The Apostle Thomas was the channel for our instruction last Sunday; this week it is Peter -- helped by John -- who will hopefully stimulate and encourage us to better understand, love, and respond to, Our Lord, as His true disciples in Mother Church and before the world.
Peter was a truly strong and undeniably impulsive character as we have just heard:
When Simon Peter heard (from John) that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat.
Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you just caught,’ so Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of 153 large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
However, it is Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter that is the most striking and significant feature of the Gospel reading for us today:
Simon, son of John, do you love Me? Do you love Me? Do you love Me?
That insistence of Jesus is understood by many as His way of giving Peter the opportunity to revoke what had recently been his hasty, fear-driven, three-fold denial of Jesus. Such a possibility cannot be denied. And yet, since nothing is simple about Peter, it may be that here Jesus is showing respect for, and relating to, diverse aspects of Peter’s make-up. For example, let us consider the very first question of Jesus:
Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?
Peter was both head-strong and self-assertive; and yet, surely, Our blessed Lord was not inviting him there to assert that his own love of Jesus was greater than the love of all the other apostles present? Peter did not and could not know the inner hearts and minds of his fellow-apostles to make such an assertion; and although he was -- as we have noted -- self-confident, he could not be said to have shown himself as arrogant. It would seem, therefore, that Jesus was inviting and encouraging Peter to declare, in all truth and humility, that he loved Jesus more than he loved any one, or all, of the other apostles. And why might Jesus have wanted such a declaration from Peter? Well, as I said at the beginning, Peter was a truly strong and, should we say, ‘multi-layered’ character: he was a natural leader and a dominant personality, one whom his fellow apostles accepted unquestioningly as their spokesman, and frequently showed themselves ready, willing, and eager to follow in his personal initiatives. Now that could, of itself, have insinuated into Peter’s psyche a certain vanity, and with it an accompanying reluctance to knowingly do or say anything that might put a strain on such a relationship of accepted dominance with regard to his fellow apostles. Now that might have been part of the motivation behind Jesus’ question, do you love Me more than these? Moreover -- following the same line of thought -- there are, throughout the Gospel accounts, many instances of a particularly close personal relationship between Peter and John, which becomes most noticeable when, immediately after Peter’s protestation of supreme love in today’s Gospel:
Lord, You know everything, You know that I love You,
Jesus had to make clear to him the implications, and insist on the prompt and full observance, of those words, for we are told that:
After signifying by what kind of death Peter would glorify God, Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ ..... Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; ... (and) he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said, ’If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow Me.’
Nevertheless, there are other scholars who see in Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter a then recognized Oriental social procedure used before witnesses when conferring and confirming a ‘legal’ right that is, one fully approved and binding, on someone:
Feed My lambs; tend My sheep; feed My sheep.
Most probably, therefore, we have a remarkable instance of Jesus’ great and most compassionate wisdom: He wipes out the memory – in Peter’s own mind and in the minds of the other apostles – of Peter’s moment of weakness and shame and, at the same time, quite dramatically and most emphatically establishes him as head of His nascent Church in accordance with His Father’s manifest will.
Now there are also, in our Gospel reading, revealing words of Jesus relating to Peter’s future crucifixion:
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.
Jesus is there speaking the truth concerning Peter facing up to his death after years of labour and suffering for Jesus and the Church. Many modern Catholics and Christians, however, are neither so truthful to themselves, understanding of others, or simple before God. As moderns they are complicated by far too much self-love and fear of what people might think; and, augmenting such natural tendencies and frailties, they may also have yielded far too much to the requirements of political correctness ... which all inevitably leads to a frequently observable and widespread tendency to pretence in matters of religious devotion. Few would be willing to acknowledge in themselves the truth of Jesus’ words about Peter not wanting to go to his death for Jesus.
At this juncture, however, we should recognize that there is no question of Jesus implying that Peter would refuse to face up to his future crucifixion, only that Peter would not want to go; and, in that regard, we should recall that John tells us that:
Jesus said this signifying by what kind of death he (Peter) WOULD GLORIFY GOD.
Now, human pretence -- no matter how pious it may seem or present itself – ever glorifies God or truly recognizes Jesus. Peter, as foreshadowed by Jesus, had -- in the intervening years of struggle for and service of the Church, and after countless hours of soul-opening prayer before God -- become both humble and patient to a degree that we find it difficult to imagine nowadays. He would in no way seek to pretend to himself or to others that he wanted to go where his captors were leading him, and in this he was most sublimely close to and one with Jesus Whom he had personally witnessed, though uncomprehendly, praying to, struggling with, His heavenly Father and His own human nature in the Garden of Gethsemani. How, indeed, did He now admire Jesus and glorify God! For, only Jesus wanted, only Jesus could want – so wholeheartedly and eagerly – to walk to, go to, His crucifixion!
Oh! What wondrous love Jesus conceived for the coming sufferings of His crucifixion after His agony of blood-sweating-prayer in the Garden of Gethsemani!! There He had fought in prayer with, before, and to, His beloved Father; and when His most beloved Father – after Jesus’ most urgent and ardent prayers -- still left the burden on His shoulders, He, Jesus, knew without any doubt, that He would FIND HIS FATHER in those coming crucifixion sufferings. And that is why, when carrying His cross, He always -- after each individual fall on the way – endeavoured to get up in response to His Father’s call, totally oblivious to everything but His desire to love His Father to the utmost extremity of His living humanity!!
Peter was a most wonderful disciple of Jesus and he had come to find no difficulty in acknowledging, admitting, his own nothingness: of himself he did not want to go on that journey to his crucifixion because he did not love like Jesus the most beloved Son alone could love; but he most fully trusted in Jesus his brother and Saviour that He could and would draw him after Himself, that He would help him, Peter, humbly follow where Jesus his Lord alone could lead.
Dear People of God, let us most seriously pray for the simplicity of heart to admire Peter’ example; and, above all, for the Gift of the God’s Holy Spirit, that, of His great goodness and most subtle grace, we may embrace Jesus’ teaching and follow ever more closely His most precious example in giving praise and honour, glory and thanksgiving, to God supremely and solely.