Third Sunday of Easter

21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The Mission is a 1986 British period drama film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th-century South America.  One of the main characters is played by Robert De Niro’s, Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, is introduced early in the film as a slavetrader. He comes to the area above Iguazu Falls and takes a dozen or so of the native Guarani. These are the same indigenous people that Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) has come to live with, serve, and evangelize. Mendoza, however, has a troubled home life, and on his return to Asuncion is heartbroken to discover that his lady has fallen for his brother. Mendoza’s impulsive murder of his own brother leads to his rotting in jail for six months, refusing to see anyone. Mendoza wallows in self-pity, effectively waiting for death as he sees no future life for himself.

Father Gabriel visits him and presents an interesting challenge to Mendoza. Despite Mendoza’s claim “For me there is no redemption,” Father Gabriel accuses him of cowardice, both in murdering his brother and in his life since.

Gabriel: “God gave us the burden of freedom. You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose your penance?”
Mendoza: “There is no penance hard enough for me”
Gabriel: “But do you dare try it?”
Mendoza: “Do I dare? Do you dare to see it fail?”

This challenge sets up one of the most powerful and grueling scenes of the film. Gabriel, along with by the other Jesuits of the mission, accompanies Mendoza as he climbs up the mountain and the falls to the Guarani mission of San Carlos. Tied to Mendoza is a large netted sack, bursting at the brim with swords, armor, and other weapons, collectively serving as the symbol of Mendoza’s old life. As he climbs, he bears the burden of this life and of the pain it has caused.

For Mendoza, the weapons of his former life are quite literally the weight pulling against him as he pursues his penance. And the question of when this weight can be cast off is central to Mendoza’s climb. When the sack gets stuck on undergrowth, one of the Jesuits (played by a young Liam Neeson) hacks it off and lets it fall below. Mendoza climbs below again, reties it, and continues. Not only has Mendoza chosen his penance, but he chooses its completion. In speaking with the other Jesuits, Father Gabriel says Mendoza doesn’t think he’s done, and “until he does, neither do I.”

The Mission is one of my favorite movies and demonstrates what Jesus offers also: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

First, a sense of belonging. We all need to feel accepted by a larger group in order to have a stable identity and sense of self. This goes against what may seem like common sense – after all, our culture regularly posits that identity is an individual affair, something we carve out for ourselves and by ourselves. But it turns out that the gift of identity is given to us by those around us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of those closest to us. And, just so we’re not confused, belonging is different than fitting in. Indeed, it is the exact opposite (as many of us will remember from adolescence!). Fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group just as you are. We all need to belong.

In this scene, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. Three times. Imagine if someone you care about asked whether you really love him/her not once, not twice, but three times. Painful. And Peter is, indeed, hurt by this repetition. I suspect that only later did it sink in that Jesus is not testing Peter but reinstating him to the community of believers by allowing him to confess faith the same number of times he denied faith earlier. Jesus is drawing Peter back into a community to which he belongs and accepts him for whom he is.

Second, we all need a sense of purpose, the belief that what we do matters, that if we did not show up people would notice. Purpose, as it turns out, is one of the great motivators in the world. More powerful than money or fame or power, believing that you have something of value to contribute draws us again and again into challenging circumstances with joy.

And so, in response to each of Peter’s confessions, Jesus responds by giving him good work to do: feed my sheep. Be a leader. Look out for these others. Devote yourself to this community. Peter is reinstated into the community of the faithful and given a sense of belonging, and then he is given good work to do and given a purpose.

Guess what, Friends! This story is just one of hundreds in Scripture that do the same thing by granting us a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. In fact, these two themes of belonging and purpose are so dominant in the biblical story that we’ve actually created theological language to capture them. For what else is justification – the promise that you are accepted for whom you are by God’s grace alone – except the promise of acceptance and belonging? By baptism we also are invited to be a part of a group where we belong. And what else is vocation – the promise that God will use us wherever we are to take care of God’s people and world – except the promise of purpose? By baptism we are called – vocatio – by God to make a difference in the world God loves so much.

Let us return to the story of The Mission:  This penance is completed only when the Jesuits and Mendoza arrive at the mission, where the Guarani wait. While greeting the Jesuits with cheers and hugs, there is fear regarding Mendoza. They recall his kidnapping and killing their people. One of the Guarani takes a knife over, shouting at and threatening to kill Mendoza. Though afraid, Mendoza does not react – perhaps still feeling as though he deserves the death he waited for in prison.

Yet the Guarani does not kill Mendoza. Rather, he cuts off the sack and pushes it off a cliff into the river. Outwardly, this is the same act the young Jesuit did during the climb, but inwardly it is entirely different. Mendoza’ penance had nothing to do with the Jesuit, but it had everything to do with the Guarani. Through this act, the Guarani recognize this public act of penance and forgive Mendoza. The weight of his past life is lifted, and Mendoza, perhaps crushed by this realization, weeps profoundly.  This former slave trader is given a reason to live – he now has purpose.

So dear friends, Jesus is giving us the same – an invitation into a community where we belong and a lifetime of work worth doing with a sense of purpose.  We do not have to carry our burden of sin and regret to the top of a waterfall.  We are called to belong to the body of Christ and serve God’s beloved children.

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Commentary provided by David Lose, Robert Hoch, Scott Hoezee, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Amy Plantingo Pauw.