Without asking for more than Peter could humanly give, Jesus equipped a humiliated man for an impossible mission
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”—John 21:15
When, on the shore of the Lake of Tiberius, Peter encountered the risen Lord, he received the mission that set him apart from the other apostles, and he learned an important lesson in love. St. John recounts the event (proclaimed in this Sunday’s Gospel) using a specific play on words. When Jesus first asks Peter, “Do you love me,” he uses the Greek phrase agapas-me, meaning “do you love me totally and unconditionally” (John 21:15). Prior to his denial of Jesus, Peter would most certainly have responded agapo-se! Now that he has experienced his own fragility, he responds, “Lord, you know that I love you,” using filio-se (“I love you with a human love”). Once again, Jesus asks the fisherman, “Simon, do you love me with this total love that I want?” Peter again responds, “Kyrie, filo-se,” “Lord, I love you as I am able.” The third time, however, Jesus simply asks, “Fileis-me?” This time, it is not Peter who alters the verb, it is Jesus. Jesus places himself at Peter’s level rather than asking more than Peter is able to give. This gives Peter hope because he understands that his love, however imperfect, is enough for Jesus.
And so Jesus invites Peter to profess his love three times, restoring the relationship that had been damaged by his three denials the night before Jesus died. But Jesus also recognized the untried gifts that lay dormant within Peter and entrusted him with a special mission: Feed my sheep.
“The school of faith,” recalled Pope Benedict XVI, “is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness. Peter, who promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and humiliation of denial: the arrogant man learns the costly lesson of humility. Peter too must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness. Once his attitude changes and he understands the truth of his weak heart of a believing sinner, he weeps in a fit of liberating repentance. After this weeping he is finally ready for his mission” (General Audience, May 26, 2006).
Soon after the ascension, we see Peter using the gifts that God had given him when, in Jerusalem, he refused to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (cf. Acts 5:27-41). The conviction of Peter and the other apostles reminds us that our faith and commitment to the Gospel place demands upon us and can involve sacrifice and suffering. For Peter, this ultimately meant martyrdom in Rome. For Christians throughout the ages, up to our own time, faith continues to call for a witness to those values and truths that transcend the trials and struggles of our day-to-day lives.
To be Christian means working to build up God’s kingdom here and now, recognizing and promoting God’s action in the world, “working for liberation from evil in all its forms. In a word, the kingdom of God is the manifestation and realization of God’s plan of salvation in all its fullness” (Pope St. John Paul, Redmptoris Missio 15).
And so while we celebrate Peter’s call and mission this Sunday, we are also being invited to reflect on how God is calling us — as individuals and as the Church — to continue that special mission in our homes, parishes and communities.
What does Peter’s denial and Jesus’ willingness to forgive him — and lift him — teach you about God’s Mercy?
How do you hear Jesus calling you to “Feed my sheep”?
How do you see yourself as building up God’s kingdom in the world here and now? How did your Lenten “good works” help strengthen you for this important mission?
Words of Wisdom: “We should all ask ourselves: How do I bear witness to Christ through my faith? Do I have the courage of Peter and the other apostles, to think, to choose and to live as a Christian, obedient to God? To be sure, the testimony of faith comes in very many forms, just as in a great fresco, there is a variety of colors and shades; yet they are all important, even those which do not stand out. In God’s great plan, every detail is important, even yours, even my humble little witness, even the hidden witness of those who live their faith with simplicity in everyday family relationships, work relationships, friendships.”—Pope Francis
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