A very joyous St. John shares a moment of personal satisfaction when his Book of Revelations records the worldwide praise accorded to God at the end of time: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever (Rev.11:13).” The universality of God’s salvific will pervades all of the evangelist’s writings. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, St. John greatly accentuates the span of God’s mercy before his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. Left to themselves, the disciples had only empty nets. But following Jesus’ instruction they caught so many fish that they could not pull in their nets. Once ashore, St. Peter hauled the bounteous net toward a fire Jesus had prepared. St. John deliberately mentions the number of fish contained: “one hundred and fifty three (21:10).” Scripture scholars note that this is the exact number of fish species known to the Greek world at that time. And St. John further records that in spite of the vast amount of fish, “…the net was not torn (21:11).” The wideness and wholeness of God’s mercy were important to this disciple.
The intact fishing net might well recall the undamaged tunic seized by the soldiers at Calvary. “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down.
So they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be (19:23).” This seamless garment has become another symbol of a universal and united Church, lately popularized by Cardinal Bernadine of Chicago.
Readers might also recall Jesus’ own earnest words during the Last Supper: “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one…(17:22)” Jesus had already noted the intense intimacy between himself and the Father as well as between himself and all believers: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (14:20).” Any lack of this oneness within the Church of St. John’s day greatly pained this sacred author.
The first generations of Christians were composed largely of Aramaic speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews. The Acts of Apostles and the several epistles greatly testify to this diversity. Alas, as today, ethnic concerns took their toll on universal interests. Furthermore, by the time of St. John’s writing, the Jerusalem Church had been scattered by Roman pillage and the early Church was expanding greatly among the Greek speaking world. Church unity became an increasing challenge, plainly meriting St. John’s attention.
St. John, clearly following the lead of Jesus, happily found one effective source of Church unity in the duties of St. Peter. Jesus first, and St. John in his writing later, would triply emphasize St. Peter’s importance as chief gatherer of the flock: “Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me (21:15-19).”
It is especially worthwhile to note that it is St. John, the beloved disciple and, by the time of this writing, probably the sole surviving disciple, who nonetheless salutes St. Peter and his successors as the source (“Feed my lambs”) and the guardian (“Tend my sheep”) of Church unity and universal evangelism. The Church is not random communities following their unique insights. The Church is indeed a diverse society but it is, at its heart, a community rooted in Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition as understood and taught through the centuries by the office of Peter and his college of bishops. St. John’s nod to St. Peter is no mere courtesy; the disciple’s words underline the settled moorings of the universal Church then and now.