Jesus said to Simon the third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” John 21, 1-19
Before we launch into a discussion of today’s gospel reading, I think it is worth noting that Scripture scholars point out that this last chapter of what is officially John’s Gospel was not written by the person who wrote the first twenty chapters. The style and vocabulary of this chapter are so different from the rest of the book that the experts conclude that it was an addition at a later date, probably to pick up on the unfinished story of Peter. The last mention of Peter before Jesus’ resurrection was of him standing around a charcoal fire warming himself and vigorously denying that he had any connection with Jesus. Presumably some member of the early Christian community wanted to explain how Peter found his way back to acceptance and future leadership. Among other things, this epilogue story describes Peter and the disciples gathered around another charcoal fire.
But let’s start with another story. It’s about a young lad who had gone with his sister to stay on their grandparents’ farm. The boy’s grandfather had given him a slingshot and sent him off to practice with it in the woods. Despite all his efforts, the lad failed to hit anything he aimed at. As he made his way back to the house for lunch, he took aim at his grandmother’s pet duck. This time his aim was accurate and the duck fell dead in front of him. At first, he was shocked, but then guilt at what he had done overcame him. He was afraid to tell his grandmother and was also aware that his sister, Sally had seen him hit the duck and then watched him as he hid it in the wood heap. But she didn’t say a word. After lunch, Grandma asked Sally to help her with the dishes. Instantly, Sally replied: “Grandma, Johnny told me that he wanted to help you in the kitchen today, didn’t you, Johnny?” Then, she whispered in his ear: “Remember, the duck!” So, Johnny quietly helped with the wash-up. Later that afternoon, Grandpa asked if they wanted to go fishing with him, but Grandma said that she needed Sally to help her to get the evening meal ready. Sally, however, didn’t miss a beat, and quickly volunteered Johnny to help Grandma: “Johnny already told me that he wants to help you, Grandma.” Then she whispered to Johnny again, “Remember, the duck?” So, Sally went off fishing and Johnny stayed in the kitchen helping Grandma. This went on for several days, with Johnny doing all the helping around the house, and Sally enjoying herself endlessly. Finally, Johnny cracked and went and told Grandma how he had killed her pet duck. She bent over and gave him a big hug, saying: “I know, sweetheart. I was standing near the window and saw what happened. But I love you very much, Johnny, and forgave you immediately. However, I’ve been wondering just how long you’re going to let Sally make a slave of you.” Sometimes we can let guilt tie us up in knots and allow it to paralyze us.
Another clue that helps us see today’s gospel reading as an addendum to John’s Gospel is the fact that it doesn’t fit into the sequence of the resurrection stories of the last two Sundays. There is a strong suggestion that the disciples were at a loss following the death of Jesus and, in their grief, they went back to doing something they were used to doing and which would distract them for their grief. They went back to fishing. As they were winding up their night’s unsuccessful work, they heard from the shore something that every fisherman is used to hearing - the voice of a stranger calling out: “Lads, did you catch anything?” When they admitted that they had had no luck, they got the advice that lots of fisherfolk get from passers-by: “Well try somewhere else.” Except this particular morning, the stranger calling out told them to put their nets out on the other side of the boat. Their success was immediate and so far beyond expectation that one of them realized that the stranger calling out was more than an ordinary passer-by. It could only be Jesus. Impetuous Peter was in the water in no time, and before long the others joined him around the charcoal fire, having dragged their net and their catch behind them.
When they had all eaten, Jesus singled out Peter and asked him three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This, of course, is part of the story-teller’s stock in trade: Jesus’ three-time questioning parallels Peter’s three-time denial. And that fits perfectly the Jesus the disciples had come to know. Mercy and forgiveness were the focus of all he had said and done. There was not an ounce of vindictiveness in him. And that’s the reassurance that Jesus offers every one of us. This story recounts how Peter was forgiven and reinstated as leader of the community. It also reassures us that Jesus is in touch with the realities with which every disciple struggles - a ready willingness to give generously together with the knowledge that we all falter and stumble, despite our best efforts. Yet forgiveness is readily offered to us all.
2003 saw the publication of Kiss of Death: America’s Love Affair with the Death Penalty. It was written by John Bessler and published by Northeastern University Press, Boston. Bessler is a serious researcher and gives an exhaustive account of how law codes throughout history have evolved. He recounts how the Babylonian Law Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) listed 25 offences punishable by death. Among them were corruption, theft and the fraudulent sale of beer! The Legal Systems of the United Kingdom and the United States differ considerably, but both have come a long way since Hammurabi. However, both have evolved and both have struggled with capital punishment. It is no longer practiced in the U.K. There are strong campaigns in the United States to have it abolished. Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King has stated that the death penalty “does a disservice to everything my husband lived for and believed.” A brochure published by campaigners states: “We can’t stop all violence but we can work to stop the violence carried out by a government that kills in our names.” Three Federal Government prisoners have been executed in the United States this century. One was Timothy McVeigh who discharged a bomb in a Federal Government building in Oklahoma in April, 1995. The explosion killed 168 people and left more than 500 injured or maimed. Bud Welch, whose only daughter was killed in the blast, was one of the few people who spoke out against McVeigh’s execution: “The day Timothy McVeigh is taken from that cage in Indiana and put to death is not going to bring Julie Marie Welch back and is not going to bring me any peace or anybody in this nation any peace,” he said. “God did not make us so that we feel good about killing a caged human being.” For months after his twenty-three-year-old daughter died in the bombing, Bud Welch, a Texaco service station owner, felt only rage, depression, and grief. “I didn’t even want trials for them,” Welch said of Timothy McVeigh and his codefendant, Terry Nichols. “I wanted them fried.” After smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drinking himself to sleep at night, Welch, realizing his life was falling apart, finally abandoned thoughts of revenge, let go of his rage, and arranged to visit Bill McVeigh (Timothy’s father) at his home near Buffalo, New York. “The reason Julie and 167 others were dead was rage and revenge,” Bud Welch would say before Timothy McVeigh’s execution. He went on to say: “If Timothy McVeigh is executed I won’t be able to choose to forgive him. As long as he is alive, I have to deal with my feelings and emotions…It’s a struggle I need to wage. To me the death penalty is vengeance and vengeance really doesn’t help anyone in the healing process.”
The message that rings out from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus wants nothing to do with vengeance or vindictiveness. Nor does he want anyone to be imprisoned by guilt. Both stifle life, both run counter to the Gospel. We are less than we can be if we allow ourselves to be controlled by the hate and bitterness of others. The choice is ours.