Third Sunday of Easter (C)
(Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19)
The Apostle Peter -- helped by John -- will hopefully stimulate us this day to better understand, love, and respond to Our Lord, as His true disciples in Mother Church and before the world.
Peter was a 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 three-fold 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 gainsaid and its divine beauty strongly recommends it. And yet, since nothing is simple about Peter, it may also be the case that here Jesus, witnessing to His Father’s great mercy, is also preparing the coping stone for His future Church in line with diverse aspects of Peter’s own 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 that of the other apostles present? Peter did not and could not know the inner dispositions of his fellow-apostles to any degree that might allow him to make such an assertion; and although he was self-confident, he cannot be said to have shown himself arrogant enough for such behaviour. It would seem, therefore, that Jesus was inviting and encouraging Peter to declare, in all truth and humility, that he loved Jesus far more than he loved any, or all, of the other apostles.
And why might Jesus have wanted such a declaration from Peter? Well, as I have already said, Peter was a strong and, should we say, ‘multi-layered’ character: he was a prominent local business-man and being a natural leader and dominant personality, he might also have been somewhat ‘prone to shoot off his mouth’, to use modern jargon; but, dangerous though such attributes might easily be, he was not – apparently -- prone to making notable business mistakes or personal gaffs thereby, which would explain why his fellow business-associates and future co-apostles unquestioningly accepted him as their spokesman and, indeed, frequently showed themselves as willing, and even eager, to follow 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, and that, I say, could possibly have been part of the motivation behind Jesus’ question, do you love Me more than (you love) these? There are, throughout the Gospel accounts, several instances of a particularly close personal relationship between Peter and John, and it is quite striking that, immediately after Peter’s protestation of supreme love in today’s Gospel:
Lord, You know everything, You know that I love You,
Jesus thought it necessary to -- deliberately and quite pointedly -- make absolutely clear to Peter the implications of such words, by demanding their prompt and full observance; for we are told (cf. John 21: 19-22) 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, ’What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow Me.’
There are, however, other scholars who see in Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter a then widely-recognized social procedure for conferring and confirming before witnesses, a ‘legal’ right -- one fully approved and legally 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 while at the same time, quite dramatically and most emphatically, establishing him as the uncontestable head of His nascent Church in accordance with His Father’s will.
There are also, in our Gospel, revealing words of Jesus about 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 telling Peter, with remarkable openness and sympathetic appreciation, the truth – knowable only to Jesus at that moment -- concerning Peter’s facing of the prospect of death after years of labour and suffering for Jesus and the Church. Very many modern Catholics and Christians find it difficult to appreciate such words of Jesus, since they are, themselves, not sufficiently humble in their own self-estimation or simple in their relationship before and with God. As moderns they are complicated by far too much self-love, and fear of what other people might think; and, augmenting such natural tendencies and frailties, they may also have yielded far too easily and extensively 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 humbly willing to acknowledge in themselves or could patiently accept for themselves similar true words of Jesus about their own not wanting to go to death for Him.
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 – in fact -- glorify God.
Now, human pretence -- no matter how pious it may seem or present itself – never glorifies God or truly recognizes Jesus. Peter, as foreshadowed by Jesus, had -- in the intervening years of struggle and suffering for and in the service of the Church, and after countless hours of soul-opening prayer before God -- become both humble and patient to a degree that most find it difficult to imagine nowadays. He would in no way pretend to himself or to others that he wanted to go where his captors were leading him, and in that he was sublimely close to Jesus Whom he had personally – though with little comprehension -- witnessed praying to His heavenly Father and struggling with His human nature in the Garden of Gethsemane. How much, indeed, did He now, at this climax of his discipleship, admire Jesus and glorify God! For only Jesus wanted, only Jesus could have wanted to walk with such love – so wholeheartedly and eagerly – to His crucifixion!
Oh! What wondrous love Jesus had conceived for those coming sufferings of His crucifixion after His agony of blood-sweating-prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane!! There He had fought in prayer to, and before, His most beloved Father; and when His Father – after such urgent and Personal prayers -- still left the task on His shoulders, He, Jesus, knew without any doubt, that He would find His Father in those very sufferings. And that is why, when carrying His cross, He always -- after each individual fall on the way – endeavoured to get up immediately, totally oblivious to everything but His desire to love and glorify His Father in every detail of what was being asked of Him by His most loving and lovable Father, though being wickedly and cruelly demanded of Him by those who so deeply hated Him.
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, of himself, 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 could and would help him, Peter, humbly follow where He, Jesus his Lord, alone could lead. For only one fully aware of, and appreciative of, his own nothingness could then totally commit himself into God’s care:
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.
It is finished!
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 by offering truly humble praise and self-less glory, honour, and power, to God, the Almighty and all-loving Father in heaven.