At Men’s Group on Wednesday, Fr. Kelly talked briefly about the roles played by John and by Peter in the early Church. Peter is the “Ecclesiastical Disciple,” the one on whom Christ entrusts authority of the Church, who He generally leaves in charge. It’s Peter that Christ builds His Church upon, calls to be the Shepherd, instructs to strengthen the other Apostles, refers to with Himself as “Us,” and it’s Peter who is immediately recognized by others (the other Apostles, the New Testament writers, and even an angel) as the earthly head.
John, in contrast, is the “Disciple whom Jesus loved,” a fact we here frequently from John’s own Gospel (John 13:23,John 19:26; John 21:7; and John 21:20). John’s the one whose head is rested upon Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:25). While Peter’s the first pope, and his writings are very pastoral, John’s a mystic and a theologian, as evidenced by the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, respectively.
John recognizes all of these things, and is unafraid to mention them. He’s the one who describes himself as the “Disciple whom Jesus loved,” after all. He’s not saying that Jesus didn’t love the other Apostles. He’s saying that their way of interacting with Jesus was different than his. He shows that through three events. First, at the Last Supper, when Jesus says that He will be betrayed by one of the Twelve (John 13:22-25):
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them He meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to Him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask Him which one He means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked Him, “Lord, who is it?”
Peter instructs John to act, but it’s John who, through His intimacy with Christ, learns about Judas’ betrayal. This is significant. The mystics and theologians within the Church are subject to the authority of the Magisterium (identified here by John’s obedience to Peter), but may well be closer to Christ (as John literally is) and to understanding the Truth (it’s John who receives it from Christ). The second event is Easter Sunday, a the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-9):
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
What’s John saying by telling us these details? I think the best interpretation is that he’s showing us that the folks in the Church like John get out ahead of the pope and the Magisterium, but that they need to have patience and wait for the Church before just charging ahead without Her. We see this all the time: some mystic will claim to see a vision, or a theologian will propose a new take on theology, interpreting the same teaching in a radical new way. Sometimes, that new vision or seemingly new interpretation has some real weight. But if the “John” in this case runs away from the Church, rather than waiting for Peter, that’s where the trouble arises. Consider literally any authentic Marian apparition, and it’s the same story. Some visionary claims to see Mary, and large groups of the faithful immediately accept it as true, but the Church takes a cautious “wait-and-see” approach. She quietly investigates, often for years, before saying, “this is worthy of belief,” or “this seems fraudulent or dangerous to the faith.”
So John is, on the one hand, affirming and praising those lead on by the love of God. But he’s also got a word of caution: get there and wait for Peter. John doesn’t rush into the Tomb without his leader. He’s patient. Peter is slower and perhaps more deliberative. Same story once in the Tomb. John sees and immediately believes, while Peter appears to be mulling it over until his direct encounter with Christ (Luke 22:34).
There’s one final event John describes, and it explains so well why it’s important to wait for Peter. It’s from John 21:3-11, while the Disciples are out fishing with Peter:
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered.He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.
The first thing we see is that same pattern emerging. John recognizes Jesus quicker than Peter. And as before, John defers to Peter, this time by informing him, “It is the Lord!” Here, though, it’s Peter who takes off at once, and John who follows in the boat. But once again, it’s the visionary, using his recognition of Christ for the good of Peter and the Church.
The second thing is relatively obvious, I think. The fact that they’re fishing puts this very much in a missionary context. Look at the first time we see the Apostles fishing (Matthew 4:18-20):
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Now we come to the last time we see them fishing, and it’s clear that Christ is the one who provides the fish in their nets. By themselves, they’re not able to catch a fish. Likewise, without the help of God, we’re not able to ‘win a soul for Christ.’
Here we get to the third and final point, though, and this is something I’d never noticed until Fr. Kelly pointed it out. Why is it important that Peter be involved in this, rather than simply John taking a “Me and Jesus” approach to salvation? Well, when the Disciples are all trying to bring in the fish on their own, they’re not able to: “they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” But when Peter encounters Christ, Jesus tells him, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” In response to this command of Christ, “Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore.” With the command of Christ as his calling, Peter is able to bring in the entire net of fish, 153 in all, even though all of the Disciples working together were unable to bring it in.
It’s great that there are non-Catholic Christians who hear the call of Christ to throw their nets into the sea and save some souls. They’re doing great work for the Kingdom of God. But there are times when you need Peter, because Peter’s got a special calling from God. There are some nets you just can’t bring in without him, because that’s something God blessed the pope with and not you. So this is the reason that the folks like John have to learn to be patient. Peter’s got an incredibly important role, and in scenes like the one above, you can really see it on display. Let’s not forget that in those times when he seems to move too slowly for our tastes, when we’re waiting impatiently at the Tomb, or crying out, “It is the Lord!”