• Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
• Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
• Rev 5:11-14
• Jn 21:1-19
Years ago, not long after entering the Church, I called into a local radio program hosted by two Fundamentalist Protestants. They had been discussing Catholicism and making some claims that were more than a bit dubious in nature. In the course of our conversation (which was fairly civil, thankfully), the topic arose of a great apostasy in the early Church. Long story made short, they insisted the Church had “apostatized” within years—perhaps just months!—of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension.
One reason for this belief (which I knew well from my Fundamentalist upbringing) was the assumption that the first Christians soon began embracing structures and doctrines that were “Romanish” in nature. Rather than deal with the historical record, these two sincere, intelligent men deemed it better to skip ahead to the present-day, seeking to restore the Church they thought Jesus really meant to establish. They made it clear they would not follow a pope.
That incident came to mind as I considered today’s readings. The readings during Easter—which include passages from Acts of the Apostles in place of the Old Testament readings—make numerous connections between the authority, mission, and power of the Risen Lord and the position and actions of the Apostles. There is a clear and consistent connection between the person of Jesus Christ and the people who took up “the Way” (Acts 9:22) and who were eventually called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). And this connection included structure and authority.
“Well, of course,” you might say, “everyone knows that.” But this basic and fundamental fact is routinely denied, especially by those who try to uproot Jesus from his historical moorings and detach him from the establishment of Church structure and use of ecclesial authority. A common line of attack is to pit Jesus against “organized religion,” which is almost always code for the Catholic Church and her Magisterium.
Today’s readings depict something different, however, from this rather anarchic interpretation. The Gospel reading is especially instructive. It describes a key encounter between the risen Christ and the apostles, focusing on the head apostle, Peter. Days earlier, the rash fisherman had denied Jesus three times while huddled in the cold near a charcoal fire (Jn. 18:18-27). Now he came from his boat to a charcoal fire started by his Master, who invited he and his companions to eat.
The Good Shepherd then asked Peter a single question three times: “Do you love me?”
In responding to Peter’s affirmative replies, Jesus did not say, “Be good” or “Hang in there!” Rather, he directed him to feed and tend his sheep. This is a reiteration and affirmation of the authority Jesus gave to Peter in granting him the keys of the Kingdom (Matt. 16:16-20). It builds upon an important and lengthy discourse by Jesus about his identity as the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10). We are familiar with the image of the humble, loving shepherd, but we sometimes overlook how this image is as much about royal authority and messianic identity as it is about pastoral care.
Jesus’ discourse was based in part on a prophecy given through Ezekiel: “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23). Jesus is the Davidic King, and he established a Kingdom that exceeds the wildest dreams of any earthly king. “My servant David shall be king over them,” God told Ezekiel, “and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24).
But if Jesus is the one shepherd, why appoint Peter to also be a shepherd? Because the Vicar of Christ, the apostles, and the bishops are “partakers of His consecration and His mission” (Lumen Gentium, 28). They have a specific place in the Body of Christ, a vocation to pastor and feed the one flock of the one true God. And so Jesus, after asking his three questions of Peter, simply said: “Follow me.” Why? So we can find, receive, and follow him.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the April 18, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)