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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies
given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI. Each homily is transcribed
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There is something unusual about the 21st chapter of John's Gospel, from which we just read. I think we'd have a deeper appreciation for what happens in this chapter if we understood its context better. Last Sunday, we read about Thomas. He had not been with the other disciples on Easter Sunday night when Jesus appeared to them, but a week later he was there when Jesus came. John recounted all that happened, and then he wrote: "There were many other things, many other signs, that Jesus gave in the presence of the disciples, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Believe and you will have life through his name."
That sounds like the end of the book, and it was. John wrote this Gospel in the 80s or 90s, the end of the first century. All, or almost all, of those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry were gone. So John was trying to reassure the Christians of his time. Remember what he had Jesus say to Thomas: "Thomas, you believe because you have seen, but blessed are those who have not seen and believe." John put his Gospel together this way to show his contemporaries at the end of the first century that they were truly blessed because they believed without seeing, as Thomas had.
Well then, if that is where John intended to end his Gospel, how did this next chapter come about? It is actually a much older text than the Gospel of John. Either the original author of John's Gospel or someone else tacked it on later. To understand what is happening in this passage, you have to know that this event took place before what John described as happening the week after Easter. The disciples couldn't deal with the fact that Jesus had died -- had been killed. They acted like those two disciples we read about in Gospel of Luke who were traveling to Emmaus. They thought Jesus was to be the one who would restore the kingdom of Israel, and yet he was crushed. There had been so much promise, and it was all gone. Like those two disciples, the disciples in today's Gospel were totally discouraged, sad and depressed. These seven disciples, Simon Peter and John among them, were saying, "We may as well go back to doing what we were doing before Jesus disrupted our lives." Peter said, "I'm going back to fishing."
They were ready to give up, to say it was all over. This is where today's reading picks up. The disciples had been out fishing all night. They had caught nothing. As morning came, they saw this person on the shore. They didn't know who it was. As they came closer, the man instructed them, "Put your nets into the water and you will find lots of fish." They did, and the nets were filled to bursting. Then John, the beloved disciple, said, "It is the Lord!" For the first time, they realized that Jesus was alive.
That was an extraordinary experience for them, obviously, and at first they couldn't put it all together. They were kind of afraid. They wanted to ask, "Who are you?" They were pretty sure it was the Lord, but they weren't positive. Then Jesus did a very beautiful thing: He served them breakfast. He became their servant again as he had done at the Last Supper, when he knelt down and washed the feet of every disciple. As the disciples experienced this, they came to realize this truly was the Lord. For the first time, they really began to understand that Jesus was alive. They also began to realize that his being alive was even better than it had been before. When Jesus first called them, they had to leave their everyday lives to be with him. They followed him as itinerant preachers. But now Jesus was present in their everyday lives, in whatever they were doing.
That's the truth of the resurrection for us, too. Jesus is present to us in our everyday lives at every moment. The Gospel suggests that Jesus is present most of all at the Eucharist. Today's reading tells us that Jesus greeted the disciples and then immediately served them, taking bread, blessing it and breaking it, just like he did at the Last Supper when he said: "This is my body, take and eat." It is at the Eucharist that we experience the living presence of Jesus Christ in a special way, and that is why it is so important for us to gather together as a community, like this, and celebrate the Eucharist. We experience the presence of God as we experience the strong faith of one another. For example, I know that when Eric or Sandra or Lee or anyone is moved by a powerful faith to sing out a hymn, then the faith of all of us is strengthened. We begin to sense Jesus is here. That can happen because each one of us comes to celebrate the Eucharist in the spirit of strong faith. From one another we get a deeper conviction that Jesus is alive, Jesus is present in our midst. It is a blessing for us to be able to come together, enrich and deepen our faith with the awareness that the risen Jesus is always with us.
Today's Gospel has a couple of other significant points. Jesus took Peter aside and began to question him: "Do you love me?" He did this three times. It is clear, I think, that Jesus was giving Peter the chance to reverse his denials of him during the night of his Passion. Out of cowardice and weakness, Peter had said three times, "I don't know him." And three times, Jesus offered him the chance to say, "I love you. You know I love you. I love you!" Peter was able to reverse his failure. Then Jesus gave a commission to Peter. Notice what it is: "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep." It's a ministry of service, a ministry of nurturing, a ministry of love.
Consider this in contrast to what is recorded in Matthew's Gospel. In this same incident in Matthew, Jesus said, "Simon, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it. Whatever laws you make, they shall be made. Whatever things you undo or unmake, those laws will be gone." Both of these incidents concern what we call the primacy of Peter, which now resides in Peter's successor, Pope John Paul II. But notice the difference between the two versions of this event. It's a very important difference. In one, the commission is a primacy of love and service. In the other, the commission is a primacy of jurisdiction and order. "Make laws and they are made; undo laws and they are undone" and "Peter, feed my lambs, feed my sheep."
A question that some people have today is: "How can Christians be reunited with the Holy Father as the first among equals in leadership in the whole Christian community?" If we went back fully to the primacy of love and service, it would be very easy for Christians, all denominations of Christians, to come together. But down through history there has been a struggle between the primacy of jurisdiction and the primacy of love. It seems that we have let the primacy of jurisdiction overwhelm the primacy of love that was entrusted to Peter.
Yesterday I happened to see a headline in a local suburban newspaper that I think illustrates how distorted this primacy of jurisdiction can become. The headline said, maybe some of you saw it, "Cardinal refuses sacrament to Kerry." (That's Sen. John Kerry.) This is an example of jurisdictional power. A cardinal in Rome is saying, "This person cannot be given holy Communion." Can you see anyone exercising the primacy of love who would turn somebody away from Communion? You know if a person is a sinner, they need holy Communion. Why would you turn them away?
People whose marriages have broken up and who are divorced have suffered for years. We have said to them, "You can't go to Communion." Well, that's not the way of Jesus. It's not the primacy of love. Jesus said, "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Serve them. Minister to them." This commission is not just for the Holy Father, of course. All of us get this commission. We're not in the place of primacy, but we're part of the community, and it is up to us to reach out and welcome people. We are supposed to draw people in, not exclude them from our Eucharist. Are we to say, "You're a sinner, you can't come"? No -- Jesus said, "Come." He wants all of us who follow him, who recognize him as the risen Lord, to be welcoming ministers of love and ministers of service.
Now one final thing. Today's lesson is very rich, as you can tell. Look what happened to Peter in his experience of the risen Christ. Remember that before, he lied and denied that he knew Jesus. A young servant girl asked, "Aren't you one of them?" and in his weakness, he replied, "I never knew this man." Contrast this with today's first reading. Today we hear that some of the disciples were in court, where judges had the power to put them in jail, torture them or turn them over to the Roman authorities. Peter boldly said, "We can't obey your human laws when they go against the law of God." The judges had them scourged and then set free. The disciples went back to the rest of the community rejoicing because they had been able to follow the Lord. Peter was totally changed through his experience of the risen Christ.
It might scare us if we think about it, but we, too, can be totally changed if we allow ourselves to experience the risen Jesus. Why do I say it might scare us? Well, because some time we might have to go against a civil law that is contrary to God's law.
Four days ago (April 21), an extraordinary person was released after 18 years in jail. His name is Mordechai Vanunu*, an Israeli. He spent 18 years in prison for defying his government. Israel had plans for the secret development of nuclear weapons, and he had been working on the project. He exposed those plans to the world. He wanted the whole world to know that his nation was working to acquire weapons of mass destruction. For this, he was put in jail as a traitor. That was 18 years ago. He was just released after serving his term, but now he is under house arrest. This is a person who was willing and had the courage to say, "This is wrong, and even if they put me in jail I must tell the truth."
We go to war in the Middle East against a nation that does not have weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, we support a nation that does have these weapons as they continue to persecute and violate the rights of Palestinians. Something is wrong. Perhaps we have to stand up against that. Protest that. We must have the courage of a Mordechai Vanunu, willing to go to jail rather than go along with something that's evil.
As we reflect on this Gospel lesson and on the Acts of the Apostles, I hope that we will try to open ourselves to the real, living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in our everyday lives. Jesus is here, ready to enter into our lives. If we're open in faith to his presence, he will be asking us to accept his commission to serve and minister to others in love. He will be asking us, "Follow me."
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*To learn more about Mordechai Vanunu, read the story Israel's nuclear whistleblower leaves prison in the April 30, 2004 issue of National Catholic Reporter.
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