freedom or obedience?

Whenever a tragedy occurs, be it nationally, locally, or personally, we find that we must go through a period of adaptation. Once the crisis has passed we must go back to our work, our daily routine, our daily lives. During this period we can experience a certain dryness in our lives. Life becomes insipid, as if its spark has also died in the tragedy we experienced. In today’s Gospel, Peter finds himself in exactly this situation. Jesus, the great master in whom he had placed all his faith and hope, has died on the cross. Peter has lost his teacher, his mentor, and his best friend, and now he must go back to work. What else can he do? He begins to make his way back to his daily life; he goes back to his fishing. The episode described in today’s Gospel was the third time that Jesus had appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead, but perhaps for Peter it didn’t quite feel real, and Jesus’ appearance was still something vague, ghostly, and suspiciously like an illusion. How does Jesus’ resurrection affect me? Peter might have thought to himself. What did it change? I’m going to go back fishing. We could ask ourselves that same question. What is it to me? How does it affect me that Jesus died and was resurrected? 

The Gospels repeatedly emphasize that Jesus’ triumph over death could transform every aspect of our life. I very often speak with people who have that sense of life being dry and insipid; over and over again they all say the same things: “Father, I just want more out of my job, but I don’t know what it is,” or “Father, I feel like I’m losing the love with my spouse,” or “I feel like I’m like searching for something, but I don’t know what it is.” We get into the habit of expecting people to fill the infinite void that only God can fill. We expect our jobs, and activities, to satisfy the infinite thirst to co-create.  It’s very hard to live a life without God. It’s very hard to be in a relationship, any relationship, when they are founded only on feelings. It’s very hard to work in a job when the main purpose is to amass wealth. When we live our lives like this, we end up demanding of people and things something that they can never deliver. Jesus’ resurrection tells us that we don’t have to live our lives alone. We don’t have to work alone, or struggle through our relationships alone. Everything in ours lives can be vivified. Our thirst and our deep longing can be satisfied and transformed.

a438_on_the_sea_of_tiberiasJesus chose us. In the Gospel you will notice that the apostles first hear that Jesus has come back to life. Then Jesus starts appearing everywhere, and is seen by thousands of people. Jesus chooses to whom to appear; Jesus chooses us. In the Gospel, Jesus chooses Peter. He calls Peter in the midst of his work and his everyday life, in the same way that he called him the very first time, when he was fishing. Imagine the scene: John the Apostle, whom Jesus loved, tells Peter, “It’s the Lord!”  Peter jumps out without even waiting for the boat to hit the shore, and starts making his way to Jesus. John and the others arrive shortly after, and start having breakfast with Jesus. Then I imagine the awkward silence; nobody wants to speak. I can just picture Peter gesturing to John without words, “It’s Jesus!” and John responding, “I know!” Nobody knows what to say. The moment is so intimate and personal that words would ruin it. There is just silence. It is the same silence we experience after communion, when for a moment we are united to Jesus in his Body and Blood, and words cannot express the intimacy of being one with Him.

Then, Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, now loves Jesus three times. He who denied his master, and his best friend, now says, “Lord, you know everything, and you know that I love you” (Jn 21:15). He doesn’t say, “Hey, let’s just forget what happened three days ago. You know that I love you, so just don’t count those moments.” No, it is through the forgiveness of his sins that Jesus wants to love him. Jesus chooses Peter, and Peter responds. To respond to the love Jesus offers us is a serious decision. To be a disciple of Christ is not something that we should take lightly. Love is a decision that we must we actualize; we must work on it day after day. Jesus says “If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love” (Jn 15:10).

Obey. In modern times, that word has lost much of its true meaning. We think that to obey is to lose our sense of freedom, and independence, that to obey we must shrink ourselves down, and cut off vital parts of ourselves. But that type of obedience, and servility is not what Jesus calls for; only a free, rational being can choose to obey. The type of obedience Jesus calls for is for us to exercise our freedom to say, “I choose Christ; I choose to remain in his love, and to obey his commandments.”

In the First Reading, we encounter the disciples’ conviction that they must obey God, not men. And yet how easily and how often we are swayed by men, rather than by God. We are strongly influenced by what other people might say, or think about us. We think to ourselves, What if I come across as fanatical when I talk about Jesus?  What if I lose my prestige with my colleagues? What if my friends stop respecting me?  The First Reading also tells us that, “God has given the Holy Spirit to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32). Love is obeying God in good times and in bad. The last commandment that Jesus gave Peter was, “Follow me.” Peter could have said, “Jesus, I’ve been following you for three years, I don’t know what you’re talking about, why are you telling me to follow you again?  I’m trying to follow you!” But Peter understood what Jesus’ commandment meant. He had to decide to follow Jesus. Jesus’ words are also directed to us: “Follow me.” Jesus, who died thousands years ago and came back to life, looks at us in that intimate silence, and invites us to follow him. In our everyday lives and circumstances, he calls us to follow him, for Jesus alone can bring meaning to our lives, and give us the life of the resurrection.

obey freedom or obedience

Church of the Primacy of Peter, Tabgha, Israel.
Lake Genesaret in background, where Peter was fishing.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to love Christ all of our days? Love implies an action of the will, we choose to obey Jesus. We love when we choose prayer, even though we’re tired; we love when we choose to go out of our way to help someone in need; we love Christ when we choose to trust in the goodness of others, rather than judging them; we love, we obey Jesus, when our first priority in our family life is to help our family members grow spiritually in the image and likeness of Christ; we love when we choose Jesus as our first priority in our relationships with our spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, peers, and friends, and when we make it our first priority at work to find a sense of Christ there. When our life is about giving glory to God, we will find that it is filled with a rich and satisfying depth.

At end of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “You used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (Jn 21: 18-19). We know Peter did indeed glorify God by dying on the cross as Jesus did, albeit in an inverted form. Peter’s decision to follow Jesus lead him to his death. How far are we willing to go to follow Jesus.

This post is also available in: Spanish

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