In this week's reading the action moves to the lakeside. There is some unfinished business here for Peter, so the narrative focuses on him. And it is a passage full of echoes from elsewhere in the gospels.
Dawn breaks slowly over the water. It is the beginning of a new day, a fresh start. Peter, perhaps feeling rather purposeless and unfocused now that Jesus isn't there to follow, decides to resume his old job as a fisherman. Some of the other disciples — clearly also at something of a loss — climb into the boat with him. But it is a fruitless endeavour; a night of fishing that yields no catch. It is only as the sun begins to lift over the horizon, and Jesus appears on the shoreline calling to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, that they meet with success. A haul that overflows to breaking point.
It is in obedience to Christ that our vocation finds its true purpose. When Jesus is present to us and we are attentive to him, we find our true calling. The Indian Jesuit Herbert Alphonso wrote:
All vocations are in Christ Jesus: the personality of Christ Jesus is so infinitely rich that it embraces all calls and vocations. If then each of us has a personal vocation, it can only be in Christ Jesus. This means that there is a facet of the personality of Christ, a 'face' of Christ Jesus, that is proper to each one of us, so that each of us can in very truth speak of 'my Jesus' — not just piously, but in a deep theological and doctrinal sense.
Discovering Your Personal Vocation, Herbert Alphonso S.J., Paulist Press
What is the face of Christ that you are drawn to? An aspect of his nature that finds true expression in you, out of which the best of who you are also flows? In other words, your calling — which not only directs what you do in life but is also perfectly embodied in the person of Christ. It could be his healing, or his teaching, his spiritual wisdom, his humility, patience, inclusiveness, his courage in speaking truth to power, his prayerfulness, his drive for justice, his self-giving, and so on. This is what takes us to the heart of what it means for us to live in Christ (Colossians 2.6). Our vocation is a person, Jesus Christ himself. Our lives are a response to all that he has done for us, and to his face reflected in us.
Perhaps Peter thoughts that fishing was his vocation. Or perhaps he just needed to go back to earning a living, to eat, now that his future was unclear. As he toils unsuccessfully on the lake, perhaps we can be drawn to think about those areas of our lives where we, too, are striving fruitlessly. Is it linked to an area of your life that is not open to Christ's presence, not listening to his voice?
Elsewhere in the gospels, the account of Peter's first meeting with Christ happens by the lake. Peter has been fishing and Jesus commands him to leave his nets and follow him, where he will learn to fish for people. For Peter his vocation lies in following Jesus and without him his efforts are in vain.
Fishing isn't the only echo of earlier passages from the gospels. When Peter and the other disciples come ashore they see that Jesus is cooking breakfast. It consists of fish and loaves of bread. Remind you of anything?
The five loaves and two fish which miraculously fed a large crowd of people, with many baskets full of leftovers, were a symbol of the abundance and ungraspable vastness of God's grace. That we see this same meal by the fireside isn't coincidence. Jesus isn't a one trick pony in the kitchen, with this as his signature dish. It is a breakfast that signals a recollection of that picnic in the desert which demonstrated how much God's grace overflows beyond what we can ever need. So, too, Peter's fishing nets when they are full to bursting symbolise this. And who is it in this passage that needs to be reminded of the magnitude of grace? Peter himself.
Peter who, when the chips were down, denied being a disciple of Jesus, not once but three times. The curious conversation in which Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, echoes the three denials. This is Peter being reinstated as a disciple, for 'it was his own identity and discipleship that he had denied' by the side of another fire, in a nighttime courtyard. Peter doesn't need forgiveness. That work has already been done on the cross. No, what Jesus is offering Peter is a chance to step back onboard the good ship discipleship and to resume his true vocation.
Yet it comes with a reminder of the challenges ahead. This is no cosy reconciliation. Peter's choice to reclaim his discipleship will ultimately lead to his martyrdom, generally thought to have been by crucifixion. So here is one final echo from elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus says to us, 'Take up your cross and follow me.'