Third Sunday of Easter – April 22, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
During the fifty days of Eastertide, which ought to have at least the same place in the awareness of Christians as the forty days of Lent, the Church tries to appropriate, make its own, realize, make real to itself the great blessings of the day which, as John Henry Newman said, “has made us greater than we know.” Easter is not the feast of the resuscitation of a corpse. It is the feast that marks the turning of the ages, that sets the great “Before-and-After” of human history, the end of the reign of sin and death, the triumph of love and life.
As usual we have an account of a resurrection-appearance of Christ. This one anticipates the life of the Church that will unfold in the future. Peter is given an opportunity to erase his threefold denial of Christ during the Passion with a threefold avowal of his love, and receives a threefold commission to be the chief shepherd of the Church. If in Matthew’s Gospel that role is founded on Peter’s faith, here it is founded on his love; and the two of them become the enveloping and conditioning matrix of his role Peter’s role in the Church is the preservation and proclamation of the faith and the promotion of love.
In the same account of the miraculous catch of fish, we see Peter in a prominent role again. But our interest is perhaps caught more by that very precise number of fish caught: 153. Not around 150; not 150, that nice round number; but 153. One can’t quite imagine that the disciples counted the fish, so it appears to be deliberately chosen by the Evangelist. As one scholar quipped, there would seem to be 153 theories to explain the number153! Already St. Augustine pointed out that if you take all the numbers from 1 to 17 and add them successively, you will get 153. And this provided him an opportunity to engage in one of his favorite delights: interpreting biblical numbers: Seventeen was the number one gets by adding to the ten commandments of the Old Testament the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in the New. Some modern scholars look rather to the view reported by St. Jerome that there were 153 species of fish known to the ancient world, and so the number is symbolic of the universal mission of the Church gathering all the nations of the world into a net of unbroken unity.
Another dimension of the life of the Church is anticipated in the other two readings we have heard. The Book of Revelation presents a series of visions of God’s heavenly court where the triumph of Christ is being celebrated in hymns which may be borrowed from early Christian liturgies. But scholars note how this scene resembles the imperial court of the time and how the acclamations echo those proclaimed of the Roman Emperors. But the honors that the world pays to the Emperor Christians now pay to Christ: ““Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.” “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.” Supreme worship is owed, not to any earthly authority, but to God and to his Christ.
That is a truth that the Church has to live out in its existence on earth, and the passage from the Acts of the Apostles anticipates the difficulties this claim may bring upon Christians in the here-and-now of its history. The Apostles are dragged before the Jewish Sanhedrin and forbidden to preach Christ, and Peter’s response to their threat is a statement that would be echoed many times in the centuries that lay ahead: “We must obey God rather than men.” And even today many Christians suffer for their faith and are forbidden to preach Christ. The other apostles and Peter say that they have to continue proclaiming the resurrection of Christ and the forgiveness of sins that it makes possible. A commission more binding than any that comes from human leaders has been given to them, and if fidelity to this commission brings them into conflict with human law, there is no question where their duty lies.
In these three readings we see illustrated how the Church gained an ever fuller understanding and appreciation of what God had done for them in the death and resurrection of Christ. In the lives and experiences of those earliest disciples the explosive force of the resurrection creates something knew, a new way of living before God, a new way for human beings to live together, a new goal to be sought and striven for, the promise of a new and reconciled humanity. The force of that explosion has now reached us, and it is our turn to experience it and to try to live it so that its power is still felt in our place and time.