The Gospel of John presents the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection as getting on with their lives, even after he had appeared to them, in as normal a way as one could expect. Peter and a number of the other disciples, including Thomas, James and John, were at the Sea of Tiberias when Peter decided to go fishing, which is what fishermen do. The rest of them said, “We will go with you.” They fished all night and caught nothing, and then Jesus appeared on the shore.
No one recognized Jesus initially, a common theme in stories of the post-resurrection appearances, until he told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat; they received an abundant catch of fish, “153 of them.” Once the disciple whom Jesus loved identified the risen Lord, they went to shore, where Jesus was roasting fish over a charcoal fire. Jesus invited his disciples to “Come and have breakfast.”
It is such a normal scene—fishing, breakfast on the beach over a charcoal fire with friends—and so utterly astounding. After all, the man cooking them breakfast had been killed and was now alive. The oddity is transmitted by the Gospel, as we are told: “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.” The risen Jesus was still difficult to comprehend for the disciples, even though it was the third time he had appeared to them. You can hear the silence in this scene as the men eat their breakfast quietly, stealing glances at Jesus as they sit in the early morning light on the seashore. What exactly do you say to the risen Messiah?
Jesus, in fact, begins the conversation with Peter, asking him if he loves Jesus. It is a powerful scene, in which Peter is challenged three times, the same number as his denials, to declare his love for his teacher. But the first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me,” he uses the verb agapaô, denoting the self-sacrificial love of God for humanity and the love Christians are to show to God and neighbor. Peter responds that he indeed loves Jesus, using the verb phileô, which describes love between friends. On the third occasion it is Jesus who changes the verb, asking Peter “Do you love me?” using phileô. Peter responds, declaring his love, using phileô once again.
Jesus accepts the love that Peter can offer at this time and instructs him a third time to “Feed my sheep,” indicating that there will be a time in the future when Peter will show his agapê in his death. But Peter’s demonstration of his agapê begins long before his death. Leaving the comforts of his Galilean home and the fishing boat, Peter returns to Jerusalem to speak of the risen Jesus.
The fearful Peter who denied Jesus three times prior to his crucifixion is gone, replaced by a Peter who has been arrested for speaking boldly of the new life to be found in Jesus’ name. Already told “not to teach in this name,” Peter and the others could only answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It was the experience of the witness of the risen Jesus that inspired Peter to speak with boldness.
Peter declared to the council that Jesus, who had been killed, was raised up by God, who “exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” The word “leader” (archêgos) can be translated as “author,” as in “author [originator] of our salvation.” This is the point of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and Peter’s boldness: to speak to this new salvation offered through Christ.
Peter says, “We are witnesses to these things.” Yet the experiences of the risen Lord were not private events. They were given so that all could share in the risen life. God had acted in history out of agapê for humanity. When that love was made present to the first witnesses, it was essential that this same love would have to be shared with all.