In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the Twelve receive a second call to discipleship. John crafts a narrative that refers back to accounts early in his Gospel of the disciples’ first call, but this time there’s a twist. Early in their discipleship, the Twelve were servants of Jesus’ mission. Now, after the resurrection, they have become Jesus’ friends, and they take up Jesus’ mission as their own.
‘And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”’ (Jn 21:19)
How have you served Christ’s mission?
How have you taken it up as your own?
In what way to do you see yourself as a friend of the risen Christ?
Modern readers might not understand the motifs that indicate the disciples’ role as Jesus’ servants. They use a title of respect for Jesus, “rabbi” (Jn 1:38). Although we usually translate this word as “teacher,” the term literally means “my great one.” They also go to his house and stay with him (Jn 1:39), like students everywhere in the Greco-Roman world who served a teacher and his household to pay for their education. The expression “Follow me,” with which Jesus calls Philip, also connoted a kind of student-service. In addition to modeling their life after their teacher’s example, as we continue to do today, disciples also followed their teacher literally on journeys, providing protection, companionship and strength for whatever burdens needed to be carried.
Although this service undoubtedly had moments of drudgery, it also contained moments of real excitement. One should not forget that the Twelve were likely very young men when Jesus first called them. Some of Jesus’ fame likely reflected onto them as they visited towns to prepare for Jesus’ arrival (Lk 10:1) or visited them on their own in his stead (Mk 6:7-13) or traveled to Jerusalem to make preparations for Passover (Lk 22:7-13). The disciples were so well known that a slave girl in a high priest’s household easily recognized Peter after Jesus’ arrest, even though he had been in Jerusalem less than a week. The disciples may have worked as Jesus’ servants, but in return they received not only an education but notoriety and adventure as well.
This all changes at the Last Supper. Jesus promises that they will do even greater things than he did (Jn 14:12) because they are his servants no longer, but now friends (Jn 15:15). In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the risen Christ meets the disciples at the Sea of Galilee. Although the setting is the same as Jesus’ first call of the disciples, the invitation is now different.
Jesus simply asks, “Do you love me?”
Soon, after the ascension, they will go on mission without his bodily presence but inspired by his Spirit, which remains with them as the gift Jesus promised. This gift confirms their friendship: They will know everything about the man they loved and will be able to act as he did.
This transition from servant to friend continues to occur in the lives of Christ’s followers. Many of us remember when discipleship first became exciting for us. Perhaps a retreat, a charismatic teacher or a profound spiritual encounter communicated Christ’s invitation: “Follow me.” Such service can be satisfying and exciting even on its own, but as the commitment grows deeper, many hear Christ call again, this time with the question “Do you love me?” With their renewed yes, Christ’s friends take up his mission with his own Spirit as they go forth to feed his sheep.