May 5, 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter
(Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; John 21:1-19)
Turn on your TV at any given time of the day, and there's a pretty good chance you'll find a rerun of Law and Order (or some other courtroom procedural drama) somewhere on a back channel of your cable feed. It was on the air for 20 years, so its popularity makes it a popular rerun show. In fact, if aliens are really out there in the universe somehow getting our television signals, we wouldn't fault them for thinking that we're primarily a race of cops and lawyers who spend most of their time interviewing or cross-examining witnesses.
We've watched so much courtroom TV that we're all well-versed in the lingo. Without Law and Order, we might not know what "exculpatory evidence" means, or what constitutes an especially "heinous" crime. We wouldn't know what it means to "badger" a witness. We wouldn't know when a witness is testifying to "hearsay" conversations. We're so used to hearing phrases like this that we might think we really know how to navigate a courtroom ourselves using as our legal mentors lawyers from movies and television. On television, cases are wrapped up in about an hour, and stunning confessions are revealed from the witness stand.
If it were only that simple, but court is rarely like that. It's far more boring and repetitive, and a lot of the arguing takes place behind closed doors where deals are cut. Rarely do you get that line from the movie: A Few good Men: "You can't handle the truth!" moment from a witness. In fact, when witnesses do appear in court, they often fail to answer the attorney's questions altogether. Witnesses can be so notoriously unable or unwilling to answer the question that there's a whole lexicon of phrases that lawyers (both TV lawyers and real attorneys) use to request the judge to force the witness to give a definitive response.
"Objection! Non-responsive!" is the line used by a lawyer when a witness is ducking the question.
And there are plenty of ways to duck a question with a non-answer. Answering a question with a question, for example, may be fine for the classroom, but it's lousy in the courtroom.
Q: Were you with the defendant on the night in question?
A: Where else would I be?
You can also describe what you would normally do in a situation without saying what you actually did.
Q: Did you lock the door that night?
A: I normally do.
Q: But did you actually lock it?
Whether it's intentional or unintentional, humans tend to try to find loopholes or evade the question when confronted with direct questions that might incriminate their behavior.
Our gospel today contains a very interesting transcript of an "interrogation" in which the respondent seems to be ducking the question. We're referring, of course, to Jesus' questioning of Peter on a beach on the Sea of Galilee several days after the resurrection. Still reeling from the whole crucifixion drama and from Jesus' appearance to them in Jerusalem, Peter and a few of the other disciples decided, the resurrection notwithstanding, to head back to Galilee where they intended to resume their old lives. They were going to get back into their fishing business, Fish-R-Us Incorporated.
These disciples knew a lot about fishing, but their ability to bring in a catch that day was about as successful as their ability to stick with Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. Peter, the leader of the group, had denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted, and was, no doubt, stunned when the risen Lord showed up. The sudden appearance of the Lord he had betrayed must have shamed him greatly -- hence his desire to get away, and go back to fishing.
But like a diligent SDPD detective, Jesus was not about to let Peter get away without an interview. The risen Christ stood on the shore early in the morning, inviting the disciples to try a different fishing strategy. He had instructed them for some three years on how to fish for people, and now he was telling them how to fish for fish, although, at this point, they did not recognize him. When the nets suddenly became full, they realized that the figure on the shore was actually their Lord. Seeing Jesus, Peter jumped in the water and swam the 100 yards to shore while the others brought in the fish. Jesus proposed a breakfast meeting of fish and bread, and they ate it together, the disciples not daring to ask, "Who are you?"
After breakfast, it was time for Jesus to take a deposition. So he asks some questions. Peter was called to the witness stand for examination first. Knowing his own guilt, he begins to duck the questions.
"Simon, son of John," Jesus asks, "do you love me more than these?"
It's interesting that Jesus uses Peter's original name and not the one he had given to the disciple previously -- Cephas or Peter, the rock (1:42). It was almost as though Jesus was acting like a lawyer, trying to get the witness to focus from the beginning: "Let's go over your story again."
Peter's answer, however, is non-responsive. He doesn't really answer the question directly per se, but speaks to the questioner's previous knowledge. It's a classic dodge -- describing expected procedures. "Do you love me even more than the rest of these guys?" asks Jesus.
"Sure," Peter seems to be saying, "that's the expectation. I know you have always expected me to do everything better than the rest! That's why you named me Rocky and all that."
But Peter's answer is a non-answer. It's love that's expected, not necessarily offered sincerely. Peter is cautious here because he knows his previous actions the night Jesus died revealed how apparently shallow and superficial his love for Jesus really was.
Let me give you some inside info on the narrative here: A lot has been made of the fact that there are two different Greek words for "love" being used in this courtroom transcript. Jesus is using the stronger word agape, while Peter is using the word phileo, which is more akin to friendship. A lot of scholars now downplay this contrast, because those two words are used interchangeably throughout John's gospel. More important than the use of different words for love is the fact that Jesus asks essentially the same question three times in order to get the witness to answer. As Peter denied Jesus three times to engage in his act of cowardice and betrayal, so will Jesus take three opportunities to restore him as a true disciple who, not only confesses his love for Jesus, but acts on it as well.
"Feed my lambs," Jesus responds to Peter's weak first confession. In other words, Jesus is calling Peter to demonstrate his love by caring for the people whom Jesus cared for. It's an echo of Jesus' instruction to his disciples earlier in the gospel: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (15:12). Love for Jesus is always love that is lived out in relationship with Jesus and with others. Like Peter, we cannot answer with a definitive yes to Jesus' question unless we're living out his love in our relationships with others, even with those who may be our enemies.
So, Jesus asks a second time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
This time, Peter gives a definitive "Yes, Lord," but qualifies it again by putting the onus on the questioner: "You know that I love you." We can almost hear Jesus say, "Objection! Calls for speculation!"
Peter makes an assumption of Jesus' knowledge, but Jesus is after a real demonstration of that love. "Tend my sheep," he commands. Show me how much you love me by being a good shepherd, and following up on your bold promises from before. Be willing to really sacrifice yourself on behalf of them and on behalf of me. That's real love. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (15:13).
It's one thing to be a "witness" to Jesus with our words, and quite another to put those words in action. The call to follow Jesus is a call to self-sacrifice -- to give ourselves on behalf of others. Previously, Peter had bailed out when given the chance to stick with his friend all the way to the cross, despite his bravado in saying to Jesus, "I will lay down my life for you" (13:37). Now, he was getting a second chance to carry through on his commitment. We may not be called to die for Jesus, as Peter did, and as many are doing today, but we are all called to "tend his sheep" in ways that may cost us our reputation, our comfort and our resources. This is real love -- laying down our lives and our agendas for Christ and his people.
Jesus asks a third time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
Peter attempts one more time to dodge the question. By now he is "hurt" by this line of questioning, so he offers an argument -- another way that witnesses in court are non-responsive. Like a frustrated Colonel Jessup argues with the attorney in A Few Good Men, Peter fires back, "You want answers? You know everything, Jesus!"
Jesus responds with the truth, and Peter has a hard time handling it, as would we. Jesus tells Peter that he will, indeed, die for the sheep; die for being a disciple. The non-responsive Peter would eventually give the ultimate response to his Lord by offering up his life in authentic love.
And so, Peter steps down from the stand and steps out as a true disciple -- forgiven, restored and made new by love. Ever since, disciples of Jesus have been confronted with the same questions: "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" If you do, you will feed and tend his sheep. There's no way to dodge that inquiry. We can't deflect that responsibility on someone else (another classic non-responsive answer). Even Peter attempts this by pointing to "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and asking, "Lord, what about him?" (v. 21).
But the question is being asked of us. We will either demonstrate our love for Jesus through our love and care for others, or we will perjure ourselves before the ultimate Judge. Jesus said as much in Matthew 25 -- our words of love for Jesus must be matched by our actions on behalf of others.
If we've been failing on that account, however, we know that the one who judges us is also the one who is ready to forgive and restore us, just as Jesus forgave and restored Peter. We can begin again and become responsive disciples who can really handle the truth!
Let us pray.
For immigrants, whose traditions from their native cultures enrich the tapestry of the nations they now call home; that they may always be made to feel welcome in their adopted country. We pray to the Lord.
For all those involved in the fishing industry, that they may act responsibly in their work, caring for the habitats in which they operate. We pray to the Lord
For our parish community, that in our words and actions we may be faithful witnesses to the Easter miracle. We pray to the Lord
When Jesus asks Peter three times, do you love me, he is also asking that question of us. We pray that our commitment to Jesus as a way of life be a true, a strong and a lasting one. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for all those in our church, men and women, ordained and lay, who have been called to the role of shepherd, that they may follow closely the example of Christ and bear witness to His goodness. We pray to the Lord.
We pray that the Holy Spirit enlighten the leaders of our Church and show them the way to ensure the continuance of sacramental life in our parishes and the future parishes to come. We pray to the Lord.
For government leaders: that they may act with integrity and truthfulness, working together for the peace and common good of all, and not for their own self-interest. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the victims of the mass shooting at UNC Charlotte. May the deceased rest in peace eternal and may the friends and families left behind be showered with love and comfort in this difficult time. May those who were injured, heal quickly and completely of both physical and emotional injuries. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the people of Venezuela that peace and harmony be restored to them and that all may benefit from the richness of resources which our Creator has bestowed on their country. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list: that may they draw strength, consolation, and healing by turning to Mary, who intercedes for us. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, as we present you our petitions, may we also declare to you our love. Keep us faithful throughout life. Almighty God, you have sent your Son and the Holy Spirit to us to redeem us, to sanctify us, to show your great love for us, help us to feel and sense this in all we see and do. O Loving God, and let our people forever find joy in the new life you give us. Listen to the prayers of your people and grant them according to your will, through Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA