Homilies written and presented by Monsignor Peter Magee
Homily 4-25-2004 Easter 3 (C)
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Sunday 3 of Easter (C): Read John 21, 1-19

 

                It is hard to know who was more nostalgic: Peter or Jesus. Given all that had happened to Peter, it seems almost banal that he would still want to go fishing. But deep in his consciousness, he, and the others who went with him, wanted perhaps to recapture, not so much the big number of fish, as the experience of that unforgettable morning, some three years earlier, when the man from Nazareth had first preached from the fisherman’s boat. The Carpenter had then given Peter the strange command to put out into deep water for a catch. Overwhelmed by the catch and by Jesus, Peter had asked the Lord to leave him, for he was a sinful man. Indeed, he was! And Jesus did not deny it; but, alas, it would only be on the night Jesus was arrested that Peter’s sinfulness would become all too painfully clear. Now, after the “Jesus matter” seemed all over, Peter still feels guilty about his denials. He wanted to relive the experience of Christ’s forgiveness: “Do not be afraid! I will make you a fisher of men.” Peter felt a stinging nostalgia for that most personal presence and compassionate gaze of the Master, and for those words of mercy which had lifted his very soul from depths deeper than the waters of any ocean. With the memory of thrice betraying Jesus still fresh in his mind, Peter was again in those depths; he felt the dark of the night and its emptiness as he now went to fish again, and again catch nothing. He longed for Jesus to come near once more and preach from his boat.

                For His part, the Risen Jesus knew of Peter’s plight. Both as man and as God, Jesus too would feel some manner of nostalgia for His friends; their unfaithfulness did not make Him unfaithful. So, He does come again to Peter, to renew His call to him, in a way, in a place and at a time that Peter would understand and that would fill his heart. Jesus does not revoke His call, or His friendship, or His love. No, He remembers, revisits and restores. He comes again to those He had called at the beginning of His public ministry, especially to Peter, and, now free from death, He reinstates them with the power and authority of His Resurrection. How goodly and considerate Jesus is in the way He draws them back to Himself! He comes unobtrusively and fraternally, measuring the manifestation of His power in a degree which enabled them to recognize Him: He eats with them, in a manner and in words which would remind them of the Last Supper, the banquet of charity, the ultimate gift of His love. Jesus thus shows His own fond memories of when He first called them and of when He last left them to die freely for their eternal happiness. They were bound together in the memory of His love.

                Peter’s response to this is both typical of the man and yet filled with that strength and energy which come from knowing that someone who loves you, literally “to death”, is near at hand. Peter probably just cannot believe that his nostalgic hopes would be so, so wonderfully fulfilled by Jesus. Had Jesus asked Peter to stand on his head, there is no doubt he would have done so!

                However, both Jesus and Peter knew that there was still some “unfinished business” to be taken care of. The other apostles present needed to know how things now stood between the Lord and Peter, in part, at least, that they might be able to put their full trust again in the one who had denied Jesus. As regards the one-on-one relationship between Peter and Jesus, it is possible that the two were already fully reconciled before this scene. In St. Luke’s Gospel, and also in First Corinthians 15, mention is made of an appearance of Jesus to Peter by himself. Indeed, Jesus knows just how much Peter is hurting, and needs to confess, and so comes to comfort him, and above all to reassure him that the look Jesus had given him, on that fateful night at the house of Caiaphas, was indeed a look of total forgiveness. In that private encounter, one can only imagine how Peter wept and how Jesus wept, for joy.

                In this collective encounter, however, Jesus seems to want to restore and deepen the bonds between Peter and the others, as well as to show them that Peter is truly repentant and forgiven. Note that Jesus does not begin the conversation with any manner of remonstration. His approach is always amiable and generous, never scary and mean. Only after breakfast, after sharing together, does He ask Peter to speak up with courage. His opener is a question directed to the intensity of Peter’s love for Him, not to the misery of his denials. It is the perennial question of God to every human being: do you love me more than these others? Do you love me more than they love me, more than you love anything or anyone else, including yourself, more than you used to love me? Peter was already first in faith; Jesus now offers to him to be first also in love. But the word “more” itself suggests … more! It suggests a conscious choice, and a constant growth; it stimulates renewed effort and perseverance; it fires a holy restlessness for Jesus; it is the stuff of holiness, of surrender and sacrifice, indeed of martyrdom. It is also a question which instills great hope in the sinner: here am I, says the sinner, so bad, so low, so sinful, so unworthy, but here is Jesus asking me if I will love Him more than all others! With this question, Jesus seems to promise the sinner: it is because you have been so low, and yet have turned to me out of those depths, that I will raise you on high in the power of my love. When you were low, you remembered Peter, not Judas. Because of Jesus’ question to Peter, all love for Jesus is now Petrine. The truth of Peter’s faith and of Peter’s love is now the matrix of our own.

                Yet this question is also unsettling, distressing, as Peter plainly showed. He could not fail to make the link between it and his own triple denial, and it was precisely the third time Jesus asked him the question that Peter felt the pain. The pain of repentance, deep and anguishing, is the pain of giving birth to love. It is a pain Peter would rather have avoided, because it makes the memory of the sin all the more acute. But Jesus, in His infinite knowledge of the heart, knows that unless the memory is faced, accepted and confessed, it cannot be healed. Sin is not to be glossed over, but flushed out. The distress is not for distress’ sake, but because the very nature of sin, in its lying secrecy, needs to be purged by truthful openness. Jesus wins Peter over to this, but at the same time, encourages him to reach out for that “more”, that greater love; effectively, Jesus reveals to Peter that, by divine mercy, his ability to love is greater than his ability to sin. Jesus is repeating to Peter what He had said to him when first they met: “Do not be afraid of your sins! Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

                In response to Peter’s triple confession of “more” love, Jesus entrusts to him the task of feeding and caring for the flock. Indeed, unless an apostle loves Christ “more”, he will be unable to feed the flock with the food it needs. Pastoral ministry, the task of the shepherd, is essentially to love Christ more than all else. It is to call all others to love Him, to be lifted up from their depths, called back from their wandering. The more the shepherd loves Christ, the more he will feel empowered and fired to feed others with that love, and, like the Good Shepherd, to lay down his life for his sheep, the act of supreme love. This “greatest” love is precisely the promise Jesus makes to Peter once his “greater” love has been confessed: when you were young, in those days of self-assertion and self-fulfillment, you did your own thing; but, because you love me, you will, when you are older, be taken as was I, and give your life for me and for the sheep. When love for Christ has become the reason for one’s life, nothing can be more logical than to give it up for His sake. His love is greater than death, because it is better than life. When death is still on the stage of human life, what can there be in this life that can merit the unique treasure of our hearts? This does not mean that we do not love the other gifts Christ has given us, but it does mean that nothing and no-one beyond Him can claim to be our alpha and omega, our all. In the words of Jesus Himself, “If anyone prefers father or mother, son or daughter, to me, he is not worthy of me.” To prefer is precisely to “love more than”, as Jesus puts it in His question to Peter. To cling to the realities of this life, in a way which denies Christ, implicitly or explicitly, is to return with the old Peter to the house of Caiaphas. All who prefer Christ to absolutely all else, will and must also return to the house of Caiaphas, but with Christ. Most of us will not stand trial for our faith and love of Christ, but no-one should doubt, even today, that the power of Christ, on the one hand, and the hatred of the world, on the other, will draw some to offer the ultimate sacrifice. When Jesus first called Peter, He made no mention of martyrdom. Now, however, in renewing that call, Jesus makes it plain to Peter that the gift of martyrdom will be given to him and asked of him. Towards the end of our Gospel scene, when Jesus says to Peter, “follow me”, Peter at last understands that the glory of Jesus is not to sit on the political throne of an earthly kingdom, but to be crucified in loving sacrifice to the Father and to die for our redemption. To glory through the Cross, Peter must follow Jesus.

                Our nostalgia for Christ is hopefully great, and He surely knows it. But His nostalgia for us, for the earth He walked and for the human race He so, so loves, is even greater, and is manifest nowhere more completely than in the Eucharist. As we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, Jesus asks each of us, not for the third, but for the “nth” time, “Do you love me more than these others?” No matter how distressful that may be for each of us to hear and to answer, it is surely breathtaking and inspiring that “humble we” can satisfy the divine nostalgia by crying out from our depths, “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.”

 

Msgr. Peter Magee

Sunday, April 25th, 2004: St. Matthew’s Cathedral: 10.00 am