Not by One’s Own Strength
GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim sj (The Freeman) - May 5, 2019 - 12:00am

There’s a story about a preacher, who liked to use gimmicks to divide his sermons into parts. For example, he would preach on the story of David and Goliath, because this enabled him to use the five stones that David picked up to kill Goliath as a means to divide his sermon into five parts.

And he liked to preach on Jesus’ parable of the three servants, who were given money to invest, while their master went on a long journey, because this enabled him to use the three servants as a way to divide his sermon into three parts.

One Sunday the preacher shocked his congregation when he announced that he was going to preach on today’s Gospel: Peter’s catch of 153 fish.

Today, I’d like to divide my homily into four parts: its literal meaning, its symbolic meaning, its intended meaning, and lastly, its personal meaning.

First, the literal meaning – it’s simply what the Gospel says. Sometimes it’s not always clear what a particular story is saying. In today’s Gospel, however, it’s quite clear what the story is saying. In fact, the story is one of the most popular narratives of the New Testament.

This brings us to the second meaning – the symbolic meaning. The chief symbolism seems to center around Jesus’ question to Peter, which Jesus repeats three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” What symbolism is contained in this threefold question that Peter seemed to find so embarrassing?

Many believe the repetition is related to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus. In other words, it allowed Peter to make up for his threefold denial of Jesus, and to redeem himself. It is a healing process for Peter.

This brings us to the third meaning: the intended meaning. Why did John report this incident? What did he intend to communicate to us through it?

A footnote in the New American Bible points out that the First Vatican Council cited Jesus’ threefold response to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” as evidence that Jesus gave Peter the authority and responsibility to succeed him as chief shepherd of the flock.

In other words, Jesus’ threefold response to Peter reaffirmed the decision Jesus had made earlier concerning Peter, when he said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 16:18)

Jesus could have reversed that decision saying to Peter, “Simon, I had great plans for you as a leader, but you blew it! You denied me not once, but three times! You flunk under pressure. So you’re out! I’m taking away your leadership role and giving it to someone else. You go to the end of the line.”

But Jesus didn’t do that. Rather, he reaffirmed his decision to make Peter the chief shepherd of his flock. This brings us to the final meaning: the personal meaning. This is the meaning that this Gospel story might hold for the reflective reader. In other words what does this Gospel passage say to you and me?

For example, where Peter says that he fished all night but caught nothing, Jesus tells Peter to try again. This time with the awareness of Jesus’ presence, Peter does. And the result is unbelievable. He and his companions catch so much fish that their boat was filled.

A novelist, A. J. Cronin, says that he nearly gave up his writing career before he ever got started. Halfway through his first book, “Hatter’s Castle,” which was eventually translated into 19 languages, Cronin threw down his pen and tossed his half-finished manuscript into the trash can. Then he went outside into the rain and went for a long walk down a lonely rural road.

He hadn’t walked far when he came upon an old farmer plowing the field. The sight of that farmer, working all alone in the rain, inspired Cronin to retrieve his manuscript from the trash can and try again. Years later, when Cronin became famous, he credited his career to the farmer, who inspired him to try again after he had given up the first time around.

Jesus spoke to A.J. Cronin through that old farmer, working in the field, all alone in the rain. Jesus said to Cronin through the farmer, something similar to what he said to Peter: “Cast your net, Peter and try again.”

By his unsuccessful first attempt Cronin learned what Peter learned. He failed the first time because he had been working alone, without the help of Jesus.

The personal meaning that we might draw from today’s Gospel comes down to this: If, like Peter, we’ve been working all night and have caught nothing, we’ve been working hard on something with little or no success, maybe it’s because we’ve been working alone, without Jesus. Maybe the reason for our failure is that we’ve been trying to do it all by ourselves.

Maybe the reason for our failure is that we’ve forgotten what Jesus said to his followers at the Last Supper: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 1-2)

There is another thing we can note for our personal meaning. Every time Jesus asked Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” and Peter answered, “Yes Lord…” Jesus then told him, “Feed my lambs,” and “Feed my sheep.”

The rehabilitation of Peter leads to a commission. Peter is sent (that is what the word “apostle” means), sent on mission, to feed Christ’s flock. Not because he is worthy. Why, he has denied the Master with an oath! He is chosen because God works through “the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

If there is a special authority here – to lead, to teach, to correct – it is not on power that the stress falls. The stress is on service, the service stressed in the First Letter of Peter: “Tend the flock of God that is in your care, exercising your role of overseer not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for base gain, but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but by being example to the flock.” (1 Peter 5: 2-4)

The personal meaning that we can draw from today’s Gospel is that the Good News of Jesus never stops with us. When we have received the Good News, when we have been healed of our brokenness, we are to be his channel of Good News to others. He will mission us to Christian service, to take care of others.

Let’s end with this prayer for Church leaders:

Lord, we ask you to bless

the leaders of the Church

in a special way.

Help us see through their failures

to what they really are:

living signs of your presence among us.

Above all, help us

work with them and through them

for the spread of your kingdom

throughout the world.


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