Acts 5:27–32, 40b–41; Revelation 5:11–14; John 21:1–19
I have a special place in my heart for the Apostle Peter. It’s clear in many gospel passages that he is completely clueless about what is happening. He wears his heart on his sleeve and impetuously responds to whatever happens in front of him. In this gospel passage, he hears that Jesus is on the shore. In his joy, he puts on his clothes... and then he jumps into the water. He can’t even think straight enough to keep from getting soaked. The text drily adds, “The others followed him in the boat… for they were not far from the shore.”
But the real scene here that tugs on the heart strings is the conversation between Peter and Jesus. Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The third time is really the clincher. Peter is distressed that Jesus has asked him a third time, and responds, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” I can hear the pained expression in those words. For me, it’s one of the most memorable gospel passages.
So I want to talk about two slightly different theological approaches to this exchange between Peter and Jesus and what they reveal to us.
First, what is the significance of the three questions and responses? There is a long tradition of Peter’s three affirmations and their connection to Peter’s three denials during Jesus’ passion. If you recall (and you should recall since you repeat the very text every Palm Sunday and Good Friday), Peter says that he will go to die with Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “You shall deny three times that you know me.” We might not recognize just how much of a betrayal this truly was: the Apostle who said, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God" essentially turns his back on God. But that is the epitome of mortal sin—to know God and to turn your back on Him nonetheless.
The understanding of many theologians is that these three affirmations are Jesus’ way of reinstating Peter, of allowing him to undo the denials, of basically doing penance for his rejection of Christ. For each, “I do not know him,” Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And Peter responds, “You know I love you.” He has been forgiven, of course, but each restatement of his love for Jesus helps to heal him. That is essentially what penance does. It helps us to undo the effects of sin, like salve on a wound.
So let me tell you a story. There was a boy raised in a Catholic home by devout parents, who grew up in a time of, well, let’s call it less-than-sufficient catechesis. By the time he was in high school, he differed considerably from the Church in his opinions about morality and reality. By college, he was well out the door and wandering to find some kind of meaning, but looking for it in the world of experience… or perhaps the experience of the worldly. At a certain point, he came to realize that he needed something that the material world wasn’t going to provide: a life of meaning. So he searched in all of the popular places one searched at that time for enlightenment—existential philosophy, eastern mysticism, anywhere but the gospel message.
He finished graduate school summa cum laude around Thanksgiving one year and found work, first, detailing cars at a used car lot, and then at a local New Age bookstore. Of course, this is the last place where a Catholic boy should end up: selling sage wands, crystals, tarot cards, books on new age mysticism and divination—many things, by the way, that the Church flatly condemns as spiritually dangerous and immoral. But oddly enough, he was still searching for truth.
That boy, then a man, was me.
It took another 10 years for me to find my way back to the faith, after I set aside my skepticism and fear and was astounded to learn that the Church doesn’t expect us to check our brains at the door. And so I began an intellectual process of conversion, which led to a spiritual conversion. And so I returned to the faith. And of course, now I’m up here at this ambo preaching to you.
The day of my ordination two and a half years ago—and a bit more than 20 years after that job in the New Age bookstore—was a bit like Peter’s experience seeing the Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I went for a run that morning, and I was alternately laughing and crying at the amazing journey I had taken, that broken road on which God had blessed and protected me. I probably looked every bit like the holy fool who jumped into the water fully clothed.
The ordination mass was like a welcome home. And so in that spirit, my family and I went off to a local restaurant, Smoky Mountain Pizza, to celebrate. As we began to wrap up and our various nuclear family units started to leave, I gave them each a blessing: first, my brother in law and his family; then my daughter and her mother; then my brothers, sister-in-law, and parents.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I slipped down the alley, which seemed like a faster exit, and I remembered, “Oh, yeah. I used to park back here when I worked here.”
The restaurant was in the same building that used to house the Blue Unicorn, the new age bookstore where I had once worked. And I realized that the very house where I had once sold tarot cards and sage wands, and books on Wicca and divination—the very room in fact where the front desk and register had been—was the very place where I had given my family my blessing—not once... but three times.
Tell me that God doesn't transform lives, and I tell you that I am a walking refutation of that claim.
And tell me that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Now what can we make of this? Of my experience and Peter’s experience? I think both incidents speak of God’s incredible mercy. You recall that Judas also betrayed Jesus. But the difference between Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s betrayal, and even my betrayal, was that Judas despaired. He gave up. Instead of repenting and turning back, he stayed the course to his destruction. Peter, on the other hand, did not. He sought forgiveness. And I did so, too, knowing that I did not deserve it, but that Jesus would forgive nonetheless.
Pope Francis, in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia which he released on Friday, wrote, "True charity is always unmerited, unconditional, and gratuitous" (296). You cannot earn it.
In addition, it highlights for me the fact that every choice we make is in some way a choice for Jesus or not: a yes or a no to our Redeemer. Do our choices say yes to Jesus? I try to choose Him always, but I fail from time to time, maybe more than I’d like to admit. But every fall is a chance to get up again and to say yes again.
The second point I want to touch on, is Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation. Recall that Jesus predicted that Peter would turn back even before he predicted that Peter would deny Him. He said, “Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat, but once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
And here on the shore, Peter responds, “You know that I love you,” and Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” When Peter turned back, Jesus didn’t say, “Okay, now you're back at ground zero and have to earn my trust again.”
He knew as he said elsewhere that one who has been forgiven much loves all the more and that he could trust Peter precisely because Peter had failed and turned back… and that Peter knew the value of forgiveness. And Peter knew that however he might fail, he could always turn again and strengthen his brothers and tend the sheep whom Jesus entrusted to him. And he also knew that he never wanted to fall like that again.
Peter knew that he was being given a mission—a charge. After Jesus’ last request to feed his sheep, He commands, “Follow me.” The path would not be easy. Jesus would demand all the more from Peter, but now Peter understood that it was worth it.
And it is completely worth it to pick up your cross and follow Him.