Comparing the institution of the Eucharist in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) with the Gospel of John, what stands out right away, is that the institution of the Eucharist is missing in the Gospel of John. It has been replaced by the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus.
By the end of the first century, Christians had so grown in their understanding of the Eucharist that they realized and believed that at the service of the Body of Jesus Christ (the Church) was exactly how the Lord wanted each Eucharist to be. Also nowadays, we are to nourish our mind with the Bread of his Word and feed our heart with his Flesh and Blood to make us ready for service to the very end. We are to wash each other’s feet just as he did. We are to love to the very end just as he did.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? Yet I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:27)
By the shore of the lake of Tiberias, while serving breakfast, Jesus teaches us that his service continues after the cross, after his Resurrection, until the end of the ages. Then he teaches Peter in particular that the service is a call which bonds Head (Jesus Christ) and Body (the Church) together and knows no limits.
Each Eucharist must flow into love and service to the very end both for Jesus and for all of us, his Body. During the Last Supper, i.e., the first Eucharist, Jesus serves by washing our feet; after his Resurrection he serves by preparing a meal of grilled fish and bread.
But the service must be a concerted, communal effort: some of the fruit of the disciples’ labor has to be added to what Jesus has prepared for them, who are his Body. Isn’t that what we do at Mass when bringing from the vestibule our bread and wine and our monetary donation to the front, by the altar, to add our labor to the labor of Christ for the service of the whole Body of Christ? However, considering that the disciples gave Jesus some of the fish that they, by themselves, could not catch even after toiling all night, we realize that the Lord will not be offended were we to add our struggles, our frustrations, our vain efforts, our failures to the good we can accomplish with his help.
Perhaps this is the most comforting aspect of today’s (John 21:1-19) message: the Lord is waiting for us to offer him all of our self such as it is. He wants to transform into Eucharist also those parts of our self that the world certainly doesn’t want and that we might be ashamed to recognize as our own, let alone offer to him.
And, in case you are thinking that I am stretching this message of Jesus, consider this: Jesus asks Simon Peter three very personal, probing, potentially embarrassing questions by addressing him as “Simon” and not as “Peter.” Why? Because Simon was the real, earthly, simple man that Jesus had picked at the beginning of his public ministry while Peter (rock) was the name that he had given to Simon and that had generated in Peter unrealistic self-confidence, placed him a cut above the other eleven and, eventually, that led him to deny his Lord three times.
But there is more: Jesus begins by asking Simon if he loves him with an ideal, most pure, superhuman love, exactly in a way a cut above the other eleven. But the post-denial Peter answers by telling him that he loves him the way a frail human being can love and, embarrassingly so, certainly not more than the other eleven. Jesus repeats the same question by asking if Peter loves him with an ideal, most pure, superhuman love and Peter gives the same modest answer: he loves the Lord the way a frail, average human being can love. Therefore, Jesus asks Peter the question a third time but this final time Jesus settles for the love that a frail, average human being can give. And Peter, with the memory of the threefold denial still burning intensely in his mind and heart, assures Jesus that he loves his Lord with all the bruised, flawed, imperfect, hesitant love that a human being can muster in a most sincere and humble heart.
Do you see? The Lord wants also our failures along with a humble and contrite heart and all the imperfect love that we can put together in our response to his question.
But notice what kind of tall task our love nurtured around the table of the Lord is expected to carry out. We are called to serve each other to the point of feeding our brothers and sisters our very own body and our very own blood. This is service to the very end; this is love to the very end just like his, just like Peter’s.
At this juncture we begin to appreciate the significance of what Jesus told Simon Peter at the end of today’s Gospel passage: “Follow me.”
Well, aided by the Holy Spirit, are we ready and willing to follow Jesus the way Simon Peter did?