The Gospel Reading for Mass today – John 21:1-19 – describes the first meeting between Peter and Jesus after the resurrection. The last time they had seen each other was when Jesus had been arrested and Peter betrayed him three times.
In betraying Jesus, Peter was no different from Judas who also betrayed Jesus. Yet, Peter went on to be the ‘rock’ on which Christ founded His church, the one to whom Christ entrusted the ministry of caring for his flock, whereas Judas remains to this day as the villain of the Christian story.
So it’s worth asking: what was the difference between Peter and Judas for both betrayed Jesus?
About Judas we learn this in the Gospel of Matthew:
When he found that Jesus had been condemned, Judas his betrayer was filled with remorse and took the thirty silver pieces back to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned’, he said, ‘I have betrayed innocent blood’. ‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That is your concern’. And flinging down the silver pieces in the sanctuary, he made off, and went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)
Judas, it appears, could not live with himself for what he had done. In despair he took his own life. Now, contrast his fate with what happened to Peter.
After the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter did not kill himself but returned to being a fisherman. We have no indication of his emotional state but it is safe to assume that he, too, must have had feelings of shame and guilt for publicly disowning Jesus.
But, unlike Judas, Peter met the Risen Lord. It’s noteworthy, I think, that there is no mention of Peter apologising or, indeed, of receiving a telling-off from Jesus for his betrayal. Instead, three times Jesus asked him the stark question: ‘Do you love me?’- one for each of Peter’s betrayals in the courtyard.
However, there are interesting uses of the word “love” in this text and how Peter responded to the question Jesus asked him.
Peter’s reply did not respond exactly to what Jesus asked. Unlike our English language, Greek – the original language of the New Testament – has several words to express various levels of love. C S Lewis described them like this: first, there is Storgé (affection), the quiet liking you might feel for a kindly neighbour whom you meet from time to time; then there is Eros, sensual or erotic love, the love that unites a couple in a relationship; another term is Philia, or friendship, a trusting companionship with people with whom we share some real interest; and, finally, there is Agapé, which means generous, self-giving, selfless love, which we offer to another even when there is nothing for us to gain. (This is the love defined by St Paul in of 1 Corinthians 13.)
Jesus asked Peter, “Agapas me, Do you have agapé for me?”, that is “Do you love me enough to risk everything for me.” Peter, who had abandoned Jesus in order to save his own life, answered “Philo se – Yes, Lord, I love you as my friend (philia).” Jesus asked him a second time “Agapas me?” and again Peter gave the same answer of being a friend (philia). Finally, Jesus asked him “But are you really my friend?” (phileis me?) and Peter answered “Lord, you know that I am your friend.” Jesus did not get the original answer he wanted but he accepted this answer from Peter and then gave him the ministry of caring for the ‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’ of His Church.
Peter did not have to be perfect to be accepted and loved by Jesus. Poor Judas never knew that he, too, like Peter, could have been accepted back into the Lord’s friendship. He thought he was beyond forgiveness for what he had done. He never came to know that nothing he did – not even betrayal – could stop the Lord from loving him.
At various times in our lives we too can be overcome with guilt and shame for wrongs we have done. While we may reproach ourselves and even be shunned by others for what we have done, we also do not have to be perfect to be loved by Jesus. We strive to be better – and the Lord always wants better for us – but we are never shunned if we fail. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett, ‘Westward Ho’.)
The sin of Judas was to despair and doubt that he could be forgiven and accepted back into Christ’s love. He did not come to know the truth celebrated in the hymn ‘As Gentle as Silence’ that God’s mercy is ‘as gentle as silence’ and that that no sin is greater than God’s love.
As Peter discovered, with Jesus I can always begin again. And that is why Peter became the rock on which our Church is founded.
Holy Name, Jesmond
5 May 2019