bound together are in truth
open hands, outstretched hands, as the gospel says. The courage of being
bound conclusively, the entire assent – that is discipleship. It is
only in this entire assent that we go the whole way we were speaking of
before. And only the whole way is the true way, for truth and love
cannot be separated. We want to ask the Lord that he will let us
understand ever more deeply this mystery of discipleship.
We want to ask him to give us the courage to get out of the boat
of our earthly safeguards and reservations and venture out on the
water. We want to ask him that at the right moment he will stretch out
his hands to us, take us by the hand and climb into our boat. We want to
thank him for having called us to stand before him and serve him. Amen.