We will be hearing from Acts during the rest of the Easter season, beginning today with St Peter preaching of the resurrection. Luke is the author of this book, which covers the earliest history of the Church and comes a sequel to his Gospel. Luke shows Peter as the leader of the growing group of those who accept Jesus as their Risen Lord, and carry on his message of God’s love and redemption.
Acts 5:27-32, 40-41
This is the second time the apostles have been called before the council of Jewish religious rulers, and a second time they are warned to stop their preaching about Jesus. Peter expresses the distinction that will guide many Christians still today faced with a conflict between secular governments and their faith: we must obey God before any human authority. From the viewpoint of our parish name – St Peter in Chains – it would have been good to read the story of his escape from prison with the help of an angel just before he is brought again before the Sanhedrin. (See 5:17-25.)
Psalm 29/30:22, 4-6, 11-13
The response applies especially to Jesus raised from the dead, but has meaning also for the disciples, whose mourning turned to joy at the Resurrection and whom themselves were rescued from prison in several accounts in Acts.
[For background on the literary form of apocalyptic, see the notes for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.]
This is a picture – ‘vision’ – using the image of a liturgy celebrated in the heaven picture like that of an earthly king. The heavenly court filled with angels and archangels was a frequent image in the Old Testament and thus familiar to the first listeners. They may also have heard about the court of the Caesars, who claimed divine titles and were attended with reverence. In our selection the heavenly worship is extended through all creation.
The writer began this scene in Chapter 4 where we find explanations of some mentioned here. ‘Animals’: four are described in 4:7 in an image taken from the book of Ezekiel, Chapter 1. (The faces of these animals became symbols for the four evangelists, widely used in art. The reasoning is this: The lion for Mark because he opens with John the Baptist, as a ‘roaring’ preacher. The ox for Luke whose gospels begins in the temple where animal sacrifices were made. The human for Matthew who begins with the human lineage of Jesus, and eagle for John, whose Gospel starts from a cosmic point of view, ‘soaring’ above.) In this scene the animals are like those in Ezekiel and represent the power of God in action.
Elders: 24 of them were mentioned in 4:4. They are perhaps thought of as religious leaders, as that term was used in the early church as well as for important men in the Jewish council. Angels are frequent in this book. The numbering in ten thousands indicates totality, as does piling up the words of praise.
‘The Lamb’ is the preferred title for Jesus Christ in Revelation, and ‘the one seated on the throne’ is God the Father, using the oblique language of the Old Testament which avoided as much as possible using the name of ‘God’.
The two first readings combined give us two aspects of the Resurrection: its effects on the church on earth, and a vision of Jesus taking his body into union with the Father in heaven.
This section bears the marks of an addition to the Gospel of chapters 1-20, but there is no clear answer to who is the author. There are both differences and similarities to the style and content of the earlier chapters. It could be a later addition by the writer of the Gospel, or added by a follower closely united in viewpoint, when a new situation called for further explanations of the apostles’ mission.
There is also a confusion in the Gospel Resurrection accounts, with Jesus appearing in Galilee, here in the Epilogue and Matthew, and predicted in Mark. But first appearances in Jerusalem are recounted in Luke and the earlier parts of John. There is no certain way to reconcile the differences; it seems that the event was experienced in different places at different moments and by different people. The four evangelists had different emphases throughout their gospels and some of the geography had symbolic significance. The account we are reading today seems to be a first appearance, for otherwise it seems odd that having been sent on mission in the end of Chapter 20, Peter would be back at his previous occupation of fishing in the Sea of Tiberias/Lake of Galilee.
Leaving these questions aside, we can pick out significant points of the reading. The amazing catch of fish is paralleled in Luke’s gospel, 5:1-11, when Jesus called Peter to be a ‘fisher of people’. In this section, there are also hints of it being a call; the variety of fishes standing for the people who would respond to the call, the unbroken net to the way the church holds all. The exact number of fish, 153, probably had some special symbolic meaning, which is unclear at this time despite the attempts of many scholars to puzzle it out. St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, said that naturalists of the time had this number for the species of fish, although no other reference for this has been found. It is likely that the catch symbolizes the church, calling all peoples to faith in Christ.
As the Beloved Disciple showed more perception at the empty tomb, he again first recognizes Jesus, but Peter is the first to act. He leaps from the boat with his usual impetuous behaviour, seemingly the most eager to be with Jesus again.
Jesus has already prepared a breakfast meal for them. Some see in the bread and fish a reference to the multiplication in Chapter 6, and perhaps also to the Eucharist which was painted symbolically by early Christians with bread and fish.
A shorter form may be read and ends here; the longer continues with a scene focused on Peter and giving him a special role in the church. As Peter had denied Jesus three times, he now is challenged three times as to his love. Of course, he finds that painful! But he has learned humility; he does not say he loves more than the others, but simply relies on Jesus to know his love. Then Jesus, using his solemn words, ‘Amen, Amen’ in the Greek, gives him a veiled prediction that he shall die as Jesus did on a cross. Like Jesus’ own death, this martyrdom will ‘give glory to God’. The last words we hear then have a double sense: ‘follow me’ in my example of ‘feeding the sheep’, but also ‘follow me even to death.’
It may be that this addition to the Gospel was written after the death of Peter and of the Beloved Disciple, who is mentioned in final verses not included in today’s reading. At that time, the mission from Jesus to Peter would have to taken on by other shepherds and others who would also become witnesses through martyrdom. New disciples also take up the mission today with our ‘sheep-feeding’ Pope Francis in Rome and modern martyrs in areas of conflict, more in number already than those who perished under the Romans.
On our Easter in 2019, we heard of the massacre of worshippers in Sri Lanka. They too inherit the promises of the scriptures, and I thought particularly of the words of Jesus on the cross: This day you shall be with me in Paradise.