“Follow me!” (Jn 21.19), the Risen Jesus says to Peter during his last apparition at the end of John’s gospel. Peter had heard these words many times before, since that first time in which Jesus met him and his brother Andrew by the sea of Galilee and told them both: “Come, follow me” (Mt 4.18).
This time however there is a big difference.
Back in Galilee, Peter agreed to follow somebody whose life was on earth and it was clear what this invitation meant: go physically wherever Jesus went, live with him, share his meals, listen to him talk, learn from him and on occasion even test his patience.
Now however, the Jesus who asks Peter to follow him is risen from the dead. It is the same person he had lived with for a few years before his death on the cross, but now there is something very unusual about Jesus’ person and presence.
To start with, each time Jesus appears it takes a while to recognize him. When, after daybreak, Jesus stood by the sea of Tiberias, we are told that his disciples “did not know that it was Jesus” (Jn 21.4) and it is suggested that even after they eventually recognized him, this was because of something other than his appearance, since they were still tempted to ask him: “Who are you?” (Jn 21.12).
So, this is a Jesus who appears and disappears, goes through closed doors and still bears the marks of the wounds that caused his death, even though now they seem to have no consequence on his life.
Finally, this is the Jesus who is about to ascend to heaven and withdraw his physical presence. He does promise “I will be with you until the end of time” (Mt 28.20), but this presence will not be visible any more.
So we too have Peter’s same problem: how can we be asked to follow the risen Jesus?
This invitation is a challenge. To follow Jesus we have to believe in his promise, namely ;that he is with us, and learn how to recognize his new way of being among us. This is the purpose of the resurrection Gospels we read in this Eastertide.
One detail is significant and touching. At the sea of Tiberiade, after an initial perplexity, one of the disciples is suddenly overwhelmed by a realization: “It is the Lord”. This disciple is not named but his identity is unveiled through his nickname: “The disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 21.7).
What is implied here is that there is a link between love and recognition: only by welcoming the risen Jesus’ love for us we can recognize his presence, however puzzling and unfamiliar it might be.
Jesus’ love is not an abstraction. In the Gospel it is described in various ways.
Jesus knows we struggle with our love for him and is willing to take us by the hand, argue with us, spur us to go deeper and deeper.
We are like Peter. When we are asked whether we love the risen Lord we answer: “Yes Lord you know that I love you” (Jn 21.16). We believe that declaring our love is enough. This is why the Lord is not satisfied with this answer and keeps asking the same question: “Do you love me?”. The only authentic way of loving him is revealed in Peter’s final answer “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” (Jn 21.17). The “you know everything” is the humble acknowledgment of our failures in love, our denials, our compromises. As long as we think that these are an obstacle for our relation with God we are resisting God’s love for us. The moment we learn to let the risen Lord love us as we are, we become capable of loving him and thus capable of yielding to his invitation: “Follow me”.
We can know Jesus only by following him. And now that the Lord is risen, we can follow him only by relying on his unfailing forgiveness, patience and love.