I was speaking last weekend about how Jesus always took time during his ministry on earth to seek out the one lost sheep, whoever he or she was. He never thought or taught that it was beneath his dignity or a waste of his time to stop or go back for the one. He clearly expected his followers to have the same mind and heart as his, and to behave in the same way, as he shows us in his parable about the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go in search of the one stray and bring him back (Matthew 18). The shepherd does that because he loves each of his sheep, knows each of them by name and wants none to remain lost. Jesus self-identifies himself in John chapter 10, as the “good” or the “true” shepherd, indicating that he has the same heart for his people, as the shepherd should have for his sheep.
Clearly Pope St John Paul II learned that lesson very well, going by the story I have just told you about his restoration and forgiveness of that fallen-away priest. The pope, of course, follows in the footsteps of the first Pope, St Peter, and Peter himself learned the same lesson that, to Jesus, no-one is beyond restoration and reclamation. Peter knew this because it happened to him, and it happened to him in our gospel story today. Last week, I gave several examples from the gospels of times when Jesus went out of his way to reclaim a “lost” soul – the woman at the well in Samaria, the blind man in Jerusalem, the beggar at the side of the road in Jericho, and the Pharisee Nicodemus. I have saved the best for last, because our gospel story today is a magnificent testimony of Jesus’ incredible compassion and love for each of us, even when we have messed up really badly, as Peter did.
We know the story of Peter. That, despite his bravado in telling Jesus at the Last Supper that he would lay down his life for Jesus, he ended up doing exactly what Jesus predicted: he denied Jesus three times at his trial. Now, in our gospel passage today, Jesus has risen from the dead, and everything should be just fine for his disciples. But it isn’t for Peter. Peter cannot forgive himself for denying his Lord, and he no longer feels worthy of being a disciple of Jesus, much less being the leader of his Church. So Peter decides to go back to his former way of life, that of fishing, which Jesus called him away from three years previously, in order that he might become a fisher of people instead. Peter feels he has failed at the mission Jesus gave him, so he might as well go back to catching fish. Notice that the other disciples all say at once “We will do the same thing as you- go back to fishing”. They are running away from Jesus’ call on their lives also. Even in defeat, even when running away, Peter remains a leader.
But what happens when Peter goes back fishing? He fails again!! They catch no fish that night. God is saying to him: ”There is no going back, Peter. The door to the past is closed to you forever.” Poor Peter! Can you imagine how he must have felt at that moment of double failure. He is stuck between a future he cannot go forward into, and a past that he cannot go back to. Helpless and hopeless, he has to stay with his hurt and failure, another lost and broken sheep. And it is precisely then, at that moment, that Jesus comes back for him, to redeem him, reclaim him and restore him. And Jesus does it, by precisely repeating the very miracle by which he first called Peter into his service. This miracle of the miraculous catch of fish we have heard before, in Luke’s gospel, chapter 5, when, if you remember, Peter has again failed to catch any fish from a night’s work at sea, but Jesus insists he try again and points out where he should drop the net. Despite his resistance and unwillingness to believe what Jesus says, Peter nonetheless goes along with him, and is astonished to find his boat sinking under the weight of fish falling into his net. Ashamed and mortified by his dismissal of Jesus as someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about, Peter drops to his knees and proclaims to Jesus: ”Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinner”. Jesus, you remember, says in response “Don’t be afraid, from now on you will be fishing for people instead”, and Peter becomes his disciple, and later on, is proclaimed leader of Jesus’ church.
So when Peter sees this same miracle repeated, he knows that it is going to be all right somehow, between him and Jesus. And indeed, when he gets to shore, and sees the fire and hears Jesus’ invitation to breakfast, he knows again it is going to be alright somehow. Because in the culture of the time, when two people have fallen out with each other, and get reconciled, they sit down at table together to show that all is forgiven and forgotten. And this is what Jesus is saying to Peter, and to the other disciples: ”I know you denied me and ran away from me, but I forgive you, I welcome you back to the fold.”
But that is not quite enough as far as Peter is concerned. Something more is needed to seal the deal. And Jesus provides it by his subsequent conversation with Peter, which takes place after breakfast. And it takes place before the other disciples, who knew that Peter had denied Jesus three times, and may have doubted his suitability to be their leader any more. Now they see Jesus publicly forgive Peter and restore him to the position of leader. And even more than that. Formerly, Jesus had called Peter to be a fisherman, a fisher of people, an evangelist with the others, in bringing converts to Jesus into the community of the Church. But now Jesus tells Peter he is not just going to be an evangelist – he is going to be a pastor, a “shepherd” to his people, a shepherd in the way Jesus is the “good” or “true” shepherd. By his three-fold command to Peter “feed my lambs”, “tend to my sheep”, “feed my sheep”, Jesus is telling Peter he is entrusting to his care all of his followers including those whose lives are broken, who are stuck in their failures, who have strayed away from the fold into places of darkness and sin. And Peter can do that now. Before he had been boastful, cocksure of himself, impetuous. Now, as a result of his failures, and Jesus’ compassion in reaching out to him and forgiving him, Peter has more self-awareness, is able to understand and forgive others, and welcome them back into the fold.
Brothers and sisters, whenever we mess up badly, and fail to be a true Christian, and get stuck in our brokenness and lostness, Jesus is there, reaching out his hand to us, ready to forgive us and welcome us back. He will not force himself on us, but he is there with us in our loneliness and grief, waiting for us to call out to him, even if it is just in the silence of our heart. And he will come for us, ready to reclaim and re-establish us. I recorded yesterday a video message for the children and staff of St Philip’s school, who are having their Catholic Education Week, starting this Monday. The theme of this week is “Rebuild, Restore, Renew, Together in Gratitude”. That is an excellent description of what is going on in today’s gospel story with Peter, what Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about, and what he is calling you and me to do, following on in his footsteps. As I said in my video message to the children and staff: ”Every kind word, every act of generosity and compassion, every gesture of respect to others, especially to those who are hurting, broken and lost, is a way to restore, renew and rebuild, and to help grow the kingdom of God , and to assure ourselves of a place among the worshipping community of heaven, as it is shown in our second reading.
To each of us, Jesus is asking the crucial question he asked Peter: ”Do you love me, really, really love me?” What is your answer to that question, brothers and sisters? What is mine?