19. Guidlines for Mission
It was the Sunday after Jesus' death, that first Easter day when Jesus had risen from the dead. When evening came the disciples were assembled for their first eucharistic celebration. Although the doors were shut Jesus suddenly stood among them. "Peace be to you", he said, showing them the wounds in his hands and on his chest. The disciples were filled with excitement and joy. After saying once more, "Peace be with you", he entrusted his own mission to them. "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you". Then filling his lungs with air he breathed over them saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive any person's sins, they will be forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they will not be forgiven" (see 20,19-23).
In these words John narrates what we also find in the other gospels, that after his resurrection Jesus issued the "great commission" of evangelising the whole world. "Go out and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28,19). "Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mk 16,15). "Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in Christ's name to all nations.... You will be witnesses of all these things" (Lk 24,47-48). In other words, the good news of what Jesus had told us about his Father and about the new life we receive in him had to reach every single human being! Using his own typical themes, John in this way makes Jesus pass on his own mission to the disciples. By giving them his own Spirit Jesus made them his successors (as we saw in chapter 13) and granted them a true autonomy of action (see chapter 16).
Now there can be little doubt about it that this great commission was entrusted in a special way to the apostles, the spiritual leaders. The sacramental power to forgive sins (20,23) which obviously covers baptism, confession and anointing of the sick in one go, has special relevance for ordained ministers. But the interesting feature of John's Gospel is that it purposely does not want to restrict the task of this ''mission" to a limited group of Jesus' disciples. John avoids the term "apostle", with which he must have been very familiar, throughout the Gospel. When Christ prays for his disciples that they may be sanctified and consecrated in the truth (17,17-19) John is probably not thinking of a select few who will be ministerial priests and sacrificial victims, but of a consecration to his own mission by all disciples.(1)Every follower of Jesus, every believer, shares in his mission to witness to the truth he was revealing (15,26-27), to bring salvation to the whole world (3,16) and to procure abundance of life (10,10).
Such talk about the general duty of believers to share in Christ's mission can so easily become mere religious jargon. If all disciples of Christ have to proclaim his gospel, have to become "missionaries" in a manner of speaking, what does this mean in practical terms? In a foregoing chapter (chapter 17) we have already reflected o~ the Christian's duty to be involved in genuine service and in liberating our secular world from every form of discrimination and slavery. Such involvement will be an essential element of a Christian" "mission". But what about a more direct proclamation of Jesus himself and his salvific message? How can Christians give witness to their belief in Christ? How can they help others discover Jesus as their saviour and invite them to join the circle of disciples? This will be the special topic of discussion in this chapter.
An instructive epilogue
John's Gospel closes with the story of a meeting between the risen Christ and some disciples in Galilee (21,1-25). Was this the original conclusion of the Gospel? Many scholars believe it was not. The remark at the end of chapter 20 that "all these things were written down that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through that belief you might have life in his name" (20,31) seem a perfect note to end the Gospel on. Moreover, some themes, expressions and stylistic features of chapter 21 are so different from the rest of the Gospel that most commentators postulate a different author, (2) although their arguments are by no means acceptable to all. (3) The most satisfactory solution is probably to ascribe the chapter to the Redactor who added some unpublished material of the Evangelist to the final edition of the Gospel. In this way both the samenesses and differences can be explained.
The chapter has obviously been composed of different traditions connected to Peter. We find traces of the same traditions in the other gospels. The miraculous catch of fish (21,1-6) has its parallel in Peter's vocation story (Lk 5,1-11). The recognition of Jesus at a eucharistic meal reminds us of the experience of the two disciples travelling to Emmaus (Lk 24,28-32). The mandate to look after Jesus' sheep (21,15-17) corresponds to the handing to Peter of the keys of the kingdom_ (Mt 16,17-19). The announcement of Peter's martyrdom (21,18-19) may well contain an echo of Peter's inability to understand the need of taking up his cross and following Jesus (Mk 8,32-38). Elements preserved in all these traditions were welded into one consecutive story.
The overall purpose of the story is to teach about mission, as is clear from its main images. Ever since Jesus had said, "Do not be afraid. From now on I will make you a fisher of people" (Lk 5,10), fishing would remind the early Christians of their missionary task. And when talking about caring for sheep, who would not remember Jesus' words about the shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep to look for the one that was lost (Mt 18,12-14)? The story is, therefore, very instructive about mission,(4) and although it may have addressed itself specially to those with spiritual leadership such as Peter possessed, in truly Johannine fashion the apostolic mission of all Christians was included. This is clear by the way in which no titles are used but only the generic term "disciple" (21,220.127.116.11.14); yes, even Peter's vocation found its fulfillment in becoming a follower of Jesus, a disciple: "Follow me!" (21,19). Even Peter's mission, therefore, is characterised as the mission of a disciple.
From an analysis of the various details one can also see that the story was composed as an allegory. This means that different parts and different images in it have separate meanings, though related to the central theme of mission. The Evangelist who composed the story originally and the Redactor who completed and edited it obviously had a particular situation in the early Church in mind. Drawing on traditional teaching going back to Jesus, they wanted to show what a correct missionary attitude would require of Jesus' followers. The story is therefore of great interest to us as, with the necessary adaptations and transformations, its guidelines will greatly help us in reflecting on our own contemporary mission today.
Be guided by prophets
The story begins by narrating that Peter wants to go fishing. Six other disciples join him. It can hardly be a coincidence that therefore the team that goes out fishing consists of seven disciples. John is fond of seven, the number of blessing and prosperity as can be seen from the seven weeks on which he constructed his Gospel, the seven signs and the seven "I - AM" words.
If we can take the seven Churches mentioned in Revelation 2 - 3 as a Johannine tradition, the team of seven disciples must be seen as an image of the Church.(5) The story begins by drawing our attention to the missionary practice of the Church.
What happens? "They went out in a boat, but all that night they did not catch anything" (21,3). Peter, and some of the others no doubt, were fishermen by profession. They knew their well tried techniques. They must have explored a number of favourite fishing places. However, they were not successful. Could this be a reflection on what had happened to the community at Jerusalem? After the initial successes triggered off by Pentecost Day, that community very soon became static and self-contained. In fact, it was doomed to remain a small Church of Jews and Jewish proselytes. Only when the Gospel reached non-Jews: the Samaritans (Acts 8,4-25), the Ethiopian official (Acts 8,26-40), Cornelius' family in Caesarea (Acts 10,1-48) and the Hellenists in Antioch (Acts 11,19-26), did the mission begin to bear much fruit. Peter was very much involved in this transition from a Jewish to a non-Jewish mission. He visited Samaria (Acts 8,14-25) and was prepared by God to baptise Cornelius (Acts 10,9-18). Peter, and with him the whole original community at Jerusalem,obviously needed convincing that this new expansion of the mission was really wanted by God.
How did Peter and the early community at Jerusalem come to recognise that it was God's will that the Gospel be preached to non-Jews? Some direct intervention by God may have helped, such as the vision Peter saw in prayer (Acts 10,9-16). But mostly it must have been the insight and testimony of certain charismatic disciples. Philip who opened the mission in Samaria (Acts 8,5-8) and who converted the Ethiopian official (Acts 8,26-40) was one such person. Barnabas who was sent to inspect the situation at Antioch (Acts 11,22-24) was another. There must have been many more. Through their encounters with religious people among non-Jews,seekers who were anxious to become Christians, such disciples must have become convinced that this new development was very much in line with God's purposes. Reflecting on Jesus' own practice, his kindness to Samaritans, Romans, and SyroPhenicians, convinced them that this had been Jesus' intention all along. By their repeated prophetic statements and prophecies such charismatic leaders gradually prepared the whole community towards a full understanding of what Jesus had meant in his "great commission" after the resurrection.(6)
This is precisely what John is expressing in his allegory. For what does he tell us? "At sunrise Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.... He told them, 'Throw your net out on the right side of the boat and you will catch some fish'. When they threw the net out, they could not pull it back in because they had caught such a multitude of fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved then turned to Peter and said, 'It is the Lord!"' (21,4-7). The Evangelist thus has summed up the whole process in one simple, powerful image. Someone standing on the shore -a charismatic person with a new missionary experience -,urges them to try a new fishing place. By the enormous success of the catch they recognise that it was really Jesus who was speaking through that person. What had frequently happened in the past John now turns into an instruction for the future. What he tells us is: "Listen to those prophets who tell you to change your settled ways and depart from your previous convictions. Listen to their advice, as Peter did, and by the fulfilment of their word you will recognise that Christ has pointed out a valuable new missionary avenue to you.
The application to our time is easy to make. The Church of our own days is desperately in need of new ways of bringing the Gospel to the secularised, urbanised people of our world. Who are the people today, standing on the shore, pointing out approaches that may never have been tried before? Who are the prophets with a new vision of the Church that might build up faith in our urbanised way of life? They need not be professional fishermen. More likely than not they will be committed lay people in different walks of life who have found that Christ can best be proclaimed in this way or that. Will we be open to their message? Will we recognise that it may be Jesus himself speaking through them?
I believe that the lesson does not only apply on a large scale to revolutionary new approaches in contemporary mission. It may very much affect the specific mode in which we may be called upon to be missionaries to our own environment. There are so many different ways in which individual people may be asked to give testimony to Christ. Often someone who is close to us, a relative or acquaintance, may draw our attention to a special gift we have, an opportunity perhaps, an opening not so accessible to others. Will we then recognise that this person speaking to us may be that shadowy figure standing on the side of the lake in the mists of early morning who is taking the place of Christ? Housewives, journalists, business men, nurses and lawyers: all have their own lake of Tiberias in which they may be called upon to throw out the net.
Care about all people
Another element of our allegory which has an obvious teaching purpose is the number of fish caught. "Simon Peter hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them" (21,11). One hundred and fifty-three fishes! What could be the meaning of this mysterious number? Various explanations have been offered. 153 is the sum of all numbers from one to seventeen. Since both seven and ten express completion, the whole number expresses absolute fulness. Or again, 153 points can be arranged into an equilateral triangle with seventeen dots on each side. This again would express perfect completeness. Other explanations seek refuge in the socalled art of Gematria, the practice of expressing names in figures based on numerical values given to the letters of the alphabet. A very interesting suggestion of this kind is that the number 153 expresses the name Engedi (numerical value 17) and Eneglaim (numerical value 153). The catch of 153 fish could then be a reference to Ez 47,10 which concerns the miraculous and fertile river- that will flow from the future Temple to bring prosperity to the whole land. In fact, the river will become a sea. "Fishermen will stand next to the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim there will be room to spread the nets. The fish caught will be of very many kinds, like the fish found in the Mediterranean" (Ez 47,10).(7) The allusion to Ezekiel's vision may be confirmed by a rabbinical expectation that the river flowing from the Temple would pour into the Sea of Tiberias.(8)
Whatever further allusions may be hidden in the number 153, we can be quite certain about its meaning. In the light of the early Church's discussion concerning the mission to non-Jews, the 153 large fish express the completeness of all nations and peoples. Peter's miraculous catch represents the universal Church that had come into being; where people of every race, language and cultural background came together to form a rich and colourful new community that could span the whole world. The exuberance of this new catch contrasts strongly with the one fish (the Jewish people?) already lying on Jesus' charcoal fire (21,9).
This universal Church is what Jesus wanted. In my view this is also one of the implications of Jesus' discussion with Peter in the following verses (21,15-17). Three times he asks Simon Peter, "Simon, Son of John, do you love me?" Three times Peter replies that he does. Each time Jesus then responds by saying, "Take care of my lambs". "Look after my sheep". Jesus is conferring responsibility here and power. But even more so, I believe, he tells Peter to express his love in the proper way. It is as if Jesus, with a special reference to the Gentiles, is pointing out to Peter: "If you really love me, show that love for me by not rejecting any of my sheep."
For it is not we who determine who should be Jesus' sheep. Had he not said this with great emphasis? "I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me. I lay down my life for my sheep. And I have other sheep too that do not belong to this fold. I must
look after them too and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock and one shepherd" (10,14-16). Peter is reminded, and all of us through him, that our love for Jesus should show itself in genuine care for Jesus' people, also for those who do not belong to our race or cultural background.
To be true to its mission the early Church had to overcome enormous barriers of prejudice, centuries of racial and religious intolerance. Such barriers still exist in our own time. Although both our Christian principles and the laws of our countries repudiate any form of discrimination, we are still subject to prejudices and inhibitions of all kinds. John's allegory prompts us to overcome such obstacles by a radically new attitude. We should care about all people we come in contact with, even though they seem so strange and different from us. We should be happy to embrace such people as our true brothers and sisters. We should feel the thrill and happiness of thus enriching our lives in ways that we might not have thought possible. And we will experience the paradox which the Gospel hints at: the fact that the Church, and our own heart, is large enough to hold all people. "Although there were so many fish, the net was not torn" (21,11).
Give witness to your faith
In many gospel traditions Simon Peter is presented as a spontaneous, if not impetuous person. This trait is brought out also in our allegory. "When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his outer garment, for he had stripped for work and sprang into the sea" (21,7). This is the Peter we know. The disciple who will say to Jesus at the Last Supper, "You shall never wash my feet" (13,8). Who will vehemently protest a little later, "Why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you!" (13,37). Who will draw his sword in Gethsemani and cut off Malchus' right ear (18,10). It is a Peter who often makes mistakes, but who also manifests a great desire to be loyal to Jesus. When many disciples turn away from Jesus, it is Peter who professes absolute faith in Jesus as the spokesman of those who remain loyal: "Lord, to who else would we go? You have the words of eternal life. Yes, we believe and have come to realise that you are the Holy One of God!" (6,68-69).
Peter jumped into the water and swam ashore to be with Jesus first. I find this a moving part of the story for it is such a natural and spontaneous gesture. Peter was happy to see Jesus. He wanted to be close to him. He did not mind expressing his love for Jesus in this way. Whatever Peter's failings may have been, he was filled with natural enthusiasm and his simple action of swimming ashore gave a more powerful testimony to his love than words could ever have done. We are touching here on a very important aspect of present-day mission. We will not be able to share our faith with other people if we are not ourselves filled with enthusiasm. This enthusiasm should be the natural outcome of having experienced what God is doing in our lives. We will then not find it difficult to testify to our belief in Jesus through spontaneous actions and words that manifest how much Jesus and the life he brought us mean to us.
I do not believe that witnessing to Jesus in our own days is served best by preaching from a soap box in a busy shopping street or by handing out leaflets outside a railway station. We will be much more persuasive and helpful to people if we do not hide our enthusiasm for Christ on those natural occasions when our religious beliefs and practices matter. Why should we be afraid to have people know that we are Christians? That we value our time of personal prayer? That we judge life by the standards of the gospel?
From John's allegory we can also learn something about the correct timing for giving explicit witness. Throughout the long night, while the disciples were fishing without any result, Jesus did not make his appearance. It was only when the light of the rising sun was breaking through and dispelling the darkness, that Jesus approached them. Is this not to tell us that we have to create a suitable atmosphere for our witness? There are times and places when talking about religion and about our own personal experiences will be incongruous. But there are other occasions when people will be disposed to listen to our self-revelation of what God has done for us through Jesus.
It is here also that I see the function of the eucharistic meal. Our participation in the Eucharist is the source of energy for all our missionary endeavours. For the Eucharist itself is by its very nature meant to unite all people into Christ.(9) In the Eucharist we will naturally pray for all people with whom we have dealings and so become internally prepared for sharing our faith with them if the opportunity were to arise. The Eucharist, as the climax of all our prayer, will fill us with God so that we can give valid witness during the various occasions of prayer in ordinary life.
As Christians we should not be afraid to pray with other people whatever their religious convictions, if the circumstances allow us to do so. Such a sharing of our personal prayer is often an excellent chance of giving powerful witness to what God is doing in our lives. Prayer is a very suitable time for God to disclose his presence. "Jesus said to them, 'come and have breakfast'. No one of the disciples dared to ask him, 'who are you?'. They knew it was the Lord" (21,12). When we pray sincerely, either individually or as a group, our prayer may become the moment of disclosure for others who have not met the Lord.
Pray the price for your convictions
The early Christians were well aware of the tradition according to which Peter had refused to acquiesce in the prospect of Jesus having to suffer. It was on that occasion that Jesus spelled out the cost of discipleship. "If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and come after me" (Mk 8,31-34). It is probably with this tradition in mind that John's allegory finishes with this admoniticn of Jesus: "Look after my sheep. I tell you in all truth, when you were young, you could gird yourself and go anywhere you wanted. When you will be old, however, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a rope round you and take you to a place where you would rather not go" (21,17-18). John adds to this the simple comment, "After this Jesus said to him, 'Follow me"' (21,19).
Our testimony will not be complete if we are not willing to back up our convictions with deeds. We will have to be prepared to bear the consequences of being known to be Christians. Sometimes people may look down on us; may discriminate against us; may bar us from promotion; may punish us economically or socially in a number of ways. In extreme cases - as still happens today in countries ruled by Communism - our Christian witness may result in exile, work in a labour camp, or even execution. Whatever the extent of the cost may be, our testimony is worth little if we are not prepared to stand by it.
In this context we recall Christ's warning, "If anyone denies me before people, I too will deny that person before my Father who is in heaven" (Mk 8,38). In John's Gospel Jesus repeatedly announces the inevitability of persecution. "When the world will hate you, realise that it hated me before it hated you" (15,18). "Remember what I told you 'A servant is not greater than his master'. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too" (15,20). "They will expel you from their synagogues. Indeed, the time is coming when whoever kills you will think he is rendering a service pleasing to God" (16,2). Jesus adds: "I have said all this to make sure you would not fall away.... I told you all these things so that when they are fulfilled you will remember that I warned you" (16,1.4). It is for the strength to endure such persecution and stand by our weakness that Jesus prayed just before his passion. "Father, as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent these disciples into the world. For their sake I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth" (17,18-19). All this is contained in Jesus' simple invitation to Peter, "Follow me!" (21,19).
For reflection. Fields ripe for the harvest
At the end of the story of the Samaritan woman, John adds some statements of Jesus about mission that form a small parable (read 4,35-38). The crops are ripe. The fields are ready for the harvest. But as farmers realise only too well, the moment of reaping the harvest will only come after many months of preparatory work. Moreover, different people may have been involved. One may have ploughed, another have sown the seed, a third one taken out the weeds so that the man who now reaps the harvest profits from the work done by the others before him. Mission is similar to this. Our task may be any of these activities, though all of us will share in the fruits of the harvest.
Am I convinced that I too should share my faith in Jesus with other people? Is "mission" part of my life? Do I agree with the statement of Vatican II that the whole Church should be missionary?
What is keeping me from giving witness in a more convincing way? Am I ashamed of being a Christian? Am I prejudiced against certain people? Am I afraid of the consequences of, getting involved? Do I lack sincere enthusiasm?
On what occasions have I given witness about my faith? Did people listen with interest when I told them of my religious search, my way of experiencing God? Have I been able to help people on their way to Christ?
What practical steps could I take to make my daily life more transparent to others as a life filled with God? Do I bring my involvement with mission to Holy Mass? Have I shared my faith in common prayer? How could I make my faith a living testimony for others?
(1). A. FEUILLET ascribes to John the notion that both Jesus himself and the apostles were consecrated and sacrificial priests. "Le problem actuel du sacerdoce et le quatrieme Evangile", Esprit et Vie 81 (1971) 562-563; "Le sacerdoce du Christ et de ses envoyes, les apotres, d'apres Isaie 53 et d'apres le quatrieme evangile", Novum Testamentum 49 (1974) 102-112. But J. DELORME has shown that this interpretation goes beyond John's intention. "Sacerdoce du Christ et ministere" Recherches de Science Religieuse 62 (1974) 199-219.
(2). The classical study most commentators base themselves on was by M. E. BOISMARD, "Le chapitre XXI de Jean; Essai de critique litteraire" Revue Biblique 54 (1947) 473-501.
(3). S. S. SMALLEY, "The Sign in John XXI", New Testament Studies 20 (1974) 275-288; B. DE SOLAGES et J. M. VACHEROT, "Le Chapitre XXI de Jean est-il de la meme plume que le reste de l'Evangile?", Bulletin de Litterature Ecclesiastique 80 (1979) 96-101; P. S. MINEAR, "The Original Functions of John 21" Journal of Biblical Studies 102 (1983) 85-98
(4). E. C. HOSKYNS, The Fourth Gospel ed. F. N. DAVEY, London 1940, p.550; L. P. TRUDINGER, "A propos de peche (Jean 20:31 - 21:3)", Foi et Vie 74 (1975) 55-57.
(5) R. PESCH, Der Reiche Fischfang, Dusseldorf 1969, pp.90-91. 148.
(6) J. JEREMIAS, Jesus' promise to the Nations, SCM, London 1958.
(7). A good survey of the various interpretations is offered by R. E. BROWN, The Gospel according to John, Doubleday, New York 1970, Vol II pp.1074-1076.
(9). B. GRIGSBY, "Gematria and John 21:11 - Another Look at Ezekiel 47:10", Expository Times 95 (1984) 177-178.
(10). A. SHAW, "The Breakfast by the Shore and the Mary Magdalen Encounter as Eucharistic Narratives", Journal of Theological Studies 25 (1974) 12-26.
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