Several years ago, a priest-friend of mine was driving through the streets of London at night, rushing to get to an important meeting. As he turned a corner, he noticed a van tilted on the curb of the sidewalk, and he saw a pair of legs under it. He thought he could hear sounds of distress coming from under the vehicle. He knew he should stop and check it out, but knew he was also running late for his important meeting, and he took the decision to press on and leave the scene of the accident. But during his meeting, he couldn’t stop thinking of that scene, and remorse and guilt feelings were stabbing him all over. After the meeting, he went back to the scene, but by then, all signs of the accident had been removed. Still, throughout the rest of the week, he was tormented by shame and guilt for his failure to respond to the person in need. He couldn’t erase the cries he heard coming from underneath the van. He even rang up the local hospitals to see if he could get any information of any serious accidents, without success. The following Saturday afternoon, he was hearing confessions. A man came into the confessional, and after telling his sins, he said to my priest-friend, “Oh, one other thing, Father, I cursed and swore during the week”. When my friend asked him why he had done that, the man said, “Well, my van broke down one evening, and I spent a couple of hours under it, trying to fix it, and I was so fed up, that I started swearing, really loudly.” When my friend heard that, he started smiling to himself, because he knew, as he gave the man absolution, that he himself had also been forgiven by God.
Each of the main characters in our readings today – Isaiah, Paul, and Peter – confronted by an overwhelming experience of divine power, majesty and holiness – react in the same way. They are overcome by a sense of their own unworthiness and sinfulness. The prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, cries out: ”Woe is me, I am lost, for I a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” St Paul, in our second reading, acknowledges, recalling how he used to persecute the Church: ”I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an Apostle”. And St Peter, in our gospel, declares to Jesus on his knees, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
And yet, each of these, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, experience the touch of the Lord’s forgiveness. Isaiah has a profound purging of his lips,and his soul; Paul acknowledges that he has received the grace of God, and Peter hears Jesus say to him: ”Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people”. Note that, in each case, none of these three, do anything to justify being forgiven, except admitting that they are sinners. None of them pretend that they are really good people generally, who may have slipped momentarily and made a “mistake”; none of them come up with any excuses to justify their failures. None of them, in other words, behave like most of us do, when we know we have sinned. When we come to the sacrament of confession, brothers and sisters, it is good for us to recall the words of Psalm 51 that I quoted in my introduction: ”The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
And we should come to the sacrament, brothers and sisters, on a regular basis, to receive mercy from the hands of God for our sins. Mercy is forgiveness of sins that we don’t deserve, but which comes to us anyway, because of God’s great heart of love for us, even in the degradation of our sins. In the prayer of absolution, after a person has confessed their sins, the priest describes God as the “Father of mercy”. In other words, God isthe originator of mercy, it is all his idea, it is how he always responds to us, out of mercy. Yes, we can say that we don’t need to go to the sacrament to be forgiven, we can just confess our sins at home, by ourselves. But if you are anything like me, you find that this doesn’t usually work. I need the purging process of having to say out loud to another person what I have done and to have them say to me, in God’s name, “I forgive you”. Otherwise, like my priest-friend that I told you about earlier, we cannot easily rid ourselves of feelings of shame and guilt for what we have done, and we torment ourselves by wondering if our “confession” really worked, or were we just fooling ourselves that we had been forgiven. Jesus knew what he was doing when he instituted the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, as we used to call it. Becoming human himself, Jesus knew the psychology of human nature.
There is a fascinating duplication of our gospel story, the multiplication of the fish, and it comes in the very last chapter of John’s gospel. There we find Peter and the other apostles again on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and Peter says to the other apostles: ”I’m going fishing”. Sounds pretty straightforward and understandable, doesn’t it? But don’t forget that Jesus had called Peter to leave his life of fishing and follow him to go and “catch” people instead, in other words, to be an evangelist for Jesus. That is what we read in our gospel today, isn’t it? So why is Peter deciding to return to fishing? Because he is giving up; he is running away from Jesus’ call on his life. Understand that, by this time, he knows that Jesus has risen from the dead, and everything is ok, but it is not OK for him. Peter cannot let himself off the hook for having failed Jesus, at his moment of greatest need, and denying even knowing him in front of witnesses- imagine, Simon Peter, Jesus’ number one man, the leader of his church, the most recognizable figure after Jesus himself. And Peter failed. So, not being able to forgive himself, he goes back to the only other way of life he knew, that of fishing, from which Jesus called him Note by the way, that, when Peter says “I am going fishing”, all the other disciples say “We are going with you”. In other words, “Yeah, we are going with you, Peter, because we all messed up and failed Jesus when he needed us most.” Even in defeat, Peter remains a leader. That is why Satan will always try to take down the leaders, of any Christian group or community or church. Because if he can take them down, chances are good he will take down a good number of the other members as well. Which is why we must always pray for our leaders.
And what happens when Peter goes fishing?
HE FAILS AGAIN!
You can read all about it in John’s gospel, chapter 21 and see that Peter catches no fish that night. This is so eerily like the situation in our gospel today, isn’t it? The Lord is saying to him: ”There is no going back, Peter. The door to the past is closed to you forever.” And so, caught between a future that his guilt will not let him go forward into, and between a past that he can no longer access, Peter is stuck, lost, caught in his own helplessness and powerlessness. Ever been there, brothers and sisters? I have. It is a frightening place, a lost and lonely place. It is what triggers people into despair and suicide. But it is precisely at that point, in John’s gospel, that Jesus comes againfor Peter and wins him back, to his call, his mission and ministry. And he does it by repeating the exact same miracle that he did when he first called him — he does the multiplication of fish thing all over again. At that moment, Peter recognizes Jesus and knows that somehow, incredibly, there is another chance for him, somehow Jesus is going to make it all right. And having begun by running away from Jesus, Peter instead jumps out of the boat into the water and swims towards him instead.
The story, from John’s gospel, chapter 21, doesn’t end there. After the meal, Jesus takes Peter aside for a heart-to-heart. It is not an exact template of the sacrament of reconciliation, but that is what is going on anyway, and what should go on every time we enter the confessional. We are not going merely to confess our sins to the priest routinely, get a penance, receive absolution and get out as quick as we can. We should see the sacrament as Jesus taking us aside and having a heart-to-heart with him. It is fascinating as we read the story of that encounter between Jesus and Peter, how Jesus does not chide Peter for failing him. He never asks, not even once, “How could you do that to me, Peter? I trusted you, made you my main man. Why did you let me down so badly? How can I ever trust you again. How can I use you in ministry ever again? You are damaged goods”. That is what other people whom we have offended, and confessed to, might well say to us. It is probably what we would say to ourselves, when we have messed up badly. We tend to beat ourselves up, don’t we, we find it hard to forgive ourselves. Another reason not to rely on that excuse “I don’t need to go see a priest to confess my sins. I can just do it by myself, anytime, anywhere.”
For the worst of failures, it just won’t work. Believe me, I know, I have tried it. It just doesn’t work.
No, Jesus says none of those things to Peter, and he will never say any of those things to us either in confession. And neither should the priest say it to a penitent, ever. For one thing, the priest is standing in the person and place of Jesus. He has to act like Jesus, speak like Jesus. There is no condemnation here, only forgiveness. And secondly, in his frail humanity, the priest knows, and should never forget that he also is a sinner before God, needing mercy every bit as much as the person confessing (prayer before Mass). No, all that Jesus asks Peter is the question: ”Do you love me?” That is what Jesus asks each of us in confession. Not “why did you do this to me?” Nor even “Do you promise that you will never, ever do it again?” He doesn’t ask that of Peter, or of us. Neither Peter, nor any of us, would be able, truthfully, to say “I promise never to mess up again” As we read in the rest of the New Testament, Peter does screw up again, and again. And so do we. But all Jesus asks us, as he asks Peter, is “Do you love me?” And if we can say in our heart “Yes, Lord, I do love you. I may not make a very good job of it from time to time, but I will always love you” And Jesus will forgive us, and restore us, and put us back into the field of ministry again, to be fishers of people.