My favourite place of worship is the little church in Buninyong (Victoria) dedicated to Ss Peter and Paul where our local community gathers two or three times a month. It is our feast this weekend. While the gospel story is a little vignette about Peter, we honour Paul as well. We might also acknowledge our forbears in faith whose gospel witness receives less attention in our sacred texts than that of the designated leaders.
Simon Peter has a higher profile in the final chapter of John’s gospel than in the first 20 chapters. It is as though the author responsible for the final edition of John’s gospel wants to bring Peter to prominence in line with the traditions found in the other gospels. In the previous chapter, it is not clear that Peter has come to resurrection faith, while there is no such doubt about Mary of Magdala, who receives the first resurrection appearance and is commissioned to proclaim the news of the resurrection to the other disciples. In John 21, the focus is clearly on Peter, his role as leader, and his need to repair his relationship with Jesus.
Peter has announced his intention to go fishing and several of the other disciples join him. They catch nothing. At dawn they see the figure of Jesus on the shore but do not immediately recognise him. They follow his instructions and find themselves overwhelmed with their catch. At his invitation they breakfast on bread and fish.
This provides the setting for the rehabilitation of Peter and his three-fold profession of love of Jesus in the wake of his three-fold denial. Sheep and shepherding are important symbols in the passage. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus has identified himself as the ‘good shepherd’ and the ‘gate’ to the sheepfold. The lambs and the sheep are his and Jesus is entrusting them to Peter’s care.
As we reflect on this gospel reading, we might simply listen to Jesus’ question and take it to ourselves: ‘Do you love me?’ We can all say with Peter: ‘You know that I love you.’ Peter’s example reminds us that discipleship, even gospel leadership, is possible despite the failures of the past. There is a catch of course: faithful discipleship is a risky business that brings suffering, even death. Peter and Paul are both witness to this. Neither is a perfect model for morality. Both provide helpful mirrors for identity.