GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Not only is it significant that it is the risen Lord who is appearing to the Disciples, who’s manifested himself through this miracle of catching not just any fish, but a hundred and fifty three fish in one net — that’s a big haul — and inviting them to have breakfast. But this exchange that takes place between Peter and Jesus particularly, is meant to echo the triple denial of Jesus, is now going to be counteracted, undone, forgiven (so-to-speak), restored (Peter will be restored) through a triple affirmation of his love for Jesus.
So, I want to look at that exchange between Jesus and Simon Peter more closely here. So if you look at it, you’ll notice something significant. Most people remember that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” I mean, everybody kind of picks up on that. But notice the specific words of Jesus. What does he say? “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” What does that mean? “Do you love me more than the other Apostles?” Why would Jesus ask that? Well, two possibilities. First, think back to Peter’s own emphatic declaration that when everyone else abandoned Jesus, he would be faithful. Remember that? “Even if they all abandon you, I will never abandon you.” So Peter, before the Passion, had proclaimed he loved Jesus more than all the other Disciples. That he would be faithful even if they weren’t. So in one sense there’s an echo of Peter’s former words here. But, on a deeper level (and I think this is even more important), Jesus is actually calling Peter to love him more than the others, in the sense that he’s calling him to a position of primacy over the others. He’s calling him to be the leader of the other Disciples. And you can see this because it is Peter (and Peter alone) that Jesus gives the office of shepherd. This is so crucial. It’s not just that Peter’s being restored by his triple affirmation of love, but that in being restored, Jesus is assigning to Peter the office of being shepherd over his flock. Look at Jesus’ words here. When Peter says I love you the first time, what does Jesus say? “Feed my lambs.” When he says it the second time, what does Jesus say? “Tend my sheep.” And then when he says it the third time, what does Jesus say? “Feed my sheep.” It’s unfortunate that in the Revised Standard Version the second one there they translate as “Tend my sheep.” It’s kind of weak. In English it makes it sound like, “Take care of the sheep… pat them on the head, be kind to them.” But the Greek word there is poimaino
, which is just a verb for shepherd. So in other words it means “Feed my lambs…shepherd my sheep…feed my sheep.” So in other words, he’s establishing him as shepherd of the flock.
Now, the reason that is so crucial here in the context of John’s overall gospel is that in John 10, Jesus reveals that he himself is the Good Shepherd. And he even says there will be one flock and one shepherd. And then he turns around (after his resurrection) and makes Peter the shepherd of the flock. So, which is it? Is Jesus the shepherd or is Peter the shepherd? And the answer is both. Jesus is of course the Divine Shepherd, the Supreme Shepherd; we’re going to see that when we look at Jesus’ own words on Good Shepherd Sunday, but Peter is established as the earthly shepherd over the flock of Jesus’ disciples, and that includes (very importantly) the other twelve. As Jesus says, “Do you love me more than these?” So, the three questions (do you love me?) correspond to the three denials by Peter, and then the three exhortations establish Peter as the shepherd of the Church, as the shepherd of the disciples, as the shepherd of Jesus’ one flock.
And it’s interesting (and very powerful) that in that context, what does Peter’s role as chief shepherd mean? You might think, “Well look, this is great. Jesus is giving Peter power, right? He has authority. He’s the head of the Apostles. He has primacy over them and over the Church.” And that’s all true, but what are the implications? What does Christ-like leadership look like? Well it looks like martyrdom. It looks like execution. And Jesus, no sooner does he establish Peter as shepherd of the sheep (who, by the notice, he’s going to feed them – hmm. What might he feed them with? If you look at John’s gospel in particular, what is the imagery of food always linked with? Well it’s linked with Jesus feeding the multitudes bread and then promising to feed his Disciples with his body and his blood). So this is both governance of the Church, but also the sacramental life of the Church. He’s going to feed them with the Eucharist. He will feed the flock with the bread of life.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
And then to add to that chorus:
And I heard every creature in heaven…
Not just the ones he can see, but all of them. And then every creature on earth. How many people would that be? What are we at… six billion here on Earth right now? And then every creature in the sea — who can even count that? And then every creature under
the earth — that’s all of the dead. All of them saying together in unison:
“To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders…
…who are this group of elders that John sees, the 24 elders representing the 12 tribes and 12 apostles, they:
…fell down and worshiped.
Now there are so many things we can talk about here about this passage. For our purposes, I just want to highlight two. First, it’s fitting that the Church gives us this reading for the third Sunday in Easter. Because remember, Easter is the celebration of the resurrection and the risen Christ, but it doesn’t stop with just Jesus coming out of the tomb. It culminates with Him ascending into Heaven and being seated at the right hand of God the Father, being victorious over death and reigning as king.
So what the book of Revelation does is it… here it takes what we learn about in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, it helps us to see the heavenly result of it — namely, Christ seated as king over the universe. And it celebrates that by showing us that whatever might be happening on Earth, what’s going on in Heaven is that Christ is being eternally worshiped by the angels, by the elders, by the four living creatures, in this eternal song of praise to the lamb who was crucified and is now risen.
So that’s the first point. So I think the basic reason the Church picks this is because during the Easter season, we’re singing the praises of Christ risen and ascended, and so it’s fitting that we would see the vision of Christ risen and ascended that John gives us in Revelation 5.
But there’s a second thing I want to highlight here, and I think it’s just important for us to know — I’m going to take the opportunity to give it to you. And it’s this identity of the four living creatures…four living creatures. You notice it climaxes with saying after all those other people sing the praises of God, of Christ, the four living creatures confirm it with this “Amen!”
Now who are these four living creatures? As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if you want to understand the book of Revelation — anything weird in the book of Revelation, like four living creatures up in Heaven — you need to go back to the Old Testament. Because in the Old Testament, the four living creatures have been seen before. This is not the first that they are seen. They are not just seen by John in the book of Revelation, they’re seen by the book of Ezekiel — not by the book of Ezekiel, they’re seen by
Ezekiel, in a vision that he has that’s recorded in the book of Ezekiel.
So if you look… the book of Ezekiel 1 actually begins with this famous vision of the throne chariot, the chariot throne of God. God comes to Ezekiel. He has a vision of God on this fiery chariot, and the chariot is powered by these living creatures or these four creatures. And they’re angelic beings, but they’re described in a unique way, so listen to this. This is from Ezekiel 1:5-6. He says about the throne:
And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings.
Then if you skip down to verse 10, it says:
As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back.
So notice the four creatures associated with these beings carrying the throne of God are a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Those should sound familiar, because if you fast forward to the book of Revelation, in chapter 4, verse 6-7, that’s what the four living creatures are identified with in Revelation. So if you look at 4, verses 6-7, John also sees these four living creatures. In verse 7:
…the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.
So in the context of Scripture itself, John is having a vision of the same heavenly beings that Ezekiel did. Just like Ezekiel saw the throne of God, now John is seeing the throne of God in the book of Revelation.
However, for most of us, when we hear about a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, what do we think of? We think of the four evangelists. So where does that come from? Well, this is a great example of a situation in which the living tradition of the Church doesn’t just interpret Scripture but it expands upon it and applies it.
So in the book of Revelation, there’s simply no indication in the book itself that these four creatures represent the four evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in any way. But pretty quickly in early Christian art and interpretation of all the different symbols in Revelation, these four heavenly beings were associated with the four evangelists, either as the spirits that inspired those four evangelists to write the four Gospels or as symbols of each of the different evangelists and the characteristics of their Gospels. That’s how you tend to see it played out. In other words, there’s a kind of correspondence between the four Gospels on Earth that proclaim the glory of Christ through their words and then the four living creatures in Heaven who proclaim the glory of Christ in the heavenly liturgy. That would be the correlation there between them.
So in order to show you this, just I want to recommend to you the commentary on the Gospel of Matthew from St. Jerome, one of the Doctors of the Church, translator of the Latin Vulgate. He is actually the one who sets the course for the traditional interpretation of these figures that you and I are probably familiar with.
So a lot of people don’t know there was actually a debate in the early Church among Irenaeus and Augustine and others about which beast corresponded to which evangelist. And Irenaeus had his opinions, and Augustine had his opinions. But in this case, it was Jerome that won out in the west. Jerome doesn’t usually beat Augustine, but in this case, he beat him. So Jerome, in his Commentary on Matthew
, in the preface says this:
The first face of a man
, who began his narrative as though about a man: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ…” [Matt 1:1].
So he emphasizes the humanity, so he is depicted as man.
The second [face signifies] Mark
, in whom the voice of a lion
roaring in the wilderness is heard: “A voice of one shouting in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord…” [Mark 1:3].
So he begins with this voice roaring in the desert; that’s what lions do. That goes to Mark. And Jerome continues:
The third [is the face] of the calf
which prefigures that the evangelist Luke
began with Zachariah the priest.
Because what do priests do? They sacrifice bulls. They sacrifice calves.
The fourth [face signifies] John
the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings
and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God.
The Word is made flesh. So according to Jerome, John correlates with the eagle because he’s the loftiest of the four Gospels, because he deals with the divinity of Christ. He emphasizes divinity. Whereas Matthew emphasizes humanity, John emphasizes divinity. So that’s from Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew
, preface 1.3, which I highly recommend you reading through his commentary.
In closing, I just thought you might be interested to know where that came from, where that artistic association with evangelists was made, and how it flows out of the book of Revelation… not because John is describing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John up in Heaven. I mean, after all, if he’s John the evangelist, he’s on Earth. He’s having a vision. But the correlation involves: what are the four living creatures doing? They’re praising God with their words for all eternity. They’re the climax, the apex, of the praise of God in Heaven.
And so too, it’s fitting that they be correlated with (or that they symbolize or represent) the four evangelists who are the apex of proclaiming the Word who was made flesh by giving us the four Gospels — the accounts of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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