A River Runs Through It

Benedict Luckhurst

“That night they caught nothing” (John 21:3)

A feature of my nearby county town is the river that runs through its heart. For decades, however, the town has largely ignored the river. As a result it is mostly hidden from view by factories, a large brewery, and retail parks. Someone, however, has now woken up to the possibility of utilising the river as a focal point for leisure and a potential tourist lure by submitting an application for a floating restaurant adjoining a local park; the only open space on the banks of the river nearest to the town centre.

Objections to the scheme were initially raised by the unlikely alliance of the local police force and gay activists, the latter arguing that it will harm the openness, natural character and freedom of the area. In fact, the proposed three-deck floating restaurant is close to an area used by male and female cruisers and cottagers. A gay website describes it as a place where “fun can be found in-car and in the bushes as well” but warns ‘fun lovers’ “don’t leave your sex litter behind though, it gives us a bad name.” The police have since said they have not objected to the planned restaurant, but warned the town council that there could be a clash of interests between locals and cruisers. The local lesbian and gay alliance posed the question: ‘What about the needs of the gay community? How are they being met in terms of bars and clubs and social spaces?’

We are still in the Easter season, and the gospel passage from which the extract above is drawn is one of the most powerful among Our Lord’s resurrection appearances. John 21:1-19 is the gospel passage designated for the 3rd Sunday of Easter in Year C and it crops up again as a weekday Mass reading, divided between Easter Friday (vv1-14) and the Friday in the 7th week of Easter (vv15-19). “That night they caught nothing”. This was the bitter experience of Peter and his companions after an exhausting night of fishing. It is the same experience that many women and men have had over the course of many days and nights when they produce nothing. Night, in this instance, is not just a temporal notion, it is the sign of the Lord’s absence and the dismay it causes. It is the sign of so much effort in vain. I would dare to suggest that it is also applicable to the desperate action taken by gay and bisexual men in particular who seek anonymous sex in outdoor cruising. Ultimately, it is an unsatisfying as well as a dangerous activity. The health risks and threat of violent attack are set to one side because for some it is a way of life, an addiction; for many men there is a certain thrill or excitement attached to cruising and cottaging, but should we not view this as a sad reflection of the dark side of gay life and as something of a cri de coeur?

“Haven’t you caught anything, friends?” (21:5)

At dawn, a man came near to the exhausted disciples and found them disappointed. Whether we recognise it or not, the coming of Jesus brings the end of night and, more importantly, the beginning of a new day and a new life. The stranger asks whether they have any fish to eat. Peter and his six friends (note: seven is a symbol of universality and represents here the first seed of the Church) were forced to admit their poverty and powerlessness. So it was that Jesus, whom they had still not recognised, with friendly authority, invited them to look elsewhere: “Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some fish.” They obeyed without the least resistance, even though, as experienced fishermen, it would have made perfect sense to challenge this man’s intervention. After all, what he did he know and how could he tell where the fish were from his position on the shore?

The need – and the desire – to break out of potentially destructive and pointless behaviour patterns has the potential to launch our lives on to a different trajectory. An acknowledgement that some of the paths we choose, and all of the addictions which grip us, are essentially unfulfilling and barren is the first step enabling us to look elsewhere for true fulfilment. For the seven, striking out in a different direction resulted in a great and miraculous catch beyond any measure. In the light of this experience of abundance and joy, John recognised the voice of the stranger and told the others: “It is the Lord!” Feeling the proximity of the Lord, Simon Peter understood his unworthiness and shame – he was naked – and immediately threw on his clothes, dove into the water and swam towards the shore and Jesus. The others followed in the boat, hauling in the net full of fish.

“Come and have breakfast” (21:12)

The next scene is warm, friendly and tender: a charcoal fire had been prepared, bread and fish were to hand, no one dared to ask him anything; they were speechless, as, indeed, we are apt to be when overcome by love and tenderness and our needs are being met. Tender intimacy, acceptance, love and warmth: is this not what we crave? Jesus comes among these aimless men, failures all of them, deserters, and he invites them to: “Come and eat.” Then he took the bread and gave it to them. It is a simple scene, but one that is profound. Jesus puts a question to Peter. It is not a question about his past or his disappointments, it is not a reproach for his betrayal a few days before, nor is it about his fears. He is simply asked: “Do you love me more than these others do?” “Yes, Lord;” he replies, “you know that I love you.” Love covers many sins. Peter did not merit anything, and yet he is told by Jesus: “Feed my sheep.” How was this man, so vacillating, the very one who had revealed himself as being quite incapable of loyalty, how was he supposed to be responsible for others? The question is asked a second and a third time and, with each question, Peter demonstrates that he welcomes the love that Jesus is giving, and in love we become capable of speaking, giving witness, taking care of others.

“Follow me” (21:19)

Here at the end of John’s Gospel we are brought back to the beginning. “Follow me” were the words Jesus spoke to Philip in chapter 1 (v43) and now they resonate again in Peter’s hearing. As the proverb runs: “Rivers need a spring”; in the case of the Christian life, the grace received in the baptismal spring is restored when we sincerely repent of our past mistakes, betrayals and sins and so are revitalised in witnessing to the freeing and healing power of Christ.

Where is life taking us? If our love for Christ has become shaky in the course of our difficult journey with him, he readily calls us back to him to renew our love. Make no mistake about it, trials will come when we are urged to smile the risen power of Christ into our secular society, bringing his values to play in our daily lives, among our families, friends and associates. As with Peter, so with us: it is our relationship with the Lord that provides the key to our happiness and our human fulfilment and he calls us to a relationship of love. The interchange between Peter and Jesus underlines the need for divine mercy in order to heal spiritual wounds, the wounds of sin. Jesus puts the question to us: “Do you love me?” Do we wish to serve him through the gift of our whole lives? Do we long to bring others to know and love him? If the answer is: “Yes, Lord; you know I love you”, then we ought to recognise that it is in him that we find nourishment for the hungers of our hearts and souls; it will not be found in a cruising ground.

This article has been originally published in the Quest Bulletin, Spring 2011

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