This is an extremely rich Gospel. It helps to remember that it was written in a time of trauma for the Church. It opens with the Disciples at sea. They are confused, they are lost, they are empty. They are still reeling from the death of their Master. They do not seem to know what to do with themselves, so in a kind of reflex action they revert to their old trade, fishing.
The unprofitable night indicates that, both literally and figuratively, they are at sea. “Have you caught anything?” asks a voice on the shoreline. Their answer: We have labored all night and caught nothing.
Aren’t these frequently our words? How often have we in one form or another spoken them? Perhaps it was after fruitlessly trying to pick up the pieces of life after a death in the family; a sickness; a setback. The loss of job, or depression, a divorce, the empty nest. And we feel like nothing was caught. Nothing.
And so, like the Disciples, we labor at familiar tasks. We keep busy but it seems all day long and all night long, we catch nothing. There is just an empty net. But then one day we are aware of the stranger on the shoreline. We cannot quite make Him out, but one day there is someone there and this time something connects. A friend walks into our life, or maybe we are struck by a bible verse. Or in a prayer we have heard a hundred times before there is a new and encouraging word. A sign, a gesture that sparks a slow sensation that things are beginning to come together. There are fish in the net.
So many of us from time to time are just like those disciples. We are at sea. We try so hard and for some of us, no matter how hard we try, our nets are still empty.
The Gospel message is that, unknown to us, there stands a stranger on the shores of our lives. He is there, and one day you will hear His voice; a voice of hope in empty times. But we have to be open to the voice, we have to respond.
As we read this Gospel, it is important that we remember who was in the boats. They were the Disciples of Jesus. You know, the ones who fled when He was arrested. The ones who, when He needed a bit of comfort, fell asleep on Him. The ones who abandoned Him when the going got tough.
And there, too, was Peter, the leader who figures so prominently in this story. Remember he denied even knowing Jesus not once, but three times. It is to these that Jesus appears, and He has a question. And it is important that you realize what the question is not. His question is not, what have you done? His question is not, who were you in the past? His question is not, have you reformed? His question is not, do you remember your sins? His questions had nothing to do with the past, and everything to do with the present.
Jesus’ question is simply, here and now, do you love Me? Do you love Me? That is all Jesus is interested in. Let bygones be bygones, let sins be forgiven, let mistakes be put aside. Let stupidities be buried, let hurts be unrecorded, let betrayals be unmentioned. All that matters right here and now is do you love Me?
Can you sense the drama of this very personal Gospel? The absolute forgiveness implied in the question? The total love of the questioner? It is the gift of the second chance. Never mind the past: today, do you love Me?
This is why this Gospel was saved by the faith community. It was saved for people like ourselves who sometimes need to know that in good times and in bad, there is someone on the shoreline of our lives. Someone who says, you don’t have to clean up your act to come to Me. All I need to know is, do you love Me?