St. Peter and the risen Christ: meeting his Lord again, for the first time

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3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C: April 18, 2010
Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; Ps 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; Rev 5:11:-14; John 21:1-19

In the seminary where I studied for six years, each year there is one class year that will prepare a hot breakfast every Saturday and Sunday morning for the whole house—all the seminarians and faculty who want to come—as a fundraiser for one of the house events. And so, often, they will put up a weekly flyer to remind guys and encourage them to come; and these flyers are often humorous. And, at least once a year, the flyer will read: “Jesus said, ‘Come, have breakfast.'”

“Come, have breakfast.” We hear these words in our Gospel reading today, from the last chapter of the Gospel according to John. And could any words be as familiar, and warm and inviting, as these words—here on the lips of Jesus? “Come, have breakfast.”

There was a lot that was familiar that day for the disciples. It is after Jesus had risen from the dead; and he had given them directions to go back to Galilee; and so they had. And there they were, back where they started, at the sea; back where he had first called them; where they had been working as fishermen, and he had first spoken to them from the shore; when they had caught nothing all night and he had directed them to a miraculous catch of fish; and when he had called them saying, “Come, follow me.”

Now, three years later, they are back. And he does the same thing; and so much of it is the same.

The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote in one of his poems [“Little Gidding,” No. 4 of the Four Quartets]:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

They have come back where they started, and it’s the same. And yet it is so very different, because of all that they have experienced together with Jesus during those three years.

Back then, they had only just begun to realize that this man speaking to them from the shore must be some sort of prophet. But over three years of walking with him, they have come to know him quite well. And they have learned that he is quite a teacher, a healer, a miracle-worker: that he has calmed storm with his word, he has walked on water, he has raised the dead. And they had confessed that he is the Messiah, and they had hoped that he would free them from the oppression of Rome.

And then came Holy Week, and they discovered that he is actually much more than all of that. By his Passion and death, he conquered, not the Roman Empire, but death itself. And when he rose from the dead on that Easter Sunday, he opened the way to the Resurrection—to that state of a transformed universe that they were anticipating at the end of all history; and now it had begun in him! He was the Resurrection; he was its firstfruits, the firstborn from the dead.

And so they are back; and they know that this man cooking fish on the seashore is none other than the eternal Son of God, through whom all things were made; the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end [Rev 21:6]; the King of kings and Lord of lords [Rev 17:14]; at whose name every knee will bend [Phil 2:10]; and his kingdom will have no end.

And so, when Jesus begins his conversation with Peter, Peter knows that the hand that grips his shoulder is the hand that made the galaxies and all the stars. And he knows that the eyes that look directly into his are the eyes that have seen their way through the end of death and the beginning of the resurrection. He knows that these are the eyes of God looking at him; the hand of God.

Peter had arrived where he started, and known the place for the first time. He knew Jesus so much better now than he had three years before. And there’s something else he knew. He also knew himself. He had come a long way; and actually he had fallen a long way. At that Last Supper, he had said to Jesus, “I will not deny you; I will die with you.” [Matt 26:35; Mark 14:31; Luke 22:33] And then within hours, standing next to a charcoal fire [John 18:18ff] just like this one on the seashore, he had denied him, three times. He had denied even knowing him—this God-man, whose pierced hand was now gripping his shoulder.

And so the Faithful and True was looking into the eyes of the guilty and failed one. And what was he going to say?

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Of all the things that Jesus might have said at this moment! “Do you love me?” Three times he asks him, “Do you love me?” so that three times Peter can respond, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”—one time for every time that he had denied him.

Peter had said, “I do not know the man,” and now he said: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

And three times, Jesus calls the fallen Peter to the same vocation he had given him before: “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” After all that had happened—those sheep, the people that Christ has redeemed, and at the cost of his own blood, he again asks Peter to take care of. After all that had happened!

At this moment, back at the place where it all started, now Peter knows that he is speaking to the Lord of lords; and he knows how weak he is; and he knows how daunting this task is to which Christ calls him; and he knows, because Christ has just told him, that he will one day die a martyr’s violent death. But he also knows that he does love this majestic Lord. He does love him! And when he follows him, he will be following him into the Resurrection.

And when Jesus had said all this, he said to Peter, “Follow me.” And Peter did.

And so, in our first reading, it’s a few years after this that we see Peter again, together with the other apostles. He and the apostles are facing the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem that shared real governing power and real punishing power with the Roman governor. And Peter has been here before too!—or, rather, he was outside. Because Jesus had stood before this council and was condemned, and Peter was outside denying that he even knew him. And now, just a few years later, Peter is inside, and he is looking at this council that can condemn him. And he knows that Jesus had said that he will die a martyr’s death, and it could be today. He doesn’t know that it won’t be. And now this council, with this real power to execute him, says: “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name?”

But this time Peter is thinking: “Do you have any idea who my Lord is? Do you know that at this moment he is sitting at the right hand of God, and hundreds of millions of angels are worshiping him? And the last thing he said to us before he ascended to the side of his Father was [Matt 28:18-19]: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations’?”

This time Peter knows Christ much better, and he knows himself better too. And he knows the authority and the power that the Sanhedrin has. And he can say, with confidence and with true compassion for them, to the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than men… God exalted Jesus at his right hand as leader and savior… and we are witnesses of these things.”

This is the boldness of Peter, as he returned to that place where he had been before. And it turned out that they were not executed that day; although, before being released, they were flogged, and we know that flogging could be very severe indeed. But we read that they rejoiced—rejoiced that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And the passage in Acts continues: And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus.

This is the difference that the resurrection of our Lord Jesus made for St. Peter. And surely, as we remember his story and consider that moment there at the Sea of Galilee, we see ourselves mirrored in some aspect: in his long history with Christ; perhaps in how he failed Christ; and in Christ never let him go. And surely, when we see his boldness and his peace of mind there before the Sanhedrin, we would want to have that ourselves. How can we have that? We can draw two lessons from Peter’s story.

The first lesson is to return with Christ to where we started, and know the place for the first time. For St. Peter, that was the Sea of Galilee, where Christ had first called him. For us, it is probably our baptism, where he cleansed us from our sins; and our first Holy Communion, where he first fed us with his Body and Blood. Now, we can go to the actual places where these occurred, even on the actual anniversaries of the dates when they occurred. And yet, there is a way in which every baptismal font is the font where we were baptized; and every altar of sacrifice is the altar from which we received Holy Communion the first time; and every Easter is the day when it happened. And so right here, right now—in prayer in the middle of Mass, or afterwards—perhaps it would be a good time to take stock, to go back in your prayer with Christ to where it all started, and see where you now stand in your relationship with him.

  • How have you grown since that time?
  • How have you backslidden?
  • What do you want to thank him for?
  • What do you need to confess?
  • What brings you joy?
  • What new step is he calling you to, now?

The second lesson that we can learn from St. Peter is to take the time to meditate on the awesome majesty of that one who grips our shoulder and looks into our eyes—for he is King of kings and Lord of lords. What St. Peter did that day, St. Teresa of Avila also recommended [The Interior Castle, I:2,8-10] when she wrote: “By gazing at His grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness; … by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.” And she said that, by seeing ourselves in relation to God, we also become nobler and better prepared for every good. For keeping our eyes upon Jesus enables us to emerge, as she puts it, from the mud of fears, faintheartedness, and cowardice. One popular saying today puts it: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are. Tell your problems how big your God is!”

In just a few minutes, we will have an opportunity to ponder the grandeur and majesty of our risen Lord, the Lamb that was slain, the triumphant lion of Judah, when he makes himself present under sacramental appearance upon this altar. And we will be enabled once again to participate in that eternal liturgy [CCC 1139] which we heard about in the second reading. With the Church in heaven, including St. Peter, with hundreds of millions of mighty angels, and with every creature in the universe, we will cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.” Amen.

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Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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