This Sunday’s readings continue the pattern from last Sunday: first reading from Acts, second from Revelation, and Gospel from John. This will also be followed in the remaining Sundays of Easter, except where the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday. It seems to me that the readings of a particular Sunday were not selected to develop a particular theme. Each stands on its own, although it may be possible to see some resonances between some of them.
The first reading — Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41 — brings us some of the account of the second appearance of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. Peter and John had healed a cripple and proclaimed that Jesus was the Lord through whose power it was done. The Sanhedrin had ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. When they persisted, they were brought in again, and today’s reading gives the account of this second appearance, leaving out the speech of Gamaliel, who warned the Sanhedrin that if the apostles’ preaching was from God, they would be opposing God if they opposed the apostles. It also omits a line that says the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before releasing them, which lets us know what the line about suffering dishonor for the sake of the name means. Peter’s speech is a synopsis of the more extensive proclamations reported elsewhere in Acts.
It is because the apostles have seen the risen Lord (one instance being given in today’s gospel) that they can stand firm in the face of the Sanhedrin’s orders, threats, and punishment. We, too, must be prepared to stand firm when our faith is challenged.
In the responsorial psalm — verses from Ps. 30 — we have a prayer that reflects the apostles’ thanksgiving after their release.
The second reading — Revelation 5:11-14 — gives us a view , in language and images that may be figurative rather than literal, of what is happening in heaven. Jesus is the Lamb, prefigured by the Israelites’ Paschal lamb, who is slain but who saves us from death not only by giving his flesh and blood, but also by rising from the dead, thus conquering death. The whole universe recognizes his glory. Chapter 4 of Revelation presented a scene in which 24 elders worshipped God who was seated on his throne surrounded by four living creatures — one like a lion, one like an ox, one with a human face, and one like an eagle in flight. The appearance of the living creatures recalls Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures, each of which had all four faces (Ezekiel 1:1-28). In chapter 10, Ezekiel again has a vision in which he realizes that they are cherubim. Beginning with St. Irenaeus in the second century, it has been common to see the four living creatures of Revelation as representing the four evangelists: the lion, Mark; the ox, Luke; the human, Matthew; and the eagle, John. Scholars think that in context they are intended to be angels that govern the physical world, while the elders represent the Church. In this reading, then, their worship symbolizes that of humanity and all creatures of the universe, now directed to Jesus, and joined to that of the angels.
In the first Eucharistic prayer, there is a sentence which asks that our offering (the consecrated elements, the Body and Blood of Christ) may be carried to God’s altar in heaven so that all who participate in the reception of Communion from this altar on earth may be filled with heavenly grace and blessing. Our worship is a sharing of the worship of God in heaven: one meaning of the “communion of saints” referred to in the creed.
The gospel — John 21:1-19 — presents three parts of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus: a miraculous catch of fish, a meal of fish and bread, and a dialogue of Jesus and Peter.
The catch of fish recalls the catch of fish which took place at the call of Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee (James and John) in Luke 5:1-11. In both, the fishermen have caught nothing all night, but Jesus tells them where to lower the net, resulting in a catch so large that they cannot haul the net into the boat. In Luke, Peter confesses his sinfulness. In John, the beloved disciple recognizes that the man on shore is the Lord.
In John 6: 1-14, Jesus feeds a large crowd with five barley loaves and two fish, which leads to their recognition of him as one promised by God in Deuteronomy 18:15 (see also Malachi 3:1&23). That previous miracle occasioned the Bread of Life discourse in which Jesus identified himself as the bread of life, whose flesh and blood he would give for the life of the world — whoever consumed them would possess eternal life. At the Last Supper and on Calvary, Jesus fulfilled his promise, and after his resurrection, the disciples in Emmaus recognized him in the breaking of the bread — Luke 24:35. Thus the miraculous meal of fish and bread symbolizes the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.
In the scene of the call of Matthew, Matthew acknowledged that he was a sinner. He is again a sinner, having denied Jesus three times. Now Jesus undoes that denial by requiring a threefold declaration of love. But it doesn’t only mean that Peter’s denial of Jesus is forgiven. Peter’s leadership of the post-resurrection community of Jesus’ followers is affirmed three times as well. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18) who has laid down his life for his sheep and taken it up again. Now Peter becomes the shepherd.
Finally, Jesus tells Peter what he can expect. Just as Jesus was bound and executed, so, in his turn, will Peter suffer a similar end (with, of course, the promise of eternal life given in John 6).
So Jesus in effect constitutes his Church around the sacred meal of his body and blood with Peter as the shepherd. The success of the disciples as “fishers of men” depends on Jesus.