Today’s readings are about transformations. Some symbolically involve animals, such as fish and sheep, and the great surprise in store for the visionary of Patmos when he is taken into heaven to see the Lion of Judah. Others concern people — mainly disciples and martyrs. In all of them, we are challenged to consider what it takes to witness to Jesus.
There’s something worth noting in the first readings – the repetition of the word “name” in the Acts of Apostles and Psalm 30. Naming is an important biblical motif – a name not only
signifies someone, but invokes their power and presence. But it especially establishes their identity, it tells us not only who they are, but what they are – from the naming of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, to the mysterious “new name” endowed on his faithful witnesses by the Lamb of God in the Book of Revelation [Rev 2:17]. When Jesus changed the names of Simon bar Jonah and Saul of Tarsus to Peter (“petros,” rock, ] and Paul, he not only changed the men, he changed history.
To write or even speak the name of the Holy One of Israel in late Judaism was forbidden. “Lord” [Adonai] was substituted. But for even the earliest Christians, to call upon the name of Jesus is to find salvation – it is to call upon Jesus himself, his person, presence, and power, as we find in the first five chapters of the Acts of the Apostles in particular and in astonishing claims in later writings: “be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well” [Acts 4:10. See Eph 1:21 and Phil 2:9-10].
Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows Peter and John being threatened by the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus, “the Name.” This time, they were saved from a good beating by the intervention of Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel [Acts 5:42, 22:3], but they still rejoiced, as Luke says, that they had been judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of Jesus’ name. In time, they would suffer far more, and at least in Peter’s case, as Jesus predicts in John’s gospel, he would be led to his death for shepherding the people of God.
The second reading continues the great cosmic liturgy of the Book of Revelation. The visionary has been promised that he will see the Lion of Judah — God’s fierce war champion [Rev 5:5]. But what he encounters is a small Lamb, standing but also marked by slaughter. This Lion is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and is thus worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” At this early moment in Christian history, Jesus is already portrayed as the King of Martyrs as well as the Lord of Lords.
The Gospel takes us to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time, as John is careful to note at the end. And he shifts our attention to fish and sheep.
Fish appear several times in John’s Easter stories, although it is Luke who mentions that Jesus actually took a piece of fish from the disciples and ate it to show that he was not a ghost [Luke 24:41-43]. Since Peter was a fisherman, and so were Andrew, James, John, and some of the others, the prevalence of fish is not too surprising. Part of the imagery here reflects the great change in Peter’s life. Having already made him a rock and a gatekeeper, Jesus now makes Peter a shepherd. But before we give up on the fish story, it’s interesting to consider the number of fish the other disciples caught — “a hundred and fifty-three of them,” John carefully informs us, “and although there were so many, the net was not torn” [John 21:11].
As you might imagine, John is having a little fun with us. Scripture scholars say that at the time he was writing, there were 153 known species of fish — 26 of which lived in the Sea of Galilee. So these fish may have represented for John all the fish in the world — and not just fish, but people. For the Disciples are now fishers of men and women — all of them. Every last one is supposed to be netted. A very big order.
In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus say “the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind…” [Matt 13: 47]. For his part, Luke tells the same story that John has here, but he places it very early in Jesus’ ministry. After the miraculous catch, Peter, Andrew, James and John all leave their nets and boats, and perhaps even the fish, to follow Jesus, who has told them, “henceforth you will be catching men” [Luke 5: 3-11 ]. John probably had this tradition in mind, but he places the story after the resurrection, just before Jesus’ commission to Peter, shifting the image from fishing to shepherding.
Not only does Jesus want all people everywhere to become his flock, his “catch,” he puts Peter in charge. The Big Fisherman is about to become the Shepherd of the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus questions Peter, challenging him three times to affirm his love, undoing the three denials in the chief priest’s courtyard. But Jesus he also promises Peter that his commission will end in martyrdom, when he would stretch out his arms to be crucified like his Lord.
For someone to devote their life, their whole heart, soul, and strength to preaching the good news of Jesus to an indifferent and sometimes hostile world, doesn’t necessarily lead to a dramatic and bloody death like that of Peter and hundreds of thousands of martyrs up to present times. It can, of course. For us today, it is more likely to end in the little daily martyrdom of ridicule, frustration, and plain hard work as a parent, a teacher, a parish administrator, a student, an office worker, a soldier, immigrant, or homeless person. Or for that matter, married couples, families, and just about all of the rest of us. At some point in coming years we will be commemorating the Martyrs of Ukraine.
The main point is that there is room for us all, and whatever it takes, whatever it costs, it’s worth it. And in the end the kingdom of heaven is best described in the words of the Book of Revelation as the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Heaven is more like a wedding banquet than a harp festival. And weddings, all of them, should be a sign and symbol for us of that heavenly banquet, where all are invited, all are welcome.