The Absolution of Peter
Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter. Acts 5:27-32.40-41; Ps 29; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21:1-19
Many people today are searching for love, but cannot seem to escape from loneliness, a condition that Mother Teresa described as being worse than material poverty. What, then, can today's Gospel teach us about the overcoming of alone-ness and the achievement of love?
To understand the message about love within today's Gospel it is important to recall what happened on Good Friday. You may recall that on the night of the Last Supper, the Institution of the Eucharist, Peter had made a boast in front of Jesus and the other disciples. Peter declared that he would never fall away from his faith and that he would die rather than deny Jesus (Mt 26:33, 35). Jesus, however, responded by making a prophecy that Peter would deny him three times before daybreak, before the cockcrow. A few hours' later Peter did indeed deny him three times. Moreover, Peter was so frightened that he called down curses on himself and swore publicly that he did not know the man. Scripture then says that Peter went out and 'wept bitterly' (Mt 26:75). There is a strong sense in the text that Peter at this point feels himself utterly alone. Perhaps, like Judas, he is even tempted to despair.
Jesus however returns from death and rescues Peter. In today's Gospel, after the Resurrection, Peter is given the opportunity to reaffirm his love for Jesus three times, just as he had denied him three times. There is, however, a subtlty in the conversation that is lost in translation. First, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him even more than the others do. Here Jesus is using a work for 'love' (agape) that is reserved in the Greek text for divine love, the supernatural love by which a person loves his or her enemies, the love with which God sent His Son to save us. Peter, however, having learnt his bitter lesson of humiliation, is unwilling to claim that he has this divine love for Jesus, let alone that he has more of this love for Jesus than the others do. Peter will only claim a kind of 'love' which is a more everyday term of affection. Jesus then repeats his question a second time but asking for a more modest response, simply whether Peter loves him rather than loving him more than the others do. Peter responds, however, in the same way as before, using the more commonplace term of affection. The third time, however, Jesus uses the same, more everyday word for love that Peter has used. So Jesus progressively reduces the scope of his question to the point where Peter is able to respond in the same way: there is then a harmony between them.
The second thing that Jesus does is to draw Peter out of himself. Rather than Peter being allowed to wallow in his failure, and perhaps being tempted to despair, Jesus commissions him to carry out his pastoral ministry, "Feed my lambs ... Look after my sheep ... Feed my sheep." In other words, Peter is asked to love with Jesus the things that Jesus loves: his lambs and his sheep, in other words all the members of his Church. This is a second mark of friendship, not only to experience union with one's friend, but to be drawn out of oneself: to love with one's friend the things that one's friend loves.
The third thing that Jesus does is to promise that Peter is going to be led further. He gives a prophecy, in fact, implying that Peter will die with a love of God that is supernatural. Rather than directing his own life, with the implied sin of pride and isolation, Jesus says Peter will stretch out his hands and be led where he would rather not go. Peter, who failed to keep faith with Jesus on the night of his arrest will one day give his life for Jesus, his Lord and his friend, suffering crucifixion on Vatican Hill. Instead of failing God, Peter will die giving glory to God and St Peter's Basilica is built over his tomb.
So how then do we find true love? The answer is that no one can achieve love by himself or herself. The pattern of the life of Peter, however, shows that by God's grace even a human being can learn to love a little as God loves. First, God breaks down our pride, our self-sufficiency, perhaps even through the experience of failure. Second, once we are finally ready to be led, he will accept what we are prepared to give but he will gradually draw us further. Finally, if we allow ourselves to led to the end, this process will bear its fruit in a death that gives glory to God, sustenance to the world and proves to be our entry to heaven. The entire process is summed up in words of the utmost simplicity, the very last words of Jesus in the last of the Gospels, "Follow Me!"
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.