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Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 9:1–6, Revelation 5:6–14 & John 21:1–19

When I was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January of 2018, one of the places I visited was the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter. It’s a Franciscan church located in Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The church supposedly marks the spot where Jesus commissioned Peter to be the pastoral leader of the early Christian church, and this story was of course part of the passage from John’s Gospel that we just heard.

The current church building, which was erected in 1933, incorporates the remains of an earlier fourth century church. Those remains include a projection of limestone rock in front of the present altar that is referred to as “Mensa Christi”, which is Latin for table of Christ. According to tradition, this is the spot where Jesus is said to have laid out a breakfast of bread and fish for his disciples, and told Peter to “feed my sheep” after the miraculous catch of fish, the third time he appeared to them after his resurrection.

The species of fish that Peter and the other disciples are believed to have caught that morning was the Tilapia Galilea, a species of freshwater fish which is now affectionately known around the Sea of Galilee as “St Peter’s Fish”. I actually had lunch at a restaurant located close to the The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter and I sampled “St Peter’s Fish”. Perhaps the kindest thing I could say about it is, that now that I have tried it, I don’t have to have it again.

It was an amazing experience though, to sit so close to the place where Jesus was believed to have eaten breakfast with the disciples after his resurrection, and to eat the same type of fish that he supposedly ate with them. Which brings me to today’s gospel passage. 

A number of scholars believe that this section of John’s Gospel was a later addition to the original version, but I won’t bore you with the arguments “for” and “against” this theory. I just thought you might like to know that there is a line of thinking that this section of the gospel was not part of the original. If you are interested, you might like to explore this further yourself or, if anyone is interested, I would be happy to discuss it further with you outside of our Sunday service.

There are too many points of interest within this passage to deal with in a single sermon, so I have decided to restrict my discussion to the “threefold confession of love” that Jesus commands of Peter. We know that Peter was a fisherman. But in today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus recommission Peter to take on a new occupation. Just as Jesus was identified as the Good Shepherd, who was prepared to lay down his own life for his flock, Peter is now called by Jesus to be a shepherd – a shepherd of the followers of Jesus. 

Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and each time Peter answers Jesus in the same way, “Lord, you know that I love you”. The reason that Jesus asks Peter this question three times, is no doubt to counter the three times that Peter denied Jesus just before Jesus was tried and crucified. Peter is clearly hurt that Jesus would doubt him. He obviously believes he is faithful to Jesus, even if he did desert Jesus in his hour of need. 

But to love Jesus means to obey his commands, and in this case, Jesus is commanding Peter to love all those would follow Jesus. Peter is to care for these people in the same way that Jesus has cared for them, which included laying down his life for them. Jesus makes it clear to Peter that the same fate awaits him when Jesus says to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18 NRSV) 

There can be little doubt that by the time this passage had been written, Peter had already stretched out his hands, an executioner had fastened him to the cross, and he laid down his own life for the flock of Jesus. So in questioning Peter the way he did, Jesus was challenging him to make sure that he was truly up to the task this time, and that he would not fail him as he did previously. If you love me, then you will take care of my sheep. You will feed my sheep, which is perhaps a reference to providing them with spiritual nourishment to enable them to grow in faith. You will tend my sheep, which means you will not desert them in times of trouble or danger; you will look after them and protect them, even if it means your own death, which ultimately is exactly what it did mean for Peter. 

Francis Moloney, who is a Roman Catholic priest, Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological College, and the author of numerous books and shorter studies, wrote that “all Christian pastors, like Peter, are challenged to repeat the relationship Jesus had with his flock”. The liturgy for the ordination of priests in the Anglican Church of Australia contains a section called ‘The Exhortation and Examination’ which includes a series of charges that the Archbishop gives priests during their ordination. One of these charges is, “Be a pastor after the pattern of Christ the great Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep. Lead the people of God as a servant of Christ. Love and serve the people with whom you work, caring alike for young and old, rich and poor, weak and strong”. 

For the past two weeks I’ve been away from the parish on sick leave, in part due to what is commonly described as “clergy burnout”. In an attempt to reorient myself and my ministry, I am, among other things, currently revisiting the ‘The Exhortation and Examination’ from the ordination liturgy, in the hope that I can focus on what are the critical aspects of ministry for me, and that I can also find the right balance between my responsibilities as the spiritual leader of St Andrew’s, and my own personal needs.

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